How’d It Age #7 – Super Mario RPG

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Available On: SNES, Virtual Console, SNES Classic

It’s a bit surprising that I’m doing back to back remakes of old games that came out in the late 90s, but here we are. Where Pharaoh felt like it strayed too close to the original and could have benefited from more modernization, Super Mario RPG feels like it does a good job of maintaining what worked in the original and smoothing out some things for a modern audience while also adding a couple new features here and there that maybe don’t work as well.

I guess we’ll start out with combat, since it’s where most of the changes occurred that stood out in my head. In this case, I’ll start with the two things that didn’t necessarily work out well for me.

The first is the little meter in the bottom left corner of that screenshot. This is one of the new mechanics tied to action buttons, where you can get bonus offensive or defensive boosts if you time an A button press based on the action occurring. In this case, the meter builds up when you get good action buttons until you hit 100%. At that point you can activate a move based on the composition of your team, with each team combo having some different move. The problem I have with these is that situationally they can be very useful in a niche, but aren’t generally that useful in most cases.

For example, one of the moves heals all party members both on and off the field. It’s useful if you got nuked by a big boss move, but you’d have to have the right party combo (Mario/Peach/Mallow) be alive to activate it anyway. The big offensive combo of Mario/Bowser/Geno does a series of random attacks and buffs which can be useful in the start of a boss battle to buff your party, but it requires your healers to then skip out on the buffs. It then takes a fair number of turns to recharge the meter so often I’d be sitting there holding onto it considering whether it’s worth using only to then finish the fights anyway. It’s one of those ideas that on paper sounds good, but in practice falls to a lot of the classic JRPG problem of holding onto something for so long that you lose the chance to use it.

Another thing that didn’t work out as well for me was the inclusion of randomized special enemies. These are nice in one respect in that they drop frog coins, which makes collecting them much easier than in the original game. However, the special enemies have weird mechanics (ex: nearly immune to physical damage, faster move speed, etc) and very little other over the top reward, so it again feels like a case where the idea is good on paper but not really baked enough to be a fun feature.

However, new things are much more positive for me from there. There are three small changes tied to the action button mechanic that all end up summing up to a much greater whole for the feature.

The first is the inclusion of a little (!) symbol to teach you the timing. This will show up the first handful of times you have to hit the action on a new move, both offensively and defensively. It allows you to learn the timing on the fly without the guess work of the original game. The nice thing is that once you get the timing right a few times, it goes away. However, if you later start to then miss the timing consistently it will come back until you learn the timing again. This is a fantastic way to teach players quickly about new moves, while allowing timing to be wildly different for different types of attacks. It also removes the feeling of being hand holdy by going away and letting the player succeed through repetition or fail for a while before it comes back.

The second is that successful action button attacks now change the damage to be AoE, doing about 25% damage to all non-targeted NPCs in the attack. My initial instinct was that this was going to make the game much easier, and it certainly does. However, where that ease comes in is just making trash fights much quicker. Now if I’m not quite one-shotting enemies, I can still just move on and attack other NPCs. More often than not, I would be able to clear a normal 3-person trash fight in 3 attacks by simply focusing each target once and letting the AoE take over. It’s ultimately a huge time saving reward for getting your action timing right, and not something that necessarily is negatively impacting difficulty.

The third is the chain mechanic. Getting action button timing right will build up the chain, providing stacking buffs to the entire party. Each party member then has stats tied to them that apply to this. For example, Mallow increases magic attack while Geno increases physical attack and speed. What this allows you to do as the player is to mix and match your party for the situation beyond just what moves the member does. It’s again something that has the effect of making the game easier on paper, but also providing a strong incentive towards hitting your timing just right. This becomes incredibly important in the post-game when the player is fighting boss rematches on the way to fighting the ultimate form of Culex.

The final thing that I want to point out is how much better inventory management is. Rather than being a fixed list of 20 or so items that you can carry, you can now carry infinite items but with a limit per item type. For example, you can carry 10 mushrooms total or 6 pick me ups total. Anything over that amount is sent back to storage at Mario’s house. This just gets rid of so much hassle from the original game. You’re no longer keeping an empty slot just to pick up flower tabs. You’re no longer fighting with whether a revive is more important than a syrup. You’re no longer scrolling through the long unwieldy list for one specific thing. It’s such a small change but it modernizes the game incredibly well.

This is very clearly a lovingly crafted remake. It maintains the wonderful gameplay of the original game, completely revamps the visuals (because hoooooo boy the 2D didn’t age well on non-CRTs), reorchestrates the wonderful soundtrack, and does just enough to play the balance between nostalgia and modernization. It shows why the original game was so well received 25+ years ago and manages to still feel like a great experience now.

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.

Game Ramblings #131 – Bowser’s Fury

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Switch

I’ll make this simple – Super Mario 3D World is still fun and still worth playing. If you buy the cart just for that game, you’ll be happy. However, Bowser’s Fury is easily the more interesting part of the package. It’s an entire experiment in what Mario could be as an open world game. Some of it works well, some of it doesn’t, but it’s an interesting look into what the future of the series could potentially be.

It took me a while to really put my finger on what this game felt like, but it hit me that this feels like playing Super Mario Galaxy, minus the gravity manipulation. As you run around the world, you hit cat gates that act as the entries to individual objective areas. Each of these areas acts similar to a galaxy in that you go through it multiple times to get shines, and each shine has its own little modifications to the environment of the section. Where the magic comes in is that there’s no load times. You finish a shine and can go wherever you want. The next time you come back to the area, a new shine is available and the modifications to the environment in the area are already active.

From a general game rhythm perspective, it ends up being a sped up version of Galaxy. It’s such a small functional change, but not having to drop out of the world speeds up the game so much. You finish a shine and just keep going. There’s no transition back to an overworld or hub. There’s no waiting on loads and title screens. You just run and go. It helps that some shines are also available for partial credit as you run around doing others. For example, each area has a cat badge collection shine that can be finished at any time, including in the middle of working on other shines. It all feeds back into keeping the player moving as much as possible, rather than having to hop back and forth.

This kind of feeds back into what I talked about in the Ys IX ramblings, but this ends up being a game that just keeps you moving, and it’s what I’m most excited about in a potential open world Mario game. Super Mario Odyssey did a great job of packing the individual worlds with a ton of stuff. While those worlds were big and fun, they were also distinctly separate. Taking the scale and scope of things to do and packing it into a future open world (maybe an entire open Mushroom Kingdom?) is something that I never really thought was possible. After playing Bowser’s Fury, I think there’s a nugget of possibility there.

On the other hand, the Bowser part of this experience is just kind of average. As a mechanic tied into the story it serves its purpose but it just isn’t that fun. Bowser pops up periodically to basically just fuck shit up. He throws a bunch of crap around that basically serves to annoy you and then you either fight him as giant Mario or he goes away after a short period of time. There’s also a number of shines that require Bowser’s fury attacks to break some blocks and give access to shines. It just ends up feeling like an unnecessary distraction from the exploration. In general I’d expect this to not exist in a larger open world Mario game, so I’m not overly worried about its existence, but I could deal without the player friction it causes.

However, the boss fight portion of it is fun. Fighting as giant Mario vs Godzilla Bowser is really cool. Mechanically, it’s not that far off of normal Mario fights, but suddenly being as big as an entire level section is fun. Picking up a giant rock spear and chucking it at Bowser is fun. Trying to whack him out of a side spin with your cat attacks is fun. Like most Mario boss fights it isn’t complex, but it’s extremely satisfying.

This is distinctly an experiment. It’s absolutely a pack-in for the port of Super Mario 3D World, but it’s a fascinating way for Nintendo to experiment. They can sell the main game on its own, but still get a lot of player feedback in a way that doesn’t allow for failure. If people don’t like the experiment, no harm, they still have the main game. However, if people do like the experiment? You gave them a great bonus experience and got a ton of good feedback.

Given how well this one turned out, I wouldn’t be that surprised if the next Mario is open world. This one felt instantly recognizable, but new at the same time. Having a very Galaxy-style environment setup without load times is fresh and interesting in a way that surprised me. I could live without the Bowser mechanics, but give me a game with the rest of this experiment and I suspect I’ll be a happy camper.