By Mento 15 Comments
We at Giant Bomb are no strangers to audacious claims and bold proclamations when it comes to our favorite games, and how the editorial staff's emphasis on open subjectivity (not that there's really any other way to review games...) and diverse personalities might pop out the occasional opinion that runs perpendicular to the norm. It's part of the site's strength that it can hold controversial opinions and argue them effectively, and its in the rare cases where you find yourself agreeing with an irregular viewpoint that you find yourself more receptive to that particular reviewer's stance in future debates. I might go so far as to say that this has been a semi-secret factor to the Bomb Crew's lasting appeal. I mean, it doesn't seem like a week goes by without a "which Bomb Crew member are you most like" type of thread.
Still, I imagine a few eyebrows were raised during the GOTY deliberations last year when Brad not only successfully argued a higher placement for a game only he enjoys playing (of those in the room, at least), but managed to bump off Super Mario 3D World, one of Mario's most beloved adventures yet, from the site's overall top ten. "It starts off too easy," I seem to recall hearing. "It has very few microtransactions, and Mario can only ever wear the same hat he always wears anyway," Brad probably followed up with. My memory might be a bit hazy on that one. Anyway, this is where I blow your minds and/or any small amount of credibility I might have:
Brad was right. And not only was he right, New Super Mario Bros. U might actually be the better Wii U Mario game.
Obviously, this requires a bit more elucidation. One can't throw out a statement like that and expect to get away scot-free with a generous "you're allowed to have your opinion" hand-wave or a similarly passive acknowledgement of an antithetical perspective. Some statements demand to be backed up, or you just come off like a crazy person. A crazy person who should be in crazy people jail. For crazy people.
I should begin by clarifying what I mean by "better"
It's not the graphics. Graphically I'd say the two games are about on par: 3D World has more going on visually, with its much larger range of locales and some clever effects like the silhouette stages, but the two games have been designed to take full advantage of the Wii U's HD capabilities and neither disappoints. Musically? Well, both games favor their own original soundtracks mixed with a few tracks from other Mario games, and that's nothing new for most recent entries to the series: Mario generally coasts along on callbacks and nostalgia, as averse as we are to admit it to ourselves. When I think of a Mario game making a splash in a musical sense, I think of Super Mario Galaxy's superb orchestral soundtrack, and how it seems to raise the stakes to a galactic level. While 3D World does have a bit of that, which is to say it directly purloined some of Super Mario Galaxy's music, its original soundtrack is merely catchy and not the big step forward Galaxy's was. Or, indeed, Koji Kondo's marvellous work with the SNES Super Mario World, which blew my mind when I first heard it. They sound about as good as each other, all in all. I'm not so crazy to suggest that New Super Mario Bros. U has better or more varied level design, though, nor will I argue that "a different-colored Toad" is a better player character choice than Peach or Rosalina.
Really, and I should probably stop beating around the bush already, it's down to the game design. It'll always be the most important element of a game, as the game lives or dies on how fun it is to play. Both Mario U and 3D World are built on the backs of the predecessors of their respective series: so many elements from prior New Super Mario games end up making a reappearance in U as do many elements from 3D Land end up in 3D World. They're sequels, so I expect a certain amount of repetition, and both are as guilty as each other in this regard. Rather, 3D World just feels sloppy in some of its other design elements. Like how long levels don't have suitable checkpointing, or how many of its collectible Stars are placed just outside of reach of anyone without a cat suit, or how you sometimes need to be a certain character to hit a collectible switch and must re-enter the stage as that character, or how Peach is still immensely more useful than any other character and making Toad slightly faster so he can run off ledges because it's harder for him to slow down isn't really convincing anyone to try him instead, or how the bosses are as dull as dishwater (even though Wii U is also guilty for leaning on Boom-Boom at least eight times too many, it does at least have a bit more variety in the perennial boss troupe that is the Koopalings. It's not just a snake wearing a crown, a big rock, a guy flipping a spiky ring over, a guy that turns into a giant blob (oh hey Wind Waker's Jalhalla) or Bowser in a car. In a car! Why is he in a car?).
In truth, it's specifically the first part that is the concern, how the game is simply lacking in good difficulty balance. I'm sure it's been stated before, either by me or from some other design-focused soapbox, but there's a difference between good difficulty, the kind of compels players to keep going and lets them learn how to improve at the game before they can reach the goal set out for them; and bad difficulty, which is built purely to give the player a hard time, eliminating conveniences and boons the game has spoiled them with only to suddenly remove them as if to say "you're on your own now, bucko". Not only is this a lazy way to make your game more challenging, but it's an incredibly obnoxious way to treat the player. Regardless of how accurate you believe the adage "The customer is always right" might be (and if you've worked in retail at all I doubt you'd be too receptive to that maxim), creating an experience the player can enjoy is absolutely Goal #1 of any game designer. Nothing even comes close to being as important, except perhaps making sure the game works in the first place (which developers are having an unusually hard time doing of late, for whatever reason). It's a self-explanatory rule perhaps, given that their livelihood depends on their game being enjoyed and appreciated by as a large number of people as possible. That is, unless they're one of those "Hey, I've already been paid for my work, it's not my problem" types, which is the kind of negligent philosophy that leads to a very short career.
Checkpoints aren't created to make things easier for the player. It's to make things more convenient for them, more fun. It's to ensure that a player won't quit the game because they've been forced to repeat the same instance one too many times despite knowing exactly what is required to surpass it, because they've already done it several times and died to something further on that they're aching to get back to, and would be able to get back to sooner . This sort of "you died, start over" dynamic was acceptable during video gaming's infancy, of course, and many still hold a few nostalgic if entirely erroneous beliefs that games should return to those days (and then rarely ever purchase any deliberately old-school games because they're "hard as fuck"), but game design has grown and matured since then. Super Meat Boy effectively balances its difficulty by making you respawn instantaneously and ensuring all its stages are very short (well, until it crapped the bed towards the end). Dark Souls effectively balances its difficulty by affording the player the chance to make the game easier by learning its tricks, studying its combat, checking for shortcuts off the beaten path and, if all else fails, leveling up a bit. Rogue Legacy effectively balances its difficulty by allowing you to purchase permanent stat boosts and new skills, ensuring a smoother ride up its otherwise steep difficulty curve like some sort of figurative ski lift. "Skill lift"? I'll workshop that one.
Difficulty balancing in modern games is still one of those tricky-to-master concepts that only the truly skilled in game design can pull off adroitly - I'm not sure there's anything more difficult for a designer than finding a way to make a game challenging and also instilling a desire in the player to want to challenge it in spite of the trouble they've having, beyond simple hard-headed obstinacy. The player wants to beat that stage in Super Meat Boy because they've come so close to nailing that jump a dozen times in twice as many seconds. The player wants to get past a boss in Dark Souls because they finally, finally know how to avoid its attacks, what equipment is going to be effective against it and when best to strike. The player wants to explore that insta-death dark dungeon beneath Rogue Legacy's Castle Hamson because they've just rolled a character with great traits and bought a new vampiric rune to help keep them alive. It's a remarkable thing to behold when pulled off right, and when pulled off perfectly is almost imperceptible. It's also something New Super Mario Bros. U does better than Super Mario 3D World, excepting all other less vital comparative values by which one might measure the two. New Super Mario Bros. U has a gentler difficulty curve, checkpoints more frequently and doesn't demand the player attempt a much longer version of one of its levels bereft of power-ups or checkpoints, simply to make things more "challenging" for them. That shows a greater competency in game design by the staff of New Super Mario Bros U. and so - given we've already established that game design is the most important aspect of a game - New Super Mario Bros U. is the better game. Q.E.D.
Ah, I see you've gathered together a few bags of chicken feathers and a barrel of pitch while I've been talking. Fine, let's get this over with then.