Second Banana

Second Banana
Real-Life Sidekick

Ryan Smith | 24 Aug 2010 13:46
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Videogame creators have traditionally used the sidekick - the trusty friend that assists you in your adventures - but they've been uncomfortable assigning that kind of secondary role to a real life player. Gaming's oldest and most famous sidekick, Luigi, doesn't even count as one in the truest sense of the word. Mario's taller, more svelte brother has always embraced the Samwise Gamgee role - seemingly content in quietly existing in his sibling's considerable shadow. As a playable character in Mario Bros. games, Luigi exists as a Mario 1.5 - a clone who has nearly identical powers, skills and resources for the second player to utilize. This is true in other multiplayer games as well - the additional players might inhabit a different character than player one, but it's often a case of a new coat of paint slapped on the same structure.

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The real sidekick in many Mario games isn't Luigi, it's actually Toad, the tiny androgynous fellow with the giant mushroom cap. There are some Mario games in which Toad is a playable character, but he's generally a computer controlled NPC who shows up at opportune times to grant Mario tips, items and chances at 1UPs.

The-sidekick-as-NPC has been the gaming standard for decades, usually taking the form of someone like Cortana in the Halo series or Otacon in Metal Gear Solid, an insider feeding us bits of essential information to help advance the hero's mission or story. Or they're the supporting role characters that provide both needed info and a little ass-kicking on the side (Alyx Vance in Half Life 2, Captain John Price in Modern Warfare).

Sidekicks as NPCs makes sense, especially if you believe that part of the allure of videogames comes with the power fantasy of being The One - the character that can save the world, rescue the princess, or stop the criminal mastermind from realizing his evil plan. Who would want to play simply as the guy who helps The Guy? Would gamers really enjoy playing the role of the ineffectual Otacon, ferreting out information by hacking computer networks and uploading it to Snake's codec?

Maybe not. But in SMG2, Nintendo has figured out a way to effectively strike that balance with an intuitive sidekick system where a hardcore gamer "drives" a game while a second player rides along as a passenger, yet still shares in the experience.

"It's just enough stimulus that I'm not bored, and I also feel like I'm contributing to your cause, so I like it a lot," Amanda says about playing SMG2 with me as Luma.

Spoken like a true sidekick.

Ryan Smith is a freelance writer/journalist with a decade of experience writing for newspapers, magazines, and the web. He covers videogames, tech, and sports for Chicago Tribune's RedEye edition and authors GameSmith, a Chicago specific gaming blog.

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