Monday, November 22, 2010

Looking back at Super Mario Galaxy

Having found 106 out of 120 stars in Super Mario Galaxy, I've come to the realization I may never finish the game. Of the 14 remaining stars, I have a reasonable shot at maybe 4 of them. Any forced scrolling or timed level will be difficult for me. Maybe someone with faster thumbs will have pity on me so that I can start over with Luigi. Someone like Super Guide.

On the other hand, challenging game play can result in a huge feeling of success when finishing a tricky bit. For me the peak moment of euphoria was after I beat the Bouldergeist, which is commonly understood to be the most challenging boss in the game. Before entering the Bouldergeist arena, players are given their choice of either a 1-Up or Super mushroom. If you take the Super mushroom, you are granted 3 extra hits. Until you learn the boss's patterns and weeknesses you need every last hit and still expect to lose lives. The 1-Up turns out to be a bit more useful, since it you take run after run at the section.

At any rate, I finally beat the boss after trying many many times. Then I noticed a Daredevil comet in orbit around the Ghostly Galaxy, which requires Mario to tackle a portion of one of the normal levels without taking a single hit. Sure enough, the challenge was to take on the Bouldergeist once again. I figured my best shot was to try then and there as I had just conquered the level. To my shock, I bested the Bouldergeist on the first try. It would be impossible to describe my exhilaration. This is why people love hard games.

Galaxy has been criticized for having a story that is both too conventional and too unconventional—sometimes in the same review! The main story, represented by cut scenes and which drives game play is the familiar plot of Mario rescuing Princess Peach from the comically sinister Bowser. But the game also periodically unlocks a storybook that recounts the back story of Rosalinda, a new character in the Mario universe. Douglas Wilson sees book, which is formally separated from the rest of the game, as an example of good storytelling. At any rate, I will praise the inclusion of the storybook since my son spent a few minutes the other day reading through it. Encouraging literacy is always a good thing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mario Kart Wii

A while ago, the question reverberating around the internet was: "Can games be art?" One of the more interesting subquestions was: "What games would be best to show someone who doesn't play games to convince them they can be art?" My top five suggestions are:

  1. Tetris
  2. Civilization
  3. Earthbound
  4. Mario Kart
  5. World of Goo

I'd guess that most gamers could get onboard with this list except for Mario Kart. It just doesn't look like an arty game.

Mario Kart Wii Various

In fact, Mario Kart looks like nothing more than Yogi's Space Race with Nintendo characters. Tetris defines abstract beauty, Civilization celebrates the grandeur of world history, Earthbound tells a story of a boy who is more extraordinary than he appears, World of Goo oozes with atmosphere worthy of a fantastical film, and Mario Kart is the professional wrestling of motor-sports. One of these things is not like the others. It meets the accessible criteria, but is it art? Besides the hurdle of being lowbrow, Mario Kart seems less artistic since it is focused wholly on being an utterly pragmatic game, which is to say: fun.

From the moment you pick up the WiiWheel, which eerily resembles the feel of an actual steering wheel, to the winner's circle ceremony you'll find yourself laughing, groaning, cheering and basically having a good time no matter how poor you are at the game. For each additional player in the room, that fun doubles. And it's all because of the first level of art: craftsmanship. Cave paintings, such as those at Lascaux, are considered art largely because of the painters' skill at representing their world. On a basic level, you know a game is well made when you are having fun playing it. (Occasionally, people suggest unfun games as art, which seems like suggesting Jackson Pollock as an example of skilled painting. Yes, he was skilled, but it's difficult for non-art enthusiasts to see why from his work.)

Mario Kart's goal is simple: get around the track three times faster than everyone else, but this isn't just a racing game. It's a game about making decisions: which character (it makes a difference), which vehicle, which track, when to rev the engine at the start, what line to take, when to use an item, and so on. Some of these decisions are clear (rocket start between 2 and 1), but most are balanced, which is to say reasonable people can disagree about which choice is best. For example, holding items until the perfect moment can be amazingly effective, but the longer an item is held the more likely another racer will force you to drop it. Like bluffing in poker or a sacrifice gambit in chess, the decision forces an estimate of risk versus reward.

Which brings us to the second level of art in games. Chris Farrell writes on board games:

To be grossly general, to the extent that we're willing to call games art, they are the art of decisions. Music generates feelings and emotions through sound. Literature is the art of words. Painting is visual art. Games create their impressions, feelings, and emotions through the decisions they ask you to make. Every complaint people make about games ultimately boils down to a problem with the decision-making (i.e., too much luck = my decisions don't make enough of a difference; too much downtime = I make decisions too infrequently; brain-burner = the decisions are too hard; the theme is a paste-up = the decisions I make don't seem authentic; and so on).

Mario Kart breaks down as overly luck-dependent for most serious players. Not that there isn't skill involved, rather items tend to level the playing field such that no driver can remain far ahead of the pack for long. Most infamously, the Blue Shell seeks out and destroys the current leader, which always seems to happen within sight of the checkered flag. Luck becomes particularly aggravating in the higher levers of the single-player Grand Prix mode where the computer AI can use all the game's speed-boosting abilities to perfection. The Wii edition seems not to feature "rubberbanding AI", but the most useful boosts are unavailable to the lead driver (slipstreaming, mushrooms, stars, thunder clouds, and especially Bullet Bills).

On the flip side, there are a number of modes that remove luck as a factor almost entirely, such as Time Trial (which comes as close to a standard racing game as Mario Kart gets) and VS. Mode (which allows players to turn off item boxes altogether). In fact, the game seems to bend over backwards to provide the player with as many amusements as possible: local multi-player, internet multi-player (world, region and friends variations), two Battle modes, semi-regular tournaments that challenge players to unusual races and battles, online leader boards, and ghost characters to download and race against in simple time trials. Reviewers of the game only lamented the loss of free-for-all battle mode. (Pro tip: the game does tally individual scores and shows them at the end of each battle and series.)

The broad appeal of Mario Kart counts against it's credentials as Art since we are used to art being inaccessible to the masses. Shakespeare, for instance, requires sophistication and a monumental vocabulary to be enjoyed. Only, of course, in his own time when The Globe hosted standing-room-only crowds of people who could only afford a penny for an afternoon's entertainment, Shakespeare was seen as uncouth by the Elizabethan equivalents of Roger Ebert. Now Mario Kart isn't Hamlet, but it might be The Merry Wives of Windsor.

I don't think Nintendo looks at what they do as creating art. Over and over, the Iwata Asks column addresses practical design decisions to the exclusion of aesthetic or artistic concerns. However, like a Leonardo da Vinci sketch, Mario Kart observes the fundamentals of the racing game genre with style and precision. The secret seems to be the collection of tracks which deftly evoke the feeling of Formula One or rally racing or a movie car chase or demolition derby or, of course, kart racing. Add in fantastical space settings and inventive dashes through gigantic trees, and you have a masterpiece of imagination.

In a world that acknowledges Andy Warhol as artist, it seems odd to exclude Shigeru Miyamoto. The difference seems to me that the former's canvas is, well, canvas and the later's is pixels on a TV.

Entertainment value: Collection of arcade racing cabinets set on freeplay.