Saturday, March 25, 2017

On Super Mario Run

If you've played 2D platformers a fair amount, chances are you've come across an auto-scrolling level. In these levels, the window of the world that you are viewing on the screen moves at it's own speed, meaning you have limited time to make and act on your decisions. The goal of these levels is to ratchet up the pressure and make a more intense level and to add more challenge to a level that would otherwise be easy. These levels can either be great or terrible. I'd bet if you have a least favorite Mario level, it's an auto-scrolling level.

If you've put a lot of time into a particular Mario game, then chance are there are levels where you can enter into a state of flow, where all you have to do is run forward and you're able to time your jumps to weave your way through strings of coins, avoid hazards, and bounce of the head of enemies. Achieving this is one of the most enjoyable experience that I've had playing games, and if you've experienced it I'm sure you'll agree. It's the same goal that speedrunner look for, uninterrupted forward momentum.

Super Mario Run's design is closer to the former, but manages to achieve the feeling of the latter.

If you're not familiar, in Super Mario Run Mario is always running and you can only control when Mario jumps. There is nuance to the control, pressing your screen for longer will allow him to jump higher, and tapping again while in midair makes him do a spin that halts his descent and extends the jump. You can also jump off of walls.

This, combined with some other mechanics, allows Mario to elegantly chain bounce off of enemies, through strings of coins, and achieve that desired that of flow relatively easily. Super Mario Run gives you the thing that you've wanted from Mario games without asking for the hours of dedication that others have asked for before. Add to this the 3 difficulty levels of coin hunts as optional objectives for each level and you've got a game with depth enough that's kept me playing it pretty near constantly since it came out for Android three days ago.

While many people have really liked Super Mario Run, some are frustrated that it's not a traditional Mario experience (they do acknowledge that they understand why it can't be a traditional Mario game), but I've particularly enjoyed it because it's NOT a traditional 2D Mario game. Frankly, if I want to play a traditional Mario game, there's tons of them to choose from, even some I haven't played. Super Mario Run has offered me something new, which if they were to offer to me again for some of the stages in the next 2D Mario game, I'd be excited.

P.S. There are other feature in the game, such as the Toad Rally and the Kingdom Builder. These aren't very exciting or interesting and feel like designs from a period when they may have been flirting with a more micro-transaction oriented revenue model. However, their existence doesn't detract from the main gameplay experience, except when the tutorial takes your time to explain them to you.

Friday, March 17, 2017

On Breath of the Wild

I awoke in a strange tomb, filled with machines that were alien to me. A voice that I didn't recognize and whose source I couldn't identify begged me forward. I exited the tomb to find a world that was not only alien to me, but ruined and hostile. This world I was tasked with saving, and save that world I did. Along the way I helped people out in small ways, finding ingredient for their cooking or taking pictures for them, and in big ways, stopping beasts that threatened their homes or saving them from attacking creatures, and I recovered my memories along the way.

It had been 100 years since the times that I remembered, and all but a few that I cared about were long dead. I stopped my training and preparations short to finish the mission by destroying Ganon and saving Princess Zelda. Afterwards I went back out into the land I now remembered was known as Hyrule to continue finding the ancient shrines that granted me strength and to continue doing what I knew how to do, help people. I helped a man build a town from nothing and find a wife. I showed weapons to a child who had heard about them from his now gone grandfather and who desperately wanted to see them himself. I helped so many people it became hard to find more people who needed help. I found some men tearing down an abandoned house down and bought it for myself. I invested in that house, made it nice, made it my own. I settled down. Hyrule is safe, I hope.

I finished Breath of the Wild this week for the most part. I beat the game, all the shrines, and the side quests. I still have some unupgraded armor and some side tasks that aren't tracked that I haven't done, but I've done the things that I really care about. Truth be told I don't have a lot of experience with open world games. Prior to BotW I guess you could say the last ones I played was Metal Gear Solid V and Shadow of Mordor though Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is more similar to BotW. I'd say that the closest experience that I've had to Breath of the Wild would be World of Warcraft. They both really capture a feeling of exploration, especially during the my early time playing the WoW in the base game and its Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions.

The Legend of Zelda series of games is one that's near and dear to my heart. If you take the original game's release date of Feb 21, 1986 and do the time conversion to American Central Time, my birth was only a handful of hours off. Like Link, I'm also left-handed (though that's changed for Link since motion controls) and I have pointy ears. I saw people play the first two Zelda games but the first one I really got to dig into and beat for myself was A Link to the Past. I've been hooked ever since and now that I have Breath of the Wild done, all I need to do is wrap up my playthrough of Majora's Mask and I'll have completed every canonical Legend of Zelda game, console and handheld.

Running out of significant things to do in Breath of the Wild has been bittersweet. I've loved the game immensely and I've been glad to do everything that I've done and am sad to have run out of major things to do. If the game would let me I'd gladly cross the great canyon that separates Hyrule from the rest of the world to the north and west or drive a sand seal through the Gerudo Desert to parts unknown.

It was so amazing to play a game, not just a Zelda game, that pushes you out into the world and says "Go where you want. Here's your goals, but I'm not going to stop you from doing what you want to do." There are entire zones that aren't necessary to any of the main quests. This is very different from the previous entry Skyward Sword which was very structured/linear. Like many people I enjoyed Skyward Sword but I didn't finish it until a year or more later because I just wasn't drawn to it. I've been consumed by Breath of the Wild for the past week and a half and I really think that's because it's really earned being called an adventure game. You quest and explore and are HEROIC. It's truly amazing to not know exactly how to get somewhere or what you'll encounter along the way.

One of the recurring complaints about Breath of the Wild has been w/ the durability system they added for weapons and shields. While it is frustrating for a great piece of gear to break, it creates a tension and adds a layer of strategy to the battles that I really enjoy. It adds value and strategy by forcing you to consider what weapon you want to use against a particular enemy and making you make sure you have a good spread of weapons for the enemies that you're encountering. Finally breaking out the weapon you've been saving for a special occasion or an enemy that's just pissed you off is incredibly satisfying. All they really needed was a nicer UI for dropping/exchanging items.

The oddest thing is that I don't know if I'd want a Breath of the Wild 2. The Zelda games generally have the same rough story/map, it'd be too much if they had the same gameplay as well. For a mechanical successor to BotW to succeed it's going to need to take place somewhere new or have a different story archetype. Even if there's never another Zelda that I love as much as Breath of the Wild I'll still be incredibly happy. They've done something incredibly magical with it that was the Zelda game that I wasn't even aware was the one I've always wanted.