I hope I’m not treading on anyone’s toes with this, but it’s something that is really pissing me off.
Recently my son (yes, son. I know, I’m an angry geek, but I managed to find someone with whom to procreate. In fact, when we got together she was a lot cooler than me, but over the passed few years I’ve managed to geek her up to such a degree that she actually said these words to me the other day "Cool, Comic-Con’s on. I so want to go. Hey, we should go there for our second honeymoon". My wife suggested going to Comic-Con for our second honeymoon (we didn’t really get a first one), how geektastically awesome is that!?) received Mario Galaxy 2 for his birthday and has spent the best part of his existence since then playing it.
And for good reason: it’s awesome. If you liked Mario Galaxy then, you’ll love the second outing: it’s more of the same soaked in a huge bucketload of superb.
Yet, there’s a problem with it. Actually, that’s wrong, it’s not a problem with the game, but more of a problem with Nintendo’s gaming philosophy.
See, I’ve been playing computer games forever (OK, so Pong is eversoslightly before my time, (though I didn’t manage to get my hands on an Atari 2600 when I was a kid, for the princely sum of £2, which has been misplaced in the intervening *ahem* years. The terrifying thing is that it’s probably worth a bit now), but I played Pacman and Pitfall for hours) and can remember the days before saves, passwords and extra lives. You just had to play the game until you either:
b) finished the game
And back then, finishing the game invariably presented you with nothing more than a screen that displayed some variation on "Well Done, You’ve Finished the Game".
One of my favourites was a BBC Micro game called Castle Quest, an adventure game which was decades ahead of its time. In it you played a nameless treasure hunting adventurer who engaged in activities such as sword fighting, jail breaking (by setting fire to the bed no less) and scuba diving (well, walking across the bottom of a light blue rectangle, but you had to have collected the oxygen tank first or you perished) and who fought trolls, evil knights, giant spiders and witches. For an early 80’s game that took up less disk space than a blank Word document it was outstanding. And it was difficult. 3 lives, no 1-ups, no passwords, no saving. One false move and you were toast. (actually, after Castle Quest there was another game that was even further ahead of its time, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called, even though I have it. So advanced was it that at the time I had no fucking idea what to do except get pushed around by a bird thing and get fucked over by robots. Since then, however, I’ve grown up, got myself a BBC Micro emulator and found a copy of the game. Problem is that I’m still a few years behind it because I still have no fucking clue how to play it. Even the walkthrough says something along the lines of ‘Fuck knows, but here’s a huge map!!’).
That doesn’t happen anymore.
Now, many games have given up on the idea of ‘lives’ altogether and, should you perish, you are simply ported back to either your last location or a specified ‘save point’.
The Grand Theft Auto series, one of my favourite series of games ever, has no ‘lives’. You have a health bar that diminishes with every baseball bat you take to the head or pick up truck that thwacks you in the groin, but when it is completely depleted you respawn outside the hospital, with the only real penalty being that you may have to go back and fuck up the same prostitute with the same baseball bat. OK, so it doesn’t detract from the fact that shooting people in the leg and watching them hop about, violently losing blood is fun, but it still makes a game easier.
Super Mario games used to be brutal. One misjudged jump and you plummeted to your doom. And should you be on your last life then, well, you were fucked. Game Over used to actually mean Game Over. Sure there were extra lives to be had, but they were fairly few and far between and if you found one it was exciting; it gave you one last attempt.
But as time’s marched on, and the Mario games became longer and more difficult (that originally said ‘longer and harder’ but I couldn’t stop giggling) certain concessions had to be made to ensure a pleasant gaming experience. Extra lives became more frequent and save points were introduced so that you were no longer forced to begin the game again from the beginning.
But with Mario Galaxy 2, Nintendo seems to have taken the idea of ‘assistance’ and decided that the definition needed a little work.
First off there’s the instructional DVD that came with the game. Seriously, the game comes with an extra DVD that shows you how to play it!! How utterly redundant is that? I know that with the release of the Wii the gaming world was inundated with ‘casual’ gamers (I never understand that phrase, nor ‘hardcore’. Does being a casual gamer mean that you can play something once then never have to call? If that’s the case I’m presuming a hardcore gamer sits alone in a grubby little flat playing Devil May Cry in skintight rubber and a ball gag), but are there honestly enough people out there buying this game that can’t work out what button does what?
However, it’s when the game starts that we see just how far Nintendo have taken their definition of ‘assistance’.
At every turn there is a little sign that gives you a hint about what you need to do, which I understand isn’t a new thing in a Mario game, but now some of these signs will ‘show’ you what to do with a little video clip. Then, and this is the bit that really bugs me, if you die too many times on a level you are asked if you want extra help. If you say yes then you get to watch, like some creepy video game voyeur, as the game plays itself until it reaches a point at which you think you can cope, whereupon you can take over and finish the level.
What, I ask you, is the fucking point!?
And it’s not even subtle about it. If, after your fifth consecutive fall into the same pit of lava, a window popped up and asked "Would you like help: Yes/No?", which then fucked off if you clicked ‘No’, then I wouldn’t mind so much, but Nintendo decided that they really wanted you to take up their offer of help, and weren’t going to let up until you said Yes. So, after your fifth consecutive lava fuelled death, a big green block with an exclamation mark on it appears, and the game begins to make a god awful, doorbell-esque, ding-dong sound; a sound that doesn’t stop until you twat the big block or finish the level (though I will admit that making the fucking noise stop is a wonderful motivator).
And, when did ‘secrets’ in Mario games stop being secret?
Seriously, go back and play Super Mario Brothers. Now, can you see any hints, tips or clues as to the existence of that first warp zone? No, and do you know why? Because it was supposed to be a fucking reward for exploration, a prize for wondering "I die if I fall off the bottom of the screen, but what happens if I ride this platform off the top?". Likewise, Super Mario 3, with its hidden warp whistles.
And Super Mario World? That was just a hive of hidden pipes, seemingly inaccessible levels, secret exits, hidden levels and shortcuts; all of which were there to be found by inquisitive players.
But in Galaxy and Galaxy 2, ‘secret’ apparently means ‘Gather enough coins/star bits to feed the fat bastard Luma’, with even the levels containing the ‘secrets’ labeled with a ‘?’, which I presume is to prevent people from suing Nintendo because they actually had to use their brains. There’s very little, if any, actual exploration needed to find anything because it’s all labeled, signposted or blatantly pointed out to you.
Games used to be a learning curve. They used to be about trial and error, discovery, exploration and, oftentimes, just plain luck. Now, they all seem to be heading the same way as Disney kids shows or school sports days where there are no losers and everyone is praised for ‘trying their best’ and ‘taking part’.
One day someone will create a game that plays like the opening scene of Dark City. You wake up, have no idea who you are, have no clue what button does what, how in the hell you got where you are or how you’re getting out. Fuck the tutorial, fuck the help and fuck any onscreen hints. Just drop me in and let me figure it out. Why? Because exploration is what makes games fun.
Anyway, I’ll fuck off.