Game Ramblings #178 – Super Mario Bros Wonder

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Switch

It’s not that I thought the New Super Mario Bros series were bad, but they were incredibly safe. The platforming was fun and solid, but it wasn’t necessarily anything new and interesting. NSMB and NSMB Wii were clearly outclassed by the two Galaxy games. NSMB2 and NSMBU were clearly outclassed the also safe 3D Land and 3D World. It wasn’t really a bad thing that the series then went on effective hiatus while Mario Maker took over and Odyssey wowed the world. Wonder finally feels like the 2D series’ Odyssey moment.

If I was just going to sit here and talk about how Mario feels to run and jump and whatever, it’s basically NSMB for me again. The core physics still feels a bit slower than I’d prefer, at least to a point. There is a couple noticeable small changes that really help this feel snappier than the older titles, and they both have to do with stopping.

One of my biggest problems with NSMB physics is how slow stopping is. If I’m trying to hit a tight platform it was usually safer to jump when I landed in order to reset using air movement, because if I was to just let go of the stick I would generally fall off. Wonder has drastically faster stopping allowing me to usually just land. It’s a small change but makes the game feel incredibly better in precise spots. Reversing direction is similar. In NSMB reversing from a sprint would slide you for a while, then you’d reverse direction and accelerate normally. Wonder combines the quicker stopping with what I can only describe as a speed boost to make sure that if you’re reversing direction you are quickly reversing direction. It makes things like vertical segments hopping between platforms incredibly better.

However, the thing about Wonder isn’t so much that it ultimately feels all that different, but it embraces fun for the sake of fun. The key around all of that is the Wonder Flower system they’ve setup. What it basically is is a system that changes the level for a short period of time – typically 30 seconds or less. The media I’m posting in this rambling are all examples of that. Sometimes it’s just turning the level into a musical number for the sake of it. Sometimes you have fundamental shifts in the mechanics of the level, like the long Mario above. At some points you’ll take over the bodies of an enemy in segments very reminiscent of Mario Odyssey, such as taking over a Goomba who can’t jump but can hide behind foliage in the background layer. The thing about all of these changes is that they aren’t fundamentally changing the game away from being a platformer, but they’re providing a fun change of pace in a way that is entirely unique to the level. You never really know what you’re going to get into when you activate one of the Wonder Flowers, but what you do know is it’s going to be entertaining.

The other part of all this that is incredibly impressive is how much variety there is in this system, and that extends across the whole game. Besides the core platforming mechanics, most levels have unique mechanics that you might only see two or three times in the entire game. One flower that sticks out in my head is a segment in which you’re thrown into a box sublevel that rotates periodically, forcing you to keep up with the rotation as walls become floors and ceilings. The screenshot above transforms the entire game into a near direct copy of the SNES title Smart Ball and is only used in maybe three levels. There are segments where you’re floating in the sky avoiding lightning and enemies. There’s a spot where Mario literally becomes a walking piece of a platform that can bounce things away. There are a couple sections where you’re platforming around on a flying dragon. There are a couple levels where there is specifically an enemy that will eat things like powerups if you don’t get to them in time.

The list here can go on and on because there’s a ton of variety in the roughly 70 main levels you run across. However, the point I guess is that across that you might be seeing 30 or 40 mechanics that are used two or three times and seem like they were created simply because they thematically fit with the level they belonged in. It’s such a rarity for any game to have mechanics simply for the sake of it enhancing the rest of the surrounding experience. It’s even more rare for there to be such a wide array of low-use mechanics and still have them be both fun and quick to learn on the fly. Mario Wonder manages to pull that off to an amazing level of quality that just isn’t seen by most other studios.

That attention to detail extends to the visuals as well, and that’s hugely important coming off of NSMB. Visually I could only describe those games as being at best sufficient. They were generally overly safe and overly boring. Everything served a functional purpose, but it didn’t really feel alive. Animation was kind of stiff, the backgrounds were pretty static, and overall it felt kind of lazy,

Super Mario Wonder is so much the polar opposite that I can’t believe we didn’t see any of this before. It’s easy to look at Mario’s core animations and be impressed with the level of quality given to him. A lot of this is thanks to them switching from a pure side view to more of a three-quarter view, giving him a ton of facial detail that they use. However, it’s the little things that really caught my attention. There’s fun little moments everywhere, such as Goombas being asleep (with the requisite snot bubble) if they come in from off screen. There’s stuff like enemies emoting panic if they fall off a ledge or if a nearby enemy gets hit by a fire flower. There’s entire scenes like the first video where the entire world is singing and dancing. It all has just a ton of life that was missing from 2D Mario. And that’s all to say nothing of the backgrounds, which are full of color and full of a ton of depth. This feels like a modern gaming experience now, rather than the pretty safe and boring NSMB levels.

I really didn’t think that this game was going to be as good as it turned out. Early trailers gave me some hope that it would be fun, but it’s still surprising to me that this game isn’t just a much better visual treatment of NSMB‘s core gameplay. This feels like a studio that was given an incredible amount of time to deliver something fun, and really took that to heart to give players a game that is just packed to the brim with things serving that core goal.

How’d It Age #5 – Blinx: The Time Sweeper

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Xbox

When I play older games, I like to think of them with respect to their contemporaries. Sure, part of it is just in seeing how they age generally, but also to see how they were compared to what came out at the time. The problem for Blinx is that it’s entirely outclassed by its contemporaries. While the game tried to do some interesting things, it really shows its age compared to other things that came out at the same time that I still continue to occasionally play today.

Blinx came out in October 2002, presumably to be both a mascot for Microsoft’s new console and a way to enter the Japanese market with something more familiar than Halo. The problem is that it was a very busy year for platformers. Looking at the list of big entries we’ve got:

  • Rayman Revolution in January 2001
  • Jak and Daxter in December 2001
  • Ape Escape 2 in July 2002 for Japan
  • Super Mario Sunshine in August 2002
  • Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus in September 2002
  • Ratchet and Clank in November 2002

Each of those games has something I can point at that simply did things better than Blinx, and that’s ultimately the problem with playing this game now. It’s obvious that even at the time it wasn’t doing anything well so much as doing things simply adequately.

For pure platforming, you could easily pick Jak and Daxter or Sly Cooper as the obviously better targets. In both cases, it simply comes down to speed. Movement in Blinx is excruciatingly slow in a way that really surprises me. It often feels like I’m moving at about half the speed I want to. It basically results in jumps being only for vertical purposes. They often play into that with the time control powers (ex: a bridge falls, you can’t double jump the gap – you have to rewind to rebuild the bridge), but that gets into another core problem with the game.

The collection aspect of time powers is a weird thing where you have to build combos of symbols from items dropped in the world. If you match 3 or 4, then you gain some time powers. However, if you don’t match that many before you’ve collected 4 total items, you lose them all. It’s a needlessly complicated system that simply serves to do two things – makes me go slower to avoid picking things up by accident, and makes me backtrack when I figure out the core conceit of the level and what specific time power I require. It serves to loop back to my point that the platforming feels slow, because the mechanics are simply reinforcing that.

The other core mechanic in place is a vacuum to suck up and eject trash at enemies. This is where Ratchet and perhaps Luigi’s Mansion come into play a bit. Sucking up trash is another thing that is excruciatingly slow. It requires you to stand still, suck up a thing for a while then move on. However, you can also suck up the time power items from above, which again reinforces going super slow to be careful to not screw up your combo. This would have been so much better served being a move that lets you passively pull things in that are weaponry and ignore the time powers, as well as not requiring you to stop moving to do so.

Ratchet and Clank is definitely the comparison for the shooting end of things, though perhaps it’s more the second or third game in that series that are better comparisons. In this game, it’s extremely easy to just miss your shots entirely. This game would have been better served with aim assist that later Ratchet titles had to make shots more reliable, but even against the first entry this just doesn’t feel like it spent enough time letting the shooting mechanics cook. It feels hard to aim and doesn’t really feel powerful. Enemies have pretty weird immunity frames – particularly for long periods after they’re hit – that just break the pace of whatever combat was being attempted. Overall this is just a case where it feels like the weaponry aspect is just unnecessary against a more traditional stompy platformer setup.

The final game in that list then is Super Mario Sunshine, and in this case I think the comparison is in the friction of taking damage. Blinx suffers from two problems in this case. The first is that taking damage simply breaks the flow of action in a negative manner. When you take damage, the action pauses, you rewind 5 or so seconds into the past, and lose ALL progress that had happened during that time, even if it was killing some other enemies. In large combat scenarios, it’s pretty frustrating to lose that progress to a hit. You also have a pretty limited set of hits that you can take (start at 3, expandable with in-game currency purchases) that can only be recharged via the time power matching system above or via a shop between levels. It’s slow to regain the retries and frustrating to run out of them.

Compare this against Mario Sunshine’s damage mechanics, where you can take a bunch of hits before losing a life, can easily recharge that with coins scattered all over the place, and time doesn’t stop if you take damage. This results in another case where the mechanics reinforce the game feeling slow, since it felt like I was being pushed to fundamentally avoid damage, rather than just minimize it.

It’s one thing to be frustrated by a game that simply feels old. Billy Hatcher from a couple posts back is a good example of that. However, this game is frustrating because it landed in the middle of a 3D platformer golden age and simply couldn’t keep up. Other games for other platforms were simply doing its core set of mechanics better. All that said, it’s available on Game Pass and you could do worse than free.

How’d It Age #4 – Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Gamecube via Dolphin

This is such a Sonic team game. It’s a strange concept that could seemingly only come out in the early 00s. It’s a 3D platformer that completely skips the lessons that Nintendo was giving out with their own games. It has every single problem that the Sonic Adventure games have. But despite that, it’s still surprisingly fun.

The one thing that really stood out to me was how fun the egg mechanic was. Besides eggs giving you core abilities (faster movement, jumping, attacks, etc), it was just fun to see what would come out of them. Sometimes it’s little helper dudes with elemental powers that can help traverse levels (ex: a water-based seal that can put out fires). Sometimes it’s hats that can provide additional benefits to your eggs (Ex: iron egg that increases attack power). Sometimes it’s useful items (ex: TNT that you can toss at enemies). You can learn over time what the eggs are, but because they are sort of scattered around the levels haphazardly, you’re encouraged to rapidly grow and hatch the eggs and move onto the next one so you can build your arsenal up throughout a single mission. By the end of the level, you’ll typically have some partner animal, some hat, some item, and be able to use them to achieve whatever the specific goal of the mission is.

More often than not I was kind of ignoring where I was trying to go and just looking around to find eggs for the sake of finding new things to hatch, which is an interesting change from what is otherwise a pretty standard platformer setup. Each world has a set of missions that you do one at a time, where you kind of traverse different sections of the area during a specific mission. Disconnected from the egg stuff, it’s not really all that different from a Mario 64 pattern. However, the eggs provide a distraction and thing to go after that Mario or even Sonic Adventure really didn’t have.

However, it’s pretty obvious that this is a Sonic Team game because it has all of the hallmark problems of the rest of their 3D titles of that era. The game starts out pretty manageable, with simple flowing level designs that really encourage the higher pace egg rolling, but it starts to slowly go off the rails. Levels start concentrating more on platforming, which works fine but isn’t really a strong point. In a lot of cases, it just feels like there isn’t much flex room in the platformer timing. Gaps aren’t quite forgiving enough or platforms are a little too tall for the jump height to where it doesn’t necessarily feel hard but feels unnecessarily frustrating.

In particular, you start running into wonky physics issues as things get more complicated. Sometimes it’ll be that your egg gets on top of a platform but you don’t, causing you to fall to your doom. Sometimes it’s a slightly unpredictable way that your character’s speed works that causes you to roll off the edge of a platform instead of stopping. Sometimes it’s a set of rails that you’re trying to roll onto that you instead clip through. This is all distinctly not aided by a typical Sonic Team camera. It has a habit of turning when you don’t want it to. It has a habit of not ever being focused on the boss that is attacking you. It has a habit of clipping through the environment and completely blocking your view.

However, those were all things that I was expecting. I know it sounds weird to go into a game expecting some subset of bad things to be there, but with Sonic Team that’s just kind of the experience I know I’m getting into, for better or worse. Nights had these problems. Sonic Adventure had these problems. Post-Sega games like Balan Wonderworld still had these problems. It’s just one of those things that I go in expecting, so I was annoyed but not unhappy about it. The thing that kept me playing was the rest of the stuff around the known garbage, and that was fun. The core egg stuff was all just kind of fun enough for this to still be good 20 years later. It’s a weird little 00s with all those problems, but it’s still a totally fun experience despite the issues.