Sunday, January 22, 2012

Archives: This Land is My Land

Rarely am I speechless. Most people who know me would tell you that I talk too much. I talk even (perhaps especially) when there's no one to talk to. If I'm by myself playing a game, I talk. I rant at Nathan Drake when he misses that jump. I read the dialogue boxes in Zelda out loud, giving each character a different, silly voice. I provided sarcastic commentary throughout my playthrough of Heavy Rain. I don't do this because I'm crazy, I don't think (the latter example was actually a means of keeping my sanity). I think a part of me does it because I find it entertaining. Mostly though, I suspect that I find that I do it because the games, typically, just don't have anything to say. So I do all the talking instead.

It came to my surprise then, that, save for one instance, my playthrough of Super Mario 3D Land was entirely silent. That one instance occurred a few minutes into the first level of the game—the effectiveness of stereoscopic 3D had sunk in, the brilliance of the decision to reintroduce the “run” button into a 3D Mario game was becoming increasingly evident. I said, to no one, “this game is amazing.” After that there was nothing more that needed to be said.

Which is to say, Super Mario 3D Land is an awe-inspiring game, built to surprise us, enthrall us, and entertain us in a way that only video games can. You will find no narrative in Super Mario 3D Land, only an objective: save the princess. Our motivations for carrying out our objective are not character driven or story driven, because Nintendo knows that other mediums would be able to do that better. Film has had over a hundred-year head start; literature, thousands. But Nintendo understands the language of games perhaps better than anyone, and they know how to motivate their players: with fun; excitement; peril; danger; challenge; wonder. They evoke these emotions through a superlative mastery and of both 2D and 3D level design—which have been synthesized here to the point of almost creating a new genre—and player control. Whether they play for a few minutes, or hours on end, players will feel a cathartic, almost symbiotic relationship with Mario, simply because controlling him is so tactile and satisfying. The way the Italian plumber controls surpasses anything we've seen in the 15 years since Mario 64 first introduced the concept of analogue control for a 3D platformer. Playing with Mario recalls playing with Hot Wheels cars on a smooth surface as a child: the cars seem bigger, realer and more wonderful than they really are because you feel that you're in complete control over them. For me, the kid in me at least, playing with Hot Wheels cars will always be more fun than driving a real car, because the sense of danger is purely fictional. If my Hot Wheel falls off a table, I merely have to pick it back up again. And so Nintendo gives us plenty of lives in Super Mario 3D Land, not to make the game easier, but to make it more fun. Even though I had 63 in the bank by the end of my adventure, I still couldn't help but smile whenever one of those little green mushrooms popped up. 

More importantly, Super Mario 3D Land entertains us in ways that only the 3DS can. Some people will not “get” the 3D. The effect will be described as something along the lines of “merely a visual flourish” to cynics, 3D detractors, or people that simply aren't paying attention. And you really do have to pay attention: SM3DL is so convincing in its argument for the value of stereoscopic 3D that you might not even realize it's making an argument in the first place. Its execution is so fully realized and immediately convincing that we don't even think to marvel at it, because for all its magic, it is never intrusive. From Level 1-1 the game presents us with pitch-perfect platforming and revolutionary visuals; every level after that is simply meeting expectations.

Back to the difficulty: 3D Land struck me as an easy game for the majority of the adventure. Then I hit a certain point (world 3 I think it was) where I realized that it was becoming routine for me to lose 5 to 10 lives per level. And with this realization, I found out a little something about myself: until this point, I had always equated a platformer's challenge to the amount of frustration it caused. I lost more lives than I'd care to count on my road to Bowser's Castle, yet I never once went on a cursing rant, threw my 3DS across the room or snapped it shut in anger. There are several reasons for this. First of all, thanks to the stereoscopic 3D, the real distances between objects are now so well defined that the challenge paradigm completely shifts to pure timing and mastery of the jump mechanics. Not once did I die because I incorrectly perceived the distance between two platforms—if I died, it was because I mistimed a long-jump, or got a little greedy with my Propeller Block.

Every 3D Mario game since Super Mario Sunshine has sought to accentuate a certain aspect of platforming and build an entire game around it: for Sunshine, it was physics; for Galaxies 1 and 2, it was gravity; 3D Land takes on a significantly trickier subject—depth perception—yet executes it no less eloquently. To play Mario 3D Land with the 3D turned off is to play an average Mario game. It would be like playing Uncharted 3 on a grainy, standard definition television. HD is Uncharted's bread and butter: without its astonishingly realized and exhaustively detailed characters and environments, Uncharted is reduced to decent platforming, average shooting-mechanics, and rudimentary puzzle-solving. 3D Land holds up better than this with the 3D off, but the point remains: unless you're physically unable to view the 3D, you'd be doing yourself a disservice to turn down that slider. Unlike films, which lose color, brightness and picture clarity with 3D glasses, Super Mario 3D Land's glasses-less 3D visuals become more vibrant, more colorful, more clear the higher the 3D setting. Even more than Ocarina of Time 3D, playing 3D Land is like holding a miniature world in your hands—the smaller, more focused, more enclosed level designs often made it feel like I was gazing into an elaborate shoebox diorama. Neat.

All of this, by the way, came as a complete surprise to me. I went into the game expecting an average Mario game—which is to say, I expected a great game, but not a fantastic one. I got a fantastic one. What's more, I got one that proves beyond a doubt stereoscopic 3D is not just a visual gimmick: it is an invaluable tool, and in its best moments, a giddily clever gameplay mechanic. I said all this without even mentioning the camera: like the 2D Marios, the camera is not something that's controlled by the player, except for the occasional and brief nudge up or down; and like the 2D Mario games, you'd rarely even think to move it. In every moment, Nintendo has positioned the camera in such a way that not only are you playing at the most helpful angle, but also the most clever.

Along with Portal 2 and Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP, Super Mario 3D Land immediately plants itself as one of the most endlessly clever (there's a word I keep coming back to), lovingly designed, and artistically gorgeous games of the year. By passionately embracing their influences, these games serve as both a comprehensive history of over 25 years of game design while also paving the way for games to come. So Super Mario Land 3D is a perfect Mario game, and yet, so was Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Super Mario Galaxy 2. Coming from a company that is constantly ridiculed for being stuck in the past, I find myself in awe at Nintendo's ability to take me to exciting new places. New worlds. New lands.

In fact I think I'll go there right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment