Games I've played: Super Mario 3D World, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Super Mario 3D World

Super Mario 3D World is a great game. There's very little to criticize about it, and I've enjoyed all of my time with it thus far (I just saw the credits, so there's worlds I haven't touched yet). But I'm also not hugely enthusiastic about it, and I don't think it's going to stick with me for very long.

For what it's worth, I felt very similarly about Super Mario 3D Land. Both games are proficiently designed, absurdly polished, and do exactly what they set out to do. But, at least to me, they're not memorable. I remember more about Super Mario Galaxy six years out than I do about Super Mario 3D Land, which I played less than two years ago. Galaxy had a unique and cohesive look, inventive gameplay mechanics, and a contemplative atmosphere that felt way more nuanced than the saccharine Mario 3D games. This, again, isn't meant to disparage Super Mario 3D Land -- it just doesn't feel special to me the same way Super Mario Galaxy does.

When I really think about it, I've felt this way about a lot of recent Nintendo games. I liked Skyward Sword, but it won't stick with me like Ocarina of Time or The Wind Waker. The New Super Mario Bros. games are good, but they never grabbed me like Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or even Yoshi's Island. There's a certain je ne sais quoi, and I think I'd know it if I saw it in a contemporary Nintendo game. It's hard to say if I'm onto something concrete, of if I'm just chasing the dragon. Maybe people born a decade after me will feel the same way about Skyward Sword that I felt about Ocarina of Time. I still really like Nintendo -- enough to buy into the Wii U despite its unclear future -- and I'd take Super Mario 3D World over almost any other 2013 release. I don't think they're going down the drain, but I hope they manage to make whatever nebulous experience I'm looking for.

To end this on a positive note, I was a big fan of the live music. The bombastic big band treatment fit the game really well, and was a unique new direction for the series. I've liked big band music for most of my life, and this was right in my wheelhouse. Here's a few picks:

By the way, if you were into this game's jazzier music, check out Mario & Zelda Big Band Live, which is one of my favourite video-game-related albums of all time.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Brotherhood might be where I give up on Assassin's Creed. I want to like this series, but three games in -- and after playing the game many agree is its peak -- I've yet to find much genuine enjoyment.

Brotherhood feels like the result of polishing mechanics that were never fun in the first place. Instead of making the combat actually engaging and skillful, they made it boil down to hitting one counter than mashing the attack button as Ezio auto-murders every soldier in sight. Instead of really taking a step back and thinking about the value of the lame side content from the first two games, they added way more of it. The traversal is the same as it ever was -- neat, but not mechanically satisfying, and far too often frustratingly unpredictable.

The game is still, for the most part, laughably easy. The stealth can be mildly annoying because the vision cones of the guards are so unclear, but once you've got the crossbow, the only real challenge is managing your own patience. This is the kind of game in which nothing feels like a threat. The only thing stopping me from waltzing into the final area and murdering everyone right off the bat was the invisible walls, which continue to suck, especially since they're not marked on the map. It's telling that the super power you get at the end of the game makes it noticeably more time-consuming to kill soldiers.

When I played Assassin's Creed back in 2007, I was a lot more willing to forgive its flaws. It was a game in which you played a capital-A Assassin (to be fair, without the hashish part) traversing the 12th-century Middle East(!), and ran headfirst into controversial subjects you'd never expect a big publisher to touch. In the early days of the generation, the crowd mechanics, view distance, animation quality, and sheer scope were impressive, novel achievements. The combat and stealth was mechanically suspect, but there had been nothing quite like it before, and that went a long way. It was a heavily flawed and repetitive game, but it was endearingly ambitious.

Assassin's Creed II changed up the setting, added some (thought not enough) variety, tightened up some of the mechanics, and made the in-Animus story more personal. I probably enjoyed it less than the first game -- the core gameplay mechanics remained the same while my ability to look past them waned, and most of the side content they added was boring and unwelcome -- but it had its charm, not the least of which as a 15th-century Italian tourism simulator.

My tolerance for Assassin's Creed II was tacitly contingent on it being all of the Assassin's Creed II I ever wanted to play. And that's the problem with Brotherhood, and I presume the problem with Revelations. Brotherhood is basically Assassin's Creed II, except with even more cruft, and without the brisk changes in location that kept the previous games from getting too stale. Rome may be bigger than the cities in the previous games, but running through the same streets quickly became tiresome, and the size ended up being a liability as far as getting around was concerned. When Assassin's Creed II started getting boring, it transported you to Venice. When Brotherhood started getting boring, it just got boring.

The story is completely forgettable, and aside from the last fifteen minutes, seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the series' plot. Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed II, while they weren't masterpieces, at least had competent story arcs. Assassin's Creed II in particular did a good job of making you empathize with Ezio's motivations. Brotherhood's in-Animus story basically boils down to "you've got the Apple, a character you didn't care about dies and loses the Apple, and you get the Apple back." You end exactly where you started, and the only real source of dramatic tension comes from the predictable Machiavelli plot. With the possible exception of Ezio's sister, I had a hard time caring about any of the characters. Near the end, the game hits you with a series of baffling flash-forwards that destroy any sense of temporal grounding, making the last sequence feel weirdly standalone. The real-world side of the plot is so bare-bones that any emotion I was supposed to be feeling about Kristen Bell's death was unearned, and the payoff-less cliffhanger just felt cheap.

The game's also rife with technical issues, at least on the PS3. Screen tearing, framey action scenes, interminable load times, random menu load times, level-of-detail pop-in, out-of-sync voices, invisible character models, animation glitches, confused AI, in-action loading pauses, and game-breaking control glitches -- Brotherhood's got it all! I'm not often one to complain about performance, but this game constantly felt like it was on the verge of coming apart at the seams, and it noticeably impacted the experience. There's a lot going on, and it's impressive considering that, but that's no consolation when I'm being chased through a crowd at 10 FPS before running headfirst into an invisible (not yet loaded?) NPC.

I really want to like this series, but I just can't see myself giving it another try, especially since Revelations and Assassin's Creed III are the next games in line, and even Assassin's Creed IV by all accounts doesn't do a lot to fix the core gameplay. If I didn't particularly like the two best games in the series, I think that's as good a cue as any to part ways with it.

11 Comments
11 Comments
Posted by ArbitraryWater

I'm surprised you tried to get into Assassin's Creed one last time if that was your opinion of the first two games. Never played Revelations, but I got the impression that it was a "more of the same" sequel, basically padding. AC3 is a mess of a game that crumbles under its own ambitions. It deserves its reputation. AC4 mixed things up in an appreciable way for me, if only because of the boat stuff, but the on-foot stuff is still trivial in the ways that made you not care for it and in the ways that have come very close to burning me out on the series all-together.

Can't say I agree with you on SM3DW though. That game is just as memorable as Galaxy and Galaxy 2 were for me, and unlike those games I'd actually be interested in trying to 100% it at some point. Also it made me feel okay about owning a Wii U for a period of like a week!

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Posted by GrantHeaslip

@arbitrarywater said:

I'm surprised you tried to get into Assassin's Creed one last time if that was your opinion of the first two games.

With all of the AC IV hype, I figured I'd give AC another shot, and it's been long enough since I played AC II that I'd forgotten how much parts of it bugged me. I knew going in that Brotherhood would be make-or-break, and in some ways, I'm relieved I didn't like it because that knocks a bunch of games off of my backlog.

If they end up significantly overhauling the next AC as they make it next-gen-only (and I think there were rumours to that effect?), I'm open to giving it another shot. I still think there's a lot of cool stuff about the series, and if they just make it play better, I'm back on board.

Posted by ArbitraryWater


If they end up significantly overhauling the next AC as they make it next-gen-only (and I think there were rumours to that effect?), I'm open to giving it another shot. I still think there's a lot of cool stuff about the series, and if they just make it play better, I'm back on board.

Oh, certainly. For as much as I think AC4 redeems a lot of the crap that 3 did wrong, they can't do that again. I assume that's why they let you rate each mission type in that game. Hell, I'd like it if they took it a step further and really reexamined what that series is about at this point. It's not about climbing buildings or being a blade in the crowd (basically the two things that defined the first game) anymore, that's for sure.

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Posted by Slag

I think you have a point about Nintendo.

Their games for a long time now, maybe pretty much always, have relied heavily on novel gameplay innovation. One of the joys of playing a Nintendo game was that you knew you were going to see/experience something you never did before. And it was that way for a very very long time, all the way from the original SMB (Sidescrolling that was crazy!) up through the Wii years.

That to me seems to be no longer as true as it once was. Maybe they picked the wrong interface gimmicks this time, maybe the creative well is running a bit dry, maybe their tech advantage is gone now their hardware no longer dominates (and thus they can't control when third parties gets dev kits), maybe it's just an impossible expectation no company could hope to live up to forever, maybe it's just the New Super Mario Brothers-ification of Nintendo, maybe it's some combination of the above, maybe it's something else entirely. Whatever the reason Nintendo games while still great just don't blow your mind as often and exclusively as they used to.

Posted by GrantHeaslip

@grantheaslip said:

If they end up significantly overhauling the next AC as they make it next-gen-only (and I think there were rumours to that effect?), I'm open to giving it another shot. I still think there's a lot of cool stuff about the series, and if they just make it play better, I'm back on board.

Oh, certainly. For as much as I think AC4 redeems a lot of the crap that 3 did wrong, they can't do that again. I assume that's why they let you rate each mission type in that game. Hell, I'd like it if they took it a step further and really reexamined what that series is about at this point. It's not about climbing buildings or being a blade in the crowd (basically the two things that defined the first game) anymore, that's for sure.

Now that I think about it, you're absolutely right. AC, for all its faults, made you feel like more of an assassin than the AC II games. I remember there being some really awesome moments of walking through a crowd and suddenly smoking a Templar. There was none of that in Brotherhood, and there couldn't have been much in AC II. The escaping was also more fun, because you actually had to escape, rather than hit one counter and auto-kill everybody. AC II was a pretty hard shift from AC in that respect, and everything I've heard makes it sound like they continue in that direction. Maybe what the series needs is a return to its original vision, but done right.

For what it's worth, I also found AC's setting and tone to be more interesting. You really had the sense that the Assassins were players in the larger religious conflict, and not necessarily in a good way. Your brushes with the Crusades and the warring religious rhetoric you'd heard in the different cities really made you feel like you were in the middle of a really pivotal time in history. For all of the lame aspects of that game's design, I've got a lot of fond memories of it.

But hey, for all I know, they're taking the series in the direction they think is the most marketable, and I can't blame them if that's the case. For that matter, maybe they're only working on the next game as a contingency for a potential Watch Dogs failure.

Edited by GrantHeaslip

@slag said:

I think you have a point about Nintendo.

Their games for a long time now, maybe pretty much always, have relied heavily on novel gameplay innovation. One of the joys of playing a Nintendo game was that you knew you were going to see/experience something you never did before. And it was that way for a very very long time, all the way from the original SMB (Sidescrolling that was crazy!) up through the Wii years.

That to me seems to be no longer as true as it once was. Maybe they picked the wrong interface gimmicks this time, maybe the creative well is running a bit dry, maybe their tech advantage is gone now their hardware no longer dominates (and thus they can't control when third parties gets dev kits), maybe it's just an impossible expectation no company could hope to live up to forever, maybe it's just the New Super Mario Brothers-ification of Nintendo, maybe it's some combination of the above, maybe it's something else entirely. Whatever the reason Nintendo games while still great just don't blow your mind as often and exclusively as they used to.

I don't think the tech or interface matters like it used to, at least unless you can come up with something truly groundbreaking and mass marketable. It's definitely the case that the DS's touch screen and Wii's motion controls (and really, Wii Sports) were a big factor in their mass market successes, but I liked those systems despite their defining characteristics, not because of them, and I don't think I'm alone in that. Very few of the defining core gamer games of each of those consoles really did anything you couldn't do with traditional controls, and many of them didn't even try. I think it would be insane to drop the Gamepad from the Wii U now, but if they could go back and do it again, I wonder if they'd have been better off selling a $200 Wii 2 shipped with the familiar Wiimote+Nunchuk combo, or maybe even putting out a uniquely-branded system and shipping it with the Pro Controller and no backward compatibility.

Unless Nintendo has some explosive idea under their sleeve, I think they may be returning to the GBA and GC era of sales numbers. And in that case, they'll need to capture people's imaginations with software, not hardware. I think they've got it in them, but they're going to have to take more risks if they want to expand their market without an obvious hardware hook, especially in an era of increased competition and rough economic realities. Stuff like Mario 3D World, Mario Kart, Wind Waker HD, and Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze isn't going to do it. It'll keep them treading water, but they're going to be getting squeezed between the hardcore console war and the increased venues for casual gaming, and I can't see it ending well.

They need unexpectedly popular, can't-get-this-anywhere-else casual games like Animal Crossing and Tomodachi Collection, and they need unexpected system-selling core games akin to the GameCube's Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime, Eternal Darkness, etc. It kind of seems like they're not well-positioned on either front at this point. The quirky experimental culture that led to Animal Crossing doesn't strike me as the way it once was, and the decision-making/luck/money that led to the hardcore games doesn't seem there either. Yeah, I'm sure there will be an Animal Crossing, but will they come up with the next Animal Crossing-style hit? And yeah, there's stuff like X and Bayonetta 2, but I don't think they're going to suddenly get the core gamers back on board.

(Sorry, this sort of turned into a draft blog post! I might try to figure out what it is I'm trying to say and rewrite it sometime soon.)

Posted by Hailinel

(Sorry, this sort of turned into a draft blog post! I might try to figure out what it is I'm trying to say and rewrite it sometime soon.)

Not to be reductive, but it sounds like yet another "What's wrong with Nintendo?" blog, honestly.

I really enjoyed Super Mario 3D World. It's the first Mario game in many, many years that hooked me enough to want to play all the way through to the credits. I never got on board that much with the 3D outings that followed Super Mario 64, and I've enjoyed a couple of the NSMB games well enough, though I hadn't played any of them extensively. But 3D World is just magic. I know that a lot of what it does came from 3D Land, which I also played a bit and wasn't hooked too much on, but the perspective it takes really does feel like what you'd get if you added a third dimension to Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World. There's a lot of wonderful and silly moments that are really effective if you've played Mario games since the NES era, but even if you haven't, it's hard to argue against its charm.

As for Assassin's Creed IV, as it's my first AC game, I don't have any previous experiences to compare it to, but it's fun. Some parts are definitely tedious or frustrating, but I guess having not been heavily invested in the franchise, I'm not suffering from the stabbing fatigue that I imagine a lot of other people are feeling. Though it does sound like I made a solid decision in skipping Assassin's Creed III.

Posted by GrantHeaslip

@hailinel said:
@grantheaslip said:

(Sorry, this sort of turned into a draft blog post! I might try to figure out what it is I'm trying to say and rewrite it sometime soon.)

Not to be reductive, but it sounds like yet another "What's wrong with Nintendo?" blog, honestly.

Yeah, that's my concern. It's easy to sit back and try to tell a huge corporation that they'd be fine if they just catered more to you.

That said, I think a lot of the commentary I've read prescribes way too drastic of a solution, and often has Nintendo leaning too hard into the hardcore, too hard into the casual, too hard into innovation, or too hard into safe nostalgia mining. I think they need to walk a fine line on all fronts, and for all of the shit that system gets, the GameCube isn't a bad model for how that system might feel from a software perspective (though hopefully they'd market it better). That's an angle I haven't seen very well represented in all the amateur company-directing.

Edited by Slag

@slag said:

I think you have a point about Nintendo.

Their games for a long time now, maybe pretty much always, have relied heavily on novel gameplay innovation. One of the joys of playing a Nintendo game was that you knew you were going to see/experience something you never did before. And it was that way for a very very long time, all the way from the original SMB (Sidescrolling that was crazy!) up through the Wii years.

That to me seems to be no longer as true as it once was. Maybe they picked the wrong interface gimmicks this time, maybe the creative well is running a bit dry, maybe their tech advantage is gone now their hardware no longer dominates (and thus they can't control when third parties gets dev kits), maybe it's just an impossible expectation no company could hope to live up to forever, maybe it's just the New Super Mario Brothers-ification of Nintendo, maybe it's some combination of the above, maybe it's something else entirely. Whatever the reason Nintendo games while still great just don't blow your mind as often and exclusively as they used to.

I don't think the tech or interface matters like it used to, at least unless you can come up with something truly groundbreaking and mass marketable. It's definitely the case that the DS's touch screen and Wii's motion controls (and really, Wii Sports) were a big factor in their mass market successes, but I liked those systems despite their defining characteristics, not because of them, and I don't think I'm alone in that. Very few of the defining core gamer games of each of those consoles really did anything you couldn't do with traditional controls, and many of them didn't even try. I think it would be insane to drop the Gamepad from the Wii U now, but if they could go back and do it again, I wonder if they'd have been better off selling a $200 Wii 2 shipped with the familiar Wiimote+Nunchuk combo, or maybe even putting out a uniquely-branded system and shipping it with the Pro Controller and no backward compatibility.

Unless Nintendo has some explosive idea under their sleeve, I think they may be returning to the GBA and GC era of sales numbers. And in that case, they'll need to capture people's imaginations with software, not hardware. I think they've got it in them, but they're going to have to take more risks if they want to expand their market without an obvious hardware hook, especially in an era of increased competition and rough economic realities. Stuff like Mario 3D World, Mario Kart, Wind Waker HD, and Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze isn't going to do it. It'll keep them treading water, but they're going to be getting squeezed between the hardcore console war and the increased venues for casual gaming, and I can't see it ending well.

They need unexpectedly popular, can't-get-this-anywhere-else casual games like Animal Crossing and Tomodachi Collection, and they need unexpected system-selling core games akin to the GameCube's Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime, Eternal Darkness, etc. It kind of seems like they're not well-positioned on either front at this point. The quirky experimental culture that led to Animal Crossing doesn't strike me as the way it once was, and the decision-making/luck/money that led to the hardcore games doesn't seem there either. Yeah, I'm sure there will be an Animal Crossing, but will they come up with the next Animal Crossing-style hit? And yeah, there's stuff like X and Bayonetta 2, but I don't think they're going to suddenly get the core gamers back on board.

(Sorry, this sort of turned into a draft blog post! I might try to figure out what it is I'm trying to say and rewrite it sometime soon.)

Well you are thinking modern Nintendo, old school Nintendo imo was a very different animal. Which I was more thinking about.

N64, SNES, NES etc went for power. And did things like non-linear gameplay with saving progress no less(Legend of Zelda), side scrolling in games (Super Mario Bros.), Mode 7 simulated 3d (F-Zero, Pilotwings), Super FX chip for early 3D (Star Fox), dynamic independently controlled3d cameras (Super Mario 64), etc. While rarely the very first they often were that popularized new innovations.

They had the hottest tech on the market or at least right in the thick of things. Then after/during gamecube they realized they couldn't keep up with the Conglomerate Mega Corps in a Hardware spending war (now that Microsoft was in the game as well) and switched directions. The DS and Wii represented a shift in Nintendo's strategy, they are modern Nintendo that relies on gimmick interfaces.

I do agree dropping the gamepad from the WiiU at this point would be tantamount to killing the console. If they get GC I think they'll be happy, I'm not optimistic they will, but that can change on a dime and if anybody can pull a rabbit out of a habit it's Nintendo.

but yeah I keep waiting for the killer game that's going to get me to buy. I thought it was going to be Super Mario 3d World but it didn't hook for some reason. I haven't seen it yet, which is a singular sensation for me as a guy who has owned every Nintendo console released.

Edited by GrantHeaslip

@slag: Oh yeah, I agree about the older innovations. Seeing Super Mario 64 for the first time in summer 1996 in a booth at Ontario Place is one of my most vivid video-game-related memories. I'm pretty sure I have a pamphlet in some box at my parents' house advertising the Virtual Boy, Super Mario RPG, and Super Mario 64, which looking back was a super weird time for Nintendo, but also super exciting.

The thing is that -- and maybe I'm not thinking big enough or giving them enough credit -- I think the tech's plateaued from an innovation standpoint. Maybe VR is the next big thing, but it's so clumsy at this point, big players are already doing it, and it's got health and safety implications that make the Wiimote flinging and "3DS shouldn't be played by children" pseudoscience look like child's play. Unless they've got some paradigm-shifting innovation up their sleeve, they're going to have to win with boring hardware and exciting, system-selling software, and in a climate in which some segment of their traditional audience is playing garbage mobile games instead.

Posted by MajorMitch

I've felt very similarly about a few recent Nintendo games, with Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D World being among the biggest culprits. In fact, those two games in particular I wrestled with how I felt about them a lot, because I don't think they're bad, and I've really liked both series as recently as Twilight Princess and Super Mario Galaxy 2, but they lack that special Nintendo spark as you mention. It's hard to describe, but I think you get the point across.

Something else you mentioned in a comment I find interesting, and something I've always felt isn't properly recognized, is that while the Gamecube didn't sell super well, it had a lot of strong games that appealed to both casual (Animal Crossing) and hardcore (Metroid Prime, Resident Evil 4, Eternal Darkness) gamers. I've always maintained that Cube doesn't get enough lovin, as it was a solid system :)