By MajorMitch 8 Comments
I’m going to issue an apology and/or a warning up front: this month’s entry might be a little too ranty with regards to Super Mario 3D World. I apparently had a lot more to say about it and stronger feelings on it than I originally thought, and the words just kind of came out in a single uninterrupted stream. I thought about trying to edit it down after the fact, but if that’s how I feel about the game then I’ll let those words stand. Maybe it’s for the best.
In addition to Super Mario 3D World, I played a fair amount of Need for Speed Rivals in December, which is my latest failed attempt to find a driving game I like in a post Burnout Paradise world. I don’t have much to say about it other than “I hate evading cops in driving games with a burning passion.” I also played through Electronic Super Joy, which is an awesome platformer similar to something like Super Meat Boy, and played about half of Crush, which is a super rad PSP puzzle game. Both of those are great and totally worth checking out, but I won’t expound upon them here. Past that I finally gave Rogue Legacy a shot, and also played through EarthBound. You can find thoughts on those two games behind the Mario wall.
Super Mario 3D World
In the grand scheme of things, Mario is awesome. I rank a handful of Mario games among my all-time favorites, and I want to stress up front that I like Super Mario 3D World just fine in a general sense. The core of the game is pretty good; it controls well enough, the levels can be creative, and the game looks and sounds great while sporting that Mario charm. That clarification out of the way, I find myself personally disappointed with Super Mario 3D World in some ways that I will probably have a difficult time expressing. In fact, a lot of my feelings on it are rooted firmly in my history with the series, so maybe a brief recap is in order. I’ve played virtually every Mario platformer since the original Super Mario Bros., and have always felt that the series was striving to push the boundaries of what a platformer could do (even if there were a few speed bumps along the way). From Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Bros. 3 to Super Mario World to Super Mario 64 to Super Mario Galaxy I felt like the core Mario games were continuously getting better, while simultaneously raising the bar for the genre. Towards the end of that stretch the New Super Mario Bros. games came into play, and I felt like those were deliberate throwbacks that tried to cash in on many people’s nostalgia for the NES games, primarily Super Mario Bros. 3. These games proved incredibly popular, and Nintendo ran with them.
I have never cared for the New Super Mario Bros. games, as I feel like Mario moved past those 2D roots a long time ago for the better. It was fine as a one-off nostalgia trip or marginal sub-series, but as its own franchise it seems really limiting, and the idea of favoring that style in the face of something like Super Mario Galaxy is crazy to me. Yet, after Super Mario Galaxy 2 came out, that team famously transitioned to Super Mario 3D Land, which is, despite the term “3D” in the title, much closer to the 2D Mario games than it is to something like Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy. Levels are more straightforward and less open, sporting layouts and obstacles that share a lot of design sensibilities with the 2D games. You also have a timer, you find suits that you carry between levels, and you jump on a flagpole at the end. There’s a weird 8-way run to the movement too, along with a dedicated run button, and the game replicates the “three gold coins per level” thing that the New Super Mario Bros. games introduced. It was, in Shigeru Miyamoto’s own words, a "3D Mario that plays as a 2D Mario game." Being the direct follow-up to Super Mario 3D Land, Super Mario 3D World implements this same design philosophy. And while I felt this method was, again, a fine one-off experiment or handheld sub-series, I find the idea that this is now the flagship console Mario experience to be kind of a bummer.
It’s not that any of those little details are game-breakers on their own, but when you add them up I find them bothersome. Why am I stuck with 8-way run in a fully 3D environment? Likewise, why do I need to hold down a run button when analog control over your movement speed worked so much better as far back as Super Mario 64? Why is there a timer, a frustratingly short one I might add, in a game that seemingly wants you to explore to find three hidden stars and a stamp in each level? That timer is the worst by far, as I frequently ran out of time as I scampered up walls in search of those silly collectibles that I never liked to begin with. It all makes for a less consistent Mario experience that simultaneously doesn’t even control as well as the series has before. Nor are the levels as big or as ambitious, or reward exploration nearly as much, instead sticking closer to the blander designs of the 2D games. All of this leads to my real problem with the whole situation, which is that it feels like the innovations of the real 3D Mario games of the past 15+ years are being ignored in favor of regressive 2D design. In other words, while Super Mario 3D World is a good 2D style Mario game, and would make a more than worthy replacement for the New Super Mario Bros. games, I think it’s a poor substitute for the previously excellent and ground-breaking 3D titles in the series. It’s not the direction I prefer to see the series go, and yet the release pattern of Mario games over the past three years suggests it is very much the direction the series is going. Maybe I’m wrong and a proper 3D Mario game is actually on its way, or maybe I’m just being unfairly critical of a game that’s not even that bad. Either way, Super Mario 3D World is not what I want from the Wii U’s premiere Mario game, and has left me feeling down on the current status of a franchise I’ve loved for a long time.
Despite rarely actually liking games with many “roguelike” elements, I continue to give them a shot. I appreciated Spelunky and FTL for their interesting ideas, but found the act of playing them past the learning phase not to my liking. Rogue Legacy joins that group, and having done this rodeo enough times now I think I’ve developed a better understanding of what exactly it is that I do and don’t like about these kinds of games. The good, and what continues drawing me back in, is that (in these three examples at least) they can have gameplay mechanics that I find genuinely interesting. Rogue Legacy is no different; I think playing with a different character with different attributes each life is a cool idea, and I think the game has a neat upgrade system that carries over between lives, applying an intriguing sense of progression to death. One thing all of these games share is that they treat death as something you have to deal with and manage, an integral part of the experience rather than an annoying stumbling block that merely leads to reloading a checkpoint. In that sense, Rogue Legacy’s character progression might lend it the most interesting deaths among the bunch, and is perhaps my favorite thing about the game.
As for the “bad,” I’ve come to realize that I simply don’t like the high amount of pure randomness that is fundamental to their core design. With Spelunky it’s the level layouts and item drops, with FTL it’s the sequence of encounters and shops. While skill can certainly increase your chance of success, my progress in both games still depends highly on these random factors; it’s very possible to play well and still not have much of a chance. This always leads to a fair amount of beating your head against the wall until everything falls into place. You need a certain combination of skill and luck to succeed, and the particular mix of those aspects in these games takes too much of my fate out of my own hands, which ultimately serves to artificially lengthen the process. Rogue Legacy is similar, with its random level layouts, boss locations, and most importantly, the character classes you can choose from. There are many times where I simply want a specific class, but that class is not an option, which leads to many wasted runs where I know it’s virtually impossible to accomplish what I want. Not to mention that the dungeon layouts can be of varyingly difficult compositions. All of that randomness makes the game much more grindy than I’d like (on top of traditional grinding, which is also present in abundance), and I’ve come to understand that I tend to prefer more structure in these games (think Dark Souls). Rogue Legacy, like Spelunky and FTL before it, has an interesting set of systems and mechanics that I find fun to engage with up to the point where the game demands I grind and cross my fingers. I think I’ve reached that point with Rogue Legacy (I’ve beaten two bosses), and while I could continue bashing my head against that wall until it breaks, I’m not sure it’s the best use of my time.
Ignoring all the words I’ve already written above, the game I actually spent the most time playing in December was EarthBound, which I literally beat in the final three hours of 2013. I played at least a third of EarthBound about ten years ago, but never finished it for whatever reason. With its official release on the Wii U Virtual Console earlier this year, combined with my dedication to tackling my backlog in earnest in 2013 (now carrying into 2014), I figured this was as good a time as any to finally finish what I’ve always heard described as a classic.
That said, upon beating it I don’t know that I have a whole lot to say about EarthBound that hasn’t been said many, many times before. From a pure gameplay/combat standpoint it’s mostly classic 8 or 16-bit era JRPG stuff, which works well enough to get the job done, but also doesn’t do much for me on its own these days. I do think that the game’s pacing holds up surprisingly well, however. It keeps you moving from one place to the next before anything gets too old, which also services what I feel are the best parts of EarthBound: the world it creates, the characters and the writing. You’re constantly moving to wild new locations full of ridiculous characters who all say the darnedest things. It’s just a wacky and fun (and funny) world, and when I hear people say that EarthBound is their favorite game of all time, I’d imagine it’s for these reasons rather than for the serviceable but generic combat. Hell, I still find the game incredibly charming and endearing as a grown man playing it nearly 20 years after it was released. It’s not a stretch to envision someone playing this game during their nostalgia years and going on to think it’s the best thing ever made. Truth be told, that’s almost how I feel about Super Mario RPG. Deep down I know that Super Mario RPG is pretty standard JRPG combat wrapped in a weirdly charming and endearing world, but I played it at just the right age to enshrine it in an impervious shell of nostalgia as one the most incredible things ever. I can absolutely understand how someone could feel the same way about EarthBound, and if I had played it when I was a kid I might be such a person. Even as an adult I still had a lot of fun with it, and highly respect what it does. I get you EarthBound, and I salute you.
Looking Ahead to January
How better to kick off the new year than with more games!? As always I have plenty on my plate, starting with Path of Exile. Some friends and I played a few hours of that before Christmas, but lots of holiday travel derailed us over the past few weeks. Now that the holidays are over we should be getting back to it in earnest. Past that I already managed to start both Tearaway and Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen in the first few days of 2014, both of which I’ll continue to play. Risk of Rain (for better or worse) is the next game at the top of my list, and if I have time after that I’ll delve even further into the backlog. As for actual new January releases, The Banner Saga is the only one I’m really keeping an eye on. I think that could potentially be neat, but I also don’t know quite enough about it yet. Either way, I have more than enough games to play at the start of 2014, and play them I shall.