White Raccoon Suits and Pipe Dreams: The Problem with Nintendo's New “Easy Mode”
Nintendo games are memorable more for their grand and difficult moments than for their easy and quick ones.
Lately Nintendo's games haven't been incredibly challenging. Besides the occasional difficult game like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze or Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, most of Nintendo's newer releases are easier than their forefathers. Whether it is creating more linear games like New Super Mario Bros or making less labyrinthine levels in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, most Nintendo games have been significantly “dumbed down.”
While this sounds bad, it isn't always a bad thing. Often by making gameplay more accessible, developers can gain a larger audience, bad mechanics are left by the wayside, and a more streamlined experience can be a tighter, more well developed one, as we can see in Super Mario 3D World. But along with the “easification” of games another mechanic has started to be introduced into Nintendo games and that is of the near invincible experience of playing in “easy mode.”
The mechanic that I'm speaking of is most prominent in Yoshi's New Island and Super Mario 3D World. In both these games, if the player dies a few times on a course, an item(the white raccoon suit for Super Mario 3D World and the golden wings in Yoshi's New Island) is given to the player that drastically reduces the level's difficulty. These items make the player invincible and give them the ability to jump farther and float in the air longer, but also harm the players experience by reducing the replay value of the games, making their difficult moments less memorable, and by babying gamers into expecting an easy experience.
This new “easy mode” drastically reduces the replay value of games in my opinion. The value of replaying gameplay-oriented titles like Dark Souls or Shadow of the Colossus is in being able to go back and enjoy that great gameplay. Great gameplay has always been Nintendo's strong suit. Their stories are stripped back and minimal, and even in their most story oriented games (like the Zelda series), there isn't much unique story to be told. By creating an “easy mode” the player just skips past great gameplay because it's “too hard” and instead of the player learning new mechanics or being challenged, the level is solely remembered as being “too hard.” This makes it less likely that the player will revisit a game and also may make it less likely they purchase the next game in the series.
This also ties in with making the games less memorable. Gameplay-oriented games are memorable more for their grand and difficult moments than for their easy and quick ones. Most players don't remember World 1-3 of Super Mario Bros . because it is so easy, but players remember the castle levels, filled with lava and dangerous traps, because that difficulty and danger made the player more focused on the game and therefore made them notice the details of the gameplay more. This phenomenon is very apparent in the Dark Souls where one of the mid game bosses “Ornstein and Smough,” who are also one of the most difficult bosses, unite the community in hate for their difficulty, but also in admiration for the great design of the fight that ensues as a result of encountering them. By allowing the player to keep playing on “auto-pilot” by giving them an easy way out of a difficult situation, those difficult moments are no longer memorable, and therefore the game itself is far less memorable.
Also, while it is technically a logical fallacy, I think that giving players an “easy mode” like this eventually leads them down the slippery slope of expecting an easy experience when they play Nintendo's games. Being known for having “easy games” is not enviable. Nobody says “Oh, that game is really easy. I can't wait to play it.” The reason why is because being easy isn't a positive quality for a video game to possess, especially if that quality is emblematic of the game. In the case of Yoshi's New Island, the ease of the game can quickly become the most noticeable thing about it. After playing through the game, I feel much less likely to purchase a new Yoshi's Island game because instead of feeling like I'm going to be challenged and inspired, I feel like I'm going to have another mundane auto-pilot experience, akin to watching a dull television show or a movie that doesn't engage me.
That said, it is worth noting that the “easy mode” is entirely optional, but I think just its presence can be too tempting for players who aren't great at video games. Yet players don't give up playing a game they payed $60 for just because a certain section is hard for them, and they definitely don't not buy games because they are too difficult. In fact, difficulty can quickly become a selling point for a game like Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden.
As players we want a game to beat us, as long as it does so fairly, and the difficulty isn't too oeverwhelming (where that line exists is a completely different discussion). I fear the trend of “easfication” that Nintendo is treading, because it doesn't add anything to the experience of the game, it doesn't sell copies of games, and it can certainly be a hindrance to a series's reputation, or even worse, a company's.