The Mario seduction

One of the core tenets in my highly positive review of New Super Mario Bros. Wii is that much of the game’s success is the result of Nintendo’s brilliant balance between challenge and accessibility, using the seamless single- and multiplayer level design convergence to provide a game that’s as enjoyable for experienced gamers as it is for novices. Much of my “reference material” for this opinion was a few hours spent working through a cooperative session with my fiancée Cat, whose relationship with games is one of bemused tolerance. I pay our rent writing about them, so she’s OK with their existence, but she doesn’t have any particular interest in playing them. From time to time she’ll try whatever it is I’ve been playing through out of curiosity, but after an hour or two she’ll grow bored and hand back the controller.

NSMB Wii, however, has proven itself to be something of a gateway addiction for her. Once the game launched, we played with Cat’s cousin and her cousin’s fiance. I left my copy of the game at the cousin’s place, because she’s been feeling lousy lately and needs whatever distractions she can find (and it did the trick; when when we went back over a few days later, they roped us into helping them through the final stage), and I figured Cat wouldn’t care. But I was mistaken, and much to my surprise she wanted to play more. So I gave her my copy of New Super Mario Bros. for DS, which she powered through over the course of a couple of weeks. I’d help from time to time, which usually consisted of her getting stuck at a tricky part for an hour or two, then handing the system to me and feeling frustrated that I could breeze past those sticking points on my first try, when they’d caused her so much trouble.

The weird duality of the original NSMB made me appreciate what the sequel does all the more. Long-time Mario fans almost universally agree that the DS game is ludicrously easy; the only real challenge for us comes in earning all those big coins. Yet for someone new to platformers — Cat’s frame of reference for games consists of things like Q*Bert, Lode Runner, and Pac-Man, games that well predate the standards of platforming established by Super Mario Bros. — NSMB is almost impossibly tricky in places. It’s sold insanely well, sure, but I think most of NSMB’s success can be attributed to its brand and the fact that classic-style platformers are in fact a legitimately different form of gaming than their 3D offspring and people still enjoy playing them, despite what publishers seem to have arbitrarily decided a decade ago. NSMB Wii is simply a better-designed game all around, and its accomplishments are all the more impressive the more I contextualize them. It really should be impossible to create a platformer that satisfies the lust for challenge endemic to fans of classic platformers yet which also allows a new player to ease in and feel comfortable, yet NMSB Wii does precisely that.

So far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t just make it a great game; it also makes it the embodiment of everything this entire console generation aspires to: Bridging the divide between dedicated gamers and those who take a more (sorry, I can’t think of a better word) casual approach. Nintendo’s been more overt about it, but even the AAA blockbuster games on other platforms have succeeded largely on their ability to cater to both audiences. Look at Assassin’s Creed, which looks gorgeous and has lots of traditional videogame conceits, but also practically plays itself. Look at Halo, which turned the first-person shooter into a sequence of forgiving, bite-sized encounters with streamlined controls, health systems, and weapon mechanics. Look at how eagerly Microsoft and Sony are pursuing motion controls as some sort of silver bullet to fend off the evil werewolf that is Nintendo. NSMB Wii spans this divide, and it make the effort look painless and incidental. It’s a masterpiece, and I’m disappointed that so many reviewers focused on the fact that NSMB Wii’s control mechanics and visual language are familiar and well-explored, because I think they failed to see just what the game truly accomplishes. So it goes. We gamers tend to develop tunnel vision sometimes, and it’s easy to be blindsided by something that achieves greatness in unconventional ways. I’m kind of lucky that my better half doesn’t give a fat slap about this entire medium; it keeps me on my toes.

Meanwhile, I really need to get my copy of the game back. Not that Cat cares. After making it to the final level of NSMB on DS (and finally giving up after being unable to beat that stage in hours and hours of play), she decided to try out Super Mario Bros. 3 (she doesn’t like the physics) and Mario World (which she likes, but finds dauntingly difficult). I suggested Super Mario Galaxy, which — after a few hours adjusting to the concept of playing truly 3D space — she adores. I figured she’d appreciate that the 3D Mario games are like a playground full of things to do as opposed to the regimented obstacle course of the 2D installments, and I was right. She was actually excited when I told her there’d be a sequel to Galaxy out in a few months, which really surprised me.

We’ll make a game fan of her yet, and all thanks to NSMB Wii. If that’s not a sign that Nintendo got it right, I can’t imagine what would be.

16 thoughts on “The Mario seduction

  1. This made me smile, as does NSMB Wii. Having not played a new Nintendo game since 2007, it was great to see they haven’t lost that magic.

  2. I roped my roommate into playing NSMB Wii with me. He used to like video games but hasn’t played one since Mario 3 (it was neat seeing someone react to Yoshi for the first time, pretty much the same way I did with World). Now he plays it more than I do, by himself and with his girlfriend, who had to be taught how to play from scratch. The wall-jump, triple jump and spin-to-grab-extra-air-jump are still this crazy voodoo only I can do, but he’s starting to understand them. He even had a video game dream the other night, which is evidence of going native if ever I saw it. I’m going to see if Galaxy resonates with him at all.

  3. After whining about games for this entire generation (it feels like the “Micheal Bay” era of gaming, with box-office arguing and everything), NSMB Wii is really like, to quote an old church hymn, heaven came down and glory touched my soul. I was very excited for the announcement at E3, but playing it there left me with more questions (was this designed with multiplayer in mind?) although the demo was fun even with strangers. I’m happy it turned out to be as beautiful from all angles as it is. Today’s 8 year olds will remember this game like we remember to beat world 1 to get the p-wing for the auto-scrolling airship level in world 8.

  4. Heh. Funny how my biggest complaint about the NSMB games are that the physics are such a departure from the Mario 3 / World standard.

    But I knew there was a demand for 2D platformers the moment the trailer for the game came up in a movie theatre – might have been our first official date, come to think of it – and half of the 20s and 30s in the audience went “oooooh.” For most people born between 1974 and 1984, those types of games are video gaming, period. It’s just a shame that it took Nintendo (and more recently Capcom) so long to come back around to that point.

  5. My wife plays some games from time to time. I picked NSMB Wii up day one so we could play with our son. I figured we’d play a bit as a family the first day and then my son and I could occasionally rope my wife in for a session every couple of weeks. A few hours after we took a break on that first day, it was my wife who suggested we should play again. We’ve been going strong ever since, almost daily. Now we’re gathering all of the big coins and having a blast.

  6. My girlfriend is the same way, but I really wish they’d put an option in to have infinite lives – she only stops enjoying the game when it won’t let her play anymore.

  7. Calories, just suck up your pride and suicide when she’s out of lives. You’ll jump back in to the halfway point of the current level once you return (assuming you made it that far), and she’ll have five fresh lives. It’s no real burden for anyone who’s really adept at the game, and it lets less proficient players jump back into the action.

  8. Yeah, I’m impressed at how a lot of nongaming people I know like it. The only glaring problem I found is that on their own, moms aren’t actually able to earn the extra 4 lives they need to lose before super guide activates.

  9. The easiest way to get around the limited lives for inexperienced players point is to just go to world 2 (I forget which level specifically…2-3? The dark one inside the pyramid) and do the koopa on the steps trick until you have 99 lives for each player. Easy peasy.

  10. Now, I’m not complaining about the fact that I have a girlfriend who loves games just as much as I do, it’s just cute for me to see such an opposite look at my experience with this game.

    See, I’m not the biggest fan of multiplayer. I like it in small chunks and in person as a distraction from being sociable at parties like music games of today or, back in the N64 era, the Goldeneye get togethers, but that’s about it. Meanwhile, my girlfriend likes to bug me about playing games with her. Before it was LittleBigPlanet, which I found to be really cumbersome with a second person. While I was excited for NSMBWii (If not a little cautious, see NSMBDS), I figured it would be the same thing with its multiplayer. A lot of the reviews and such made me feel that justified, saying multiplayer was more of a hectic and delightful novelty, so I kinda dreaded the idea of playing with her.

    Surprise, NSMBWii is actually very 2 Player friendly, and it also helped that while LBP was kinda strange and foreign, me and her seem to be perfectly great synchronized Mario players. So it turned out that my being curmudgeony about multiplayer actually turned into a pretty good bonding experience. Oh, and hey: it helped that this is the game I wanted the first NSMB to be, too.

  11. I’ve actually had a similiar experience with the game through my roommates. I’m a gaming enthusiast through and through–I own all 3 consoles, play every big release (via Gamefly), and spend my Friday nights alone with a controller. Anyway, my roommates never do so much as glance at the TV. I always thought it was only females (I’m sexist, I know) who are so daunted by 3D, but all 3 of my roommates grew up playing 2D videogames and never got past it except for maybe Goldeneye/Mario 64. Somehow, Uncharted 2 is boring but they’ve been playing NSMBWii obsessively–they have been trying to get every star coin. Perhaps its just nostalgia, the aesthetic, or the gameplay but it’s hard to tell what magic makes a Nintendo game work with so many.

    BTW, I hope you do your year end reflection posts like you did last year.

  12. Pinsof, if there is one thing to learn from both this website and the recent success of Nintendo, it’s that many of the things that were fun 20 years ago can still be fun today and some of the things created for fun today just don’t have the same appeal that those older styles had. It’s not that the new is bad, not in any way, but that doesn’t change the classics.

  13. That’s awesome that you turned her on to Galaxy.

    As great as New Super Mario Bros. Wii is I still love the crazy inventiveness of Galaxy even more. If NSMBWii is a gateway drug to Galaxy for people then that makes me very happy.

  14. And if your significant other is enjoying games a bit too much, you can always sabotage that by playing co-op and tossing her off the screen. Just to let her, you know, KNOW.

    I love NSMBWii.

  15. One of my new gamer friends tried New SMB Wii today. He’s fantastic at Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and so on. But he didn’t care for Mario. Who knows? Not even classic platformers are for everyone.

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