Sunday, January 22, 2012

Archives: Mario in the Uncanny Valley

It's funny how the presence of a pig can totally shatter one's perception of the universe.

...Okay maybe I should back up. I've been playing (for the first time, mind you) Super Mario Land 2, an old Gameboy title which was released on the 3DS eShop a couple days ago, and, much like the first Super Mario Land, there's something I find just ever so slightly off about it. Maybe even moreso than its predecessor.

The first Mario Land game (which is also on the eShop) actually finds a lot of its unique appeal in its ever-so-slightly-off-yness. It plays with our expectations and uses them against us, often to its own advantage--Koopa shells turn into bombs when stomped instead of becoming a useful projectile; the game doesn't offer the usual brief pause when you acquire a power-up; the angle of your fireball doesn't quite match up with that of the NES games. These little touches are kind of clever in that they add subtle, yet nonetheless game-changing tweaks to the established Mario formula that force us to actually learn new skills, or at least ignore ones that worked the last time around. It uses its nostalgia as a weapon, which is a pretty interesting concept.

Super Mario Land 2, however, just feels wrong. Despite the ocassional koopa and goomba (and of course, the fact that you play as Mario) at no point did I ever really feel like I was playing a Mario game. Which is rather confounding when you think about it, since this sequel is generally praised as being a vast improvement over its predecessor.

To the game's credit, it does make some minor improvements. The physics are more akin to those found in Mario's more famous adventures, for example; the visuals are much more crisp and it's nice that the game takes more than 30 minutes to beat. And yet I found myself sincerely struggling to find a single thing I genuinely 
liked about the experience.

Maybe it's because my mind wouldn't let me.

When we play a game like Heavy Rain, we often get the Uncanny Valley effect--the faces on display look just unrealistic enough that it actually causes revulsion. It's the tiny details that cause the problem. Maybe the lips don't quiver enough, or the cheek muscles don't quite synch up with the mouth muscles when the character is talking, or the eyes blink too infrequently. Whatever it may be, these little abnormalities stick out to us, make us squint in discomfort and make it difficult for us to empathize with the character on display.

Playing Super Mario Land 2 feels kind of like that. The little abnormalities conflict with my mind's pre-existing criterion for what makes a Mario game "feel" like a Mario game, and as a result, I can't quite accept it.

For one thing, the Mario we've come to know lives in a world of its own mythology and rules. Sure, the Mushroom Kingdom has mushrooms and turtles, but they don't act like our mushrooms and turtles. In the Mushroom Kingdom, they're not only anthropomorphic, but they have a surface area the same exact width of our feet so that we may easily stomp upon them and use them to our advantage. Enemies are slight variations of real-world creatures, objects and simple shapes.

The story of the The Three Little Pigs has no place in the Mario universe. Pigs have no place in the Mario universe, especially not pigs that look like every other cartoon Bob Clampet-esque pig you've ever seen. Witches have no place in the Mario universe. That's what we have Magikoopas for. 25 years worth of Mario games have taught me that the only humanoid characters in the Mario universe are Mario, Luigi and Peach. Everyone knows this. My brain instinctively rejects anything contrary, just as it is subconsciously irritated by the vast array of ugly enemies that are either slightly too big or slightly too small for my little feet to jump on comfortably. And why is this Goomba bigger than this Koopa? Shouldn't it be the other way around? And why is this ant-creature so bulgy-eyed and well drawn, whereas the koopa looks flat and pixely? And what's this deranged fish-cow hybrid thing that swims around in pools of floating jello? Why does it exist, if not to repulse my established understanding of what a Mario enemy is supposed to look like?

“But Jacob,” you say, “this game is charming 
because of its differences.” Well, fictitious person of my own devising, I must sincerely disagree. Mario has had “black-sheep” outings prior to and since Super Mario Land 2 and I've enjoyed all of them. Super Mario Bros. 2, for example, or Super Mario Sunshine. What makes these games successful is that their differences are made known within the opening minutes or even seconds of play. As soon as you encounter your first enemy in Super Mario Bros. 2, it's obvious that the ol' “jump-on-the-enemy's-head” trick just doesn't work, just as Super Mario Sunshine makes it clear that you're going to need to use the wonders of jet-propulsion if you're going to clear that first gap in Bianca Hills. 
Super Mario Land 2's differences do not fundamentally alter gameplay. They change it aesthetically just enough to make it feel wrong. It does not feel like a singular artistic vision; the enemies and worlds all look like they were drawn by different artists for different games, and then mish-mashed together with a few Mario tropes. Not long after Super Mario Land 2 was released we would have a term for these Mario Games That Don't Feel Like Mario Games: “Wario Games.”

No comments:

Post a Comment