As long-time readers know, it takes precious little to get me started on Super Mario analysis. Just as he expected, Jorge’s recent post on how 2D sidescrollers fail as multiplayer games (“Double Trouble: Flawed Multiplayer in Donkey Kong Country Returns”, PopMatters, 20 January 2011) has inspired me to revisit one of my favorite game design topics: challenge. While I haven’t yet played Donkey Kong Country Returns, I have put a considerable (or ridiculous, depending on your interpretation) amount of time into New Super Mario Bros. Wii.
Despite its cartoonish exterior, NSMBW is a demanding game. This can lead to frustration, especially if players of unequal skill are playing together. The rhetoric embedded in the game’s rules and the philosophies of its creators argue that true success is something that the players actively obtain rather than passively achieve. From a historical perspective, NSMBW’s difficulty is in keeping with tradition, and this legacy is carried into its multiplayer mode. It then becomes understandable why the mode is frustrating; instead of minimizing differences between the players, it demands that weak players either rise above their limitations or rely on the stronger players to succeed. Frustrating as this may be, I argue that NSMBW comes by its challenge honestly and that a team’s failure in multiplayer is more a reflection on the team’s aggregate skill and cooperative dynamics than any inherent failing of the game’s systems.