Monday, January 18, 2010

Facts over flash

So I realize the recent IGN Editorial: Blinded by Mario is designed to get attention. Mission accomplished, I guess. But it's a textbook example of making an argument with flash, calling it opinion, and obscuring the evidence that contradicts an author's conclusion. Let's take a look at the facts.

The subtitle of the article is "'Splosion Man vs. New Super Mario Bros. Wii: which is really the better platformer?" Unfortunately, it isn't practical to evaluate these games firsthand. The first is available only on XBox Live Arcade and the second is only available on the Wii. Since I only own the Wii platformer, I'm somewhat biased toward Mario's game. But there are objective measurements of each game's quality. At this moment, Metacritic lists New Super Mario Bros. Wii at 87 with a User Score of 9.1. Splosion Man boasts the same User Score and has a very good Metascore of 84. Looking at Game Rankings produces similar numbers (88.50% vs. 85.74%). The wisdom of the crowds suggests Mario has a slightly better game.

Other games mentioned in the editorial also earned high Metascores. For the sake of comparison, here are the top platformers released in 2009 according to Metacritic:

Game Metascore
---- ---------
Braid (PS3) 94
Braid (PC) 90
Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time 87
New Super Mario Bros. Wii 87
LittleBigPlanet (PSP) 87
PixelJunk Eden Encore 86
LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias 86
Splosion Man 84
Trine 83
NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits 82
Patapon 2 81

Braid was originally released on XBox360 in 2008, so it really should be out of consideration for 2009. Splosion Man does not show up in the Metacritic search as it's listed as "Action, Adventure". In any case, Splosion Man does not stand out in any particular way.

Now there are problems with simple review scores. These are vastly different games. One could argue NSMBW gets an unfair advantage since it's a MARIO game. Actually reading some reviews shows that being a Mario game has hurt it's review scores. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the game could be reskinned as a new set of characters in a new world. (How about Jumpman Rescue Team?) Meanwhile, Splosion Man clearly earns extra credit for it's a) lower price, b) independant developer, c) original character, d) platform (which is fairly light on platformers), and e) edgier content. Of these, price is the only variable a Mario title can really change.

So let's talk price. Like any consumer product, software must follow the laws of supply and demand—higher demand and lower supply result in higher prices. But unlike most goods, software supply is virtually infinite. Therefor software companies, such as Nintendo, artificially control supply by setting prices. All other variable the same, lower priced games sell better than higher priced games. Since the goal of game developers is to maximize profits, games tend to be priced as high as possible without killing demand. When demand starts falling, game prices start falling as well. Since New Super Mario Bros. Wii is the best selling title that doesn't have "Modern Warfare" in it's title, it's fair to say the price is right for consumers. No matter what any particular consumer feels, those are the facts.

While we are at it, comparing the price of a retail game to a downloadable game is staggeringly naïve. For one thing, manufacturing and packaging cost an extra $3 or so. Distribution costs are substantially higher for physical media and may be more than the full price on an online game. From the perspective of consumer value, physical disks add real value that may be transfered either through the used market or simply by being available for loan to friends and family. On Amazon, you can sell your copy of New Super Mario Bros. Wii for about $30. In addition, retail games may be rented for less than the price of an online game. Since downloadable games are priced much lower, they may be a good value if you intend to keep and play the game for the life of your console. Otherwise, you may be better off with the traditional distribution model. In either case, price tags can not be compared directly.

One advantage of disk-based games is they have far more room for graphical and auditory content. From screen shots, Splosion Man seems take place in a single environment:
Splosion Man Screenshot Splosion Man Screenshot

New Super Mario Bros. Wii does not feature shifting perspective, but does contain many more environments:
New Super Mario Bros. Wii Screenshot
New Super Mario Bros. Wii Screenshot
New Super Mario Bros. Wii Screenshot
New Super Mario Bros. Wii Screenshot

Now we can look at the three "Exhibits" the editorial lists:

Exhibit A: 'Splosion Man is more original

Certainly Splosion Man is a new and very original character compared to Mario who has been jumping around for 28 years. However, originality does not equate with quality. If anything, the Mario brand has become a reliable indicator of quality that few other franchises can match. He has certainly not followed the path of Sonic in this game. How many games does Splosion Man have in him before his act gets old? And while we are on the subject, doesn't Splosion Man remind you of someone else:
Earthworm Jim Screenshot

Exhibit B: 'Splosion Man does four-player online co-op

While this is certainly true and I haven't actually played Splosion Man, multiplayer in New Super Mario Bros. Wii seems a different beast altogether. For one thing, each of the levels may be played solo, cooperatively or competitively using one of two scoring systems. Levels in Splosion Man are divided between solo and co-op levels. From what I've seen and read, all players of the XBox game need to be experienced in order to make it through the co-op levels. Common to many Wii games, unequal players can have fun playing as Mario, Luigi and the Toads. Certainly "Exhibit B" is a point in favor of the newcomer, but only if you care about playing online and don't care to play with non-gamers.

Exhibit C: 'Splosion Man offers more content for a fraction of the price

We've already dealt with the price to an extent, but I find the statistics very misleading. For one thing, all 77 levels in the Mushroom Kingdom are playable by 1 to 4 players. I've played through Level 1-1 dozens of times both alone and with others and I'm only now losing interest in it, even when I'm watching others play. Later levels are even more clever, challenging and entertaining. Only half of the levels in the Big Science Labs are playable single player and the other half are strictly multiplayer. No doubt it's exciting to speed run the levels, but I'm pretty sick of watching Splosion Man wall jump. Honestly, I have a very hard time imagining Splosion Man offering significantly more content than New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Level counts only work if the levels have more or less equal depth.

The dig at the Wii's technical ability is totally gratuitous. Hopefully I don't need to explain why that bit of flambait ought to be ignored.

I can see where journalists come from when they declare Nintendo lazy or cheap. Many of the features nearest and dearest to them have been left out of the most popular Wii titles. Features that mean nothing to them have been substituted. It's a bitter truth, but Nintendo no longer needs to cater to the HARDCORE in order to sell games. For better of worse, these gamers have outgrown Nintendo after all these years. If you are listening: please don't try to rob the joy the rest of us are experiencing from the current lineup of Wii games.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Reviews are the crystallization of an experience the reviewer enjoyed (or endured) and with luck and skill it represents an indication of what consumers of the review can expect from a game if they were to try it themselves. The climactic scene in Ratatouille features an aloof food critic who tastes the titular dish and recalls an incident from childhood when the meal soothed him. It is a touching scene, but the review itself, which is read in a voice over, does not mention the experience or the dish itself, but rather the skill of the chef who produced it. Experience is individual, but skill at producing an experience is universal.

Generally, reviewers are able to easily separate the quality of a game from the circumstances of their experience of playing it. Even if your cat just died or you were recently married, you'll still be able to say that World of Goo is pretty good and M&M's Kart Racing is terrible. But not always.

Any pleasure sensor gets numb if it's been stimulated too much for too long. That's why we love the N64 kid. We no longer get orgasmic unwrapping toys at Christmas so we try to experience the pleasure vicariously. Similarly, game journalists have played games since they were sucking their thumbs and play as many games in a week as most people play in a year. In particular, every one of them obsessed about at least one iteration of Super Mario Bros., if not all of them. No new Super Mario Bros. game can match the high they got playing a Mario 2D platformer for the first time. They are more to be pitied than censured, actually.

I never really played Mario as a youngster (I was a PC gamer until recently), so I went back and played a few levels of some NES, SNES, Game Boy and DS Mario platformmers. These are all great games (even SMB2 in it's own special way). They are challenging, colorful, intriguing, and addicting. But they are also very, very similar to each other (except SMB2). The first "?" block in World 1-1? Hit it and it yields a Super Mushroom. The first enemy is always a stompable Goomba. Try all the pipes until you find the one that takes you to a secret level with lots of coins. There will be underground levels and water levels and air levels. Bowser or one of his minions will be at the end of lava-filled castle levels. If you search hard enough (or get clued in from an outside source), you'll find a way to warp ahead to a distant level. As time goes on, more level themes, enemies, puzzles and power-ups are added to the formula. It's more of an evolutionary process than revolutionary.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii Screenshot

New Super Mario Bros. Wii, despite it's convoluted name, turns out to be a brilliant update of the 2D Mario formula. To be sure all the original pieces are still in place and there are plenty of new bits added. If you've never played Mario, you'll find yourself hooked like I am and like game journalists were in their formative years. Gameplay, graphics, music, sound, and levels have been given a 1-Up or two. This version can be seen as the definitive edition for those new to the series.

The world has changed since the last 2D Mario for a home console (Super Mario World for the SNES). Most reviewers would be thinking of HD TVs, the internet and the changing demographics of gamers. So most reviews take this time to lament graphics recycled from the DS, the lack of online anything and no playable female characters. (But wait! Toads can be difficult to sex even for other toads. Mario games may be more gender neutral than we thought.) While these are fair criticisms, this review will instead point out that entertainment options have exploded over the last couple of decades. You don't need to wait for Saturday morning to watch cartoons anymore or listen to whatever the goofy local DJ decides to play on the radio. What that means for game designers is that they have to work a lot harder to suck players into the experience.

So designers might go big by producing huge cut scenes and story inviting players to press forward. Or go small by filling a disk with dozens of bit-sized mini-games. Or lower the difficulty. Or exploit the desire to connect with other by adding multiplayer options. Or feed players at intervals with DLC. Or just use sex, violence and bathroom humor. Most blockbuster games do several of these things. But Nintendo had limited options when it came to console 2D platformers. (Handheld games don't have to worry about the problem since they can rely on a more captive audience who is riding the train to work or waiting for the dentist.)

New Super Mario Bros. Wii solves the problem by serving up bite-sized levels and giving players ways to get past tough sections. None of the levels take more than 5 minutes to finish even if you take it pretty slow. There are checkpoint flags halfway through every level to avoid replaying the early parts of a stage too often. You can "Quick Save" at any time in the overworld or hard save after finishing a tower or castle stage. 1-Ups are fairly easy to obtain and continues are infinite. Mushroom houses and overworld enemies grant powerups that can be applied before beginning a level. Hint movies may be purchased with Star Coins. Being able to advance in multiplayer as well as single player helps quite a bit. (More on this below.) Finally Nintendo added Super Guide, which veteran Mario fans will never see as it only shows up if you die 8 times in a row. (I however saw and heard it tempting me constantly.)

These helps are necessary because the game get difficult quickly. With the helps you can usually make some sort of progress in every play session. For those who afraid they make the game too easy, understand that none of them are required. Even the midlevel flags can be bypassed by jumping over them. Anyone who thinks this Mario outing is too easy can be safely ignored unless their save game slot looks like this:

Someone beat the game without the Super Guide showing up.

Needless to say, the levels are brilliantly laid out. When you tackle a level for the first time, enemies and hazards seem to be placed where they can cause the most havoc. But then you "stumble" on ways to get around the level more easily. For instance, there's an early level where you are riding an elevator that picks up hordes of Koopa Troopas. Initially, this spot looks like it will be impossible to beat. But then you "happen" to hit one and kick their shell across the screen which takes the rest of enemies and produces an easy 1-Up. Don't think for a moment that the sequence was accidental. Players are meant to discover and be delighted by this solution. And that isn't even the best way to handle the elevator as revealed by a hint video available in the game.

Once a level is beaten, there are plenty reasons to return including three Star Coins, which serve as optional challenges. Early on, Star Coins appear not far from the beaten path of a level. Then they are placed a bit out of reach until you hit on the method of reaching them. Finally, they are hidden with just the barest hint of where to look. Pretty soon the game has you trained to look for any imperfection or oddity to see if there might be some secret hidden in that part of the level—a habit that will often be rewarded with secret areas.

What makes these levels more amazing is that they work in multiplayer situations as well. Way back in 1983, Shigeru Miyamoto followed up the arcade hit Donkey Kong with
Mario Bros. featuring both Mario and Luigi. Together they earned money by clearing pipes of creatures such as turtles and crabs. It's notable that the game can be played by one or two players with each earning an individual score. But it's best played cooperatively as each enemy requires at least two hits to be defeated. Working together prolongs the game. In the main story of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, multiplayer works the same way. Each player has their own set of lives (which are replenished between levels if needed) yet completing levels requires cooperation and communication.

Multiplayer Mario has been called Divorce Mode, which is a pretty clever phrase that reveals as much about the players as it does about the game. Here's the deal: you have to learn to take turns and talk to each other. It's a team sport. With the extra players there are more ways to die and more ways to survive. On the one hand Mario can slam Luigi into a bottomless pit mid-jump. But he can also bounce Blue Toad up to a difficult-to-reach platform. A level doesn't end until all players fail (or time runs out), which means one person can camp in a safe area while everyone else takes risks and pushes ahead. There's no need for the Super Guide either, since players can save themselves or skip ahead to the lead player by bubbling up. If you press "A" in mulitplayer your character will go into a bubble just as if you'd died but doesn't use a life. Using these strategies, two of my brothers and and my brother-in-law nearly beat the game in an afternoon over the Christmas break.

When I play with my son, who hasn't mastered video games yet, I take care of enemies and carry his character past difficult bits. Our favorite early level features Yoshi, who makes the game much easier. But when you get hit riding Yoshi, he runs back and forth like a decapitated chicken, which totally frustrates my son. Thankfully, my Yoshi can swallow his character and spit him out another Yoshi thus saving the day (or at least the level). For those of you complaining about power-ups going to the wrong player, you need to learn where they are hidden during single player games and tell your partner where to stand to pick them up. You are responsible for your less-skilled friends.

Competitive types will have a chance to show off in Free-for-All and coin battle modes. Nintendo added five extra levels for Coin Battle and also added a ton of coins to the regular levels so that they are filled with coin-collecting opportunities. Some levels are unlocked from the start (so you can ride the terrifying Bonecoasters of level 8-7) and others become available as you beat worlds in story mode. One clever feature of these modes is that the game remembers which levels you play most often and saves them as favorite levels so they can be replayed easily. Neither is (or should be) the goto mode of New Super Mario Bros., but both are fun additions.

Speaking of which, I find it odd that many reviews complain that multiplayer is unfair and that it's not online. Often these complaints are linked in the same paragraph. How does that make sense? The latest Call of Duty game, which has a huge budget, geared toward online multiplayer competition and designed by veterans of the genre. And almost immediately players found and exploited glitches in the game to screw over opponents. Though it would be fun to play against my brother who lives in Texas, there's no reason to not play Mario Kart. At least that game is designed from the ground up to mess with the play of others.

Not adding online anything fits into what Nintendo seemed to have in mind with their latest Mario game: do everything right or not do it at all. It's not a perfect game, but it is nearly flawless. A perfect game would include the features everyone wishes for and do them all well. No game can reach that standard and New Super Mario Bros. Wii doesn't try. Rather, it tries to be a fun challenging game that can be enjoyed years from now as it's being enjoyed today.

Entertainment value: playing the original Super Mario Bros. with your son, wife and grandfather all at the same time.