Tag Archives: Mario

Games as Art – Part 2

27 Jan

The Discerning Consumer

In explaining why the gaming press fails to separate those games with a more artistic nature, it led me to us, the players, and our role in shaping the industry. With the press doing nothing to tell us which games are really special, it falls to the consumer. Unfortunately, gamers are, as a group, not exactly discerning. We probably buy far too many games, and still the more interesting ones are ignored. The marketing of certain releases is obviously a big influence, yet we don’t generally go out of our way, as a film buff would, to actually learn what is really good. And how are we expected to when the games a vocal minority of gamers cry out for are simply given the same, or worse review scores as those which permeate the consciousness through advertising and media coverage. It is rare that a smaller budget, or more artistic game is previewed extensively, and games thrive on the hype machine, aided by the internet and rabid fanboy-ism. Gamers are, to pigeonhole, ‘nerds’ and as such, cling to certain franchises as horror fans do (Someone kill the man who made ‘Saw’- preferably in an ironically over elaborate trap). The ‘hardcore’ audience simply demands more sequels, or even remakes from their developer or publisher of choice. The smaller community, if it even exists, who want games to transcend these stereotypes are largely ignored, it is far easier to make money from a core consumer base that will support even a substandard product.

It’s usually developers and publishers who suffer the criticism of the vocal minority, but that seems rather reductionist. Gamers need to point the finger in some other directions. I’ve already mentioned the gaming press, but more so – at themselves. The publishers are merely satisfying the incredible demand of the majority of consumers, the same way movie, book and music companies do. In that sense, the gaming press serves a similar function, they are populist, they offer a product which praises across the board, for a variety of reasons, because there are many reasons we play games, as there are many reasons we go to the movies or read a novel. As I said in the previous article, games have not been separated as other media have. There are trashy novels, to be read on holidays or for a light read before bed, and there is literature, which is to be savoured, debated and reflected upon. In gaming terms, we consume and reflect on everything. Call of Duty (I think it’s fair I single this series out, but it’s not alone) is simply a ‘holiday read’ or ‘popcorn movie’ but it is debated ad infinitum, along with Halo, Battlefield and every other major release. The problem is the subject of these debates.

Gamers don’t look at their hobby the way a film buff does. They pore over technical details, differences between consoles, graphics, frames per second and every other aspect of the coding. Content is last on the list of priorities and story has only recently become a strong focus, but only as far as looking to generic Hollywood action movies for inspiration. I’m sorry, but Uncharted 2 is just not that good, it’s another generic cover shooter with a slightly more interesting exploding background. It’s not that there’s no place for that kind of thing, I enjoy a simple distraction from the existential dilemma of modern life as much as the next man, but I often want more from my entertainment, I want to think and be challenged. Games very, very rarely do that. What young game designer, who has creative and intelligent ideas, has a chance to use them in an industry so dominated by large publishers, huge budgets and worst of all, an audience that rewards mediocrity and repetition. Did we really need another Assassin’s Creed game this year? Yes, the sequel was an improvement on the original, but maybe the developers would have been better off spending far more time crafting a third instalment which was a huge improvement over the second, which told a new story in a new way. The critical praise and consumer reaction to Assassin’s Creed 2 however, meant that the publishers wanted to strike while the iron was hot, and build a franchise. There’s more profit to be made now, and into the future as things stand in gaming, from franchise-building, which has become the goal for publishers.

Gamers should celebrate the original, the new IP, but we stick with the brand we trust. Magazines don’t drop review scores even if the sequel is almost identical, and we continue to give money away for a few more tries at something we enjoyed, in absence of guaranteed fun from a brand we don’t know. This incredible lack of trust in a new commodity has led to countless iterations of the most tired of formulas. Final Fantasy may change its story and characters in each new game, but the brand remains, despite the game being unrecognisable to those who remember its heyday. The franchise has changed, but utterly failed to innovate, and that remains true for most of the industry. Mediocre games which achieve even moderate success garner sequels. Was it really necessary to give us another ‘Kane and Lynch’? Well, yes, of course it was, the gaming public never tires of shooting people. Even Rockstar, when attempting to create a game set in the Old American West, an entirely admirable change from the greys and browns of urban grime or warfare, chose to resurrect an IP most had no knowledge of. Pointless, but they surely had their reasons to do so, and it boils down to the importance of brand recognition in generating interest. Even an obscure brand is more valuable than an entirely new entity.

If we want to see games challenge other art forms and establish themselves as worthy, then we need to change the way we approach the industry. Firstly, buying every major release, or most of them, is an exercise in futility, they’re mostly the same as each other, and most of those which offer something different end up being clones of other games. How many versions of God of War have appeared since Kratos first ripped the head off a mythical beast? And God of War is derivative itself, it’s just a more polished scrolling fighter. If sequels, imitations and remakes stopped selling as well as they do, then developers would be forced to push the envelope and create something more unique. This in turn would increase competition to provide the most originality and creativity, to offer something different, be it story or gameplay, and to innovate rather than imitate. It is through this that we might see more artistic games. We also need to stop clinging to our precious franchises. Yes, the characters might be ones we like, but seeing them in their seventh game is simply absurd. I’m not quite as critical of Nintendo for this however, they do attempt to create a new Mario or Metroid experience somewhat regularly, and while say, Mario 64, Sunshine and Galaxy share similar core mechanics, they are vastly different games. There is a good reason why Nintendo continue to compel a new audience, and it is quality and imagination, not the same game over and over.

The backlash over Metroid: Other M is an interesting example of the problems with how we approach our hobby. Metroid Prime had three games in its series, it had run its course after adding the innovation of Wii controls. Nintendo wisely moved the franchise, which they know makes them more money than a new IP, that’s the market reality, to a new developer. (As much as I’d like to see a whole new game, setting and character, Nintendo do have to make money.)This was a disappointment for many fans, but do we need a fourth Metroid Prime game? Yes, Team Ninja changed some of the main character’s traits and personality, but they also made something different, and that should be commended, and Nintendo praised for taking a risk when every other company is content to offer the same thing in a different box. We, as consumers, even those of us who consider ourselves informed, are failing to reward intelligence and innovation, and the backlash against us has begun as the games we play have become more bland than ever. Thank goodness for the downloadable games of XBLA and PSN, where some wonderfully original titles like the beautiful and poignant ‘Flower’ or the unsettling ‘Limbo’ can be found. The problem however, is that without marketing from the companies, without reviews and press reflecting it, and without gamers making the effort to seek it out, imagination will always be trumped by the safety of the familiar, and this will inevitably lead to the continued lack of respect games receive in the artistic pantheon.

Advertisements

Super Mario All Stars 25th Anniversary Edition Impressions

20 Jan

Nintendo are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their most famous character in style, with a special edition of both the Wii and DS already on store shelves, and now ‘Super Mario All Stars: 25th Anniversary Edition’ available. Being a sucker for all things Nintendo, I picked up a copy, to go with my 25th anniversary Wii. How could I go wrong, it’s four of my (and everyone’s) favourite games, in a collector’s edition box with a CD and a book. Sounds like a really nice package.
To be blunt, it’s a tremendous disappointment. I knew it probably would be by the time I ordered it, but went ahead anyway, as I’m sure a huge amount of Nintendo fans will. It is a very pretty box, vaguely reminiscent of an NES box, which is a nice touch, and it’ll look good on a shelf, but chances are it’s going to remain there, gathering dust. The problem is that the contents are negligible, there’s nothing to get excited about, even for the hardcore collector. It’s hard to justify paying the €30 price tag for something so lacklustre, and it’s disappointing to see Nintendo miss an opportunity to really offer something special to the fans who’ve followed them over the years.

The biggest issue is the dearth of new content, there is absolutely nothing new about the game. When this was originally announced I was expecting the NES games re-released with the graphics of New Super Mario Bros. What this is though, is the SNES edition of All Stars on a disc. That’s it. It’s not even the version that includes Super Mario World. Without a graphical update, and with games that can be bought for less on Nintendo’s similarly disenchanting Virtual Console, why bother to repackage them at all? The target market for this, I can only assume, is older fans of Nintendo, the younger audience have Galaxy and New Super Mario to keep them amused, but the older players who might want this probably have a copy of All Stars on the SNES already, or the NES cartridges. It would have been so easy to make the package something really great, one disc could easily hold Super Mario World and Mario 64 as well as the NES games, maybe even Sunshine too, which would have made for a more complete Mario collection. Even if Donkey Kong had been thrown in that would have been something to be happy about.

The booklet chronicles, very briefly, the history of Super Mario, and is actually quite nice, but severely lacking in content. It’s basically the size of a game manual, and fits in a game case the same way. It only serves to perplex that the Mario timeline is covered completely, yet only four games made the package. I can obviously see why the Wii Mario games aren’t there, but at least the games up to Mario 64 should be. There is some interesting artwork, and contributions from Shigeru Miyamoto, Koji Kondo and Takashi Tezuka, but they only have a sentence per game, and it would have been great to read more of their thoughts on the development of each title. A DVD featuring them and some additional discussion, or even a short documentary would have been even better. The book is nice enough, I suppose, and seeing pictures of level design blueprints and some watercolour versions of concept art is interesting, but it could have been so much more.

The last part of the package is a 20 track soundtrack CD, and this is where it gets really poor for me. There has been so much great music over the years in the Mario games, so many recognisable themes, but only 10 make it to the CD. That’s one from each game in the Mario canon, other than 2, if you’re counting. That really is a miserable effort on Nintendo’s part, especially with how easy it would have been to add a few more tracks. There isn’t even some profit to be made off what’s left out, as there would be with the games. Instead of more music there are 10 additional tracks of Mario sounds, including such classics as the coin sound, 1-up sound and Game Over music. Order now and we’ll throw in a free hotplate. Please allow… Sorry, lost track of things for a second, that’s how amazed I am by the absolutely bizarre soundtrack. I’ll give it some credit, the music is memorable, and it’s fun to put it on shuffle and hear songs punctuated by the sounds of the classic games, but that’s not really the point here.

In sum, it’s a fairly poor effort by Nintendo to commemorate the anniversary of one of popular cultures most enduring icons, amounting to little more than a shameless cash-in. Nintendo’s marketing department really do know the appeal of the plumber in red and blue, and this is pure profit for them. I’m not going to let it dispel the magic of Mario of course, once the game itself goes on all is forgiven, very little tops the NES Mario games, but I would be loathe to recommend this to anyone, no matter how big a Nintendo fan they may be. If it had been packed in with the red anniversary Wii then it would have been a great extra, but the two never should have been sold separately, there’s far too little here to justify the price, and long-time Nintendo fans deserve a lot better than this.

As an aside, there is one part of the package I adored, the photo on the cover of the soundtrack case (see below). It’s just an NES, with a copy of Super Mario Bros. running on screen in the background, out of focus, but its stark simplicity is a wonderful reminder of an era of simple, elegant and innocent games, far from the realistic depictions of violence and war we see today. It encapsulates everything great about classic games like Mario, and is by some distance the best thing about Mario All Stars 25th Anniversary Edition.

D6ZZEX3WXH8B