Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Super Mario Galaxy: A breakup note

Last week we picked up Super Mario Galaxy. It has always been a private shame of mine that I never truly experienced Mario 64, despite all the accolades that it has garnered. Years ago, I played for the first level, enjoyed running about and marveling at the scenery. But then, as I recall, the game became impossibly difficult. Not for all people. Just for me. Completing precision jumps across lava filled 3D chasms while ominous monstrosities slobber at my heels is my own private form of hell.

The hot hookup
But Super Mario Galaxy has received universally great reviews; it maintains an ample 97.3% on It is also supposedly relatively easy to beat and the controls are dead simple, a stance in line with Nintendo's lovely new casual bent. So, what the heck. Targ├ęt, the local French emporium of stylish goods, had it on sale for 35 smackers. I figured I'd give it a shot.

So I plopped it in the Wii and sat through the drearily long intro movie. First impressions...the camera still sucks, but it is cool that you can tag the little star bits with the wiimote. Ooh, a spherical world. Wow, this camera really does suck! I'm suddenly navigating upside down and my head is cocked at a 90 degree angle. I barely know where my little dude is heading.

So I gamely struggle with the wonky interface up until the first black hole. I immediately drive my drunken Mario tank directly off the ledge into the hole's waiting maw. Boom, back at the beginning of the level I go. And I lose a life. Confusion sets in. Shouldn't there be like a quicksave or something that lets me try this dastardly trap again? Surely, a mistake made in a fraction of a second surely shouldn't be punished by a minute long replay penalty.

The frustration of not finding your soul mate
Oh, but it is. At this point I'm pissed. For me, the first hour of Super Mario Galaxy simply isn't any fun. It is stressful, irritating and it punishes me when I make the slightest mistake. And then it gets worse. I jumped from enjoying WiiSports to playing Super Mario Galaxy. The difference in expected play styles is quite the shock.
  • Time between failure and retry is too long: If you make a mistake, retrying again should only be less than 15 seconds away. Even a minute is too long. The easy levels of Knytt are just about right...3 to 10 seconds between retries. Something like Braid promises to be even better. Replay just as much as you need to.
  • Lack of dynamic difficulty: My wife died five times in a row trying to run around behind a giant tromping plant. How hard is it to reduce the difficulty level of an enemy if they end up blocking a player's progress? Make the monster tromp slower. Require fewer hits to kill. We build games in a one size fits all manner when the obvious reality is that there are lots of different types of players. Try to meet up half away instead of asking the player to do all the work.
  • Blocking linear challenges: Naturally, my wife quit the game after this repeated punishment. Classic burnout. Never block the player with a challenge that presents no option but continued failure. When the player is presented with challenge after challenge in a linear manner, eventually they get to one that they can't pass. Beating your head against such an obstacle is frustrating. Instead, let the player try something else. (Eventually you gain access to multiple galaxies at once, but not soon enough. Also most individual levels remain quite linear)
  • Too much of a focus on learning through failure and repetition: A good 80% of the levels teach the player new skills by killing them if they screw up. A player new to the 3D platformer genre is expected to rack up hundreds of deaths before they reach the end. Many areas require a half dozen or more attempts, each lasting minutes, before success is achieved. And this is fun?
If you fixed these things, it wouldn't be a Mario game
None of these problems are the fault of Super Mario Galaxy.
I'm playing the game incorrectly. My suggestions are like trying to improve a lover that isn't quite the right match. Mario is a game about all those things I want to fix. You see, when I play, my most happy moments are exploring and chatting with the little cute mushroom guys. All this jumping crap just gets in my way. But the point of Mario is the jumping crap.

Super Mario Galaxy is all about mastering physical skills. If you map out the skill atoms, everything relies on movement and timing. This is reptile brain stuff that is learned in one very simple manner: repetition. Remember, Karate Kid? Wax on, wax off. The game design is a slave to this biological requirement. If you want to encourage the player to master navigate a narrow path above a black hole, you need to force them to perform variations on that action a thousand times. Each failure improves our muscle memory a fraction more.

This is core of Mario:
  • Move accurately.
  • If you fail, you die and try again.
  • If you succeed, a new challenge appears where you must move with even greater accuracy.
There are of course some lovely exploration elements and cute graphics mixed in with the basic activiities. However, if you removed the core elements of timing and jumping, you wouldn't have a Mario platformer any longer.

It's not you, it's me
Sometimes, it is the player, not the design that is at fault. Somewhere along the way, I have diverged from the traditional gamer path. Those simple pleasures of twitching in sequence to bizarre spacial/temporal puzzles are lost on me. Instead of finding them fun, I find them to be obnoxious time wasters.

This goes back to the work of Chris Bateman, Nicole Lazzaro, Nicholas Lee and others exploring different play styles. Not all people enjoy the same sort of games. It's an obvious statement that is still making itself heard throughout the gaming ecosystem.

For example, on Nick Lee's motivation assessment test, I happen to score high on exploration and socializing tendencies, but don't really give a damn about in-game achievement.
  • I'll put up with fighting enemies or solving puzzles into order to see new vistas or get some coin to help outfitting my character. I'm not in it for the joy of the battle.
  • For a person like myself, Street Fighter is the single dumbest game of all time.
  • On the other hand, wandering about in Animal Crossing and planting sweet rows of pretty apple trees is pure crack.
With the advent of casual and indie games as well as the efforts on the DS and the Wii to broaden the market, I'm starting to see more games that I enjoy quite thoroughly. Games are beginning to finally emerge from their geeky, masochist roots and it delights me to no end.

I should have never listened to his advice
The rest of the ecoystem hasn't quite caught up. That 98% score for Super Mario Galaxy on is so horrendously polluted by a self-selection bias that it is laughable. What percentage of the reviewers fit any of the following criteria?
  • Never played a 3D platformer.
  • Mostly enjoy casual games like Bejeweled.
  • Prefer social board games like Pictionary or Scrabble.
That's a random smattering of non-hardcore play styles and skill levels present in the broader population. I suspect you'll find less than 5% of professional game reviewers fit any of those profiles. The quality signals sent by the extraordinarily biased press are completely inappropriate for anyone who hasn't been playing games as their primary hobby for the past five years.

What will it take for the game industry to adapt to the fact that different gamers like different games? I'm not sure that expert game reviewers, describing their personal tale about their unique experience with the game, have a place in telling most people which games they should play. It's like taking dating advice from a Guild Navigator, so loaded to the gills with the spice of genre addiction that they've mutated into an alien being.

For me, the solution is all about trying the game out before I purchase. This is an area where immense improvement is possible.
  • Customers need to learn to seek out demos. They also need to refuse to buy sight unseen the products that fail to offer a free trial. This is a culture change that will likely take years to complete. It is inevitable. People don't like making $40 mistakes.
  • Developers need to learn the fine art of making great demos. A great demo is a viral marketing engine that cuts out the middleman. They improve customer satisfaction and can improve the margin that a developer takes home. There is a huge opportunity here to merge the lessons of free-to-play service models with the mechanics found in current downloadable games. Unfortunately, building a demo that provides instant value, an incentive to purchase and makes users want to pass it on to others is a skill that is rarely found at most game development shops. We are seeing some early attempts on Xbox Live, the PS3 and the DS download stations, though at the moment, the demo is often a separate from the full version. As the concepts of 'free to play' and 'demo' begin to merge, developers will need to address this disconnect.
  • Platforms need to make demos the default method of promoting a game. If a game is released in the store, I should be able to download a demo online. If your platform doesn't encourage this for most games, your customers are being punished. Ideally, customers can purchase the game from within the trial. This is already the case for the casual download market and I expect it to spread quickly into other areas of the game market.
If Super Mario Galaxy had a demo, I would have tried it out and likely given it a pass.

If only I liked you...
In a way, all this makes me sad. There is an entire herd of twitchy game developers, trained for decades to worship fare like Mario Galaxy. They are out there, busting their beautiful balls to make more games that push the same exact psychological buttons as the pedestal lounging AAA titles of their childhood. They are building some great games, but those games aren't for me.

It's like meeting a girl who is cute and smart, but really, really likes the whole dressing up their boyfriend in black duct tape and then whipping them until they bleed from unmentionable orifices. You'll eventually back away, but there is always that slightest tinge of regret.

You'll find someone
This tale has a happy ending. My wife picked up the controller after I set it down in frustration. The last platformer that she played was Super Mario Bros on the original Famicom, but she figured, what the heck. She came back from being crushed by the first boss, read the walk through sites for tips and finally defeated him. From that point onward, she's been clocking in six to eight hours a day and just picked up her 60th star. She dies over and over again. The addiction and delight on her face when she ends a level is palpable. For her, the game clicks.

Perhaps after she's done, I'll pop into the levels she's already conquered and cherry pick the handful of experiences that fit my style of play. There is a beach level with a cannon and a lagoon. There isn't much there, but it is rather relaxing to hang out with the one scaredy crab (I kill off the hurtful ones) and taking the occasional lazy swim through the pristine waters.

Even universal acclaim is not enough to justify a purchase. Each player has their own distinct playing style and many of these preferences are rarely captured by the hardcore journalists who review most games. Instead of complaining about the game post-purchase, it is far better to grab a demo and experience it directly. This goes for even such gems as Super Mario Galaxy.

Happy New Year,

Updated 10:01AM, January 2nd: Clarified some of the minor bits and added a conclusion so that the main point isn't completely lost in the red haze that comes from hearing a heathen's encounter with the Holy One. :-)



  1. I agree completely. This was also my problem with the New Super Mario Bros (DS) which, as you mentioned, features all the standard Mario play.

    Beat the first castle? I can't even bring myself to REACH the first castle...

  2. [Due to Blogger's terrible commenting UI, I can't tell if this comment went through or not, so I'm posting it again...]

    Wow, this is a hard post to comment on, because I admire your work and respect your opinions, but in this case I mostly disagree.

    First, though, I do agree that game developers need to do a better job catering to different types of players. But I see Mario Galaxy as a positive example of this, in that it favors cuteness and a sense of wonder over brutality and "edginess". As a 43-year-old guy I'm so outside the target market for "Mature"-rated games (though I'm sure that as a teenager I would have found them bitchen.)

    You're right, though, that the game is a contest of manual dexterity and spatial orientation skills. Which have largely been synonymous with video gaming, and I must admit they're not everyone's cup of tea.

    But now here's where I have to disagree with you: Mario Galaxy deserves its high rating, because it's being rated in terms of what it is, a 3D platformer. Anyone using reviews as buying advice has to consider their own reactions to the genre, not just the scores bandied about. For example, I am not going to drop $50 on some "astonishing" Merlot that gets a 99 in the Wine Spectator ... because I really dislike big tanniny red wines. Nor do I want to watch "Reservoir Dogs", despite its classic status, because I hate that level of violence. And I won't play the recent "Metroid Prime" games, even though they sound amazing, because first-person shooters give me motion sickness.

    Some of your issues with the game, though they're perfectly valid as personal opinions, are not valid criticisms of the genre. For example, being able to respawn ten seconds away from where you died would make the goals so much less rewarding, because it would make them too easy. In a game where your character can die, the death has to mean something, has to take something away from you. That's frustrating, but it forms the crux of the challenge you're overcoming.

    It's fine if you don't like challenges like that in games, but taking them out of a platformer would (in general) fatally unbalance it. I could suggest "wouldn't this Merlot taste so much better if it didn't make the inside of my mouth all fuzzy?" but I'm sure Robert Parker would never invite me over again if I said that in his presence!

    (A suggestion: You might try playing "Paper Mario", which is currently available as a 'virtual console' download on the Wii. It's an RPG, with terrific dialog and fun stuff to explore. There's a bit of dexterity involved in the battles, since ducking at the right moment will help you dodge an attack, but far less than in a platform game. "Paper Mario" is my wife's favorite video game ever, and definitely in my top ten.)

  3. I loved Galaxy (see here and here, though obviously my thoughts on challenge in the latter one were too skewed to my own experience). But what you say reminds me of the way my daughter plays Super Mario Sunshine: she goes through a save of mine where I've unlocked all the levels, and wanders around in them, talks to people, jumps around, and just plain enjoys hanging out in the environments.

    Which is something you can do with Sunshine, but Galaxy isn't nearly as well suited for.

  4. You asked:

    "What percentage of the reviewers fit any of the following criteria?

    # Never played a 3D platformer.
    # Mostly enjoy casual games like Bejeweled.
    # Prefer social board games like Pictionary or Scrabble."

    and I find this an odd question to wonder about since none of those players were actually in Super Mario Galaxy's demographic (at least, I don't think they were). Why would someone who prefers Pictionary or Scrabble even own a Wii console in the first place?

    From your description of Animal Crossing I get the idea that it isn't really much of a game (in my opinion), which suggests I'm not their target demographic and is the reason I'm not telling everyone that it is the worst game ever.

    Despite the fact that I disagree with you for most of this article I do relent that the camera is dodgy, making it often hard to figure out where your jumping to, and also that the death-to-restart time is a bit long. Like you said, there is no reason to make the time any more than, say, 15 seconds.

    "It has always been a private shame of mine that I never truly experienced Mario 64" It shouldn't be a shame to you, after all, judging from the types of games you enjoy, Super Mario 64 is not something you'd like. After all, if you like social games, why would you play an action game? Not truly experiencing Mario 64 is probably for the best.

  5. Just to be clear, I'm in no way saying that Super Mario Galaxy is a bad platform game. All the evidence is that it is an amazing traditional platform game. It's just not for me.

    It would be great if simply classifying the title as a 'platform game' was enough to warn off potential casual purchasers. Yet, genre boundaries are flexible. Each games tries to tweak the formula and bring in a new batch of players. I love the game Knytt, which is a platform game. Should I have avoided it because I don't generally like platform games?

    All this leads me back to a 'try before you buy' philosophy.

    take care

  6. I find this interesting because IMO Mario Galaxy is a very easy game. Most console games I give up on fairly early because I don't have the patience and teenaged reflexes to master. The first Mario game I played was Sunshine which I found impossible.

    One possible explanation is that I've logged a lot of time on mouse controlled First Person Shooters that use a similar 2 handed move/point control scheme. Either that or you should just stick to bejeweled :)

  7. There was a demo for Super Mario Galaxy. Nintendo simply prefers the store kiosk delivery method to conveniences like internet downloads which, with it's 512 megabytes of memory, aren't really a viable option on the Wii.

    Why do you feel that demos in general are so far behind what you'd like them to be? Nintendo may be lagging behind when it comes to demos, but Sony and Microsoft have already achieved the goals of your try before you buy philosophy, and demos have been pervasive on the PC for years. Sony and Microsoft both offer free demo downloads through their online store interfaces. In the case of download only games like those on Xbox Live Arcade, demos are the primary method of promotion. Players are definitely playing these demos and using them to make purchase decisions. The recent Burnout demo generated so many comments that Criterion felt it necessary to respond on their website. Games like BioShock and Geometry wars, both of which released demos, have sold well which makes me believe that developers do know how to make effective demos. It seems like we're already in the state you see as being a long ways off.

    Even without the in store demo, I'm not sure why the reviews didn't give you a clear indication of how you would likely react to the game. Every Super Mario Galaxy review I read specifically stated that the game is based on Mario 64 and adds new mechanics (see: GameSpy, 1UP, GameSpot). If you describe Mario 64 as your own "private form of hell," why did you think you would enjoy Super Mario Galaxy after reading the reviews? If you hate roller coasters and your friend who loves them told you he thought that the new roller coaster at Six Flags was awesome, would you be convinced to try it for yourself?

  8. Wow, I'm amazed there haven't been more flames here. Have you culled them or is the commenting just starting?

    The guess the only thing I really wanted to say was while it's perfectly fine to not like platformers and therefore not like SMG and if you had stopped there there'd be little to comment on. But, you then go on to list things you think are wrong with it that clearly make you look like you haven't a clue about games.

    Mario is arguably, possibly proveably, the epitome of platforming.

    Dynamic difficulty? I'd say Mario has the perfect progression of difficulty and better than any other platform game out there. In one example, everything is taught before it's seriously needed.

    Dynamic difficulty one might argue fits into Jonathon Blow's social consequence issues. Dynamic difficulty teaches kids that they don't have to try. If they suck we'll magically make things easier. That might be a pretty insidious form of evil. Things don't get easier for you in the real world. You have just have to overcome them.

    Blocking linear challenges? Mario was the platformer that introduced non-linear platforming. At almost all times there are multiple levels open. If one is too hard try another. Even in the same level there are often multiple goals that can be accomplished at the same time.

    Too much focus on failure and repetition? Mario far more than most platformers generally doesn't kill the player in wrongful ways. Examples: There is no place in a mario game where you have to have X hit points just to survive. Some crappy platformer will for example require you to have 5 hitpoints to pass some point in the game because you are forced to take 4 points of damage.

    There are few if any leaps of faith.

    There are few of any ambigous collisions. Characters and backgrounds are designed first with interactivity in mind, second with visual style. So, compared to crappy platformers there are no fancy graphics like tree roots or lush bumpy hillsides that look nice but which have invisible walls around them because there was no way to make the character fully interact with that level of graphic detail. Instead, Mario goes for consistancy. If it's in the game you can interact with it 100%.

    And finally, isn't that how the real world works most of the time? Did you do all your school work right the first time or did after getting it right through practice you felt good about your accomplishment? How about some sports activity, even if it was dodge ball in 1st grade? How about learning an instrument? Many of lifes enjoyments come from overcoming some obsticle. Removing those obsticles would remove the very enjoyment.

    I'm not saying SMG is the perfect game, my gripe is it's basically skinned Mario 64. It's 90% the same game.

    Anyway, I think some of those above also made points that I would have liked to make but they did a great job.

    There is already the demo culture on 360/PS3 you want. And Jens's comment and the wine spectator analogy is perfect. If you don't like platformers then you aren't really a good judge of what makes a good one.

  9. Wow, did you deliberately give us a post that we could dissagree with as some sort of new years present?

    There's only two sensible points I can take away from your post.
    1 - You are having trouble finding reviewers that match your ideals.
    2 - You are having trouble getting access to demo's.

    The rest of it is just winging about how you bought a sequel to a tremendously sucessful game you didn't like and found that you still didn't like it.

    Now one thing I do agree with you on is that SMG is M64 with an annoying camera angle and nothing else.
    I didn't have the same skill problems as you, (I've played a fair few platformers in my time, absolutely loved N) but I also found the game uninspiring.

    I think you more or less admitted in your post that it wasn't ever going to be a game that you loved, and that there wasn't really any strong sign that it was going to get better, but I don't think there's a whole lot more Nintendo or the gaming community could have done to prevent you from making your poor purchasing decision.

    Look on the bright side, at least you've gained some more insights into your gaming preferences.

    Also, Knytt is not really a platformer in the "center of the genre" sort of way, even the creator describes it as more of an exploration game.

  10. Don't play Phoenix Wright then. A simple mistake can force you to go again through an hour or more trial sequence. It is the only complain I have about that series. Of course, the game has little replayability, so they need to do it.

  11. By the way, if you like relaxing experiences, I would like to hear your opinion about Forever Blue/Endless Ocean. I have your profile (enjoy Picross DS, never played a 3D platform game, last week I played (and finished) a 3D game for the first time in 2 or 3 years (Resident Evil 4 Wii), and was thinking about picking that title up.

  12. I sold my Wii during the Christmas season. This puts me in the vast minority of gamers who find the console in general more frustrating then fun, so you're preaching to the (very small) choir here.

  13. Danc,

    What are your thoughts on the game's co-star feature? One of my favorite experiences of the holidays this year was playing Super Mario Galaxy with my mother, who plays games but enjoys a style and pacing quite different from what I enjoy---she's a Tetris addict and a huge fan of casual puzzle games. The second player feature on Super Mario Galaxy allows her to pick up the second controller and assist whoever is in the driver's seat using a set of interactions that are related to the first player but significantly different (for example, all the operations happen in the 2D space of the screen instead of the 3D volume of the game world, the primary challenges are simple pattern matching and protecting player 1 from incoming threats, the platforming-jumping challenge is removed, etc.). It fit her style of play well, and she really enjoyed playing a cooperative videogame with her children. For us, the game's single-player experience was fun, but it was the cooperative experience that pushed the game into 97% territory.

    I'd personally like to see more games that are willing to experiment with this heterogeneous cooperative play style. I'm sure it increases the complexity of designing the game, but offering radically different play experiences in the same game encourages a type of cooperation that I find very rewarding---and that allows people with more varied interests to get in on the fun.

  14. Although I didn't have your specific problems with SMG, I had a similar experience some years back with Diablo.

    I got the first game, tried it out, and was bored by the fifth dungeon level. When Diablo II came out, the reviewers raved about how much better it was than the original, so I picked it up.

    It might be better than the original, but the basic gameplay still didn't interest me, so there was no improvement there.

    Without a real demo, it's difficult to tell how much of a review is based on the genre and how much is applicable no matter what.

  15. I think it's a bit silly to say that hardcore game reviewers shouldn't "have a place in telling people which games they should play." I mean, I want people with years of experience playing a wide variety of games to give me their opinions, since that also describes myself. That's not to say that my own opinion is always in line with the popular reviewership, but I'd much prefer the opinion of a "game expert" to someone who's never touched or doesn't care about the kinds of games I like. When looking for film reviews, I would much prefer the opinion of a film scholar or experienced reviewer to someone who only watches a few movies per year, or only really gets into romantic comedies.

    So, I think it'd fair for you to want the opinion of a "noob reviewer," who hasn't spent a lifetime steeped in mainstream games. But that kind of reviewer, if it's their job to play and review dozens of mainstream games per year, will quickly diverge from your own experience, and no longer be a noob, thus making them obsolete for your intentions. Perhaps a section for user reviews of mainstream games on an indie/casual game portal would be your ideal resource.

    If anything, I've used my years of experience playing and reading about games to filter out good reviews of the types of games I won't end up liking regardless. Even if an RTS or hardcore sim game gets a 90%, it's unlikely I'll find it engaging, since I've found through experience that even the best of those sorts of games don't turn my crank. It sounds like you should've known better when it comes to Mario, and can't really blame anyone else for that. Short of demos, there are a dozen sites online where you can read in-depth previews and watch gameplay footage to see what sorts of interactions you might encounter. It's not like the information isn't out there for free online, so caveat emptor.

  16. Co-star play
    This was an area I *really* wanted to check out. However, my second wiimote doesn't seem to be recognized by SMG. I go through the steps, but something isn't connecting.

    I suspect that this would have let me participate in the game much more. I'll keep fiddling.

    Appreciate all the suggestions on other games. I've been meaning to pick up Paper Mario and Endless Ocean has me curious.

    gman and others raise some good points. As I should have made a little more clear in essay, my initial reactions and complaints are the result of me playing the game incorrectly. Imagine for small moment that I like women and I accidentally went on a date with a man. It is silly for me to ask him to get gender reassignment surgery over dessert so we can 'make this work'. SMG is what it is and if that isn't for me, at least my wife can appreciate it. :-)

    The structure of Mario
    It is interesting to Mario held up as an example of a friendly game. These arguments were completely valid once, about five to 10 years ago. I'm very aware of the non-linear elements, the hubworld, the health, the optional stars and other innovations that Mario games added many years ago. These were a vast improvement over the insta-kill games of the coin op and early console era.

    However, if we just look at appealing to casual game players, the industry (and Nintendo especially!) has taken these innovations in casual appeal even further. Looking at something like WiiSports Bowling
    - No instant death, no lives
    - Retry challenges in <30 seconds
    - Learning motivated through reward and relative improvement, not through failure and punishment.

    As the industry moves forward, the innovators become the dinosaurs, at least in the area of casual appeal. Respected dinosaurs. But still dinosaurs.

    take care

  17. You never got to the game; you failed the entrance exam. I'm currently studying instructional design. One of the first things you do when you're working out how to teach a set of skills is what your learners need to already know before they begin; if you didn't then you'd have to start every course by teaching the students how to talk. Then once you've identified the skills they need you have to make sure they have them. The first few bits of SMG are really more of an entrance exam than part of the game proper.

    Now forcing someone to buy the whole game before they know if they've got the prerequisite skills is a bit of a ripoff, so I completely agree with you on the need for good demos.

    Definitely try again once you can get co-star mode working. My sister loves playing star-bits helper with me, and is often just as involved as I am in the exploration aspect of the game. There are often times when she notices things I don't just because she doesn't have to be immediately concerned with not dying. Reading your description it sounds like playing second player helping your wife would be exactly what you'd want from a Mario game.

  18. I liked Galaxy a lot, but I've already been trained in it, and you're absolutely right.

    I do disagree about the camera though. Again, I'm speaking from the genre dialect here, but there spherical camera struck me as a fairly elegant solution to an endemic problem in the genre. In non-sphereical environments, the problem persists, but overall I though it was a solid theme compromise.

  19. A couple of points:

    1) You're not as alone as you seem to think. Just look at the sales numbers for The Sims franchise, or the popularity of the more social MMOs that are beginning to gain some footholds here in the US. Hell, even something like MySpace is *starting* to blur a line a little bit. Is browsing around on MySpace for new bands and funny videos and new friends really that much different than playing a game?

    2) The Gamerankings score is comprised of reviews that are targeted at a very specific audience. You already recognize that you're not their audience, so you are aware of it's inapplicability to you. I would imagine that if you own a Wii, are considering purchasing Mario, and are using the GR score to guide your decision than you're highly likely already a member of their target audience.

    3) I wonder why you believe any of this will change? Do other mediums operate differently? I walked out of "No Country For Old Men" the other night. I enjoyed it so much that I coughed up the outrageous ticket price to see it a second time. Some teenagers were walking out the door at the same time as me completely baffled by the movie and the rave reviews it received. I don't blame them, it's not a movie for teenage boys. One explosion, no attractive women in skimpy clothing, etc... It's a movie that appeals to a different mindset and frankly takes a lot of work to understand and appreciate. I watch movies the way that you play video games, so that movie appealed to me but not to them.

    Which is a long story about how this happens in other mediums as well. The roles are a little different, but the result is the same.

    The difference is that you're smart enough to know better :)

  20. Danc, I am really glad you took the time to put out a thoughtful review of a game that has received far too much accolade given its flaws in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, it is a good game, and it's pretty fun... just not a great game. For me, the co-star mode was the main thing that kept it from being a disaster in the vein of Mario Sunshine.

    While it certainly is the best looking Wii game released thus far, it still missed much, relying on a multitude of jump options and abilities in stead of challenges for a limited set of moves.

    Tangentially, I still strongly feel like the 3D Mario games are several pegs below the 2D version of the franchise. Mario 3 is still without a doubt, the strongest of the series IMHO.

  21. While I do think Mario Galaxy is overrated I also think this comes down to one simple thing:

    Games are labeled on a genre basis. Stay away from the genres you don't enjoy.

    "What will it take for the game industry to adapt to the fact that different gamers like different games?"

    They have. That is why we have different games. And most reviewers aren't speaking to the average consumer. They are speaking to gamers. As a hardcore gamer I don't want to read a review written for a "game layman". I know all the ins and outs of games and I do not want a review geared toward someone who needs a little hand-holding.

    And in regards to demos, they are out there. They are pretty plentiful too. Problem is they are plentiful on the PS3 and Xbox360. The Wii doesn't have the capabilities to download massive amounts of game demos, store them to check out when able, and then possibly purchase the entire game online.

    I understand many of your points and agree with some of them but I feel you are explicitly incorrect about the perception the industry has of the needs of their consumers.


  22. I showed the game to two of my friends, a husband and wife, neither of whom have touched a console since the NES. The husband had the controls down in seconds and was amazed by the gravity-bending gameplay; the wife could barely "steer" Mario, found every obstacle a nuisance, and gave up halfway through the first mission in favor of Super Mario Bros. 3 on Virtual Console. To each their own.

    But all this somewhat condescending talk about "reptilian brain stuff" misses the game's true appeal for those who've mastered earlier Mario games. For me, the biggest thrill wasn't getting a star or beating Bowser. It was finding a cluster of planetoids, or an oddly shaped one, taking a flying leap, and seeing what gravity did with me. I've always loved the Mario games for the ability to explore an impossible but solid-feeling set of physics; combined with the majestic score and backgrounds, the early levels of Galaxy inspired a strange wonder in me. In fact as far as I'm concerned the biggest flaw of the game is that the later worlds don't rely as much on this clever disorientation as the first few.

    It's also worth noting that the failure-retry time is an improvement over Mario 64 and Sunshine, which almost always sent you back to square one of a mission if you died. This time, you usually restart at the beginning of a planet, each of which generally hold a handful of challenges each.

    And I agree with Patrick that, given the extreme novelty of the environments, the camera does as good a job as it possibly could. There were a handful of moments where it made things more difficult than they should've been, but I never died or even got hurt because of something the camera did, and I have a whole new appreciation for that now that I'm playing the otherwise-brilliant Shadow of the Colossus. I'm all for AI-driven, context-sensitive cameras, and they're going to be very important on the Wii because we don't have a second analog stick to work the camera with. Developers could do a lot worse than to follow this game in that aspect.

  23. @ Vargen:

    I think you've just hit on the best possible model for a game demo: teach / test the player on the basic skill set required for the game, and then right when the player "graduates" the basics and gets to the hub from which he can see challenges extending in dozens of different directions, end the demo and invite the player to buy the full version to continue.

  24. Amen.

    I could never jive with mario 64 either and I didn't really care for Galaxy when I road-tested it recently either. With me, Mario has always been a case of "appreicate" rather than "like".

    I feel so dirty.

  25. I'm surprised that nobody has commented on the absurdity of labeling a piece of art as "97.3% good".

    As Neil Postman claims in "Technopoly", modern society is infatuated with linear quantization of subjective properties. Someone living two hundred years ago would find it ludicrous to measure and label a person's intelligence with "IQ", or their knowledge of a subject with standardized testing, or their health with blood pressure, or their popularity with polling. Reducing these things to a single number is an insult to the person's humanity.

    Likewise, saying that a restaurant is ranked "4 stars", or a movie has an 8.3 on IMDB, or a game has a 97.3% GameRanking is an insult to the art. The only way to discover the quality of such things, without trying them directly, is to listen to many opinions from many points of view, and synthesize an understanding from the points of view that are meaningful for you. This process was a mainstay of life two hundred years ago -- it was called "debate".

    Given how easy the internet makes this process, why do we still have numeric rankings? Why do we still have a small number of elite reviewers? Why does anyone trust them?

  26. I'd like to point out that "don't buy games in a genre you don't like" is a bad, bad decision.

    Genres are very poorly defined and stretch every day. I never really liked first person shooters... until they started adding RPG and inventory management elements to them. Now I can't get enough of them.

    A game should be considered not simply in the context of their genre. That's too limited.

  27. Thanks for the survey plug, Danc!

    I plan to dig into Super Mario Galaxy's design at some point in the next few months as there are some serious issues to discuss, including many that you raise here.

    Best wishes!

  28. Hey Danc,

    Good post! :) It's really interesting to find someone struggling so much with Super Mario Galaxy, because I view it as a game that goes out of its way to make deliberate design decisions that ease the learning curve. It's intriguing that despite great efforts to the contrary, there are still (will always be?) people that find a game too difficult!

    Here are some specific design choices that Nintendo made to alleviate the pitfalls you mentioned:

    Difficulty maneuvering in 3D
    Trying to move and jump precisely on simple 3D levels is hard enough -- the curvy and crazy worlds in Mario Galaxy would frustrate most anyone.

    This is the beauty behind why Mario was given a spin attack. Compared to the precision hopping requried by NES Mario, and the directional attacks of Mario 64, the radial spin attack gives the player a threshold of error when attacking an enemy. Your brain doesn't need to precisely map graphics on the 2D screen to the crazy 3D planetoids they are representing -- it just needs a general idea that Mario's graphic is close to the enemy's.

    This is also why you can collect star bits with the Wiimote. Running around and collecting them by hand would be frustrating and tedious in 3D -- but it's much easier to point right where you see them.

    Blocking linear challenges
    The whole point of the star system is to prevent this kind of blocking. Get stuck on a level? Just head to a different one with new challenges. You brush this off as a non-linear element, but it's more of a specific, targeted decision to avoid these frustrating "dead ends." That's why Nintendo's been following this system since Mario 64.

    Too much of a focus on learning through failure and repetition
    Mario Galaxy tries to progressively train the player, starting with simple patterns of challenges, and then increasing the difficulty by making these initial patterns more complex.

    Take a look at the first Dino Piranha boss. He starts out in his egg, not attacking, but with his tail following him. This teaches the player that he must attack the boss's tail. After doing so, the boss breaks out of his egg and starts attacking -- but the basic pattern of attacking his tail remains consistent.

    Every boss in the game follows this idea of training through increasing complexity. In fact, you face Bowser three times during the game! His basic patterns remain similar, but grows in complexity with each encounter, training the player for the final battle.

    My intention is not to defend Mario Galaxy or to insult your gaming skills. :) I just find it interesting that people will still struggle with a game despite a solid effort to make it accessible. Is this always the case -- will there always be someone that finds a game 'too hard'? Does the game designer have an obligation to these people? Or is there some threshold where you can say: "Enough is enough." "You can't please everyone." "The game's not meant for you."

    Dynamic difficulty is definitely a key idea that is still relatively new territory. Sure, it's trivial to make an enemy dumb after it kills a player a few times. But will we ever be able to have "difficulty AI", that can tune enemy positions, powerups, map obstacles, etc. to maximize that player's enjoyment?

  29. Danc, you need to read (in case you haven't already) the recent news postings on Penny Arcade from the few weeks leading up to the holidays. They have been touching on the major issue that could have sparked all of this.

    Game reviews are so hard to use as a basis for choosing a game. The numbers are meaningless because they all typically rank games between 6 and 9.5. Nothing every gets lower than a 6 these days.

    The written reviews are often flawed. You really have to learn a reviewers tastes over time to figure out if what they are saying is even valid to what you are looking for.

    p.s. Try the other Mario titles. They really have branched out into other gaming styles. Wario Ware, Mario Party, etc.

  30. Dynamic difficulty's been done before. It's called Battle Garegga, and... well, it didn't really work IMO.

    I personally prefer an explicit form of difficulty setting, with an associated cost. Xbox Live is a tremendous asset to developers in that sense, because it allows one to have one's cake and eat (most of) it too - you can tie an achievement to "beat level X on the default difficulty", while allowing the player to talk to an NPC who will lower the difficulty level for them, at the cost of forgoing that achievement until they replay the level. I suppose that a 3D Mario game could use stars as a form of achievement token too.

    On another note, I think it's worthwhile to bear in mind that most games are structured as challenges to be overcome - that's one of the great pleasures of gaming, though by no means the only one. Yes, at the heart of it we're designing an experience, but very often being challenged to overcome obstacles is part of the experience, not some unwanted appendix.

    That being said, I understand that there are quite a few people who simply don't want their experience to be that challenging - maybe they already get plenty of challenge from their job, and want a more relaxing experience - so the question then becomes, what can we as designers do for these people? My personal take on this is that most conventional styles of game really shouldn't be re-jiggered to suit them - these games, with the possible exception of some RPGs and interactive narratives, are so tightly bound up with the notion of conflict that trying to make them "non-challenging" becomes a dilution and appeals to neither the traditional fans of those genres nor the people who want to relax.

    Speaking of which, Danc, have you played SimCity: Societies?

    Craig - Well said. Especially as a designer, I feel duty-bound to at least give every genre a fair shake. I had a wonderful time with Soul Calibur II, for instance, even though prior to that I didn't like fighting games at all.

  31. I strongly encourage you to get that second Wiimote working. (For me, all I had to do was turn it on and it worked, so I'm no help.) I never bothered playing it as P1 (because I didn't feel like gaming and my sister wanted to play), so I switched on co-star mode and helped her.

    It's a completely different game that relies mostly on pointer accuracy and dictating to P1 what to do. While it's not terribly fun in and of itself, it's a great bonding mechanism and will let you enjoy the game without actually playing it. ;)

  32. "It's like meeting a girl who is cute and smart, but really, really likes the whole dressing up their boyfriend in black duct tape and then whipping them until they bleed from unmentionable orifices."

    I fail to see a problem...?

    I suppose some things just aren't for everyone, hey, Danc? ;)

  33. Danc,

    I must say that although I disagree with a few points of yours, I do agree with you in the respect of the feelings of regret.

    My particular issue is with strategy games, in particular the breed known as RTS. Although I can enjoy a couple of examples (such as Dawn of War and C&C: Red Alert 2), I find most other examples of the genre very hard to play; I often find myself frustrated as another attempt at a mission or skirmish fails due to my non-existent skill.

    This leads to some uncomfortable experiences where, as hard as I try, I can never enjoy such brilliant games like Company of Heroes or World in Conflict, simply because I don't have to skill to succeed. Yet, I regret not being able to play them, as as far as I can see the mechanics are brilliant.


  34. Dude, you really suck at Super Mario Galaxy, no offense but especially your wife too. The first boss is like the easiest in the game and if you die 5 times, I don't think you should be playing video games...

  35. So you don't like platformers? Those crazy games where you have to make some stupid jump by timing your jumps and move properly around some crazy 2/3-d space?

    That's what Super Mario Galaxy is I don't get why this comes as a surprise. Sorry that you feel some sort of secret shame, but really get over your shame of not liking platformers.

    Failing a lot, is part of every good platformer. The unchanging difficulty level is also par for the course. As others have said, the game uses a traning method to make the early levels easy and the last few levels hard.

    The reason it's rated so well is that it really is the best done game of it's kind. There are few games that even come close.

  36. I agree with 50% of each of your points.

    -Yes, game scores don't take into account everyone in the world, but they're not for everyone in the world. They're for those who are "hardcore" into gaming.

    -Yes, Mario and many games are simply repetitive actions, aimed at improving some useless skill, with various prizes for completion. This doesn't appeal to everyone. But again, Mario is made for gamers who like this sort of thing.

    -Yes, games should be sensitive to different play styles. They cannot, however work for EVERY play style. A Mario game would be perfect for you if you were invincible so you could explore the world without penalty. That does not work for Mario as a game. That's why they make Animal Crossing.

    -Yes, demos should be readily available. But to some extent, people should take personal responsibility and look for like-minded individuals for game reviews instead of the enthusiast press.

  37. If they "fixed" the things you suggested it would no longer be a videogame. Different types of gamers do indeed like different types of games, but why should they change a 20+ year franchise just to appeal to people who want to just wonder around with zero challenge? Not too mention Super Mario Galaxy is pretty easy even for me and its my first 3d platformer. The Gamerankings score is deserved as the professional critics of Super Mario Galaxy are people who understand Mario, Platformers, real games. It sounds like you and your wife should stick to movies/tv/screensavers etc. etc.

  38. oh,just bootup ya wii and get mario64 if you did not like galaxy,YOU will loveLOVE it.take care,buddy,good writing there!

  39. This is an incredibly poor article. It's flat out idiocy. To even hint there's a fault in game design because you don't actually like games is appalling. In any type of game or sport you have objectives, means to reach the objectives and obstacles. Eliminating those changes the nature of the beast.

    Don't comment on video games, you have no buisness doing so.

  40. So you want Nintendo to become even MORE casual oriented then they already are? No, just no. Just accept the game is not for you. Just stick to Mario Party, or games in the Wii ___ line.

  41. However, if we just look at appealing to casual game players, the industry (and Nintendo especially!) has taken these innovations in casual appeal even further. Looking at something like WiiSports Bowling
    - No instant death, no lives
    - Retry challenges in <30 seconds
    - Learning motivated through reward and relative improvement, not through failure and punishment


    Danc, I was thinking about this... I really like Wii Bowling, and specially the medal mode where you are challenged with different configurations of pins and lane obstructions. The highest I have been able to get, however, is lane 16, before I use up my 5 'lives'. I then am forced to restart from the beginning, and even though I want to see the rest of the lanes, am unable to do so.

    Are you advocating they remove the 5 lives system, add a permanent retry option that lets you retry the same lane as many times as you want until you pass it, and dynamically add some assists after multiple failures at a lane to make it easier to pass (or if that is not implementable in Bowling, allow the player to skip that lane)?

    My guess -- I would get the satisfaction of having 'experienced' all of the lanes... but I would not have gotten the experience of having tried the many times I did that led me to be able to reach lane 16 in the first place.

    Which is better game design? You decide...

  42. "For example, being able to respawn ten seconds away from where you died would make the goals so much less rewarding, because it would make them too easy. In a game where your character can die, the death has to mean something, has to take something away from you"

    IMO, this is a misconception brought on by years of Mega Man and Mario.

    Having to play through stuff you've already successfully beaten does not increase the challenge in any appreciable way. Look at it this way: say there's a checkpoint, then challenges A, B, C. If you fail at C, then you have to do A and B again before trying C again.. but you've already proven you're good enough to beat A and B.

    The only thing making you do A and B again does is add incentive not to die, but there are plenty of ways to do that already.

    A and B do not increase the challenge of C. A and B TWICE do not increase the challenge of C. They might slightly increase the challenge of "ABC" taken as a whole, but if you can do A and B in your sleep, does it really matter?

  43. I am impressed that the drooling morons didn't start posting until well into the discussion. They are easy to spot because they only post two or three lines of bile and are generally anonymous.

    I appreciate that you aren't necessarily saying Mario is a bad game but that it's not right for you. So many are quick to dismiss anything they don't like as crap.

    I just got SMG on the 1st. I had played some of the first level at the local GameStop so I had an idea of it's controls and such. I quickly got through the first few worlds in probably 90 minutes of play. My wife was my co-star and we enjoyed it greatly. She would never try to play and would get bored watching, but this involves her and entertains her to the point that she suggested playing more. My son also likes it but his skills aren't as good as mine so the co-star being able to "shoot" enemies to stun them is helpful to him.

    My overall impression is that SMG is a fantastic game. I find the gravity and spherical worlds to be a bit mind blowing at times, but still fun. I sometimes get disoriented but only momentarily. I haven't played a Mario title other than Mario Party since the SNES. The N64 is the only Nintendo console (besides the Virtual Boy) that I never owned. I have played Super Mario 1, 2, 3, and Land but never 64 or Sunshine.

    I have become more of a casual gamer over the years. I love Sudoku, Scrabble, chess and other board games. I also like games like Bejeweled, Tetris, The "Sim" titles, and Wii Play and Wii Sports. I have loved the Zelda and Metroid titles from the begining. However, I find the latest FPS based Metroids to be on the edge of my skill level.

    I find most FPS games to be boring and repetitive and I don't have time for an MMORPG like WOW. I can't see paying $50 for a game and another $15-$20 a month to keep playing or I loose it all. I may not even get to play one month and then that money feels wasted.

    I think your demo idea is a good idea. The Official PlayStation Magazine used to send out demo discs each month. It's not a bad idea, but a bit limited.

    Anyway, I'm glad your wife can still enjoy SMG and I hope that you can join her as a co-star. It's a fun way to play.

    I think the progressive nature of the difficulty in games is good but I don't agree that you should respawn so close to where you died. My son has learned a lot about persaverance through his video games. Many times I he would ask me to get him past a hard spot. I would tell him no he had to do it himself. Eventually he would make it through and onto bigger challenges. Sometimes that involved a waiting period, but he did it.

  44. I'm glad you recognize that it wouldn't be a Mario game without the features you would "fix". From my perspective, it wouldn't even be a videogame at all without much of that. It's also good that you lay the blame for your lack of enjoyment at your own feet. Clearly you're not an action gamer. If you die that many times before you finish the first level, and are not enjoying yourself, you're definitely playing the wrong game.

    There's a funny thing about me and Animal Crossing. I love that I *can* plant trees pretty much anywhere, but I almost never do. I've planted enough fruit trees to have at least a couple of each kind, but that's about it. After that, chopping down and planting anything else just feels like it would spoil the randomly generated splendor that came to my town by default.

    Unlike you, who seems to have found a comfortable place in the new mainstream, and unlike the "traditional" gamers, who continue to find satisfaction in the likes of Bioshock, Mass Effect and Twilight Princess, I fall into a dying fringe with very little left to play. You, and they, are making me very sad, and bitterly isolated from the very thing that was once my most self-defining pleasure.

    With the advent of casual and indie games as well as the efforts on the DS and the Wii to dilute the market, I'm unable to find games that I enjoy. Games are proceeding to gradually decay from their geeky, masochist roots and it horrifies me to no end.

  45. This was a great article and great thread. We got almost 75% through before OMG U NO LIK SMG U SUK posts materialized.

    Get 2-player mode working ASAP. It's pretty much made for a casual + more experienced gamer to play together. P2 can point + click while P1 can concentrate on timing jumps and spins. Good times.

    We need game reviewers that appreciate other types of games, true. But 15 years+ has done that. The number 97.3% doesn't mean it's almost the best game ever, which too many people interpret that as. However it is one of the best platformers to emerge in quite some time.

  46. I haven't read the rest of the comments; hopefully my main point below regarding demos is fresh.

    First of all I love you danc, you have all kinds of great ideas, blah blah blah... of course or I wouldn't read your blog to begin with.


    1. The reviewers are saying "this is a fantastic game FOR WHAT IT IS." Grim Fandango has a 93% average rating - because although adventure games may not be for everyone, it is one of the best at being WHAT IT IS, an adventure game. Whether "what it is" is something you want is a separate question from the review score - I would think that the review content would make that clear, as it describes what the game's about and what makes it fun.
    2. Are you suggesting that a certain number of game reviews be by people who've never played games before? If so, what kind of crack were you smoking when you wrote that and where can I obtain some? The last thing I want to find when reading a review of Rock Band is that the reviewer hasn't also played GH3. Preferably they've also played GH:RT80's, GH2, GH1, and Guitar Freaks. I haven't even played all of those games, but I want an informed opinion. Having "game newbies" play the games would not solve the problem of matching people up to the types of games they like -
    3. Your advice about demos is something I totally agree with, and the correct answer to all this: the only way for people to know whether a game (or a genre of games) is right for them, is to play a demo. However, then you end this excellent point by saying "If Super Mario Galaxy had a demo, I would have tried it out and likely given it a pass." To anyone whose first concern is money (i.e. everyone holding the reins of the gaming industry today), you've just annhilated your point and exemplified exactly why they don't offer demos. Yet it's not true! I would emphasize the ways that companies can make more money and gain loyal customers through using demos:
    a. Though demos would sometimes lead to people rejecting games, it would at least as often lead to people trying, liking, and buying games that they never would have bought otherwise.
    b. Matching up consumers with products they like is just good business. Though the happiness of the consumer is far from the first priority of companies (as the recent snafu over the guitar controller between Rock Band and GH3 on the PS3 exemplifies), it is in their long-term best interest: a consumer who purchases your game and comes to love it will be more likely to follow the developers and purchase more games from them. A consumer who buys a "good" game but finds they dislike it will likely feel zero or less goodwill toward the game's developer.

    If you really want to change this industry (and allowing every player to play a demo of every game for free would be one of the best things that could happen to this industry right now), you have to show the people with money why it's worth their while. Saying "I should have been able to play a demo of this game! Then I wouldn't have bought it" is not the best way to go about that.

    Finally, from your description of the type of games you like, I highly highly HIGHLY recommend that you play Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the DS. To explain why would make this post WAY too long, but suffice to say that I find it to be ten times as fun as Twilight Princess, and finally to be a true, unlooked-for, worthy successor to Ocarina. It's brimming over the top with personality and exploration, and the difficulty level is moderate... I think you'll love it.

  47. What this rant does, for me, is confirm Nintendo's difficulties with their "casual gamer" Wii strategy. Sure, the control scheme is simple and easy for a non-gamer to pick up and play. But the generic formatting and gaming conventions of the games themselves defeat the proposition. For example, it is one thing to be able to swing a sword or aim with a bow, and another entirely to know how to time your sword swings according to the defense and movements of your enemy, or fire an arrow at a switch hidden on the ceiling to open the locked door. The Wii controller only takes care of the first problem.

    I think your rant on Super Mario Galaxy illustrates this very well. Although, in my opinion, it is as excellent a game as the rave reviews make it to be, and it successfully avoids every pitfall which this author mentions. Fundamentally, to me who has been playing with Mario since SMB, Mario 64 introduced a design and philosophy shift from requiring the player to reenact specific pre-designed patterns or face punishment, to giving the player a (relatively) large spectrum of possibilities directly at the movement level. Super Mario Galaxy takes the principle even further. It has been designed with specific gaps, and even though the player is required to cross them, he usually is given a fair amount of tools which he can use as he sees fit.

  48. Just to be crystal clear on this: you worked on *TYRIAN* -- a shmup, quite possibly the twitchiest of all genres -- and you're motivated by socialization and seeing pretty apple trees? I'm glad to hear it worked out for your wife, at least.

  49. I have never been, nor do I plan on being a hardcore gamer. I loved NES back in the day and still dug in when there was super NES. I totally agree that street fighter was the dumbest game ever (Along with double dragon.) I played zelda and even zelda II was cool. I played it on the super. I loved dragon warrior, even though turn based sucks. I personally do not like 'movement sequence obstacles' or puzzles that you can only solve by trial and error so the zelda block puzzles that started showing up in the GBA series really started to annoy me. It was basically then that I stopped playing games altogether. I like things you can solve by thinking about it and figuring out what you have to do. Even if it means talking to a lot of stupid little mushrooms -- somewhere, there is a clue, that does not involve deft movement and making a trial grid in a notebook. I identified with a lot of what you said, and I'm not even a game dev. I'm a corporate software dev. Hah.