An unfair comparison

In the past week, I have penned reviews of both Super Mario 3D World and Knack. I enjoyed one of these far more than the other. Can you guess which?

As it turned out, completely by chance, the circumstances under which I wrote these reviews allowed me to contrast the two experiences quite effectively. I played through the first five worlds of Mario before getting sucked into the PlayStation 4 launch, at which point I marathoned Knack (and the equally dire Killzone, with Resogun serving as a much-appreciated sorbet of fun in between) before returning to finish off Mario. In other words, Mario became a sort of bookend — a reference work for how this kind of game should be done.

And when I say “this kind of game,” I don’t mean platformers. I’ve seen a lot of people call Knack a platformer, but I can’t imagine why. Yes, sometimes you jump, but there’s no elegance to it; most of its platforms have bizarre stickiness to them, and even the most basic climbing leap usually requires you double-jump. No platformer worth its salt would do that. The creators have cited Crash Bandicoot as an inspiration, but even that influence seems to have made its way into the finished product tenuously at best. Knack is a brawler, pure and simple — I compared it to Double Dragon for NES in my review, and I think that holds true for its claim to platforming as well. Double Dragon had platforming in parts, but that wasn’t the point of the game… and there (as here) it was inelegant and frustrating.

No, by “this kind of game” I mean games designed for all-ages audiences. (The tragic litmus test of this medium: If a video game isn’t colorful and cartoonish, it’s most likely about stabbing people in the neck and therefore not appropriate for all ages.) It seems like Sony and Nintendo fans in certain quarters have drawn a line in the sand to make a false equivalency between Mario and Knack, which I don’t think is entirely fair. Knack isn’t good, but it’s also not the same kind of game as Mario. That being said, playing Mario alongside Knack certainly did help me better understand what I disliked about the latter.

Mario revolves around the joy of playing freely. It’s about responsive controls and rewarding curiosity. Each stage has its “ideal” power-ups and techniques, which you can determine based on the tools you’re handed, but you’re not married to those things. You can just as easily take a Boomerang Suit into a stage where you’re supposed to use the Cat Suit (or vice-versa) and work your way through its challenges in a way that wasn’t specifically designed for and it still works, because the game’s design isn’t meant to be stifling. There’s one stage in the post-game where you have to contend with some really difficult platforming challenges for which you’ll definitely want a Cat Suit… but around the midway point there’s a secret that, if you know what to look for, clearly has to be unlocked with the Fire Flower. The game doesn’t give you a Fire Flower in that stage, though. You have to figure it out, then find a Fire Flower in another level, return and reach the secret with Fire power intact, snag the bonus, then clear the rest of the stage with that power-up in order to get whatever bonus is hidden there. That’s a serious challenge (the stage is tough enough to clear the intended way), but it’s entirely optional and only becomes apparent if you pay attention to those side details. Knack offers nothing that nuanced in the way of secrets, just a few obvious breakable walls along the linear path forward hiding collectibles.

Mario‘s joy of play extends to the basic controls; the characters always do exactly what you want them to. I know that’s kind of a trademark of the series, but Knack reminded me how rare it can be outside of Nintendo’s first-party work. Just about every move Knack can perform has lag or cool down time — it mimics the mechanics of a brawler even if it lacks the technical underpinnings to make that ambition work. It was Mario‘s Cat Suit that really drove this home for me, though, and more specifically its aerial diving attack. Both Knack and Cat Mario can leap and perform a downward strike by attacking in midair (in fact, it’s by far the most effective skill in Knack). In Knack, your dive attack auto-targets the nearest foe. In Mario, however, that’s not the case — you dive in whichever direction you’re facing. It’s still an effective attack without its auto-targeting, though, because the area of Mario’s attack is a bit wider than his body, so you don’t have to aim perfectly at an enemy to make the attack work.

This generosity might be seen as fudging or cheating, but to me it speaks of a philosophy that believes more than anything else, a game should feel right. If you choose the correct actions for a situation, should you be penalized if you don’t perfectly align yourself in a projection of 3D space, in which a tremendous amount of guesswork is present by necessity? “No,” says Nintendo EAD. (Besides, there’s plenty of precision platforming to contend with and keep you on your toes in 3D World.) But Sony Japan Studio says, “Yes.” Alas, Knack doesn’t really make that possible, so the game has to second-guess your intentions to compensate. It’s a small thing, but it speaks of two very different philosophies. As the kind of person who likes to be left alone, left to his own devices, I’m naturally biased toward the Mario approach.

But you know, despite all of this, I don’t hate Knack. I think it’s a dull game, and for an “all ages” game its design feels lopsidedly difficult — not to mention that it has no learning curve to speak of. The early levels are not particularly less challenging than the later ones. But I love its look, and I actually like its characters and world a fair amount. Its creators made some weird artistic choices — Knack has a deep smooth-jazz sexy voice, which means he never speaks in his smallest state because it would sound weeeeeird — but its fantasy/science mash-up universe is one I wouldn’t mind revisiting at some point. I just hope it’s in the context of a more varied game with more attention paid to the little details, and a little more credit given to the player’s imagination and sense of adventure.

7 thoughts on “An unfair comparison

  1. I think there’s a place for games like Knack, but they have to pull it off really well. That kind of single-mindedness has to be FUN, and apparently Knack is not. The LEGO games have always been a fun, very directed experience for me in that regard (when they’re not freezing on me).

    Have you played much Tearaway yet? It’s the sort of game that’s getting all sorts of praise that really needs your type of precise, game mechanic analysis.

    It reminds me of Media Molecule’s other series, LittleBigPlanet, when everyone is talking about it, and it just LOOKS so great, and then you play it and it’s: “oh… well, this isn’t actually that fun… to play.” I just get the feeling everyone’s been hoodwinked by its style. I’ll have to check if there’s a demo on PSN yet.

  2. I’ve played a stage or two of Tearaway and it strikes me as being structurally similar to Knack yet vastly more varied and interesting in terms of what you’re doing moment-to-moment. Literally all you do in Knack is punch things or traverse boring “platforms” in order to reach the next punchable thing; I saw vastly more variety in those two stages than in the whole of Knack. So yeah, I’d say it’s a case-in-point of games like Knack having their place but needing to be done right.

  3. What you describe is one thing I definitely enjoyed about Super Mario 3D Land, and now World, above the games which preceded it. I enjoy having power-ups work in the more traditional Mario style, rather than being tossed at you for temporary use in a particular situation or environment.

    Not that I don’t enjoy some of those, but that’s all we had in 64, Sunshine, and the Galaxy games– nothing was indefinite, and if it wasn’t on a timer, then you were going no further than the end of the level with it. I rather like being able to bring certain items with me and see how they can be applied elsewhere.

  4. “The tragic litmus test of this medium: If a video game isn’t colorful and cartoonish, it’s most likely about stabbing people in the neck and therefore not appropriate for all ages.”

    I really hate how true this is in gaming these days, especially with how much more common the M-rated murderfests are now. People are always mocking Nintendo for being kiddie, but at least they’re more willing to make games for a wider audience, you know?

    I know Betheseda doesn’t give half a shit about Nintendo, but if they really want to be the so-called “Pixar of gaming” (Goddammit Betheseda…), they better start taking notes on how to appeal to a wider demographic from Nintendo, because the huge deal with Pixar is that they know how to appeal to everyone. No matter how good they might be, knifing people in the throat and open world games taking place in shithole medieval/post-apocalyptic worlds aren’t exactly family friendly.

    Anyway, while I’m not counting on it, I’m hoping the Xbox One and PS4 will see some more (hopefully good) games in the E to E-10+ range, besides the usual game system avatars/cartoon license/sports & racing stuff. I don’t mind a good M-rated game now and then (I really like Bayonetta, Just Cause 2, Bioshock, and the Fallouts), but the less sighing when I’m browsing the digital shop, the better.

  5. This is a complete off topic, but I feel the need to report that I had missed your articles for what, almost two weeks now, and all because you have pinned that Anatomy of Super Mario for sale entry at the top of the page… I came here daily, found the same headline every time and thought you hadn´t written anything new! Today I finally scrolled down and found out the truth… And there was a good hour of happy reading to get up to date!
    I was following your articles on USgamer so I knew you were writing almost daily, but was confounded by the absence of updates here… I wonder if that had some influence in the traffic drop you mentioned?

  6. Jeremy, your situation with having to pause your Mario session for Knack reminds me of my experience with Okami. I had just started playing it right before the Wii was released and Twilight Sword came out. I had to put Okami on hold, but found that after playing through Zelda, I couldn’t get back into Okami. This was mainly because the Okami design borrowed so heavily from Zelda, but just wasn’t as good as it. Okami also lacked any of the Kamiya technical gameplay I loved from DMC and Viewtiful Joe, so there was nothing left for me to go back to. Sadly I have never finished Okami because of that.

    Sorry, for the off topic babbling.

Comments are closed.