Here’s a quick test: does the phrase “Nintendo Hard” mean anything to you? If you’re a gamer that hails from the golden age of gaming then even if you’ve never heard the term before you can probably figure out what it means. The term refers to a time when game designers deliberately made games hard in order to extend the time you spent playing them as budgets were far more limited back then and creating content is never a cheap endeavor. For me whenever I hear those words the first game that comes to mind is Battletoads, a game so difficult that I don’t think I found anyone who had finished it, despite many of us owning it. This extended into many other games and it wasn’t until recently, within the last 15 years or so, that this trend started to abate with games seemingly becoming progressively easier.
Indeed the sentiment seems shared by nearly all gamers who began their playing careers within the past decade or so. This isn’t to say we can’t find games that challenge us, more that the average skill level required to complete most games is well below that than what we used to expect. This is almost universally seen as a bad thing as it feels like the games industry is being dumbed down in favor of a wider audience. Whilst most of the evidence that is used to back this is up is purely anecdotal there has been some evidence from third party sources that has helped to fuel this fire:
“It may come as a shock to some of you that most gamers today cannot finish the original Super Mario Brothers game on the Famicom,” he said. “We have conducted this test over the past few years to see how difficult we should make our games and have found that the number of people unable to finish the first level is steadily increasing.”
At this point, a whopping 90% of participants couldn’t finish the level. (We presume that means they used up their few available lives before having to restart the game.)
He also noted that most didn’t understand basic game mechanics such as the run button, or that coins are to be collected and aren’t enemies, or the concept of a bottomless pit. About 70% died at the first enemy, and half of those died at that same spot twice.
At first glance this seems to be pretty damning as Mario is a game that is as fundamental as it gets, even when compared to current day indie titles that are incredibly stripped back. Probably the most interesting piece of information there was the upward trend in those who couldn’t complete it which falls in line with the gaming is getting easier narrative. Initially I took this information at face value but after thinking about it more I think there’s a lot more at play here than games simply getting easier.
If you take the past 5 years of games and compare them to the same games from a decade previous there’d be a distinct difference in the makeup of the genres, styles and mechanics that made them up. Indeed one of the games that’s seen the most innovation is the platformer and back when Mario was first around they were by far the most common type of game. Today it’s far more likely that a new gamer has grown up on a steady diet of AAA FPS games like Call of Duty or 3rd person action adventure games like Tomb Raider. Not being able to complete Mario 1-1 means doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on today’s gamers, more it highlights a lack of domain knowledge that your run of the mill gamer just won’t have today. You can see that by some of the comments that those gamers made in the article I quoted, namely them wanting Mario to be armed.
It does highlight one particular aspect of gaming that wasn’t necessarily considered fundamental until recently: the tutorial. Now it’s easy to argue that Mario 1-1 contains all the necessary visual clues to teach you how to play it, and I’d agree with you to a point, however tutorials like those are far more effective when your game utilizes the current gaming norms. Due to the wide breadth of game genres now available to gamers today tutorials are almost a necessity as it’s nigh on impossible to rely on current game norms to carry players through it. This is especially true when most of today’s games will try to include some form of unique mechanic to distinguish themselves from the crowd, something which you probably wouldn’t be able to just figure out on your own.
So instead of using Mario 1-1 as a benchmark I’d argue that we’d probably need some kind of game mechanic simulator, one that incorporates all the fundamental ideas from the past 2 decades. With this you could see where their domain knowledge lies and then compare them against others who are similarly classified. I can imagine that someone who plays mostly indie platformers would do pretty well with Mario 1-1, but your FPS player would struggle. Over time you could then see if new gamers struggle with these fundamental mechanics instead of just testing their domain knowledge for a specific genre.
As for me, someone who’s played hundreds of games over the past 2.8 decades, the trend has most certainly been towards a more friendly experience for players should they choose it. Nearly all games come varying difficulty levels of which the easiest is usually aimed at those who’ve never played that kind of game before. The hardest however still provides a challenge to most gamers and there’s been a resurgence in Nintendo Hard games and difficulty levels for those who seek that next level of challenge. Essentially we’re seeing a much more diverse range of games and difficulty levels that accommodates a larger audience, something that the games industry should be praised for doing. Some might not like this, seeing it as the commoditization of the games industry (parts of which I agree with), but as someone who revels in sharing gaming with as many people as I can I can’t help but embrace it.
I’ve been gaming since I was able to summon up the hand-eye coordination required to mash the keyboard on my parent’s computers. Still it wasn’t until the original Nintendo Entertainment System came along circa 1987, although I think I got mine sometime in 1989, that I had my first experience with console games. My very first game on this new platform was of course Mario Brothers (combined with Duck Hunt, yeah!) and it provided many a good hour glued to the TV usually with my brother or friends from the neighbour close by. It would seem that the success of the Mario franchise made Nintendo drunk with power and every platform since the NES has had at least one Mario game amongst its launch titles. This wouldn’t really be a problem since they’ve done the same with their other lines of IP (the Link¹ series jumps to mind) but apart from graphics upgrades they’ve basically made the same gear for over 20 years.
At its heart the original Mario was just a generic platformer with an interesting set of characters that appealed to the demographic of the time. Indeed it still targets the younger demographic with its relatively fast paced gameplay, bright colour palette and little to no dialogue between the characters. The first few iterations of the Mario IP didn’t vary much from this baseline with the only things being changed were a few game mechanics (such as the Cape, the introduction of Yoshi, etc) and the addition of a world map. The Nintendo64 however mixed things up significantly.
Before the introduction of the N64 the only attempt at 3D graphics that had been made on previous Nintendo consoles was the StarFox IP and StuntraceFX (there might be others, but these are the only 2 I can remember). They were extremely simple and used little to no texturing at all. Primarily this was because the Super Nintendo really wasn’t designed to do 3D graphics at all, and as such all the rendering had to be done in software. The N64 on the other hand was built from the ground up to handle 3D, and the controller showed this proudly with its 360 degrees of motion joystick slapped right in the center of it. It would then follow that their flagship character would be redesigned to suit.
And, to be honest, he was. Despite the fact that the core game mechanic was essentially unchanged (an extra dimension doesn’t stop a jump puzzle from being a jump puzzle) the addition of the 3rd dimension was the first big change that Mario had seen since his first release almost a decade before. Super Mario 64 demonstrated quite aptly that Nintendo was quite capable of revamping old IP to take advantage of the latest technology. Well it at least seemed that way at the time.
The next few releases of Mario began to show some extremely strange behaviour from Nintendo. It would seem that there’s a strong desire to milk the Mario IP for all its worth whilst still trying to maintain a level credibility amongst the gaming community as revolutionary game designers. The next Mario game, released on the Nintendo DS, could be written off as a victim of the platform it was designed for. Super Mario Galaxy broke new ground with the gravity mechanic that lead to some amazing emergent gameplay and would’ve made a good game without the Mario IP backing it. New Super Mario Bros. Wii has no excuse however, and is a straight up rehash of Super Mario World with prettier graphics and some new mini-games. I played it for a good hour the other day and swore that one of the levels we were on was a direct rip from one of the older games, the level just had more pixels.
What is Nintendo playing at here? I can understand that using a popular IP is a sure fire way to make a popular game but save for technology changes that have forced Nintendo’s hand (and, to their credit, they stepped up to the challenge) they are quite happy to make the same game several times over. Had I not seen the blatant rip off that was the New Super Mario Bros Wii this post would’ve had a completely different tune to it, hailing the triumphs of Nintendo to progress significantly with the times. However releasing something that is comparable to a 20 year old platformer seems cheap and uninspired. If the rumours are anything to go by they’re going to do the same with Super Mario Galaxy 2, with the new additions including Yoshi (surprise surprise).
Despite all this angst I can’t deny the success that the Mario franchise has had. Their initial demographic has grown up and out of the genre and yet are still drawn to the Mario series. Still Nintendo is the only company to get away with this sort of invention for so long, with any competitor who attempts the same shot down as trite and un-original. Perhaps I don’t give them enough credit, it’s quite possible they’ve done the numbers on completely reinventing the Mario IP and the best scenario is to do exactly what they’re doing. The money trail certaintly agrees with them.
I guess in this world of almost infinite choice when it comes to games Mario becomes an easy target to harp on about being un-original, but that ignores that they’ve been doing this for so long. Whilst I don’t currently own a Nintendo console it doesn’t stop me from wanting one, even if just for the brief moments where I might slip back for a quick level or two with my old friend the Italian plumber.
¹After finishing this article I realised that if I replace all the Mario references to their Link counterparts the story still makes sense. In reality I could’ve harped on about both of them for much longer but the point is basically the same 🙂