Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mario VERSUS Luigi: Character select in platformers. A duologue.

at 5:53 PM
Duologue. Diatribe. Dissension. Declamation. Double Talk. Double Talk. It's alllll talk. So is this feature, captured from some of the secret email archives of co-bloggers Greg (Yourself) and Greg (Golem).

Golem: So, I was thinking about what I might use to write a hefty email, and character distinction in Super Mario 3D World kept bugging me. I dunno how much of this is me repeating myself from the other night, but hey, it's worthwhile to get it written down. None of this is a specific rebuttal to what you said the other night.

In Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Tails and Knuckles offer platforming abilities far beyond Sonic's. The huge, sprawling levels offer plenty of opportunities for areas that only Tails can access, other areas that only Knuckles can access, and some they can both reach that Sonic can't.

I don't know how familiar you are with Sonic 3 & Knuckles, so you may have to take some of this on faith.

I wouldn't call that a particularly shallow system, especially since Sonic 3 & Knuckles often blends in paths naturally. Even when it's something dopey like a wall that only Knuckles can break, the path beyond A) explores a new space of the level map that you may have imagined exploring and B) sticks to the assets and general design sensibilities of the stage. (That latter point is a frightening discussion unto itself, but I think for the purposes of this email, we can gloss over that.)

But mechanically speaking, I think it's a copout compared to something like Super Mario Bros. 2. That is, I mean to compare the low-level rhythm of gameplay, the feel of each individual jump. Sonic 3 & Knuckles' system offers greater possibilities in terms of overall level exploration and uncovering entire new areas.

Anyway, every time you separate characters into their own unique stage segments, that's one less chance for a comparison. If you get a part that requires Knuckles so you can glide over pits, you'll never know what it's like to carry Sonic through that section (you'll have two different sections and only one way to experience each). On the other hand, if you have a tough platforming segment with Sonic, you might remark to yourself that Knuckles would sure be helpful (one section that has two different experiences).

And that leads to a lot of neat strategery in Super Mario Bros. 2. 1-2 has a difficult cave portion where Snifits corner you as you try to blast open walls. One option is to take Toad, who's built for combat--not like you need to make big jumps in the cave anyway. Or, you could take Luigi; if you're skilled, you can bypass that cave section entirely by jumping to the top of a tall hill. Anyone can play that part, but the character you choose will cast the same stage design in a different light.

There are neat moments of character comparison in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and Super Mario Bros. 2 does feature character-specific paths. I just mean to compare their overall demeanor. Can I use the word "demeanor" like that?

So, in general, I like to have a way to cheese a situation and a skilled way to approach a situation. That's as opposed to something binary, either you can do a segment or you can't.

And I think that fits Super Mario 3D World's overall arcadey mentality. Something like Sonic 3 & Knuckles or Super Mario 64 is built for hanging out and poking around. Super Mario 3D World, on the other hand, has stages built around a single path. The interesting part isn't how you explore, it's in the mechanics of experiencing that path.

You also get character-relevant puzzles, but they're not character-dependent. So, that green star might be easier to grab with Peach, and recognizing as much is solving a puzzle. Figuring out how to get there with Mario is another puzzle.

3D World does have moments where you can only collect something if you have the right powerup, but that's a matter of skill rather than character choice. They'll always give you the necessary powerup in the level, too.

If all the character-specific switches in 3D World lead to stamps, and none to green stars, that would fall in line with my reading. I have no idea if that's the case.

On that note, it's worth saying that my points about Super Mario 3D World are in theory. A better writer would have examples: here's one green star that suggests the use of one character and provides challenge for another, something like that. Not only has it been like two weeks since 3D World came out, but given the game's size and range (see: the Super Mario Galaxies), I don't know that I'll ever have a great grasp on it.

[So we had a bit of an offline discussion about how many games actually have a character select, particularly platformers featuring exploration, and particularly ones that don't allow swapping on the fly. The answer we came up with is that we don't know a ton :( . Super Mario Bros. 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles are not a particularly common model - if you think about it, the primary games starring character selection are fighters/racers/shoot-em-ups/brawlers/etc. Those adventurier games that do allow character selection, like a few from the late Castlevania and Mega Man series or Ganbare Goemon, usually have completely scripted differences in campaigns (a la Resident Evil) or superficial or action-only distinctions between characters.

Nonetheless, the conversation on SMB2 and S&K3 is valid and in keeping with the original lead-in, Super Mario 3D World]

Yourself: What it sounds like you like about Super Mario Bros. 2 is that it's a platformer with a weapon select; your 'weapons' here being the characters' physical attributes. I suppose what leads me to make that wholly semantic distinction is the notion that there are really two skill-sets at play in a game that includes both action and exploration, one for each type of gameplay. In as simple a platformer as Sonic 3 & Knuckles or SMB2, those skill-sets are comprised of the same abilities, but still applied differently - Knuckles' glide may allow him to safely swoop over a boss or cross a gap to a new section of a level that Sonic can't reach. Anyway, I liken the selection of an action skill-set to a weapon select because, really, isn't that the same thing you see in a Gradius or a Gunstar Heroes or an Earth Defense Force 2017? The pre-determination of a set of functional capabilities?

You say of Super Mario Bros. 2: "the character you choose will cast the same stage design in a different light". I find that to be a somewhat optimistic way of looking at things. For instance, the aforementioned cave from 1-2 - it really doesn't feel like it's made to be played as any character BUT Toad/Mario. Sure Luigi can make it through, but his skills don't offer any benefits - in fact, his high jump just kind of gets in the way, causing him to bump into the ceiling and making Snifit bullets harder to dodge, and his slow pick-up speed makes the bombs more tedious to deal with. I suppose that's "a different light", but to me that light seems to be revealing that that part of the level is meant for a different character - similar to the way 4-1 (Lakitu stage) of Super Mario Bros. is suited to the Fire Flower, even though it can certainly be survived without. I see how Luigi's version is different, but it's not totally clear to me how it's rewarding (it's slow and awkward to time).

I'm not saying this is a universal syndrome or that I have a problem with that, simply that my impression of the game is that it vacillates between generic-enough-to-play-the-same-with-every-character and character-specific segments, such that I don't think it really is so much more complex than "pick the character you like best, and occasionally switch to someone specific for a particular segment". There are subtly variant experiences and plenty of parts that do play uniquely interesting with all four, and there's certainly nothing to dictate that you must have a favorite character, i.e. that you can't equally enjoy playing with all four, but I've never found nearly enough variation in the bread-and-butter gameplay between characters to make it feel any more like four games in one than Pokemon Red is 1.1390625e+13 (150^6) in one.

Bearing that in mind, neither Super Mario Bros. 2 nor Super Mario 3D World is purely an action game. There is exploration and (light) puzzle-solving to be done as well, thus the characters' exploratory skill-sets come into play when I'm making a selection. In fact, in Super Mario 3D World my choice is dictated almost entirely by how I'm looking to play the game. While the characters are largely balanced, the heavy use of scrolling and mobile and rhythmic obstacles, like the Train levels, the gate level [fill the number in later], and the rolling tiles in Star-2 certainly suggest faster characters for better scores and play times. With that on top of the tendency for Green Stars and Stamps to be hidden past high and long jumps, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to designate Mario and Toad as the action characters and Luigi and Peach as the explorers. So, playing with that understanding, I don't even really need to be on the lookout for Luigi- or Peach-specific puzzles - I can just plow through the fun-runs with Toad and not worry about missing a Star, knowing that when I go back with Peach I'll have a much easier time grabbing it anyway. 

I don't think I've come across any (or enough to remember) "puzzles" complex enough that they demand character-specific solutions (yeah, Peach can cheese a lot of stuff, but so can anyone with a Raccoon suit) - the game has not broken my general Mario mentality of playing stages once for challenge and once for completion - the difference here is that I have different characters suited for each play-through. That's really nice - since I'm still going for completion on every run, I get to see multiple variations on the action and on the puzzles. But again, I don't think the game provides a compelling argument to play every stage with every character. And that's not even touching on the fact that a larger number of the levels are built around equalizing mechanics like the boost pads and beep-boop blocks that essentially nullify character benefits. 

GolemThat got me thinking; one key difference between Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario 3D World is the sense of platforming. I notice fewer bottomless pits in Super Mario 3D World, lessening the importance of someone like Peach. On top of that, verticality isn't played up as much, either--after all, judging how tall something is in 3D World is harder than in 2D. So, I might pick Luigi in Super Mario Bros. 2 if one level has those plants that shoot fire straight up, since he'd be able to jump over the fire. I don't think I ever have trouble jumping over anything in Super Mario 3D World. In all, the size of my jumps is less important for regular old action, meaning it (pretty much) only holds relevance when I'm exploring. That's on top of the other gestures that even out character attributes that you mentioned, such as powerups and boost pads.

So, when it comes to something like Super Mario Bros. 2, I think you don't give "subtly variant experiences" enough credit. Assuming you enjoy the game enough to play all the way through four times, it's neat that the characters tweak that experience. It's not an entirely new game, but I gain a new appreciation for old challenges. So far, in Super Mario 3D World, I've struggled to find enough subtle variance to care. These days, I'm usually just picking Mario because I can't find something to care about in the other characters. (Rosalina aside, who opens up new attack possibilities.) Granted, that's working alongside my general fatigue with the game, so I'm already biased against it.

But it sounds like you'd say the game is fairly balanced between action and exploration? You have one approach to the stage where you just clear it, and another where you collect everything, so it sounds like you pick from Mario/Toad just as often as Luigi/Peach.

YourselfWhen it comes to a mechanic though, is it fair to presume you enjoy the game enough to play all the way through four times? I'm not even sure I agree with the unpleasantly specific thesis, "if you like SMB2, you'll love playing through as all four characters! If you don't like SMB2, you won't!" Given the presumption that one likes the game enough to play it multiple times, the proclivity still exists for a player to pick the same character that felt best the first time. That's typically how I end up playing any given game - as you said, we're assuming I'm already motivated by other factors to replay, so I don't tend to re-evaluate the character selection process. If I decided I liked Mario for 3-1 the first time, there was probably a reason I made that decision, so I'm likely to stick with Mario for 3-1 the second time. 

I think the issue we've been skirting is simply a difference in the way you and I play games. We both enjoy gameplay that encourages experimentation, and selection is an explicit mechanic through which a game can facilitate tomfoolery. I think the conversation on SMB2 has pretty clearly illustrated the two sides of the issue - your approach, to uniquely combine skills with challenges to gradually uncover more information about every individual part of the game, and mine, to try to solve the puzzle of which selection maxes some metric for each situation and then to put together the solutions to form a grand picture of the game. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the way you think about it is: "what is Mario's version of the game like? How does it compare to Toadstool's?" Whereas I think about "which parts of the game belong to Luigi? Which are played as Toad?" Don't get me wrong, I'm not coming out in support of the Sonic 3 & Knuckles / World of Illusion approach, where there are portions of the stage ONLY accessible by a single character, because figuring out which parts I like to play as whom - solving that puzzle - is entirely why I like character select. But that rarely involves actually playing all the parts with all the characters.

Back to 3D World - I think we both land in the same place, that for the purported experimental avenue that the character select provides, there aren't enough original rewards to reap from the levels to justify exploring it. No to your latter question, I wouldn't say 3D World is anywhere even close to balanced between action and exploration. As I said, I still go for completion on every run, even the "action" run, and the game is so light on puzzles/exploration that I usually do get the 100% on that Mario/Toad attempt. It's only maybe a quarter of the time that I find myself dropping to the Luigi/Peach pool for a collection rerun. It's a slightly different kind of play-though, but one that I only experience on a small fraction of the levels.

GolemThat's a succinct way to put it--that is, "what's X's version of the game like?" versus "which parts of the game belongs to X?" You know, using X reminds me that that's what X4 versus X5 is like. Putting aside the question of whether or not one would actually want to play X5, you get character selection on a per-level basis because some levels work better with a ranged weapon, while others feel better with a strong melee move.

Is the conclusion that Super Mario 3D World's characters ultimately satisfy no one? I mean, I'd take it over New Super Mario Bros' character selection any day, but they aren't different enough, and the stages don't do much to evoke their differences. On the other hand, if you're building a game for four-player coop, I can see why you wouldn't want the characters to stray too far from one another.

YourselfYeah. The conclusion is that it's a game that's made for co-op, so going too out-of-bounds for an interesting single-player character would've made it a hassle to play. I'll give them that co-op is fun, and that given more balanced stage design - a Super Mario Galaxy 2, if you will - I think the differentiation between action and exploratory characters would be sufficiently interesting. Of course, the portioning and flow of levels in Galaxy 2 vs. 3D World is an entirely different conversation... and one we almost had instead of this one, had I fired off my half-completed opening email before yours on character select.

It figures you would bring up X4/X5 - this conversation actually made me want to go back and replay them. I always enjoyed the distinction between X and Zero in X4, feeling like it really was two different games, but never got a feel for it in X5. 

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