At first blush, New Super Mario Bros Wii appears to be a gaming dinosaur that has somehow survived the turn of the century. In a world world where experience points and character customization are to be found in games as disparate as Modern Warfare and Dragon Age, Mario's character customization is as shallow as the two dimensions he inhabits. In terms of game design, many modern platformers aspire to eschew tradition: The recent Prince of Persia embraced the open-world format and LittleBigPlanet's emphasis on user-generated content gave the keys to the kingdom to the player. Mario remains set in his ways: levels begin on the left and end on the right, and survival is the only measure of victory.
Despite this rigidity, NSMBW excels in demonstrating just how much agency players have in crafting personalized experiences. Because of their out-of-game history and in-game choices, every player leaves digital fingerprints in the games they play. NSMBW's design coats our fingers with ink and shows us how players to leave their personal marks on even the least malleable games.
I started thinking about this while listening to a Gamers With Jobs podcast in which Sean Andrich asked the crew whether they all played Mario with the "B" (or in the case of NSMBW the "1") button perpetually pressed. "Pshaw!" I scoffed to nobody in particular, "What kind of panicked, hyperactive lemur would run at all times?"
Evidently, the world is populated with more panicked, hyperactive lemurs than I originally suspected: The GWJ crew quickly came to a consensus that Mario has places to be and things to see, and therefore must sprint at every opportunity. It dawned on me that, even though we were all playing the same game, our individual play styles were providing highly differentiated experiences within a very structured rule set. This new game was not just giving me a new Mario experience, it was inspiring me to explore the plurality of "Mario experiences."
In typical Nintendo fashion, NSMBW's major innovation stems from a simple concept. NSMBW not only lets multiple players traipse through a course simultaneously, it does so without trying to neuter the chaos of such an undertaking. In LittleBigPlanet, players must take deliberate action in order to interact with one another: a slap or a grab is only executed when the player presses a button. In NSMBW, player interaction is a fact, rather than a choice. Bouncing on each others' heads, knocking people off small platforms, and even accidentally bumping into one another while running are exciting, hilarious ways to harass your friends, but they are also unavoidable parts of the game. Each player is a fully-realized entity in the game world, which means everyone must adapt to everyone's play style in order to succeed.
The need to understand your fellow players (whether the ultimate aim is to help them or hurt them) gives rise to impromptu in-game anthropological and sociological studies. Some players feel the need to vanquish every goomba, while others are content to live and let live. The courses contain enough variety to facilitate people who are comfortable on platforms and those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground. An aerialist might spend the majority of the game using a propeller hat to float over obstacles, while a melee-oriented player would fight through the trenches (or pipes) armed with a trusty fire-flower. For some people, Mario is a game about hoarding. Even if I already have an ice-flower, something inside compels me to grab an extra whenever I see (an impulse that threatens to destroy my relationships with friends and loved ones).
It is rare that personal gaming quirks are so readily displayed. Because everyone shares the same screen and the same play space, individual flair and little habits suddenly become apparent. For example, Jorge tends to favor the ground-pound move. Even when sliding down a simple hill, I'd notice him perform flip and a pound to start things off. As for me, I find that I have a habit to do a lot of maneuvering mid-jump. There are plenty of times when I make a jump to the right and, after a fitful spurt of mid-air indecision, land facing left. On the other hand, watching the experts' videos proves that the potential for astounding economy of movement is just as real as chaotic flailing. Be they substantial or cosmetic, distinctive play styles mirror the contours on the fingertips from which they spring forth.
Viewed another way, one could argue that Playing NSMBW with others is simulation of the Mushroom Kingdom's multiverse. Each player is constrained by certain rules, but each person catches a glimpse of "what could have been" via the actions of their fellow players. What would happen if I compulsively broke every block? Should I wait for that bomb to explode before jumping? How would the level have worked had I chosen that penguin suit? Through a combination of the game's rules and the players' agency, we can look outside of our digital selves to sneak a peek at what could have been and what always was. Although I would never do such a thing, there exists a world in which Yoshi is continually abandoned over a bottomless pit. NSMBW allows me to play in that world.
Players have always left their fingerprints on the games they play, and these alternate play-worlds have always existed. New Super Mario Bros. Wii provides a means by which to explore the often-obscure variety that can be found in single-player, largely linear games.
However, make no mistake about it: Just because you are a beautiful, unique snowflake doesn't mean I won't laugh as I throw you into the lava.