Sunday, November 24, 2013

New and improved?

I always say that I'm not a big fan of the New Super Mario Bros. series but I might just be kidding myself since I must have replayed the DS game at least 5 times. My main grudge with the series has probably been its' generic art style and in this aspect the Wii U games has actually been somewhat improved. Thanks to added advanced lighting effects the games look pretty good now. I have also whined about the series being super easy and at least in New Super Luigi U the definitely isn't the case any longer, that is one challenging game. It is not impossible by any standards but it is hard enough that I get some real satisfaction from beating a level.

I shouldn't only talk about what has been wrong with the New Super Mario series (even if the problems mentioned above have been fixed or at least improved), I should also give it credit for what it does right, namely its' fantastic wall jump mechanic. From the first DS game Nintendo nailed this mechanic and it completely changed Mario platforming to the point that I have a hard time going back to 8 and 16-bit Mario games without feeling like something is missing. It is not only that Mario can bounce off walls but also how he can slide down the side of them. It all feels so good and it often gives the player one last chance to save himself after missing a tricky jump. One event when playing through New Super Luigi U really highlighted for me how much this mechanic has changed the gameplay. When I faced off against Bower, you all know the traditional confrontation from Super Mario Bros. when you have to get under Bowser and hit the axe to make him fall down in to the lava. This time I actually waited for him to move more to the left of the screen, then I wall jumped off the wall, using the extra height to jump over Bowser and quickly ran foreword to hit the axe and watched King Koopa fall down in the lava. Just like I have done a million times before only this time I had used an entirely new tactic to beat him.

Overworld perfection

Since I was rather late with my Wii U purchase, waiting for the release of Wind Waker HD to jump on the ship (no pun intended), I decided to skip over New Super Mario Bros. U in favor of its' DLC, New Super Luigi U. Honestly to call it DLC is a bit of a stretch, it seems that when the Developers over at Nintendo were asked to design to some DLC for New Super Mario Bros. U and having no real experience of DLC development, they simply went ahead and designed a whole new game. Given that it later got its' own retail release, I wouldn't say that it is any less of it's own game than the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka the lost levels).

Well, I guess there is one thing that makes the game feel like less of its' own thing. That is that it shares the overworld with its' predecessor. In some ways this is a bit sad, since it is the one big thing that is holding the game back from being its' own unique experience. On the other hand for me, never having played Mario's first Wii U outing, it didn't bother me the least. And seeing what an absolutely wonderful overworld it is I can't complain. The overworld is probably one of my favorite things about the game. It reminds me a lot of the overworld used in Super Mario World, only it feels more alive. How almost everything on the map is bouncing around in a jolly fashion, also all the secret exits and how they often completely morphs the map once discovered contributes a lot to this feeling of the overworld being alive.

Having watched videos of the overworld in the upcoming Mario title Super Mario 3D World, I can't help but feel that it is a step back from this fantastic overworld design. Sure Nintendo has moved away from strict board game like design of the overworld from previous Mario platformers, now allowing some free movement but the overworld still doesn't feel nearly as alive. It looks more like a sterile golf course with some models spread out on it, not like in New Super Mario Bros. U (or New Super Luigi U) where the developers really captured the odd and absolutely wonderful feeling of the Mushroom Kingdom that we Mario fans love, or at least I do. Not only incorporating it is the levels themselves, which from what I have seen it really seems like Nintendo has succeed with in Super Mario 3D World, but also in the design of the overworld.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The upside down difficulty curve

Wayforeward has done a lot to give the Ducktales remake a more modern feel but one quirky old school element remains, the upside down difficulty curve. This is a phenomena found in a number of NES games, designed in a more experimental age when the "rules" of video gaming were not yet set in stone. The most typical example of this backwards approach to difficulty is Kid Icarus, a game that starts out punishingly difficult and then gets gradually easier. Ducktales is much the same even if it doesn't start out at the same extreme level of difficulty, it is still a game that can be very challenging early on and then just gets easier. This quirky design choice is a direct result of the game's open ended nature, since you can tackle its stages in any order, by necessity no one stage is much more challenging than another. Add to this that each stage has a chest containing an additional heart container and you will understand why the game gets progressively easier.

In this aspect it is similar to Capcom's other big 8-bit franchise Mega Man. In which the player can chose the order he wishes to take on the robot masters and since defeating them grants Mega Man additional powers he gets progressively more powerful. Yet the lessening difficulty is not as pronounced in Mega Man as in Ducktales since it is Mega Man's array of weapons and not the health meter that grows, also Mega Man games always have a series of Dr Wiley stages after the robot master so it is not equally open ended. Still it seems a safe assumption that the inspiration for letting the player choose which order he wants to tackle the games stages in Ducktales came from Capcom's most successful series.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ducktales nostalgia

Unlike most people who purchased the Ducktales remake I'm not motivated by nostalgia for the NES classic, to tell the truth I have never played the game. What I did play as a kid was the GameBoy version of Ducktales. I remember it specifically for being one of the few games I could actually beat. Which was a big deal for me because games back then used to be freaking hard. I almost never managed to get to the end of any games I owned. Ducktales had just to right difficulty for a kid my age, unlike the Mega Man games where I never even managed to beat a single level. I remember playing through Ducktales from start to finish just about every time I visited my grandmother so it was also just about the right length too, especially for a game without a save feature. I would say hello to my grandma, have a sandwich and play some Ducktales, then it was time to go home. In my memory this was an almost weekly routine but might actually have happened just once or twice.

Either way, Ducktales was a wonderful game with fantastic music and a different approach to platforming thanks to Scrooge being able to bounce around on his cane like a pogo stick. I also love the Ducktales cartoon so I'm excited about the addition of voice acting.


I have recently been spending a lot of time exploring three dimensional worlds. Both the post apocalyptic wasteland of Bethesda's Fallout 3 and the open sea in Nintendo's Wind Waker. While being two drastically different games, in some ways optimizing the difference between western and Japanese game design, they still offer the same sense of exploration. In Wind Waker you will always see at least one island off at the horizon tempting you to continue your exploration of the uncharted seas. Likewise in Fallout, the wasteland is filled with interesting looking landmarks spaced out in such a fashion that there is always something cool not too far off in the distance, just begging you to check it out. Of course once you reach that cell shaded island or that dust covered relic from pre-apocalyptic times there will always be another one just close enough that you have to see what experiences it has to offer. Maybe there will be a treasure chest or container in Fallout's case, maybe there will be some exotic enemies to slay or some new NPC to interact with.

This type of gameplay keeps me always wanting to stay just another ten minutes in the virtual world, delaying whatever chore I really should take care or just a little longer. It is a shame I don't get the same feeling walking along the streets of my home town, or any town for that matter. Life would be so much more interesting.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Small yet greatly appreciated improvements

There has been a lot of talk about Nintendo's tightening up of the triforce hunt and including the new Swift Sale in Wind Waker HD. There has however been some more subtle control related changes as well. Anyone who has played a 3D Zelda, especially Ocarina of Time will remember the control issues related to pulling/climbing. I don't know how many times I climbed up on a box instead of pulling it like I wanted to and vice versa. I'm sure there is some logic to when the action button trigger one action and not the other but honestly after hundreds of hours of exploring Hyrule I have yet to figure it out. In this latest Zelda adventure this classic problem has been fixed and the two actions are no longer mapped to the same button.
Another tricky thing when it comes to controlling link has always been tossing items as opposed to simply putting them down. I know that Link puts them down if he is standing still and throws them if he is moving once the action button is pressed. But with bombs this has always been a bit of a problem since you are unlikely to be willing to wait that extra half a second to be sure that Link now for sure is standing still and won't toss the bomb when you simply want to place it carefully next to its intended target. Like with the pull/climb issue this little annoyance has now been solved by mapping the two actions to two different buttons. I actually blew myself up repeatedly before I figured this out. I kept throwing bombs at the rock next to me when I just wanted to put a bomb down at the foot of the rock, so they all bounced right back at me until I was presented with the Game Over screen and decided to start pressing some new buttons.

Friday, August 23, 2013

2D in 3D

When Super Mario transitioned over to 3D at the start of the 64-bit generation the series central game mechanics were fundamentally altered. It was no longer a game about precision jumping, instead it became a game about exploration and star collection. Like the original Super Mario Bros set the template for the 2D platforming, Super Mario 64 would guide the platforming genre in to the age of 3D. Both were undeniably brilliant games that would define their respective consoles, yet they were very different games. For those gamers who grew up on the NES's Super Mario Bros trilogy, Mario's jump in to 3D would signify the end of traditional Mario platforming. This in contrast to Zelda, where Link's first 3D adventure Ocarina of Time was basically A Link to the Past in 3D, with all the central game mechanics preserved.

Of course the two dimensional platforming experience Miyamoto developed back in 1985 would return in the form of the New Super Mario Bros series games. But the games central game mechanics never survived the transition in to 3D, instead the Super Mario Sunshine and the Galaxy games would all follow the new template set by Super Mario 64. It was as if the traditional gameplay that defined the platforming genre in the 8 and 16 bit generations was unfit for the three dimensional format.

This has all changed with the arrival of Super Mario 3D Land. With some help from the systems stereoscopic 3D and undoubtably motivated by the popularity of the New Super Mario Bros series, 3D Super Mario has been redesigned in a way much more faithful to its two dimensional forerunners. Despite the game's 3D environments, the gameplay of 3D Land is much closer to that of the original Mario platformer than that of the Nintendo 64's flagship title. Thanks to the 3DS consoles stereoscopic 3D, a refocusing of the gameplay back to precision jumping has been possible, to the point that even the famous flagpole has returned.

With the reveal of Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U it would seem Nintendo has decided to stick to this traditionalist approach to the Mario series. For those who view Super Mario Bros 3 or even Super Mario World as platforming perfected this will likely feel like a welcome return to form. While for those who favor the more modern approach offered by Super Mario 64 it will likely feel like an unwelcome divergence from a formula they have learned to love.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Extra lives - extra difficulty

My lovely girlfriend gave me a 3DS XL as a present last week and I have since been playing a whole lot of New Super Mario Bros. 2. As you probably know the theme of the game is coins. Mario games have always involved coin collecting but now everything gives the player excessive amounts of cash, the game even comes in a yellow case to highlight this new gimmick.

I can't help but feel that this new element of the gameplay has been somewhat wasted. As every Mario fan knows, collecting a hundred coins will grant the player an extra life. With coins being thrown at the player from left and right he will soon end up with hundreds of spare lives, which really serve no purpose other than bragging rights. It would have been a perfect opportunity for Nintendo to turn up the difficulty. Combined with the games checkpoint system, the almost endless supply of extra lives could allow for some really challenging levels without the annoyance of having to restart from the last save.

There is a precedent for this, the Japanese sequel to the original Mario sidescroller, which incidentally has the same name as this game except for the 'New', was a brutally hard game. It didn't give the player a whole lot of lives to compensate per se but what most players did was to use some trick to max out the lives counter in the early levels, like trapping a Koopa shell in an endless loop and watch the lives extra lives start pouring in. This was how I was able to beat the game and given the game's often unfair difficulty I felt completely justified in using some trickery to beat in.

In my opinion it would be fully within the spirit of this classic to have made New Super Bros. 2 in to a game where the increased coin count was compensated for with a higher difficulty.