Thursday, June 20, 2013

How Sadism and the Wii U Saved Gaming (Potentially)

Confession: My favorite Mario game is New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii. It's not the most polished or the most inventive, sure. It doesn't have the most beloved power-ups or the best level design. But it has one thing that has given me more joy than any other feature in a Mario game: multiplayer.

Not just "trade off when someone dies and every once in a while battle in a coin-collecting minigame" multiplayer. Not "Player 2 collects star bits" multiplayer. Not even "there's a separate battle mode and you can run around fighting in it" multiplayer. Real, honest-to-goodness, four-people-struggling-to-make-it-through-every-level multiplayer. And it was glorious.

And the best thing about it was that you could play it more than one way. Sure, you could be nice, with the more experienced players carrying the weaker ones through difficult sections, politely sharing power-ups, using teamwork to get the hard-to-reach star coins. And that's fine! Do that, you'll have a good time.

I'll be busy playing MY way - a brutal race to the finish of every level. Dirty tricks, hoarding of power-ups, intentionally throwing the others into bottomless pits. Nothing's off-limits, as long as one person's alive at the end to grab the flag. And the game's mechanics are perfectly built for this (power-up stealing, picking people up and throwing them, the way the screen scrolls), but without any explicit instructions to do so - the perfect recipe for building your own game mode.

(An aside: in 2006, my friend Nathan had the perfect ingredients for fun - an original XBox, a copy of Crimson Skies, and a projector. Dog-fighting on a big screen was, even with the muddy resolutions, suitably epic, but we eventually tired of the basic multiplayer modes, with their focus on combat over flying. And so we invented a new mode - a variation on the game's King of the Hill (where the player who holds a single flag on the map for the longest wins) with one key distinction: the player with the flag wasn't allowed to shoot. Instantly, what had been a fun-but-generic bout of dogfighting became a tense, exciting game of cat-and-mouse. Especially on the game's 'Chicago' map, with its just-wide-enough streets between towering skyscrapers, it was the perfect, player-created game of chase and be-chased.)

As previously mentioned, I spent some time with the Wii U last week. Along with NintendoLand, the other game I played (along with The Girlfriend, my friend John, and his wife Desiree) was New Super Mario Bros. U. Because I was (and remain) fascinated by the GamePad, I asked if I could play the game in what's called 'Boost Mode' - where 1-4 players play as normal with Wiimotes while the player with the GamePad uses the stylus to place blocks, uncover secrets, and stun enemies, ostensibly to help the players on their way.


Instead, it quickly became clear to my fellow players that I was using Boost for a different purpose - to turn every level into a maze of suddenly-appearing platforms, erratically moving enemies, and sudden death traps. I would do my best to block jumps, move power-ups out of the way, and basically take on the role of a cruel dungeon master. (I cleared this with my friends, by the way. Mostly. They appreciated the challenge! I choose to believe). The mechanics for Boost Mode are less clearly designed for abuse than the ones in the Wii game, but opportunities are still there. The platforms you can create with a touch of the stylus are the most obvious method of interference, but there are other, more subtle ways to play vengeful God. 3-Up blocks can be revealed by the GamePad player, acting as perfect bait to force players into traps. And a few levels have things like giant gearwheels that respond to the stylus's touch, allowing a savvy bastard to trap and crush his... opponents? Is opponents the right word? in between their gears.

As gamers, we've always dealt with the fact that no challenge from a video game can be as organic (and nasty) as one presented by a human. Part of the pleasure of tabletop gaming is the sense that you're playing 'against' an opponent who can tailor your challenges to your capabilities. The Wii U, by giving one out of the five players (what amounts to) a mouse and monitor set-up, has created an ideal environment for that player to mastermind gameworlds to provide more interesting challenges. (The free Rayman Legends Challenges App takes this even further than NSMBU, with one player having control of most of the features of the platforming world, moving them to help the platforming player traverse). This is fun in a platformer, but what if we pushed it further, applied it to genres like RPGs or puzzle games? Mazes drawn on-the-fly with the stylus. Enemy line-ups drafted from a pool of foes. All those tasks we've relegated to AIs and pattern-generation, back in the hands of a human because we finally have an intuitive way for them to control it.

I know, I know. People have been crowing about the 'potential' of the Wii U since it was first announced. But I feel like we're on the periphery of something great, a chance for gamers to interact like never before. New Super Mario Bros. U and Rayman Legends Challenges App are at the cliff's edge of embracing what the Wii U can really do when you trust your players to help you make amazing experiences, and I still have my fingers crossed that, sometime soon, someone is going to take the plunge.

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