Monday, 31 December 2012

Super Mario Galaxy and How It Saved My Soul

As you may be aware, there is a whiff of controversy surrounding games journalism at the moment.  Some fella got his picture taken with some crisps, and then a young lady threatened to sue a Scotsman - it's all very dramatic.  Anyway, in order to join in with the burning, purging wind that is sweeping through "people who write about games" I have decided to be transparent about my own motives from now on.

I hate Nintendo.

Look at them.  LOOK AT THEM.  (Especially the one on the right.)
I hate them, I hate their cutesy wutesy ways, their stupid plumber, their Miis, their insistence on friend codes and their complete inability to design any character that isn't some kind of messed up woodland animal in shorts.  I hate the way they sell themselves as master innovators whilst simultaneously releasing the 6th version of Super Mario Bros and I hate the way that they have diluted the brave, strong spirit which kept gaming pure with their ridiculous pandering to the masses.  Nobody should have to see Harry Redknapp clutching a pretend tennis racquet and playing pretend tennis with his family (who is that guy second from left anyway?) but this is what Nintendo have done.  This is what they have embraced.  They've become something so inoffensive that it offends me.  They make my skin crawl - it's all so wholesome and happy and cheesy and they all love each other and there are no wars, nobody suffers and it's all done in primary colours with plinky-plonky music and just..... ugh.  (He looks Australian, maybe he's their Australian friend or Harry's accountant or something.)

Now hate is a strong word.  It means a deep, abiding and almost physical dislike of something.  It's a primeval force, it has its own power and, if harnessed correctly, can feel like a burning, holy flame inside of you.  However, when left to its own festering devices it can also be intensely damaging, eating you up from the inside - like a parasitic worm, or those flies who lay their eggs in spiders.  You've got to keep an eye on your hate levels, they require careful monitoring, and in my case those flies are hovering pretty close.  So I decided to do something drastic.  Something out of the ordinary, something that to another man may sound trite but which, to me, represented as much of an ordeal as climbing Everest would to an octogenerian tetraplegic - I decided to play a bit of Super Mario Galaxy. 

Kill or cure - right?

Now, I'm not stupid.  I realised that this was going to be difficult, hazardous even.  There was a chance that I may have come away from it with some kind of sense of hope or, at the very least, humming a catchy tune.  I needed a wingman and there was really only one choice - my 3 year old son.  I had tried, oh god had I tried, to inculcate some decency in him.  He had learned how to use a mouse by running around pre-cleared levels in Torchlight II.  He knows what Minecraft is, and has destroyed many a promising castle, but once he had experienced the brightly coloured wonderland that is Nintendo I had lost him and his world had become full of moustachioed plumbers.  I didn't want his world to be like that.  Certainly not when he's 3, he can do what he likes when he's older, but I was desperate and I needed help.

So, we settled down together to play Mario.  This is probably how Harry Redknapp felt when he first gripped that pretend racquet with Jamie.

"Daddy!  Get the star!  Daddy!  Get the star!  Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!  DADDY!  GET THE STAR!  TALK TO THE PURPLE MAN!  TALK TO THE PURPLE MAN!  What did he say Daddy?  What did he say?  WHAT DID HE SAY?!?!?" 

This was going to be tricky.

But gradually, despite a few tantrums along the way (and that was just me) I came to a dawning realisation - maybe, just maybe, my prejudices and preconceptions had been wrong.  Maybe, just maybe, underneath its sickly sweet exterior Super Mario Galaxy is really a truly great game because, actually, it does a lot of things that great games should do.

Firstly, it gets the difficulty level exactly right -  and this was made clear to me when I played it with my son.  One of the simplest ways that it does this is by giving its players plenty of lives. These come from a variety of sources; attached to "letters" from other characters in the game, or as a reward for collecting 50 of the ubiquitous star bits that litter the environment. On some of the more difficult levels it gives you one right at the start, which you cannot fail to collect if you wish to do so. This means that the consequences of dying are minimised and players are encouraged to retry levels in order to succeed. As I have said previously, what is important in a game is not dying as such, but what is lost when you do.  In SMG the player is usually returned to the last checkpoint reached (which is unmarked in this game, but is shown with a flag in the sequel.) If the player loses all of their lives then they are returned to the spaceship base and have to restart the level from the beginning.  The number of lives the player has really only tells them how many chances they have to complete the level that they are on - there are no consequences further than that. So if, for example, you want to hand control over to a small child who insists on repeatedly jumping off the first platform they encounter until you just can't take it any more, then you should remind yourself that it doesn't really matter.

On some early levels, and certainly on the spaceship which serves as your home base, it is impossible to die. This is perfect for getting used to controls, for trying out new things or for stopping incipient meltdowns without jeopardising progress. On the other hand some of the later levels, or the prankster comets, give the player a challenge worthy of games such as Dark Souls. Where SMG does well though, is that it allows players to choose the level of challenge that they wish to experience because once the player has progressed a little way into the game they are given plenty of choice on how to proceed. There are barriers to this (some worlds are only accessible after a certain number of end-level stars have been collected) but it is perfectly possible to complete the game without finishing every level. This enables the player to pick and choose their challenges and means that, if one world is proving difficult to complete, they can still progress by going to a different world instead and trying that. The game doesn't really care which order you complete the levels in, it only cares about how many stars you have collected in total - and the worlds vary a great deal in their layout. Some are wide open spaces with easily avoidable enemies, whilst others are strictly confined and full of the lava, moving platforms and bombs with angry faces that you would expect from any Mario game. The player is free to pick what to do next and is able to try a more difficult level before moving to an easier one in order to make some progress if they grow frustrated.

And this leads us on to another aspect of SMG which is genuinely great.  It provides the player with a wide variety of ways to play the game.  Yeah OK, these pretty much all involve Mario but this IS Nintendo we're talking about.  He can be turned into a giant spring, a rolling boulder or a bee.  He can shoot flames, freeze water or fly - and many other things besides.  He skates and he swims and he rides around on Yoshi.  He races various other people, flies birds and chases penguins and, if you get bored of that, you can do it all over again as Luigi.  The gameplay changes from level to level and often even within the same galaxy.  It breaks things up extremely well and means that, if the player gets frustrated trying one thing, they can go somewhere else and try something completely different.

Not only this, but we haven't even mentioned the comets yet.  Comets appear above different galaxies once certain conditions are met and change the way those levels work.  They can have a variety of effects - some impose a time limit, others leave Mario with only 1 life, while others make him race a version of himself.  Some of these challenges can be extremely... um.. challenging, and it's lucky that the game can be completed without beating any of them if you so wish.  However, they provide yet more variety to an already diverse feast and that is no bad thing.  Everywhere you go in SMG there are secrets to discover and hidden areas to explore.  Lumas (the resident star creatures) will TRANSFOOOORRRMM! into different new worlds when fed enough star bits and there are lots of areas hidden away within levels for the intrepid player to find.  In fact there are a total of 242 stars to obtain in the game, while it can be completed after finding only 60 or so.  This isn't anything unusual for Nintendo, one of the great strengths of their games has traditionally been the amount of hidden stuff to find, but SMG feels even more epic in its scope.

And that's it really.  There I sat, with my son shouting almost incoherent commands into my ear (interspersed with "It's alright Daddy, it doesn't matter" when I fell off a disappearing platform for the 50th time), while my whole worldview changed around me.  Let's make no bones about this - Super Mario Galaxy is in many ways the perfect videogame.  You may, like me, resent the primary colours, the characters and the whole Nintendo mythos - but it doesn't really matter.  Because, underneath it all, the game is structurally the equal of any game ever made.  The mechanics of it are so perfect, so tight and well-designed, that everything else is trivial.

So, as I finally vanquished Bowser and my son whooped with joy "YES DADDY!  YOU DID IT! YOU BEAT BOWSER! CAN I GET THE STAR DADDY?  CAN I GET THE STAR?  CAN I GET IT? CAN I?  CAN I GET THE STAR? CAN I?  DADDY!  DADDY!  DADDDYYYY!!!" that was the realisation that came fully formed into my mind.  It was as if my previous self had disappeared, and I'd been reborn.  There may have been some kind of celestial choir, who knows, but as I handed the controller over to my faithful wingman to administer the coup de grace and collect the final star I realised... I couldn't hear the flies any more.

Everything was going to be alright.

DISCLAIMER:  I don't really think that about Nintendo.  Well, not much.  Sue me.

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