When you think of a video game, and more specifically the word “Gameplay,” what jumps out at you? What aspect, mechanic, or “thing” about gameplay makes a game good? For me, that’s easy.
Now I’ve harped on this for god knows how long. I’ve talked about gameplay in 3D games in one of my earlier videos, and how so many developers all throughout the 6th and 7th generation of consoles didn’t understand how to make a character move in a 3D space. Instead of focusing on movement controls that felt “smooth” and “grounded,” they’d instead focus on realism and over-animations. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. No. I’m actually here to talk about a franchise that’s so big, so universal, and so iconic; and yet, for me, does the simplest thing, wrong. Okay, maybe “wrong” is too harsh a word, but for me at least, not what I expect out of this franchise. And of course, that’s Mario.
Now before you all go ranting on about how incredible our short, over-all rocking, mustached plumber is; just hear me out. And realize that this is MY opinion. Mine. Not yours. Mine. Miiiiinee. And if you agree with it, great! If you don’t, totally fine. We can be adults and have different opinions, yet still get along, right? Right? No. Yeah, okay.
So we all know Mario. He’s the dude that jumps on things and has been risking his life for almost a century just to end up being friend-zoned by Peach. I love the Mario games. Even though I grew up as a Sega and Playstation kid, I’d go over to my friends’ house and play Super Mario World, and then Super Mario 64, and so on. I always thought that from a level design, enemy design, music, sound, and concept of every mainline platformer, Mario was impeccable. There was such a beautiful consistency between titles, and yet each new title felt fresh. Every game had a sand stage, ice stage, lava stage; but every game did something different within those same levels. And that’s what Nintendo are such masters in doing; which is why they’ve been able to make so many of these goddamn games and yet have fans coming back for more.
But even as a kid I felt that there was something wrong with these games. Not the levels, not the design, not the concept. But something with the controls. At first I thought my friend just had a crappy controller that had input lag, but it wasn’t that. But since it wasn’t my console, I couldn’t really invest my time into figuring out what the issue was. Years later I bought my first Nintendo home console, the Wii. When I bought Super Mario Galaxy on it I was blown away. My 14 year old mind couldn’t take it. It was a game like nothing else I’d ever seen before. It was magical. For the longest time that game was my all time favourite. And then my relationship with Nintendo, and video games in general kinda drifted away. It happens to everyone. School, life, relationships, heartbreak, overly-dramatic suicidal thoughts, come in the way of our favourite hobbies. But a few years later my love for video games came back with a vengeance. And when it did; I’d realized that I had missed so much. So between 2015 and now, I’ve played god knows how many games. It’s easily in the hundreds if not nearing a thousand. Playing everything from new releases to classics. And a few months ago, I purchased a Wii from a guy on Craigslist for 30 bucks, since I had given away my old one to my little cousin. And with it I bought Super Mario Galaxy 2. I hadn’t been this excited to play a game in years. Even though Mass Effect 2 had taken Super Mario Galaxy’s place as my all time favourite, I was quite ready to take it off its long held pedestal, for Super Mario Galaxy 2. And when I started it, I was smiling ear to ear, hearing those classic tunes, and sounds. Hearing my Wiimote trickle whenever I grabbed a star bit. It was great. And then…I moved Mario. And as soon as I flicked my analogue stick to do so, I felt it. I felt that same something, that felt odd. Something looked odd.
You have to understand I was no longer the 14 year old boy with hopes and dreams, and sparkles in my eyes. I’m an experienced mid 20s man who’s seen some shit, and who’s eyes are now filled with doubt and cynicism. Plus I’d played about half the games ever released since, and had been writing about games for some time, and so had a bit more understanding about how a game should feel. Honestly, I can pick up a game now, and as soon as I move my character; I’ll know if the game is good. That’s how important movement controls for me are. When I first moved Samus in Super Metroid, I knew that this game was going to be good. The first time I moved Link in A Link Between Worlds? Same thing. It’s why the Assassins Creed games for me, are average at best. Because they don’t have the fundamentals down. You gotta be thinking like Tim Duncan when you’re making a game. Now of course, that doesn’t mean that a game with subpar movement controls, or gameplay and/or combat mechanics in general can’t be great. I actually love Assassins Creed 2. The Last of Us and the Witcher 3 are some of my favourite games of all time. Mass Effect 2, my favourite game, doesn’t have perfect gameplay. But when it comes to Mario. A sheer platformer. A game that’s entire essence and being relies on running and jumping; that’s when there’s a problem.
I gave the example of Mega Man X in my previous video of a 2D game that nails gameplay. And it does. It’s the simplest relationship between pressing the button on your controller and how that translates to your characters actions on screen. And the communication between the two should be instant, quick, and flawless.
There shouldn’t be wasted animations, or wasted delays.
I press right on the d pad. Mega Man goes right. And his movements are precise and instant. To give you an example, refer to the video above and skip ahead a few minutes where I’m going to show you the difference between 3 games and what I mean when it comes to movement controls, and character fluidity. But before you do, let me point out that yes, I am using an emulator and a wired Dualshock 4 to test this out. But before you go on and say, “oh you didn’t play it on the original consoles” blahblahblah; relax; I actually was at a local retro video game store, and asked the owner if I could test out both Mega Man X and Super Mario World on their SNES. He was kind enough to allow me to do so, and I actually compared it to how it felt on my emulator, and there was no difference. If anything it felt better on the emulator. But regardless of input lag or whatever, you’ll notice that the comparison that I’m making actually has all to do with the games and design themselves, rather than the set up playing them.
Now the original Super Mario played similar to later iterations of the franchise, but it didn’t have nearly the amount of “floatiness” and over-animations that World has. And this my friends, is what kills every Mario game from me.
And it may seem like the most stupid, nitpicky, BS thing to complain about; but again,
for a franchise that relies solely on players making Mario jump and run; it’s vital.
Now, at least in the older games, this issue was very miniscule, and only an idiot like me would be bothered by it so much. But when you take this and translate it into a 3D space; that’s where you go wrong. From 64, to Sunshine, to especially Galaxy, this issue of moving Mario, and the lack of “stickiness” in the way he controls; is what ruined the experience for me in these games.
And at least in games like 64, Sunshine, and even the newer titles like 3D Land and World were simply in a 3D space and had only a Z axis added to it. Galaxy had a fucking Z, Y, 94.5 QFM axis where you could go all over the fucking place. And this “floatiness” that I keep coming back to is easily the worst in Galaxy and Galaxy 2. Couple that with an absolute horrendous camera, and you have yourself the worst way to die in a video game – unintentionally falling to your death. Every time I jumped from platform to platform, there was always a moment of uncertainty. “Did I hold the jump button too long?” “Did I not hold it long enough?” “What if Mario lands, then skids for two steps and falls off?” These are not questions that I should be having about a platformer. I should know EXACTLY how my character moves.
Now is Mario the worst when it comes to movement controls? Hell no. Nowhere close. And again, I love all these games. I still hold Galaxy 2 as one of the best games every created from a design, and concept point of view. And there are plenty of games that do this so much worse. Little Big Planet, every Ubisoft game, even many classic sidescrollers struggled with this. The only reason Mario gets a whole video about it is because well…it’s Mario. We hold these games as the epitome of platformers. We hold Super Mario World as one of the greatest games ever made. Same with Galaxy. But this little, but in my opinion, the most essential, part of game design falls short for me across most of this franchise’s games. And I’ve always noticed it early on as a kid, but never was able to put my finger on it.
So what are your thoughts? And boy I’m sure you have some. Let us know in the comments below!