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September 2010

Cue the star


Q: How did you decide what the world of Super Mario 64 would be like?
SM: I always decide on the basic ideas/concepts (such as Mario's moves) first, then I add other things until it takes a certain shape. After that, I start the total concept of the game.

Q: So you started with Mario's actions, or movements, when making the game?
SM: Yes, they're the core of this game. Mario's actions came first, then we made the courses that fit his movements.
                                --Interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo Power, Oct. '96 

In Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto gives his most famous creation the best entrance in the history of video games. Even today, fourteen years and five flagship Super Mario games later, when Mario springs out of that green pipe and shouts "Wahoo!" I still get a little chill up my spine.

More than any other Mario game, Super Mario 64 is all about Nintendo's feisty Italian stereotype. No other game has relied so heavily on the simple joy of manipulating Mario in a playground of primary colors.

Dear Mario: Please come to the castle. I've baked a cake for you. Yours truly-- Princess Toadstool, Peach

After Mario emerges from that familiar green pipe, he touches down directly facing Princess Peach's castle. She has invited him in for cake. All signs suggest we should enter that castle right away, but who among us does? No. Instead we leap for joy. We run and jump and slide and dash and somersault and swim, all for fun. Just messing around. Just seeing what this little guy can do. Adventures await inside the castle, but why rush things when this part of the game delivers such simple delights? 

Even after entering the castle, Miaymoto and team offer the player a small room that serves no purpose aside from encouraging the player to play, performing wall kicks and triple jumps, practicing all the moves in Mario's repertoire.

More than any other developer, Nintendo understands the tactile ambrosia of a controller married to motion; the subtle rush of making Mario leap, glide, and land exactly as you intend, with your fingers. How best to describe that feeling? It's a shame humans can't purr.

But I want to return to Mario's grand entrance because it signals a recurring message sent from the game to the player: Mario is now a superstar. To be sure, he's always been the main attraction, even when previous Super Mario games allowed us to play as other characters, like Yoshi.

But by focusing so much attention on the player's control of Mario's robust array of moves in Super Mario 64, Miyamoto clearly elevates Mario's star status (in a game about collecting stars), and the series has never looked back. Super Mario 64 is Miyamoto's magnum opus because it's the purest expression of his core design philosophy: it must be fun to simply play with Mario in a playful space with no other objectives at stake.

In other words, the role Mario plays in Super Mario 64 differs from the one he played in previous games. In the 2D Super Mario games, Mario functioned as an acrobatic sidescrolling avatar, steadily progressing from left to right, overcoming challenges, acquiring new abilities along the way. Tremendous fun. Brilliant level design. Super Mario World remains one of the greatest achievements in the history of video games. But in Super Mario 64, our plucky plumber transcends avatar to also become the player's animated toy - in the purest, most delightful sense of the word. 

Quite apart from conquering its levels and locating all its stars, Super Mario 64 begins and ends with an exhilarating set of moves that never cease to be fun. Each presents a challenge to the player, requiring precision without feeling finicky. Once inside the castle, these moves serve a practical purpose, of course; but precisely executing them - choosing the right move and pulling it off at the right moment - is icing on an already tasty cake. Some moves, like the backward somersault, initially seem superfluous; but when you pull one off just as you're about to deal a knockout to Big Boo...well, victory tastes even sweeter with a little extra sauce.

If you've never played Super Mario 64 - or if revisiting the game sounds enticing to you - it just so happens we've begun a playthrough of the game over at Vintage Game Club. Please feel free to jump in and join our friendly conversation. We'd love to have you.


I've got EXP

Microphone_newspost_0002 Week in and week out, Scott Juster and Jorge Albor produce one of the best games-related podcasts on the interwebs: the Experience Points Podcast

They kindly invited me on to discuss the "Enduring Questions" course I've written about here and the inclusion of Portal on the syllabus. We also talk about games in the classroom, the growing irrelevance of traditional academic scholarship, and plenty of other subjects. 

It was a terrific conversation I think you'll enjoy - that is, if you can tolerate 62 minutes of me on the other side of the mic. :-)

You can subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes, or you can grab the RSS feed. You can also download the show directly.

Many thanks to Jorge and Scott for inviting me on their 'cast and for being such warm hosts.



I've been thinking a lot about old games lately. As I write this, we await news about the future of Good Old Games, a digital download service that sells DRM-free games from an impressive back catalog that includes publishers like Activision, Interplay, and Atari. 

GOG dropped a bomb when they announced they were "closing down the service," and the entire site suddenly disappeared, save for a simple announcement on the main page. For those of us who've relied on GOG as a legal and inexpensive way to introduce a bygone era of games to students, the news came as quite a blow. Apparently they're coming back with a new business model. We'll soon see. [Update: apparently GOG's announcement was a PR hoax.]

One of my most satisfying moments as a teacher came two years ago when 15 students overcame their resistance and disorientation and embraced the original Fallout. I wrote about that experience, and since then I've continued to challenge my students with games that fall well outside their comfort zones: arcade classics (e.g. Defender); interactive fiction (e.g. Planetfall); and early dungeon-crawlers (e.g. Rogue).

But I've noticed a general downward trajectory forming over the last six years or so. Gradually my students have grown less and less capable of handling one particular assignment: Ultima IV. To be sure, they struggle with a game like Planetfall, but when they finally learn the game's syntax (and heed my advice to map their progress), it's mostly a question of puzzle-solving. Defender knocks them down initially, but they soon apply the quick reflexes they've developed playing modern games, and they're fine.

Ultima IV is another story. Here's a sampling of posts from the forum I set up to facilitate out-of-class discussion of the game:

  • I've been very confused throughout the entire experience. I've honestly sat here for hours trying to figure out what to do and it just isn't making much sense to me right now.

  • When I start a game I like to do it all on my own, but it's been impossible to do so with Ultima. I've asked friends for help, looked up FAQs/walkthroughs, and even searched for Let's Play Ultima 4 on youtube and am still uncertain as to how to get further in this game.

  • Yeah, I still have no idea what the main goal is. I suppose it's to basically find out what the purpose of the Ankh is. But I see no way of furthering that goal.

  • I tried for awhile without any walkthroughs to get the full gamer experience sort thing and within the hour I gave up because of a combination of bad controls and a hard to get into story for me at least. It reminded me of a bad runescape.

  • i dont quite understand the concept of the game. i believe my main confusion is the controls and how it displays what you have done and how you moved. im not used to rpg's and i dont like them to much. i hope to find out how to move forward,but so far no luck.

  • How the hell do I get out of here after I die?

They had five days to play U4, and I asked them to make as much progress as they could in that time. When we gathered to debrief in class, a few students explained how they'd overcome some of their difficulties, but the vast majority was utterly flummoxed by the game. As one of them put it, "I'd say for gamers of our generation, an RPG like Ultima IV is boring and pretty much unplayable." After removing the arrow from my chest, I asked them to explain why.

It mostly came down to issues of user-interface, navigation, combat, and a general lack of clarity about what to do and how to do it. I had supplied them with the Book of Mystic Wisdom and the History of Britannia, both in PDF form, but not a single student bothered to read them. "I thought that was just stuff they put in the box with the game," said one student. "Yes," I replied, "They put it in there because they expected you to read it." "Wow," he responded.

Some of their difficulties must be chalked up to poor teaching. I should have done a better job of preparing them for the assignment. I resisted holding their hands because in the past I've found it useful to plop them down in Britannia and let them struggle. Figure out the systems, grok the mechanics, and go forth. Ultima IV may be a high mountain to climb for a 19-year-old Call of Duty player, but it's well worth the effort. 

At least that's what I used to think. Now it seems to me we're facing basic literacy issues. These eager players are willing to try something new, but in the case of a game like Ultima IV, the required skill-set and the basic assumptions the game makes are so foreign to them that the game has indeed become virtually unplayable. 

And as much as I hate to say it - even after they learn to craft potions, speak to every villager, and take notes on what they say - it isn't much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn't feel like so much work.

I'm pretty sure I'll continue to teach Ultima IV. The series is simply too foundational to overlook, and I can develop new teaching strategies. But I believe we've finally reached the point where the gap separating today's generation of gamers from those of us who once drew maps on grid paper is nearly unbridgeable. These wonderful old games are still valuable, of course, and I don't mean to suggest we should toss them in the dustbin. 

But if we're interested in preserving our history and teaching students about why these games matter, a "play this game and sink-or-swim" approach won't work anymore. The question for me at this point is how to balance the process of learning and discovery I want them to have inside the game with their need for basic remedial help.

I love great old games like Ultima IV, but I can no longer assume the game will make its case for greatness all by itself.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 30 pt. 3


This show is the final in a 3-part series called Gatherings of the Tribe in which I talk to a variety of people about the big events that bring gamers together throughout the year: GDC, PAX, E3, etc.

This episode features my conversation with game developers Matthew Burns (Shadegrown Games), Nels Anderson (Hothead Games), and David Carlton (Playdom).

We discuss a variety of topics, including why developers attend PAX and GDC; why developers keep secrets; and why developers enjoy "spreading their cognitive genetic material."

Hope you enjoy the show, and thanks for listening.

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Show links:

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 30 pt. 2


This show is the 2nd in a 3-part series called Gatherings of the Tribe in which I talk to a variety of people about the big events that bring gamers together throughout the year: GDC, PAX, E3, etc.

This episode features my conversation with critic bloggers Kirk Hamilton (Gamer Melodico) and Rob LeFebvre (Games Are Evil, The Portable Gamer).

Stay tuned for Part 3, which will feature three indie developers offering their perspectives on these big events.

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Show links:

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 30


This edition of the show begins a 3-part series called Gatherings of the Tribe in which I talk to a variety of people about the big events that bring gamers together throughout the year: GDC, PAX, E3, Comic-Con, Gameloop, Games Learning & Society...the list goes on and on. 

This episode features my conversation with veteran game journalists Gus Mastrapa (, et al) and Chris Dahlen (Kill Screen Magazine, et al).

Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, which will feature critics and developers offering their takes on these big events. Those segments will appear in the coming week.

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Show links:



When Abbie Heppe submitted her review of Metroid: Other M (2 out of 5 stars) for G4, I'm guessing she hit the SEND button and ran for cover. The backlash from fans was immense (459 comments, and counting) and personal ("It sounds like the reviewer had just had an argument with her boyfriend or something and was is a particularly "MAN HATING" mood when she played the game.") G4 removed a fair number of comments they deemed inappropriate, so there's no telling how many people stopped by to tar and feather Ms. Heppe.  

To be fair, Heppe received supportive comments as well, and many commenters defended Heppe's credentials and agreed with her point of view about the game.

In a nutshell, Heppe objects to the game's depiction of its protagonist, delivered via two hours of cutscenes narrated by the formerly silent Samus in a confessional "dear diary" style.

In short, you're asked to forget that Samus has spent the last 10-15 years on solitary missions ridding the galaxy of Space Pirates, saving the universe and surviving on her own as a bounty hunter. Instead, Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man.

Heppe also takes issue with Metroid: OM's controls, first-person mode, puzzles, and other elements; but her main complaint is that Nintendo and Team Ninja's effort to 'flesh out' one of the most iconic female characters in video game history has resulted in a depiction of Samus that's "insulting to both Samus and her fans." And that's where Heppe apparently crossed the line for many readers.

I'm struck by this brouhaha, not because it's new or especially rancorous. If you've seen one flamewar, you've seen them all. But it does illustrate what happens when a writer for a high-profile outlet chooses to address a game critically - I mean when he or she functions as a critic instead of simply a reviewer. All too often the backlash is severe and ugly. It suggests that, for a sizable portion of the gaming audience, genuine criticism is perceived as inappropriate, unnecessary, or even unprofessional.

Heppe engages Metroid: Other M on several levels, including as an evaluative reviewer. She observes, for example, that certain elements of the game's design don't work well (e.g. auto-targeting, sideways control scheme). She likes the combat, but she doesn't like the puzzles. As a "should you buy this game" reviewer, Heppe offers her take in a format familiar to anyone who's read these sorts of reviews from mainstream games media outlets.

Silly feminist and their emotions geting in the way of professionalism. [sic]**

When Heppe views Metroid through a critical lens, she applies a perspective and a methodology that informs her thinking. This is what critics do. Observing Samus as the embodiment of an empowered female hero - a perspective, by the way, that Metroid creator Yoshio Sakamoto reinforced in his GDC talk last March - enables Heppe to engage her subject in a rigorous, yet personal way. She applies standards of character construction that any responsible critic might apply, and she brings her own interpretive experience with Samus and the Metroid series to bear as well. Again, this is what critics do.

Heppe's approach is valuable because it contextualizes Samus as a fictional character in an unfolding narrative universe, and Nintendo has clearly gone out of its way in Metroid: OM to deepen our understanding of that universe and Samus' place in it. Heppe is meeting the game at precisely the point where its creators have lavished so much attention: Samus and her story. The game's first bit of dialogue, "Why am I still alive?" sets the stage for the story to come. Nintendo and Team Ninja stumble badly in their attempt to answer it, and Heppe tries to explain why.

The backlash takes a variety of forms. There's bald misogyny:

I'm not even a Metroid fan, I just think they should have a better criteria to rating games. Maybe they shouldn't be reviewing games during their time of the month?

Oh wah wah.. it's not empowering to women anymore.. wahhh...

Who are videogames like Metroid made for? Boys! (This isn't Cookin' Mama)

There's the familiar "it's just a game" argument:

To the reviewer I say this CHILL OUT! its not supposed to be some sort of deep docudrama geared and showing us all how to understand the inner-workings of women hood. ITS A FREAKING VIDEO GAME! You buy it to have fun not to make a political statement about our man controlled society.

There's the "stop shoving your political agenda down our throats" argument:

The female reviewer turned it into her opportunity to let loose her feminist and anti-sexism views about the story and said very little about actual GAMEPLAY, GRAPHICS, and all the things that really matter when playing A VIDEO GAME!

And you're trying to tell us that this game is sexist, are you freakin kidding me. I get so freakin sick of women claiming that something is sexist, even though it isn't. If it was a man it samus's place, would you call it sexist? 

And there's the argument that contends Heppe has no right to interpret the game:

The way I see it, the players of the game create these preconceived notions of what a Metroid game should be like, or how Samus should act and feel, and I'm here to tell you that you're all full of shit. There's only one party that can decide on what the content of a game is like, and that's exclusively THE DEVELOPER. In this case, it's Team Ninja and Nintendo.

I could go on, but I realize I'm shooting fish in a barrel. The point is that, all too often, the greatest resistance to thinking critically about games comes not from academics, luddites, or old-school critics like Roger Ebert. The most vocal resistance comes from gamers.

In his keynote address at PAX last week, Warren Spector warned that marginalizing casual games and gamers will ultimately limit the industry's ability to grow and mature. I think he's right, but that's only half the story. 

Shouting down writers who adopt a principled, intellectual, political, theoretical or other disciplined approach to thinking about a game is ultimately no less self-defeating. There is no single "game culture" anymore, if one ever existed at all. There's a place for everyone at this table, and Ms. Heppe may have just helped the folks at Nintendo make the next Metroid a better, smarter game.

I have more to say about Metroid: Other M (hint: I somewhat agree with Heppe, but see the game as a failure of execution, rather than conception), but I'll save that for another post.

**All italicized quotes are taken from comments posted on Abbie Heppe's G4tv article.

Zoe's choice: iPad games


A couple of days ago I wrote about my recent infatuation with the iPad as a gaming device. Since then, I've heard from many of you suggesting other games for me to try - board games, baseball games, puzzlers, interactive fiction, platformers...who knew Mirror's Edge on the iPad was such a terrific game?

So today I'll return the favor by suggesting several games I've enjoyed recently with my daughter Zoe. These titles have passed the rigorous "Brainy Gamer Pre-Schooler Double-Screening Test." Zoe (soon to be 3 years old) and I have played all the games on this list many times, and we heartily recommend each. Some of these games are explicitly designed for kids; others aren't.

I should note that one of the charms of the iPad as a gaming platform is the way it encourages playing together. Zoe usually sits next to me on the sofa, and we hold the iPad in the middle of our laps; or, for certain games, we pass it back and forth. Like all kids her age, Zoe's responses are pure. If she doesn't like a game, no amount of nudging from me will sway her. She hits the home button, and we're on to something else.

I should also mention that we typically play right after dinner for no more than 20 minutes. The iPad has some wonderful reading and storybook apps (including 2 on my list), but we continue to read real books too, and bedtime would be unthinkable without them. No skipping pages either. She's wise to that trick.

Here's the list:

  • Miss Spider's Tea Party: Zoe's favorite and one of the most beautiful games I've seen on the iPad. This animated picture-book features lovely animations and lively narration. You can also read the book aloud and touch the interactive pictures. Miss Spider includes several well designed mini-games (matching, painting, jigsaw puzzles) that integrate with the story.

  • Magic Piano: Tap on the screen to play a piano. Freestyle, spiral piano, built-in playlists - you can do pretty much anything you want. In easy mode, you can play tunes from the song book (including "Final Fantasy Prelude") by tapping anywhere on the screen. This is one of those game-as-toy apps that's hard to put down once you discover all it can do. You can even play duets with other players around the world.

  • Dr. Seuss' ABC: A pitch-perfect digital rendition of Dr. Seuss' classic, and the same can be said for the other Dr. Seuss books available for the iPad: The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and The Lorax. Kids can choose "Read to Me," "Read it Myself," or "Autoplay," which will treat them to delightfully Seussified narration. These books make Dr. Seuss's original artwork look better than ever.

  • Osmos: Its developer describes Osmos as "Asteroids meets a lava-lamp," and I can't think of a better description. Osmos isn't a kids game, but it delivers such a hypnotic tactile/musical experience that age, rules, objectives, win/lose don't need to factor in if you don't want them to. I first saw this game at the IGF competition last year, and I've played it on both Mac and PC. The iPad version beats them both. This may be the be the best iPad game around. Zoe loves the music.

  •  MyReef 3D Aquarium HD: A gorgeous virtual aquarium full of tropical fish. That's pretty much it, and, believe me, that's enough. We just love watching the fish, feeding them, and observing their behavior. It may sound silly - and I suppose someday maybe we'll try a real aquarium - but for now this little app is a relaxing and oddly transfixing diversion.

  • Drawing Pad: My favorite moment watching Zoe discover the iPad came watching her play this game. She chose a color, drew a line with it on the screen, then raised her finger to look for the paint on it. :-) Nothing beats drawing and painting with real media, but when you're traveling or you simply don't have time to clean up a mess, this app is the perfect solution. Crayons, pencils, paint brushes, stickers...Zoe has spent more time with Drawing Pad than any other app. You can even import your own photo and draw a mustache on Mom!

Happy gaming!