U and Me vs. the World

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.

Just look at this diabolical Machiavellian genius. More persuasive than Tom Nook and the eShop Rabbit put together.

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"

Yeah, yeah, they're in cat suits in 3D World. They're in squirrel suits in the other one. Whichever mammalian fursuit rocks your boat.

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.

If we can agree on anything here today, there needs to be less of this guy.

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.

Hey, look, hey. Hey. Look. Someone's comparing something to Dark Souls again. Is there a Tumblr for this yet?

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 were there more checkpoints. 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.

I've got platinum armor, a diamond broadsword and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Do your worst, Castle.

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.

15 Comments
15 Comments
Posted by SpunkyHePanda

I've spent this week playing a lot of both Mario U and 3D World, and it seems to me like the length of the levels and frequency of checkpoints are roughly the same. But beyond that, nothing in Mario U is really sticking with me. Yeah, I had fun playing it with my friends, but it's mostly a blur of kinda same-y levels. It's weird how much that game apes New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The worlds are exactly the same. They're even in the same order! Grass > Desert > Ice > Water > Swamp > Mountain > Sky > Lava. The sky world has that flying beetle level. The mountain world has that asshole fish level. The lava world has that meteor level. Mario U takes a lot of those memorable ideas from Mario Wii, but doesn't really add any of its own. I'll admit I didn't play much of 3D Land, but 3D World's levels feel fresh and exciting and they stand out on their own so much more than Mario U's. Also, I'm on World 7 of 3D World, and there are only a few levels where I've died more than once or twice, so I don't know how much gentler of a difficulty curve you can get.

I will say that World 9-2 of Mario U (Run For It) with 4 players is a total shit-show in the best possible way and is some of the most fun I've had in a while.

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Edited by Sergio

Brad was wrong. You are wrong. All the talk of Mario U doesn't make 3D World a lesser game than Papers Please, Rogue Legacy, or Divekick - ugh, Divekick. Brad succeeded in outing 3D World because that allowed Patrick to get Papers Please into the top 10, and Jeff to keep Rogue Legacy.

Posted by Hailinel

I love how every year, Brad is always somehow deemed this malevolent manipulator during GOTY discussions.

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Edited by pyromagnestir

Patrick is the Machiavellian one. He's the real reason Super Mario 3D World isn't on the list. He stabbed Alex in the back and traded his number 2 game for a surefire shot at getting his number 1 game on the list after he saw the winds were blowing in Divekick's direction for the number 10 spot.

Brad is a simpleton by comparison. He smashes all those who oppose him with brute force until they crumble. He's like the Hulk. "Brad want Rogue Legacy! BRAD SMASH SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD!"

Posted by Sergio

@hailinel said:

I love how every year, Brad is always somehow deemed this malevolent manipulator during GOTY discussions.

I don't think that Brad is very good at manipulating. He's more the type to dig his heels in and not budge until he gets his way. He'll revisit a dropped subject over and over until he can get his way. It's a miracle that Dota 2 didn't make it higher on the list. Everyone else is usually willing to compromise. Vinny and Alex are the most likely to allow a compromise to drop a game they like to avoid arguments. Patrick is the most likely to drop a game if it's similar in any way to another game, regardless if they are both better than a third game, in order to get a fabricated diversity on a list.

Posted by Thoseposers

@mento:

I think the thing that stands out to me the most as bad difficulty balancing and design is the boss fights you come across on the overworld. They basically just recycle them and never really evolve as challenges go.

Otherwise i thought the difficulty of the worlds was fine, it never really stood out as too easy or too hard. At this point most people usually refer to getting all the stars as the way to bump up the difficulty if you want to, right? That, and being able to choose which character you want influences how hard the game is so the game is pretty flexible and lets you tackle it how you like.

Honestly i don't know if i'm agreeing or disagreeing with you, i just had these thoughts going through my head as i read this :P

Posted by ArbitraryWater

I think you're crazy, because I never had much of a problem with the difficulty in SM3DW and what I've played of New Super Mario Bros. U is... pretty much exactly what I played in those other two New Super Mario bros games that I played.

Edited by Mento

You know, I probably am crazy. Or I'm immensely butthurt over the Champion's Run stages. All the same, the developers behind Super Mario 3D World were also behind the recent NES Remix, and they just have a really odd idea about how difficulty works.

I can appreciate giving players additional challenges post-game to really test their mettle, but you have to build up to it. You have to ensure you're not just making things absurdly difficult for the hell of it all, that you've trained up and given players everything they need so they are ready for your "ultimate challenge." Neither 3D World or NES Remix really accomplishes this, as all they do is make their final challenge for full completion several magnitudes more difficult for no other reason than sheer ineptitude in game design and to annoy completionists. There's absolutely nothing in Super Mario 3D World, nor really anything in any recent masocore platformer game I've played, that's as anywhere near as challenging as NES Remix's 44 Super Mushroom challenge, nor that 30 Star Challenge room in 3D World's World-Crown. Hell, Ruby WEAPON was less trouble.

And the rest of the game's so pathetically easy with Peach or Rosalina. It's consternating. It's like if Sesame Street asked you to count twelve cookies before Cookie Monster eats them all, and then tasks you to find the total volume of Oscar's non-Euclidean trashcan.

Moderator
Posted by Sergio

If we really need to look at how easy a game is to determine if it belongs on the top 10 list, there are several games magnitudes easier that made it on the top 10. It's ridiculous to say, well, Super Mario 3D World was too easy for me, so it doesn't belong on this list.

I feel a lot of the arguments that they, mostly Brad, came up with to pick at some games were only used against games they wanted off the list, and not the ones they wanted to keep. It was a double-standard that was annoying to listen to during their deliberations.

Posted by Hailinel

@mento: They're bonus stages, essentially. They're designed to be much more difficult, but I don't see anything wrong with their implementation.

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Edited by Mento

@sergio: Sure, but - as with seismic graphs - I only pay attention to a game's difficulty when there's a huge spike. I am usually way the fuck on board if a game wants to softball it as long as the rest of the experience is stellar enough, and it most certainly is with Super Mario 3D World. Don't get me wrong.

But I dunno, bad difficulty balancing is like... crappy achievements, or typos in the script. It not only rattles your confidence in the game design and professionalism, but it ends up being the sort of flaw you might end up fixating on, like how it always seems to go between a Seinfeld character and one of their unfeasibly attractive dates.

As for Brad's insistence to remove it from the list for being too easy initially, that is kind of dumb. I think he was mostly reaching there, though, and the true reason it got bumped off was how he appealed to everyone's love of Rogue Legacy and Papers, Please. Patrick and the others probably felt like those two were more significant than yet another Mario game, Alex's reluctance to lose it notwithstanding.

Moderator
Posted by Slag

#teambrad

Seriously though Mento, that was one hell of a writeup. I think you really laid out your case perfectly.

@hailinel said:

I love how every year, Brad is always somehow deemed this malevolent manipulator during GOTY discussions.

oh man I hope that turns into a running forum gag.

Edited by spraynardtatum

Super Mario World is 100x better than Brothers. At least.

Edited by ElCapitan

@mento: Difficulty tuning is a tricky beast because it's extremely subjective for everyone. For example, I find Peach's extreme lack of speed and floatiness makes her a much harder player to play than the speedy, low jumping, quick falling Toad.

I dunno, I only just reached the bonus world after Bowser and I loved the curve and I loved the way the game levels unfolded. NSMBU is a joke of a game. The Luigi expansion is where it actually gets interesting, but the vanilla game is mostly mindless and devoid of fun. 3D World is full of heart and love and it's got such creative and neat ideas.

Posted by Sergio

@mento said:

As for Brad's insistence to remove it from the list for being too easy initially, that is kind of dumb. I think he was mostly reaching there, though, and the true reason it got bumped off was how he appealed to everyone's love of Rogue Legacy and Papers, Please. Patrick and the others probably felt like those two were more significant than yet another Mario game, Alex's reluctance to lose it notwithstanding.

I wouldn't say anyone but Patrick really wanted Papers Please in the top ten. The others actively didn't support it, even though Patrick kept on insisting that it achieved what it wanted by having people not wanting to play it. The other two people who had it on their personal lists were Drew and Alex. The former hadn't played much this year, and it sounded like he abstained for the most part. The latter wanted Super Mario 3D World instead. Vinny pretty much stayed out of it as well.

Patrick lucked out on getting it on the list because the game that Brad and Jeff were really trying to get on the list was Rogue Legacy. Patrick was able to support it by throwing Super Mario 3D World under the bus in favor of his favorite game of the year. Rogue Legacy itself didn't have any real support outside of Jeff and Brad.
I disagree that they thought these other games were more significant, and it was more that three people were able to strike a deal to get games they favored on the list. This went from a site-wide "best" list to a "favorite" list struck up by three people.