Sunday, June 27, 2010

Should We Let Mario Go?  

Man, what a weekend. I think I worked harder and spent more time doing non-fun things than I did between Monday and Friday. Tons of paperwork, a mandatory visit with my mom, the baby developing a full-blown fever, and about a dozen other things happening at the same time. If this is the way the weekends are going be from now on, then let me get back to work so I can get some rest.


Random: While my son was taking a break from Monster Hunter Tri today, he went back to Super Mario Galaxy, a game he started last year but never finished. I sat beside him with a Wiimote of my own doing ‘collect the stars’ duty while he put Mario through his paces, but it wasn't long before he began to struggle and hit some problems.

My kid is definitely no slouch at games, but he was having trouble maneuvering Mario with precision in some of the weird gravity worlds and a couple of the bosses were starting to aggravate him. It was a little surprising since this is the same kid who's seen more of Tri than most of the people who've reviewed it, but there you go. As I was trying to coach him through the rough patches, it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn't quite sure who Mario's target audience is anymore.

The game is bright and colorful, and makes its home on the Wii -- by far the most kid-friendly console of the big three. I think it's pretty natural to assume that most kids who play more than just Wii Sports will probably play Mario at some point. Kids aside, the Wii is the console that has clearly been making the biggest push towards casual gamers. Wii Fit has sold like gangbusters, but it seems logical to assume that Nintendo would want to sell a few copies to casuals who might be inclined. With those two things in mind, the recent trend of Nintendo increasing the difficulty of their games seems to run counter to their strengths.

Although I haven't played either title yet, New Super Mario Brothers Wii was widely reported to be too difficult and cumbersome to play in the later levels, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 has also been tagged as being more difficult than the first, not necessarily in a good way. I find this interesting since in my mind, the only people who would theoretically want more difficulty are the old-school gamers or hard-core gamers who Nintendo’s basically distanced themselves from over the last few years.

I've had a few people mention that Mario has traditionally been much more difficult in the past, and they are right. However, we are living (and playing) in different times. Back then, people weren't targeting demographics or strategically designing their games; they were just making the best games they could, and whoever could play them did. That's not the case anymore. We've got distinct genres, distinct age ranges, and even distinct consumer psychological profiles. To break it down in the most grossly generalized terms, kids need something approachable, casual console gamers don't appear to get into anything too deep, and the old-schoolers apparently dislike cakewalks.

How do you design a game that satisfies all three groups, straddling what appear to be completely opposite demands on each side? Is it even possible? Iconic status and uber-enviable Q-Score aside, I'm starting to wonder who Mario’s really aimed at these days? Following that line of thought, I started to wonder what would really be lost if Nintendo had made Galaxy 2 easier and positioned it strictly for casuals and kids? Of course a certain segment of the gaming population would be up in arms if they were able to blow through the game in three days, but is that really so bad?

As a parent who supports videogames as a positive hobby for kids, it can be tough coming up with titles that are interesting, appropriate, and playable for children who don't have the knowledge and reflexes from a lifetime of experience. Looking at something like Mario which is so warm, friendly and appealing to such a wide variety of people and then seeing my son get frustrated and disappointed by the difficulty spikes, I can't help but wonder what would really be lost if Nintendo put all their eggs in one basket and proceeded on the path they've been on for the last few years. Sony and Microsoft definitely have the mature angles covered, and there are no shortage of titles that I can only play after my kids are in bed. Is it wrong to think that Nintendo letting the older players go and solely focusing on being a gateway to newcomers might actually be an acceptable thing?

I'm not sure that I’ve completely captured the spirit of this thought here on my blog, but I suppose it's a bit like books. Libraries need Dr. Seuss and Dick & Jane, but no one expects those books to challenge older readers or to satisfy everyone who might glance at the cover. Is it right to expect Mario to do so? If not, would the players who grew up with him be all right letting him belong to a new generation?

What next?

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3 comments: to “ Should We Let Mario Go?


    Just watched Toy Story 3 today. With the theme of letting go, it couldn't be more relevant. Our generation thinks it owns pop culture, or more specifically, that pop owes us. Just look at how up in arms people get over remakes. The internet has given us an outlet for our indignation, much - as you point out - to the likely detriment of the new generation. Although I would go so far as to say Nintendo should let go - let us have Mario, and give the kids someone new to embrace.


    Personally, I loved the difficulty in SMG2. It could be very tough at times, but simply completing the game required collecting little more than half the stars, so you could generally skip the trickier bits. I found this to be a great compromise making it accessible to the young, yet still containing optional difficult parts for the hardcore. It even has that ghost lady who does hard parts for you if you fail too much.

    Then again, I've been playing these things for years and don't have kids, so what do I know.


    Like Durand said, I found Mario Galaxy 2's difficulty to be pretty well balanced. There were some very tough stars for the old-school crowd, but if you couldn't complete them you could move somewhere else and try collecting one of the more straightforward stars.

    I also wouldn't underestimate a child's drive to get better at a game and improve their skills by pushing up against those tough challenges. Most of us went through it in the NES Mario days, but I like that today's Mario games also leave that room to grow. New SMB Wii, for instance, is incredibly in World 1 and relatively easy in world's 2 and 3. Then the difficulty really ramps up, but by then, hopefully the hook has been set and the child wants to get better and keep going.

    Mario does have a unique challenge in trying to appeal to a wide range of audiences, but I think his recent games have pulled this off admirably.