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Saturday
May272006

New Super Mario Brothers

Unfortunately, I have to give the New Super Mario Brothers (DS) a 7.9 rating out of 10. My first impression, like pretty much everyone else, was somewhere around 9.5. The game has *great* presentation and plays as well as ever.

 Mario has a million game mechanics now. Really huge mario, really tiny mario, wall slide, wall jump, butt stomp, floating after jumping on springboards, diving from the float, ability to carry springboards, sidling on ledges, tightrope walking and jumping, one way floors, one way doors, turtle shell Mario, and so on and so on. All sounds great so far.

I have three main criticisms. First, I do not like the philosophy behind the secrets in this game. Every level has 3 large secret coins to find (sounds good), but the methods used to hide these coins are just not up to par. They are similar to the methods used in Donkey Kong Country 1, rather than the much better DKC2. NSMB has far too many cases where you really have no way of knowing if you should have done this or that thing to get to the coin, then you see you guessed wrong and now you must do the level over to get it. Even DKC2 had some of this with the forced-advancing levels, but NSMB has tons of it. I got really tired of seeing that I rode the wrong platform or whatever, and realizing I'd have to restart the level to get the secret coin I just passed. Secrets should encourage exploration, not constant restarting. DKC2 remains the best platform game at hiding secrets.

Not liking the methods used to hide secrets might not seem like a big deal, but it is in fact the central goal of the player. I take the entire goal of the game to find these secrets, so if they are about a 7.9/10 fun to find, then that's unfortunate.

Second, the emphasis on pits that kill you. Yes, the original Super Mario Brothers has lots of pits that kill you, but we're not in the 1980s anymore. Dying and doing the level over and over is a dated mechanic, and I expected NSMB above all other games to show us that. Unfortuantely it doesn't and is full of those familiar instant death pits, the concept of lives, and restarting levels. Just like God of War shows that a game is fun when dying makes you repeat as little of the level as possible, NSMB *should* have showed us that platform games are about exploring to find secrets, rather than lots of instant-death pits.

I can imagine some people disagreeing with my second point, but there is really no excuse for the third: you can't save anywhere! The only times you can save the game are when you beat a castle for the first time (end of world), beat a tower for the first time (middle of world), or pay secret coins to open a mushroom house. This is really, really bad.

For example, let's say that i just finished a level and got 1 of thd 3 secret coins because I jumped down the wrong shaft to get this coin or killed the only turtle that could be used to get the other one, or whatever. Then I play the level again and accidentally fall into a pit of instant death and die. Then I play it again and fall into some other instant death pit. Then I play it again and die again and again, because that's what happens in this game. Ok, I finally get the other two secret coins, yay! Now I repeat that entire process on the next level. Now I feel like playing some sudoku on Brain Age or my girlfriend wants to play Nintendogs. But NSMB won't let me save the game! I have to beat a tower or a caslte or spend coins on a mushroom house (which I probably wanted to save for some specific use).

One year, Shigeru Miyamoto was kind enough to appear at the Game Developers Conference and give a keynote lecture about game design. I still think about that lecture. In it, he said the #1 rule of game design is "When you press the jump button, the character should jump." He isn't kidding. In the original Tomb Raider, you don't jump when you press the jump button. Instead, you jump the next time that your running animation reaches the point in your stride where jumping would "look good." You should jump when you PRESS the jump button. He's really talking about having responsive controls in general, and doing stuff like having a basic attack come out when the button is released or something, as opposed to pressed.

Anyway, it's a great rule that reminds about responsive controls. Here's my proposal for rule #2 of game design: the player should be able to save the game anywhere! There is nothing so important in a game that it should decide it gets to supercede the player's real life needs to go do something else or play another game, or whatever. In NSMB, an example way to handle this would be to allow the player to save the game in the pause menu at any time. It wouldn't have to save your position in a level or the state of enemies in the level or anything so fancy. The only thing that really matters is if you finished the level or not, and which secret coins you found on the level.

In fact, they even have a mechanic in place already that would prevent you from getting the coins in a way the designers didn't intend. There are some coins you can get by jumping into a pit or something and getting the coin on the way down just before you die. Interesting to note that you don't actually get the coin until a couple seconds after you touch it, because it has to fall down to the coin holder on the bottom screen. So even if you got a coin, paused the game and saved right before you died in the pit, you wouldn't really have the coin. That's fine because you weren't SUPPOSED to jump into the pit to get the coin. The real puzzle was to do some certain jump or throw a turtle shell at it or whatever, and adding this save feature wouldn't diminish that.

Anyway, the game is fun and great looking and all that. Secrets should have been hidden much better, the game should have graduated from the 1980 idea of instant-death pits everywhere, and there is really no excuse at all for the save system. Believe me, I wanted to give this thing a 9.5 as much as anyone else.

--Sirlin

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