I had tried persuading her to jump into some of my favorite games, but indoctrinating a gaming newbie into the world of current co-op shooters turned out to be a bad idea. After a handful of uneasy minutes tooling around with the zombie shooter Left 4 Dead, Amanda screeched in frustration and nearly tossed her controller to the ground. Her character, Zoey, stared directly into the sky and spun in circles as the undead repeatedly clawed and bit until her health dwindled down to nil.
“I really hate this, do you have to be freaking ambidextrous to play?” she asked, tossing me the controller with disgust as if it was coated with zombie vomit.
Borderlands was no better. Despite my rudimentary lessons on steering the tank-like vehicles in the game, she drove off cliffs, into solid buildings and through the unsuspecting bodies of villainous desert dwellers. As expected, none of this vehicular mayhem was of her own volition.
She gladly let me confiscate her post-apocalyptic driver’s license.
“Can I just stay in this gun turret the whole game?” she half-jokingly asked.
For casual gamers like Amanda, the act of playing most modern videogames can be an intimidating, if not terrifying, experience. When games long ago fled 2D and began adding so many buttons and joystick gizmos to their controllers, they left gamers like Amanda behind in the next-gen dust.
The Wii’s motion controls were introduced partially as a way to bring casual gamers back into the fold, but most of the titles available for that console arguably sacrifice quality for accessibility. When gaming together, therefore, we only had two choices – she could simply watch me play state-of-the-art single-player games like Modern Warfare 2 or Red Dead Redemption or we could play a “dumbed-down” title like Wii Play. Neither was a very satisfying compromise.
The answer to our problems came in the unlikely form of Luma – a small orange star-being thing that bops along the screen when a second player decides to join the action in Super Mario Galaxy 2. The second player only views the gameplay from Mario’s perspective and does not control Luma directly. Instead, the second player points at the screen with the Wii Remote and aims Luma at objects as if they were playing an on-rails shooter like House of the Dead. There is no danger in playing as Luma, no threat of death by falling off a platform into lava or being bitten by a Chain Chomp. Instead, the second player merely plays a supporting role by finding star bits, picking up coins and items and freezing enemies standing in Mario’s precarious path.
For Amanda, this is all great news. She tried playing as Mario and quit after the first galaxy. Amanda freely admits that she lacks the spatial reasoning and precise hand-eye coordination needed to succeed in the game’s challenging 3D world. But as Luma, she can enjoy the tricked-out Mario Galaxy visuals and colorful characters without worrying about where to go or stressing out over a boss that she can’t kill.
The second-player Luma isn’t essential to Mario’s existence – the pudgy plumber has plenty of tricks of his own – but it does make his life a little easier. A power up that may have required Mario to launch himself perfectly onto a high altitude cloud can be plucked from the sky and gently handed over for the hero’s consumption. A particularly fearsome patch of bad guys can be stymied when the second player shakes the Wii remote at an enemy and stops him in his tracks until Mario can muster up a series of spin attacks. Or, a few star bits that spill from a defeated baddie can be absorbed by Luma instead of falling out of Mario’s grasp.
Amanda aids me not by simply using the gameplay mechanics available to Luma, but by giving me advice about what to do next with Mario. Because she doesn’t have to worry about saving her own skin as Luma, Amanda’s attention is freed up to look closely at what I’m doing and spot a tactic that I may have overlooked – a platform that might lead to a secret area or a better way to tackle an enemy that was giving me trouble.
In one of the early game worlds, I had initial difficulty with a two-legged robot boss that launched little drill-shaped robots directly at me. I could defeat the mini-drills, but Mario kept bouncing harmlessly off of the boss’s legs. How was I supposed to take him down? It was Amanda who suggested waiting for the robot to show its glass-domed star between its legs and line up Mario. Then I’d use my handy drill-bit power up and dig through the small planet, pop through the ground on the other side and attack. I heard a satisfying cracking sound of the glass, and Amanda and I both cheered as I eventually destroyed the boss.
It was a moment of pure cooperation and teamwork between two players in the same room, a real rarity in games.
In contrast, most co-op videogames are better described as “self-interested team-ups” defined by players selfishly pursuing their own goals over helping each other. Co-op players often try to rack up more kills than the other players or grab the loot, power-ups or ammo first before any of their teammates. Call of Duty: World at War even features a “competitive co-op” mode, which is kind of an oxymoron if you think about it.
Because of the “me-first” nature of co-op, Valve intentionally crafted special zombies designed to pick off Rambo players in Left 4 Dead. In other words, teamwork was forced as a game mechanic. In Super Mario Galaxy 2, teamwork is more organic, due to one player acting as a passive helper-character. The idea makes sense to Amanda, even if it baffles lifelong hardcore gamers and many game journalists.
Several prominent game reviewers panned the co-op in SMG2 precisely because of the limited interaction that Amanda found so enjoyable. Co-Optimus, a website that specializes in covering cooperative games, gave SMG2 an overall score of 5 out of 5, but only 3 out of 5 for the co-op system because “it isn’t the same as playing as Mario” and is “a far cry from real co-op.” PopMatters critic Arun Subramanian, meanwhile, speculated that the SMG2 co-op was “clearly something of an afterthought.” Similarly, IGN editor Colin Moriarty called the co-op system “half-assed” and lamented the lack of turn taking co-op from the original NES Super Mario Bros. games. It’s not surprising that critics would assume that Nintendo’s co-op system for SMG2 was designed as a half-hearted throw-in, because assigning the second player to a lesser role is a relatively new concept in games.
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.
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.