November 23, 2009
It was Thanksgiving 1992, and my mother and I were in the kitchen preparing the family feast. Suddenly we heard a loud squeal, followed by a wailing "Oh NO!", and then a burst of laughter. "They're playing that go-kart thing again," she said. "Yup," I replied, "Super Mario Kart." "Well," she remarked, "It's better than listening to them watch football."
Seventeen Thanksgivings later, Mario will once again provoke laughter and shouting in my living room, this time channeling his classic sidescrolling roots in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. After a week of playing this game by myself and with family and friends, I'm struck by an undeniable fact: Nintendo remains the developer who best understands how to bring people together for a rollicking time.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii is pure genius. Those who have characterized this game as a lazy sequel to SMB 3 and Super Mario World, with little to distinguish it beyond a multiplayer mode, cannot possibly have played the same game I'm playing. Knowing some will consider it heresy, I contend NSMBW surpasses both of those games in its clever level design, gameplay variety, difficulty progression, and player-friendly features.
As a single-player experience NSMBW will shiver your timbers with tough, imaginative challenges over dozens of widely varying levels and environments. Is this game tougher or easier than its predecessors? I don't know, and I frankly don't care. This game stands on its own, building on the firm foundations of prior Super Mario games, but conveying its own colorful identity. Yes, it contains in-game hint movies; and yes, Luigi pops in after 8 failures to show you the way. And, yes, you're free to use or refuse either of these legs-up.
Playing NSMBW by yourself is terrific fun, and I'll return to discuss the single-player mode later. Today I'm here to sing the praises of New Super Mario Bros. Wii as a game played with others - a game that finally makes good on Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto's wish to create a Super Mario game for players of all skill levels to enjoy. While it's not strictly accurate to call it the first SMB game with multiplayer (the original Mario Bros. featured 2-player co-op), NSMBW is the first Mario game to fully implement it.
Consider for a moment how we play multiplayer games. We go to a menu screen, select Multiplayer, and the game takes us to a specially designed mode, separate from the single-player option, containing its own sub-menus and options. This mode may borrow maps or other assets from the main game, but allowances must be made for the fact that multiplayer is usually an add-on option that feels added on. Even a recent game like Trine, which offers 3-player co-op (PS3 version only), rarely exploits its multiplayer possibilities, presumably because of the exponential jump in design complexity that true multiplayer entails.
Not so in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. At any point in the game, up to 3 additional players may jump in or out, and the game never misses a beat. In fact, when a new player arrives, the game suddenly opens wide to allow 3 additional gameplay modes, not determined by a subset of rules tacked onto a separate mode, but emerging from the actions and behaviors of the players within the main game. The moment another player joins in, NSMBW enables:
- Simultaneous play - in which up to four players proceed through each level on their own. This mode can be especially helpful to new players who can learn by watching and imitating the actions of other players. A low-key, play to have fun mode.
- Co-op play - in which up to four players proceed through each level by helping each other reach otherwise unreachable levels and items. Players can cooperatively toss, carry, and bounce on each other, as well as revive each other by bursting the bubble the rescued player returns in. A blast to play, especially for non-competetive players who prefer to approach platforming as puzzle-solving.
- Competitive play - in which up to four players do anything within their powers to sabotage, debilitate, or otherwise defeat their opponents and reach that iconic flagpole first. This is the mode I'll bet Miyamoto snickered to himself about when he first thought of it. Super Mario Bros.: Bloodlust!
Three distinct styles of play - and others players may determine for themselves - all thoughtfully designed into the same main game. Each level packed with possibilities. Throw in variables like propeller hats, penguin suits, power-ups, and assorted other gameplay-changers, and suddenly each level plays differently, and your options for co-op/competitive play grow more exciting and more dastardly.
I've made no secret of how much I loved Little Big Planet. Playing that game from start to finish with my wife was one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had. But reflecting on the level design for that game only deepens my appreciation for the genius of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. LBP purported to offer both co-op and competitive play, but the levels that felt genuinely designed for co-op play were areas demarcated with "2X" signs on them. While these were fun to play, it's clear they weren't truly integrated into the overall design. They were essentially set-aside moments, detached from their surrounding levels, for special co-op play.
I'll note one more bit of design wisdom that suggests Nintendo thought hard about how to make NSMBW fun for everyone (and it's another tidbit that would have improved LBP, by the way). At any time during multiplayer, a player may hold down the A button and float toward the other players in a bubble. It's a useful option for vertical levels when faster players may begin to leave slower ones helpless at the bottom of the screen. But it's also a great way for a player to basically call a timeout without penalty. It's a little thing, but for some players it will mean the difference between quitting and continuing.
Bring on the turkey. And the warp pipe. And the Ice Flower. Woo Hoo!!