Wednesday, June 09, 2010
Every time a new Super Mario game comes out, I approach it breathlessly, and spend the first few hours in a reverie, jumping and climbing and squashing mushrooms with abandon. In 25 years and countless iterations, something core to the Super Mario experience hasn't changed. Playing Super Mario Galaxy 2, which I reviewed for this week's Phoenix, isn't a nostalgia trip as much as it seems to unify a lifetime of gaming into a single moment. It's like playing games was when I was a kid; it's like playing games will be when I am old. It almost exists outside the normal progression of games.
That sounds like high praise, doesn't it? And it is, in a sense, and probably the sort of sentiment that has earned Super Mario Galaxy 2 a Metacritic score of 98, one of the highest ever. I can't say the reviews are wrong, as though I feel like we'd played a different game. Galaxy 2 is a playground through which a few basic gameplay principles are applied rigorously and with increasing ingenuity. This is virtual play in its purest form. I get that.
I just don't want to play any more. After the first few hours, the sugar rush wears off. I find myself trying over and over to acquire new stars, failing over and over again until the fun is gone and it's become a grim sort of attrition. Galaxy 2 hands out extra lives like breath mints at a chain restaurant, so it's rare that a single challenge results in a game over screen. But, in a way, it's almost worse to have 20 tries or more to get something right, when it stopped being enjoyable after the fifth try. I can't give up now! I've got 15 more tries to get this star!
Why am I trying to get more stars? So I can get more stars, of course. Lots of games use feedback loops like this, successfully, but here it's unadorned. I have a hard time imagining the player who truly desires to save the princess. Finding her is secondary, maybe even tertiary, to the ultimate goal of mastering a hostile game world.
Galaxy 2 does have lots of sights and sounds that I want to experience, but I don't want to have to earn it in blood. Ultimately, I don't play games to be good at them. These days I can't imagine why else I would play a Super Mario game. It's not that Galaxy 2 is the hardest game I've ever played, it's that there's no other factor compelling me forward -- no story, no moments of serendipitous delight, nothing but the next looming challenge.
The biggest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist, and the biggest trick Nintendo ever pulled was convincing the world that Mario games were easy breezy fun. They are hardcore.