English Time: Does the Mario games need a new paradigm?

Aviso aos amiguinhos: devido ao fato desse blog receber muitas visitas de ips de outros países, resolvi traduzir lguns dos artigos aqui para o inglês. De tempos em tempos, dentro da possibilidade, passarei alguns dos textos para o english. O conteúdo dos artigos é o mesmo de suas versões originais, apenas a lingua muda. Portanto, sempre que verem posts marcados como English Time, não precisam reler aqueles que já viram a versão em português. Se bem que se alguém notar quaisquer erros na tradução, favor me informar. É isso. O resto vocês já sabem, o blog continuará exatamente o mesmo. Até breve.

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Greetings to the plumbers.

Today’s text may sound like a kind of vague at first sight, but what I’m trying here is to generate a discussion about game design. It’s not properly about a critic, or one of that type of analysis which game sites or magazines do, but in other way, discuss about what Mario has performed, performs and will represent in terms of gameplay. During the article you ‘ll understand what I’m saying.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Some days ago, I was reading some Malstrom’s articles, in part because I like his texts, in other part because I was looking for something interesting to translate for my Loading Time blog. During one of his posts, Malstrom started to talk about that Wii Zelda’s patent. In the middle of the text, his thoughts moved on the Mario games. A bit of this attracted my attention:

“Since the 8-bit and 16-bit generation, Mario has become increasingly less popular. Much of this is likely due to 3d Mario gameplay that is not striking the same chord as the 2d gameplay. Miyamoto recognizes this and has publicly stated that Super Mario Galaxy was intended to fix the errors of the 3d gameplay and get the zeal of the old 2d gameplay in this 3d game. This is why the camera has that fishbowl, why the game often turns 2d time to time.

Super Mario Galaxy is nowhere near the success of the 2d Mario games, NSMB included. The large install base of the Wii will obviously save the game from mediocre sales (mediocre meaning less than Nintendo’s predictions). But Super Mario Galaxy clearly failed to create the same ‘excitement’ for Mario that the old school 2d games once did. This is why you will often see Super Mario Galaxy on sale from various retailers. You don’t see Wii Fit on sale. You don’t see Wii Play on sale. There is a reason these things.”

Malstrom is right again. If we look for sales charts through internet, certainly we’ll see that Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy sold less than Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. Either Super Mario 64 and Super Mario World were launch titles of Nintendo 64 and Super Nintendo respectively, and look the commercial difference of both. In a comparison between New Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Galaxy someone could say: “hey, the DS’s install base was bigger than the Wii’s, when NSMB was launched.”About this, I quote Malstrom again:

“Mario is THE greatest video game franchise. What Mario was during the 8-bit generation cannot be compared to anything today. Super Mario Brothers didn’t need an install base to sell. It SOLD the NES. Super Mario World SOLD the SNES… at first. People did everything they could to buy the new NES Mario game..”

So, tell me that is not truth? I’m sure that NSMB helped to sell more DS consoles, which is the reason that the game appeared well positioned on the NPD or Enterbrain lists even years after it’s launch. I was at Orlando, Florida during this January. There’s was no Wit in all places I’ve visited (I only found one in a Yes Brasil shop), and through the majority places Wii console was sold out as well(when I asked about one, a seller laughed at me).Although, at the same time I’ve found Super Mario Galaxy boxes everywhere. Obviously, my experience doesn’t mean nothing in statistical proportions, but everyone knows that was no frenzy about Galaxy, no matter the place.

2d gameplay and the paradigm

Aside the sales matter, I’ll talk now about the gameplay, which was intended to discuss since the beginning. What makes anyone plays a videogame? Some would say that is the marketing, but no, what really makes someone go to and play is the game design, including the gameplay. There is no propaganda, trailer, nor marketing actions that sells a game if people don’t find the gameplay attractive. Super Mario Bros didn’t has advanced graphics. Wii Sports attracted attention since it’s beginning because for the first time ever what people did with the controller was responded almost exactly by the game. Even tough, were theses games that have exploded the NES and Wii sales. Were the players themselves the persons who did the marketing, through the mouth-to-mouth basis.

When we look at the 2d Mario games, we can notice that has a paradigm over the structure which all followed just with little variations. To the player was conceived some basic actions, with the stages designed to show situations with more or less skill and precision requirement. The games possessed linear progression, crescent difficulty, and each stage was a distinct experience. Sure there was extra stuff like secret warp zones from SMB, and the flute from SMB 3, although during theses games was only possible to advance and wasn’t possible to go back or choose the stage sequence. In other words, the player jumped off from one “world”(or map), but wasn’t possible, for exemple, play the stage “5-3’, then after play “4-1”. In Super Mario World was possible return to previously played stages, (like those which unlock the colored bloks), but this only makes sense on that stages with secret exits. Altough in other hand, this was an optional feature, more suited for those who wanted to explore more, not an obligatory feature to finish the game, like occur on the 3d versions (I’ll detail this later in the text).

Another important gameplay element about the 2d Marios was the usage of power ups, like the mushroom, fire flower, star, etc. These itens were important inside the stages, as also a way to open new paths and possibilities to the players against the faced challenges. It wasn’t there for nothing, it were like tools received by the players, extra resources, very important but not essencial to beat the stages. With a good amount of skill, is possible even tiny and powerless, beat all the situations on the 2d Marios. In Mario Galaxy, on other hand, it’s impossible collect some stars without the bee mushroom in Honeycomb galaxy.

Inside the 3D world

Since Super Mario 64 that whole structure was abandoned on behalf of a new one, to attendee a new completely distinct configuration. Instead of simply repeat the outline of the previous games, just adding polygonal graphics and 3d effects, Miyamoto and his team preferred to create everything from zero. The result is just known for everyone, with the Peach’s castle acting as a base to house all the stages, which are inside the canvas representing the stage themes. It’s here where the main change from de 3d games over the 2d games has occurred: the objective.

In the old games, your objetive was going ahead, in other words, beat the stages. The obstacles were all there to late you and to test the player’s skills. Beside that there was the time meter pressing the player and creating tension over the game plays. In Mario 64 these elements were all replaced by the process of getting stars, and for such was the player’s job to accomplish specific objectives. For each acquired star the player should enter and to leave the same stage, just accomplishing a different task. Perhaps, for a lot of people, is that the motive of the game’s lost of magic. For many, is more fun to beat a stage than accomplish tasks, perhaps by the fact that there is a constant sensation of novelty and reward from surpassing the challenges, stepping further through the game. Is different from just accomplish the third or fourth objective of the same stage. When I was younger, almost my whole family played Super Mario Bros and always I listened comments like “Is just one stage to beat before the sixth castle!’ or “I can advance until the fourth world”. But any of you have ever listened something like “It’s only more three stars to finish the castle’s ground floor!”

Another important change was about the power ups, as I said before during the text, the power ups are tools that the players had, to follow up through the stages. On Mario 64 they were transformed to essencial requeriments just to accomplish something specific, like the stages where player needed to pass through the walls(blue hat) or become metal (green hat) in order to reach some star. On the 2d games the player could keep the power ups, what caused a sensation of loss when the player suffered a turnover (losing a life, for example), which, in other words, increased the importance of those items. This situation did not occurred in Mario 64, what in my point of view decreased the importance of the power ups. As a exemple, what was the point about all that liberty sensation provided by the wing hat, if that only served to get one star inside one stage? The same thing repeats in Super Mario Galaxy, with situation of pure obviousness. Large jump stages? Coil Mario. Passing through magma? Ice mushroom. Climbing and flying? Bee Mario. When we enter in a stage we already know what is need to do, there is no other option. Is just get the power up, accomplish the objective, exit the stage and complete the next objective with any other power up, if there is one avaible.

Maybe this shows a kind of limitation of the level design, as that certain stages are incompatible with certain power ups, something that it didn’t happen on the 2d stages, as well as it doesn’t also happen in New Super Mario Bros. Talking about that game, one of it’s bright points was exactly the return of similar item management that was present at Super Mario Bros 3, with the difference that you could carry less items although with the possibility of the usage during the stages. I’ve considered this functionality very good, increasing the importance of the items, which could help during complicated moments. You are not obligated to use a specific item to beat one stage, only on certain situation to get the hidden coins, those which are part of the main gameplay, just accessories to buy some stuff.

Another item which has suffered change inside the 3d world were the coins. In the 2d games it had the collective function (each hundred coins granted one extra life) and background composition (even though the backgrounds would became emptier without them). In Mario 64 it lost the composition function , even for fundamental differences over the graphic design of a 2d or 3d piece. But the main change occurred with the fact that the on the 3d games the coins served to prolong the player’s life. On the 2d Mario games, if the character isn’t using one power up, he loses his life with just one touch of the enemies. On other side, in Mario 64 and the other 3d Marios, the player just need to get a coin to recover the damage suffered and continue through the stage. This situation ease the game in most parts of the gameplay, since it is almost rare to die in a situation that is not the non execution of an objective. Another change was the fact that the coins become an objective itself, since in almost all stages is required to collect a hundred coins to get a star, or even collect fixed amount of other models, like the red and purple coins from Mario Galaxy. To tell the truth, these purple coins were the most painfully boring things in Mario Galaxy, in my opinion.

Today until tomorrow

The three 3d Marios are very similar each other, changing only the theme and the context. The older 2d games also had similar structure, although nobody complained about that, unlike what it happens with the 3d games. I’ve read many critics and complaints from people who said that Super Mario Sunshine was a “Mario 64 part 2 with the FLUDD”, or anything else in that line. But I’ve never listened someone comment anything like “Super Mario World is a Super Mario Bros 3 part 2 with the Yoshi”. As Malstrom correctly said, Galaxy made an effort in bringing a little of the 2d philosophy, with some side cameras, some stages with the remixed Mario 3 theme and some parts resembling the sub terrains stages from Super Mario Bros.

Mario 64, Sunshine and Galaxy share the same structure and the same paradigms, resuming in the capture and collect the stars by accomplishing specific objectives through themed stages. Going back to the question of the text’s title: the Mario games need a new paradigm? Considering that NES, SNES and Gameboy had more than one Mario (from the main series, forget the spin offs), would you prefer one new 3d Mario like Galaxy 2, or a return to the victorious 2d action plataformer, referring about the gameplay and game structure? A completely new Mario would recover the power and the appeal from the past?

I believe it is necessary one revision over the basic structure in the next title. Capture stars isn’t so fun than beat stages, at least for the majority of people out there. The greatest charm about the Mario games always was its democratic design, which permitted all kind of people with all level of skill have fun. The 3d Mario games seemed that were “hardcorized”, becoming made more around the Nintendo fan boys. Sunshine and Galaxy needed a tutorial to be mastered, something that the older games never needed. Super Mario Bros is one of the biggest classics of the videogames history. My grandmother, who doesn’t knew who was that Nintendo, had so much fun with the game and even did manage to beat some stages. She was atrocious at the beginning, but after each jump over the holes, each enemy beaten, it was a new learning, and that generated an enormous satisfaction. And about this, some hardcore boy from the Playstation generation have guts to call Super Mario Bros as a casual?

André V.C Franco/AvcF – Loading Time.

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