Wednesday, February 24, 2010

All's Fair in Love and Mario Bros.

This last weekend was Valentine's Day, and like most other people in relationships, I was celebrating the day in the usual fashion. My girlfriend and I exchanged cards, small gifts, had a romantic dinner at home, and even watched a fun romantic-comedy ("Hitch," at my suggestion). But while our Valentine's day likely mimicked many others around the country, there was one thing that made our evening unique:

We faced-off against Bowser.

We knew we would have to face him eventually. Well, at least I did. My girlfriend, never having seen a Mario game before this one, was less familiar with the typical tropes. The two of us enter Bowser's lair, well-stocked with extra lives and power-ups. They'll do us no good in the end, as this final dungeon would challenge us more than any other before it. We die again and again: sometimes lasting longer than before, but more often not.

Eventually, through our sheer determination, we reach New Super Mario Bros. equivalent to an oasis in the desert: a checkpoint. Behind a pair of ominous doors awaits our final challenge. We've beaten his minions, his dungeons, and even his children, but now it's time to face Big Daddy himself. It's been a long road for the two of us, but the end is finally in sight.

My girlfriend and I have spent our last few visits together plugging away at New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Appropriately, it was a game I received from her this Christmas: an almost last minute gift idea chosen because the two of us could play together. My girlfriend, although not much of a gamer herself, has often watched me while I'm playing videogames. Although this has made many of my single-player games into multiplayer experiences, I could see that she desperately wanted to play and share these experiences with me. If she could, my girlfriend would much rather be running through Hyrule at my side, cutting down plants and hording rupees, than sitting on the couch giving me orders like a general. We needed cooperative multiplayer, and NSMBW delivered it to us in spades. This is the reason the game went from completely off my radar to being my favorite game of 2009.

The reason New Super Mario Bros. has been such a standout game though isn't simply because it has a good multiplayer mode; it's because playing with another person feels so fundamental to the enjoyment of the game. When it was first announced as a four player cooperative game, I and many others assumed the worse: that the multiplayer was simply a feature tacked on to appeal to the "expanded" audience Nintendo has had so much success with. What's more, expectations were low concerning complexity of design. If this was indeed a game for the casual audience, it would make sense that the level design would be significantly simplified so as not to overwhelm less experienced gamers. Neither of these ended up being true, and in some ways, I almost feel like the game is more accessible - nay, easier - with the extra players.

With King Koopa in pursuit, my girlfriend makes a critical decision: she "bubbles" her character. This temporarily takes her out of the game, allowing me to move forward without worrying about her. Bowser is gaining on us, and perhaps she suspects that she's slowing us down. Whatever her reasons, I sit back and let my experience take over.

Having played through most of the Mario platformers growing, I can safely say that this is one of the most difficult Mario games in the series. Surprisingly so! Despite my experience with previous Mario titles, both my girlfriend and I were struggling in the beginning as we came to grips with the game's mechanics: she with the general physics as well as techniques for running and jumping, and I with the subtleties of wall-jumping, among others. And the design of the levels themselves are anything but simple. For instance, three collectible Star Coins are hidden in each level, and finding them all - not to mention collecting them - can often be a matter of observation, perseverance, and even blind luck.

Coordination is also key in New Super Mario Bros. As a game built with multiplayer in mind, it goads the players to talk with each other. Very rarely were my girlfriend and I not conversing about the game, with the possible exception being during certain difficult sections that required heavy concentration. More often than not, however, we were interacting. Sometimes it took the form of suggestions or even orders concerning what to do in a level. Sometimes it was encouragement when one or both of us hit a rough patch. Sometimes it even took the form of scolding, when one of us - usually me - had inadvertently caused the other person's death. And although it may be frustrating at times, the conversations were always in the lightest of spirits. The two of us were having fun, so what did it matter why we died. We'll just play through the level again.

But more than the interaction the game sparks, I love that Nintendo created a game that players of all skill levels can play and enjoy, and the multiplayer is a huge reason for that. Some of the level in NSMBW are so difficult that I can imagine a less-experienced gamer like my girlfriend becoming too frustrated and giving up. But because she has me playing with her, she can simply let me take over during a hard section and then pop back into the game when it's over. Similarly, death has less impact when multiple people are playing, becoming more akin to FPS spawning than the traditional death state typical of Mario games. Rather than have that hard death-state, as long as another player stay alive in the level, it's only a matter of seconds before the dead player re-spawns and can continue playing. So even if she's dying a lot, my girlfriend still has an opportunity to improve her abilities without waiting for me to die or finish the level.

I'm quickly learning why multiplayer is such a selling point for a lot of games. For many years, I undervalued it because my limited experience hadn't been too compelling. In the last couple of years though, I've had many opportunities to experience what multiplayer games have to offer, be they Team Fortress 2 or Marvel vs. Capcom. The ability to share gaming experiences, which can often be very individual, with not only friends and other gamers, but family and loved ones is not something I can put a price on. I might not recommend it for couple counseling, but it certainly has brought me and my girlfriend closer together.

In the end, we defeated Bowser together. And as I saw Mario once again get the girl (with Luigi, as my girlfriend pointed out - getting totally shafted), I couldn't help but see some parallels with my life. After all, I got the girl too; I just didn't need to save her from a gang of spiky turtles.

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