Two games released one day apart, and the critical response that greeted them, suggest to me that we sometimes overvalue what we deem innovation and undervalue refinement in game design. Those two games: Scribblenauts and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story paint a telling picture of how the critical discourse surrounding games gravitates to and celebrates the new while overlooking the familiar, even when the familiar excels in every aspect of its design and demonstrably surpasses the new in quality, charm, artistry, and execution.
A couple of clarifying points. I'm not talking about reviews. The new Mario & Luigi game has been warmly received, and its 92 bests Scribblenauts' 85 in the vainglorious blunt-force aggregator Metacritic. Many reviewers have rightly pointed out that Mario & Luigi: BIS is the best in a highly-regarded M&L series, and they have rightly urged you to purchase it with your hard-earned money.
Reviewers have rightly lauded Scribblenauts' "Write Anything, Solve Everything" design as enabling a kind of emergent puzzle action gameplay we haven't seen before, and they've rightly quibbled with the game's wonky controls. I hesitate to say if you've read one review of Scribblenauts you've read them all; but I just typed it, so I guess I did.
Scribblenauts deserves all the praise heaped upon it - I myself pronounced it a "pretty good game, but a magnificent toy" in one of those 140-character empty sound-bytes Twitter seduces us to proclaim for our followers' consumption. I like Scribblenauts; I admire Scribblenauts; and I'm glad we've all paid attention to it. It's not a great game, but in this case that seems almost beside the point. I can summon a T-Rex, a rocket launcher, and God himself to do my bidding...and that's really cool.
I also understand that "new" is a good thing, and we need it, even in flawed first attempts, to advance and evolve. Encountering a game like Scribblenauts feels like a discovery, and much of the writing devoted to it adopts that tone. So I'm not exactly surprised when I search my RSS feeds and turn up well over 200 citations for Scribblenauts and less than 40 for Mario & Luigi. Scribblenauts was, for awhile, the talk of the town in a way that a new M&L game could never be.
But Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (despite its cumbersome title) is a smashingly good game, and it deserves at least as much critical consideration as Scribblenauts - or any other game for that matter. It succeeds on so many levels - including ones like pacing and humor that precious few games get right - and it delivers on its vision so spot-on perfectly that it begs to be scrutinized.
If games this good were easy to make, we'd see more of them. The fact is, they aren't; and developer AlphaDream has essentially worked in the shadows carefully refining an RPG series that dates back to Super Mario RPG. I think it's worth considering how and why they've succeeded, and that's what I'll attempt to do in my next post. If you have thoughts on the game, I hope you'll feel free to share them too.