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.