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June 07, 2006

Life Trauma

Posted in: Games

Like so many, I was addicted to the sublime genius that is Super Mario Bros, spending countless hours exploring Miyamoto’s groundbreaking world and all the fantastic surprises it held. When I finished it, though, somehow I felt dirty. Had I really played through the game start-to-near-finish so many times only to run out of lives and be sent back to the beginning of the whole thing? Had I really endured repeating it all again and again only to get to that final pit-ridden level where I died another thousand times just to see the final 1% of the game? Somehow the aftertaste managed to turn me off to platformers for years to come.

Since then, things have changed. In hindsight, one really can forgive SMB for all the repetition because, well, there’s only so much content you can jam into a 320K cartridge. Lives were a way to give the game longevity. But now content really is king in a way that storage, sales numbers, and arcades simply wouldn’t allow before. Today, storage is essentially unlimited, market growth has given developers comparatively huge resources, and arcades are no more (taking with them the need to nuke players every couple minutes to grab more quarters).

For all these reasons lives are, well, dead. The need to punish players by making them do it all over again after an arbitrary number of “chances” expires is essentially gone. And good riddance. Childhood trauma overcome. Childhood trauma outlasted.

Well, almost… When the first videos of Super Mario Galaxy (the first truly inspiring full-on Mario title since Mario 64) showed up, I was all eyes. Gorgeous stuff, and on a system that looks like the closest thing to a comeback vehicle Nintendo is likely to see. Then, imagine the pain when I noticed a lives indicator in the corner of the screen. Sure, every other flagship Mario title had lives, too, but this was the chance to make things right. This was supposed to be the Rev-o-fucking-lution, remember? Of course, Mario wouldn’t be Mario without certain antiquated concepts (like boss battles). But, really, lives are just cruel and unusual punishment at this point.

In Edge 163, the creators of lives-by-the-billion Lego Star Wars put it this way:

[When your character dies in a game] you’re given a moment to reflect and that’s when you feel it so intently, even if it’s only for a couple seconds. And that moment is what happens when you die in LSW, and we’re very pleased about how that works. From focusing on children, we knew we didn’t want to punish. They want to play, and they play best in an atmosphere where they’re not afraid. So we wanted to encourage them rather than prevent them from experimenting. Often you die because you were trying to do something interesting. We don’t want to punish you because you were doing something you were finding fun.

And what’s interesting about LSW is that, even though it was designed by focusing on children, it actually manages to appeal to all sorts of non-gamers regardless of age. Isn’t that what Nintendo’s ambitious push to expand the market is supposed to be about? Ah, well. Here’s hoping Galaxy avoids punishing players in other ways. After all, Miyamoto promised.

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