In the combined absence of a working XBOX360 and an unreasonably harsh flu knocking me on my ass for a whole week, I’ve been going Old Skool lately with some PS2 and Wii action. Thankfully, I simultaneously ran out of contact lenses so the games didn’t look as bad as they could have so an admitted graphics-whore such as myself was able to muscle through God of War for the first time, Shadow of The Colossus again (that never gets old, or ugly for that fact) and now Mario Kart on the Wii.
Now, Nintendo is second only to EA for peddling the same franchises year on year with only minor tweaks and updates, and Mario Kart Wii is no exception – but once again, (and I’ve been playing this same game since high school), it’s an absolute blast – especially in team mode (co-op). What impressed me most though, and therefore resulting in this post, was the online experience – my first with Nintendo.
Being used to XBOX Live’s often unsavoury company of middle-American cowboy attitudes further shielded by online anonymity, as well as the downright embarrassing experience of being a grown man playing with children, it was refreshing to simply play a game against complete strangers that could not be interacted with in the slightest outside of the actions presented in gameplay – ie. throwing shells etc. I used to hate the idea of Friend Codes, (Nintendo’s enforcement of only being able to choose online opponents you already know in real life), but when I come to think of it, I rarely play against folks outside private matches on Live due to the aforementioned issues.
Every race, I am shown the geographic loaction of each participant on a spinning globe, (and the matches are truly international based on when you jump online), with only their smiling avatar and name to distinguish them. No headsets. No trash-talking. No ChildKilla69 or Assr8p firing bigoted insults with every other headshot- just a clean, simple race to the finish with friendly folks sporting names like Bill, Jake, Canadagirl and WingMario. I fantasize that, unlike the petty XBOX crowd, I was playing against similar young professionals as myself. Doctors and lawyers, designers and architects all kicking back in their loft appartments after a hard day’s work – donning the Nintendo avatars of which we all share a particular nostalgia, or their own personalised yet similarly cute Miis.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
I finally concede defeat – I’ve played a Wii game that isn’t shit. Despite being a huge fan of the Zelda series, I found even the Wii launch title Zelda to fall flat on its face after just an hour’s play and has never been touched since. I did, however, receive a copy of Mario Galaxy for Christmas this year and actually found myself laughing while playing. On reflection though this wasn’t because of enjoyment of the game, which is fun in an old-fashioned, time-killing kind of way, but instead an appreciation of Nintendo’s genius behind such a no-risk design.
In the game, each and every level merely consists of a connected series of “planets”, (or rather floating platforms tethered together by splines on which Mario can travel). These planets feel like a series of unrelated test-levels where the designers were free to come up with various unique gameplay mechanics that would never have any adverse effect on each other. A safe, non-cohesive progression like this must have allowed for great experimentation at the Kyoto-based developer without fear of a quota of levels to hit. I imagine a minimum of 100 stars was laid down and 10 times that many were created, with only the best retained in the final game.
The non-linear order of level completion is unhindered by something so complex as a story, and as such the designers were free to create a game where good old-fashioned gameplay and fun take precedence over innovation. I’ve spoken to several colleagues that hail Call of Duty 4’s often one-time uses of game mechanics, with the downside only being game-length, (as re-use is a given standard in game design), but I imagine Infinity Ward were not afforded the same freedom as Nintendo due to the necessity for a cohesive linear narrative.
The reason I write this is that, while clever, it seems that every new challenge we face in bringing gaming to a more mature level is all but undermined by Nintendo. From consoles aimed squarely at children and non-gamers to consistently immature games sporting vacuous subject matter that conform to many a critic’s interpretation – is this really where games should be going?
Back in the days when sprites were moved around the screen in a linear fashion, with pixel-perfect accuracy often required to overcome single-screen levels and similarly limited enemies, Super Mario Bros on the NES opened up opportunities for creative level design and an equal amount of creativity on the player’s part to navigate them.
This more freeform approach to character movement was mainly provided by a reliance on inertia, giving a constant sense of analogue manipulation of speed providing cautious walking, adrenaline-fuelled running and controlled jumping throughout each of the carefully created levels.
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