Recently I attended Gameconnect Asia-Pacific in Melbourne, a sort of conference and networking opportunity for the Australian games industry. I was part of a panel of game critics discussing why videogames are shit, so basically money for old rope.
Anyway, the discussion turned inevitably to Mario and to New Super Mario Bros Wii. One of the other panelists, Bajo from ABC TV’s Good Game series, brought up how he knows people who will buy and play every new Mario game regardless of perceived quality simply because “it’s Mario.” I responded – in retrospect, a little too hastily – with “yeah, it’s like talking to people who believe in God.”
The line got a rather nervous laugh, but I stand by the point. Mario to God isn’t as huge a leap of logic as you might think. As the movie Fight Club once said, our fathers are our original models for God. Take that principle to a generation of latchkey kids raised by TV and gaming, the original model of God transfers over to escapism. Nintendo becomes our heavenly host. Mario becomes Messiah. Sonic becomes our Judas.
This isn’t helped at all by the internet, where a large percentage of discourse consists of elevated versions of playground arguments over whether He-Man was better than Thundercats. International circle-jerk community forums and the ability to download virtually any artifact of modern culture have granted nostalgia an unearned degree of legitimacy. Then we get things like the Transformers movie, and the human race continues to suffer a general decline into apocalyptic horror.
“Given your previously expressed contempt of Nintendo basically doing the same thing over and over, reusing the same characters, and favoring appeals to nostalgia over innovation, what would you do with Mario?”
-Michael B., from email
You know, Nintendo didn’t always do the same thing over and over. They’ve always had a tendency to labor their franchises, but at least for a while they made an effort to move forward with each one. Mario 3 – map screens, raccoon tails and minigames. Super Mario World – Yoshi and secret levels. Yoshi’s Island – babysitting, unique painted art style and serious Mode 7 abuse. Mario 64 – first move into full 3D, for better or worse. Mario Sunshine – squirt guns and fruit. Mario Galaxy – superlative 3D platforming with gravity mechanics, and there the series found itself up against a big fucking wall.
I remember saying in my Mario Galaxy review, there’s nowhere to go once you’ve gone into space. Space is a big thing and anything you try after space is just going to be not moving forward but shuffling sideways, if not outright stepping backwards. And it seems Nintendo agreed, and have decided not to let it bother them.
We’re living in a rather introspective time for gaming, with the aforementioned trend for nostalgia and both retro and retro-style games available on handhelds or for download onto consoles, and this has brought us to things like New Super Mario Bros Wii, which is a fairly large and bold step backwards. What is the purpose for its existence?
People have hazarded to me that it’s a move to introduce the classic Mario to a new audience. If that’s the case, it’s a pretty stupid way to do it. You know how you introduce classic Mario to a new audience? You make them play classic Mario! Re-release the old NES, SNES and N64 Marios’ for DS and Wii. You could even charge money for it and add extra characters or director commentary or – oh yeah, you pretty much already did that. Well, do it some more. And don’t make bland 2.5D copies of them with the word “new” in the title as some kind of fabulous defiance of the English language.
You know what this is? This is cultural masturbation. So is making films out of 80s cartoon serials that no one liked except the nostalgia-blinded dipshit internet nerds who have all the disposable income. And remaking those films five years later.
Am I the only one who genuinely worries about how historians from the future will recount the culture of our time? About a hundred years from now, will there be some future version of Time Team, where Tony Robinson IV will unearth an old Mario lunchbox, and then do a voiceover on an animated sequence recreating world 1.1 from Super Mario 1? “Mario was a very popular character invented by Nintendo in the 1980s. After that, Nintendo pretty much just wanked the idea off for the fifty years of what we now call the Great Circle Jerk, before the outbreak of the Apocalypse War, at which point Mario was supplanted in popularity by Baldy The Radiation Victim.”
So, in answer to Michael B’s question, “what would I do with Mario,” I would leave Mario exactly where we left him: doing aeroplane impressions somewhere out in deep space. And hope he can’t find the way back.
Wait, didn’t I review two games last week? Quick, pick a comment. This one’ll do.
“Yeah, I was unimpressed with the [Left 4 Dead 2] demo, yeah I see that the CORE CORE CORE gameplay is the same. But what more do you want? Don’t 99.9% of all sequals share the same gameplay mechanics?”
– A Pious Cultist
Yes, if they’re shit. But a sequel will generally also have another 10 hours or so of levels threaded onto a new bit of the story. Story is and remains equally as important as gameplay. Left 4 Dead never really had a story – it had a setting, and strong characters, but it didn’t have a plot. Nothing wrong with that, there are plenty of games that get by on pure gameplay, but they don’t have the lastability, and they’ll never be anything more than a quick bit of fun.
Imagine a grilled sandwich. The gameplay is the bread and the story is the filling. Separate the two elements and they’re both still fine to eat alone, they’re just not as good as they are together. And after enjoying a lovely grilled cheese sandwich you might try a grilled tuna sandwich, swapping out the cheese for the tuna but using basically the same bread, maybe adding a dash of branston pickle to spice it up, and the second grilled sandwich is just as enriching as the first.
Now imagine you have a piece of buttered toast. Maybe you’re hungry but have a bus to catch. It’s filling, it does the job, but it’s not really something you can sit down and enjoy in the same way as a grilled sandwich. Left 4 Dead is a piece of toast, and that’s fine. But Left 4 Dead 2 is just another piece of toast from a different loaf of bread. With a sprig of parsley.
I’d better go now, I’m making myself hungry.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.