Frustration, Failure, and Intent in 'New Super Mario Bros. Wii'

Like war in the Fallout universe, Super Mario never changes. The game may seem demanding or even harsh in terms of its skill requirements, but its rules are consistent in philosophy and practice.

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.

Examining the language used to describe NSMBW's rules is useful for illustrating the high standards to which it holds players. The game’s instruction manual refers to “getting clobbered by enemies and falling into pits” as “blunders” (New Super Mario Bros. Wii Instruction Booklet, Ninetendo -- Customer Servce, p. 6). A quick consultation with Merriam and Webster reveals a

Shigeru Miyamoto was honest about the choice to purposely make NSMBW a challenging game. Contrary to many of the Wii’s broadly accessible games as well as the Nintendo DS version of New Super Mario Bros., NSMBW was designed to be difficult:

That's why we even discussed releasing an enhanced version of New Super Mario Bros., for those people who wanted to play a Mario that demanded more skills. With the Wii version of New Super Mario Bros. this time round, its biggest single defining feature lies there. We didn't just want first-time players to enjoy it; we wanted to make a new Mario game that players looking for a stiffer challenge would be able to relish. (Soturo Iwata, "Iwata Asks: New Super Mario Bros. Wii",

Today, many games choose between two extreme approaches to difficulty. Some, like Call of Duty, provide highly scripted sequences that minimize the potential for failure by limiting a player’s options in exchange for providing spectacular set pieces. On the other side of the spectrum, games like Just Cause 2 or even Minecraft are so open to player experimentation that the concept of there being a “correct” way to do something becomes meaningless. NSMBW is a hybrid that allows for some variety within a context of possible “correct” ways of playing. Nintendo President Sotoru Iwata and Miyamoto discuss this hybrid difficulty as it pertains to NSMBW:

Miyamoto: There's always a basic reason why you can't clear a level: either it's because the game is really difficult, or it's because you don't understand the game properly. For instance, even though you could use a lift and bounce easily to the next stage, you go out of your way to choose a tricky route and that means no matter how many times you try it, you fail.

Iwata: So you've ramped up the difficulty level yourself by not choosing the correct route.

Miyamoto: Yes, that's right. It's at times like that when watching a skilled player will make you realize: "So that's what you have to do!" Then you can do it correctly yourself. I thought it would be great if you were able to do that in your own home, which is why we devised the Super Guide. ("Iwata Asks: New Super Mario Bros. Wii",

It is clear that players are meant to make mistakes in NSMBW and then decide on how to overcome them. Even the slight pause that accompanies a player’s death was a deliberate design choice meant to highlight the fact that someone made a mistake. Criticizing NSMBW for highlighting blunders or not shielding players from failure is not so much pointing out a design flaw as it is articulating a difference of opinion. One might not like that multiplayer NSMBW games leave some players behind, but the design philosophy behind it is one that explicitly embraces that as a possibility.

Despite its cute aesthetic, NSMBW takes little interest in coddling the player. There is no regenerating health. There is only one checkpoint per course, which the player must actually touch in order for it to activate. Formal tutorials are eschewed in favor of letting the player experiment with different ways of navigating terrain and dealing with enemies. Playing with other people is simply another dynamic that must be learned.

In this situation, video games bear resemblance to performative forms of expression like sports or theater. Compare NSMBW to track and field racing: a single player game is like a solo race whereas multiplayer is a relay race. In both cases, the underlying concepts and ultimate goals are the same (to run fast and finish first). The fact that a team is involved gives rise to new variants on the rules and new play dynamics. Relay races require special techniques and strategies: never put the slowest runner first, the baton hand off must be quick but safe, and a discus thrower is generally not part of the gold medal race. Multiplayer in NSMBW requires its own unique techniques that address the realities of the game’s parameters and the relative skill of the players involved. Repeated failures or high difficulty does not mean that the rules of the game are flawed. Quite the opposite: they are likely functioning as explicitly intended. Whether these rules are enjoyable to a particular person is another question entirely.

If I picked up a violin right now and joined a string quartet, my performance would probably ruin the show. My complete inability to play the instrument would mean that my bandmates would have to carry my weight of the performance, fail along with me, or wait until I improved enough to keep up. In this hypothetical situation, our inability to perform under the rules governing the art form says more about our limits than any particular flaws in the system. Playing multiplayer NSMBW is akin to playing in a band: everybody must be in tune in order to succeed. Players of various skills can interact, but a person who has never picked up a guitar has as much chance of playing “Freebird” as a Mario novice has of beating Bowser in one try.

I can agree with Jorge when he says that “During high difficulty spikes, both of Nintendo’s platformers [Donkey Kong Country Returns and New Super Mario Bros. Wii] fail as multiplayer experiences,” ("Double Trouble: Flawed Multiplayer in Donkey Kong Country Returns", PopMatters, 20 January 2011) only if I can add a caveat in the case of NSMBW. The game fails as an egalitarian multiplayer experience. Instead of leveling out gaps in skill, NSMBW forces players to negotiate the balance between helping less skilled players, finding a balance between different play styles, and adapting to the unfamiliar dynamics that new players bring to formerly single player world.

Like war in the Fallout universe, Super Mario never changes. The gears driving the clockworld world of NSMBW keep turning, regardless of whether there is one person on the screen or four. True, the game may seem demanding or even harsh in terms of its skill requirements, but its rules are consistent in philosophy and practice. In a multiplayer context, each individual player must negotiate their role as well as those of their teammates.

By being a chaotic, demanding, and even taxing multiplayer experience, NSMBW is living up to the spirit of its rules and the philosophies of its creators. It's honest about what is required of players, but it asks for a certain level of skill as part of the deal. Nintendo is far too polite to say so explicitly, but New Super Mario Bros. Wii has a message for players who find the game too punishing. It's a remixed version of an old Ice-T saying: don’t hate the game, hate the player.

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