Coins, coins, coins
You might think that with two games in the same series being released during the same year (the other being Mario U) that Nintendo is strapped for ideas. Just how much classic sidescrolling Mario do we need, anyway? While at first glance NSMB2 does indeed look like more of the same, underneath its tried-and-true facade is a game that feels most worthy of its “new” branding.
It’s the game’s emphasis on coins. How often does a Mario game, let alone any video game, focus all of its design on one singular aspect? Most games are hodgepodges of mechanics. Super Mario Galaxy 2, for example. What underlying philosophy are turning into a cloud and riding Yoshi indicative of? They are non-sequiturs contrivedly stitched together. Well, the seams always show. NSMB2, on the other hand, is a game with a center. It has a thesis statement. It says:
“Coin collecting is fun in Mario games, right? It just feels good to pick up a shiny thing and be rewarded with a catchy sound effect. It’s audiovisual crack. So, let’s run with that.”
As such, the game plays like an essay on coin collecting. For instance, each level is specifically designed to create scenarios for increasing a player’s coin count. The most basic way this is evident is in the sheer number of coins littered throughout the levels. Coins have always been used to show a player the best path through a level or to entice him or her to a particular spot, but in NSMB2 this has been kicked into high gear. Instead of there being two or three coins along a jump arc there are more like six or seven. Coins are also now used as rewards for tiny triumphs. Go out of your way to catapult Mario to a hard-to-reach spot, and a flock of coins will fly in from somewhere off screen, revealing themselves to curious players. Or, take out a a trio of Piranha Plants and the pipes that housed them might just start joyously vomiting gold like some water park fountain of Midas.
Again, though, that’s just the basic stuff. The level design doesn’t really take off until the game’s three new gameplay additions come into play. Each one is meant to give players a new, fun way of collecting coins.
First up is a floating gold ring that, once Mario jumps through it, turns all of the enemies into gold for a short period of time. If an enemy is killed while in this golden state, it will add 5 coins to the player’s count. If enemies are successively killed, a multiplier is started (5 coins first, then 10, then 20, then 50). The level design around these rings is clearly intended to nudge the player into a specific scenario (such as a Koopa shell at the top of a long slope just asking to be thrown), but there’s a good bit of room for player expression. It’s ultimately up to the player to decide when and how to use the gold rings. It’s a lot of fun figuring out the order of stomping enemies that yields the most coins, especially with the rush of the timer.
Next is what I’ve taken to calling “coin head” Mario. Whenever a player encounters a block that yields more than one coin, if they keep pounding away at it, the block will eventually pop onto Mario’s head. Coins continue to come out. So, yeah. Coin Head Mario. The coins will spurt out at a faster rate if the player runs fast and jumps high. They’ll continue spurting out at this higher rate until the player stops Mario’s momentum, or of they get hit by an enemy. This is both extremely satisfying and fun. It incentivizes the player to go full on speed run mode and run and jump like crazy. It feels so good to have a steady stream of coins gushing out of the top of Mario’s dome all while avoiding enemies and obstacles.
The third and final one is the most interesting of all. It’s the game’s only new power up, and it’s a take on the Fire Flower. It’s simply called “Gold Mario, and it, in addition to covering Mario in shiny, luscious gold from head to toe, makes his fireball projectiles turn either enemies or brick blocks into gold. This is a totally brilliant addition. Once Mario is transformed into Gold Mario, the game turns into a “choose your own adventure” quest for cash. Maybe you’ll shoot four Goombas in a row to take advantage of the aforementioned multiplier to snag a sweet total of 85 coins. Maybe you’ll take out a Lakitu (for 5 coins), and then rain golden terror down from above to increase your coin count tenfold. Or maybe you’ll (and this is my personal favorite) save Gold Mario for an underground level. Underground levels mean lots of destructible brick blocks, and that means within each block is a shiny golden trinket just waiting to be blown open. Destroying the entire level with Gold Mario might hurt the level designers’ feelings, but that’s ok. It’s fun.
That’s really what the game is all about: pure, simple, satisfying fun. The coin collecting focus is kind of just a means to an end; unadulterated pleasure is the real goal. That’s what picking up a coin is, after all. It’s fun in and of itself. I think that focus gave the designers a strong context in which to create fun scenarios for the player. Actually, I know that’s what happened, because it says so in the game’s Iwata Asks:
Amano: “What I felt really new this time was that the programmers had a lot of ideas that helped steer the direction of the game.”
Iwata: “That’s probably because there was the primary objective of collecting coins. Everyone focused on it and a lot of ideas came out.”
There is a bit of an issue with the game’s difficulty that I should address. Every 100 coins still grants the player a new life. When the goal is collecting as many coins as possible, and with the game designed to help the player towards this goal in every way it can, that means that the player is going to be racking up a lot of lives. This effectively robs the goal of finishing the story of any challenge at all. I said it’s only a bit of an issue because, honestly, I think it’s ok. I don’t think finishing the story in a game is very satisfying or rewarding, and I’m glad that NSMB2 dilutes that goal into insignificance. It makes room for a new, infinitely more satisfying goal: scoring.
Playing for score in a game is always more rewarding; it’s the difference between tee ball and Home Run Derby. I don’t think I’ve ever played Super Mario Bros. for score, but in my defense, it hasn’t really been possible since the advent of saved games. Score becomes meaningless if one can play the same game file over and over again. NSMB2’s three new gameplay additions (the gold rings, Coin Head Mario, and Gold Mario), though, all make me want to play for score. Their impermanence has a lot to do with it. I know that the gold ring is on a time limit, and I know that Coin Head Mario and Gold Mario won’t last forever, so I fervently try to increase my coin count as much as possible while I can.
There’s actually an entire game mode devoted to scoring called “Coin Rush.” In it, the player must play through three randomly-selected levels and set a high score for the number of coins collected. The player is only given one life, and the timers are short. It’s a hectic, but extremely fun way of playing Mario. Players can share their high scores via StreetPass, which is neat, but leaderboards would have been even better.
This emphasis on scoring breathes a lot of life into the classic formula. I may even say that it feels the most “new” of all the NSMB games, but the multiplayer in the Wii installments has a lot going for it, too, I’ll save that question for another time. For now, I’ll leave off by saying that NSMB2 is an excellent and fresh entry into the NSMB series, and it’s all because the designers were able to rally around a single idea. I hope for more games made in that vein.
BioShock Infinite reverse cover art.
Adam Sessler interviews Ken Levine about Bioshock Infinite.
Bioshock Infinite is special. Like Bioshock before it (I didn’t play Bioshock 2), Infinite is a fully realized work of literature. It has ideas and themes, and it expresses them through storytelling. A Gamespot interview with creative director Ken Levine is very telling in this regard: “We tried to honor the story all the time… The story is your boss.” Telling a story is the priority here. It just so happens that the chosen method for doing so is through a first person shooter video game.
That’s a strange mode of expression, to be sure, and it doesn’t always jive. A novel or a film asks virtually nothing of the reader or viewer, but a video game demands mastery. When narrative becomes a reward for performing well, there are inevitable emotional disconnects. What if the player just isn’t in the mood for an intense fire fight? What if the player finds the story’s themes and characters fascinating, but the game’s challenges utterly boring? In such cases a player is left with no choice: slog through the “game” portions in order to obtain what he or she really desires.
I felt that frustration often while playing Infinite. On one hand, it’s a huge testament to the game’s story and world that I became so interested in them; I could never learn enough about the floating city of Columbia or its philosophically charged inhabitants. On the other hand, though, what does that say about Infinite’s status as a video game? I honestly don’t mean to degrade its worth as an action game, because Infinite is a good one. It is fun, challenging, and rewarding of creative thought and experimentation, but it begs a difficult question. If winning the game isn’t as compelling or satisfying as the story’s revelations, should Infinite be a game at all?
There is no easy answer. The authors chose to make a video game rather than a film for a reason, surely, and I must respect that decision. Still, I’m very tempted to say yes. I think Infinite could have very possibly existed without challenges and objectives. The more difficult and interesting question to me is whether or not it could have existed without being interactive. I don’t think I can say yes to this. Again, my single favorite feature of the game was its literature, but more specifically, the process of learning. I played to learn and to discover. I played for discovery of people, places, and ideas. Discovery through exploration. That’s interactive, isn’t it? Perhaps learning and discovery are quintessentially interactive. So too is Infinite.
For example, a major theme of the game is the negative effects of adherence to dogma, and so, perhaps inevitably, it deals with religion. I need to preface this example by establishing that I’m not a religious person (Neither is Ken Levine, for what it’s worth.) At the beginning of the game the player character, Booker, is asked to undergo a baptism. He plays along, because he won’t get what he wants otherwise. My feelings more or less mirrored his; I don’t take baptisms very seriously. At the end of the game Booker is again asked to undergo a baptism. This time, his feelings are different. Mine were, too. I had learned a lot about Booker by this point, and I knew that he had done some horrible things. I’d also helped him kill countless people in weird, disgusting, and hilarious ways (so there may indeed be something to Infinite’s being an action game). This time, when the preacher asked him if he was ready to wash away all of his sins, Booker sincerely said “yes.” Because I had played as him, because I had become involved with him in an interactive way, I understood where he was coming from. I could sympathize with him. By extension, I can now also sympathize with religious people in real life. I know a little bit about where they are coming from. It was a valuable lesson that I won’t forget, and one that could not have been taught through non-interactive means.
There are many sequences like that in Infinite, and I won’t spoil them. They are the game’s best moments. I wish that there had been more emphasis on these moments of pure interactive storytelling and less on shooting people, but so be it. Even with that imbalance Infinite is a stunning achievement. It is bold, fresh, and uncompromising. It isn’t afraid to experiment and to try new things. It hints at endless possibilities and makes me excited to see what the future holds.