Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frustration, Failure, and Intent in 'New Super Mario Bros. Wii'

At the risk of becoming a caricature of myself, my latest PopMatters post is about one of my favorite games of 2010: New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Specifically, it's about the game's difficulty.

Last month, Jorge wrote a thought provoking post about the shortfalls of Donkey Kong Country Returns' cooperative multiplayer. Jorge and I have known each other for a long time, which means we know exactly what to say in order to goad one another into action. Master troll that he is, Jorge suggested that perhaps cooperative multiplayer doesn't belong in 2D sidescrollers, and cited NSMBW as an example of a game that fails because its high difficulty can dishearten less skilled players.

On the subject of difficulty, we are in complete agreement: NSMBW is hard, and things only get trickier when more people are involved. However, I feel that the game's knack for pointing out player inequality isn't a sign of failure, but rather of success.

Like all Super Mario games, NSMBW doesn't coddle its players. The language used to describe its rules, its gameplay systems, and the stated philosophies of its designers make it clear that NSMBW is a game that demands players own up to their mistakes and find ways to either compensate for them or avoid them in the future.

Repeated player failures and punishing difficulty often point to problems with a game's design, but there are games in which these exact features are signs that that the experience is playing out as intended. NSMBW is difficult: it's harsh on mistakes, it can be cruel to new players, and it requires a high level of skill. These truths are not flaws, but strengths; NSMBW is an example of a game that realizes the intent besides its design philosophy. Unfortunately for some, said philosophy can be pretty brutal.


  1. OK, I think I can agree with most of that. I don't think 'NSMB' relates its difficulty to the player as clearly as you believe it does. Squishy and cute characters are deceiving, but whatever.

    Most interestingly, your statement "instead of leveling out gaps in skill, NSMBW forces players to negotiate the balance between helping less skilled players" brings up a significant question. Does Nintendo give players enough tools to foster this ideal player relationship? I understand wanting to shift culpability for a bad experience off Nintendo and onto players, specifically bad multiplayers. However, if Nintendo is making a relay race, they need to coach people how to play - especially because this style of multiplayer is not common. For a lot of gamers, they are just getting their feet wet into this play style. Nintendo should be more supportive.

  2. Hi guys,

    This comment is more related to your discussion of NSMBW in an old podcast and not about co-op. You discussed the difficulty of the game and noted that it would harm accessibility.

    I believe this is dead wrong and it is a very common fallacy. The game was a *massive* commercial success, which proves it was accessible, even while being difficult. The fact is that the mass gaming audience relishes a challenge and making games easier is a not necessarily the way to reach them. The list of best-selling games of all time is full of hard games, even when they are not "hardcore".

    2D Mario games are accessible because they have an immediacy in their controls and visual feedback that cannot be achieved by 3D platformers. This is part of their broad appeal and dying often isn't enough to cancel this out.

    Your discussions have got me to think new and interesting things, but you are often very far off the mark when it comes to sales (i.e. the appeal to most gamers). It would help to actually have a look at the sales figures once in a while before making statements around this.

  3. I think 'NSMB' wins as a single and maybe even two player game. I got it for xmas awhile back and got everyone in my family my older brother who is a nintendo pro and my mom and sister who have no back round in video games. For me it was kinda painful to watch them fall to their death so much because me and my brother would have to carry them even through the earlier levels. It was just a little hectic for them since there were so many players on the screen at the same time. Even though it was painful at times what nintendo does right with multiplayer is the sense of player relationship. In the end the game didn't matter but that fact that we were all brought together to have fun!