I've just spent 12 hours playing a Mario game. Wait, what?
I can vividly remember seeing my Daily Log for the night,
and the resulting feeling of horror, disbelief...and excitement.
It was the first time in a long time that I'd spent 12 hours or more on anything.
At this point, "Champion's Road", the final level of Super Mario 3D World has consumed:
The gap in difficulty, in the basic mode of engagement, between this tiny slice of the game and everything surrounding it, is such that this level seems to me a game unto itself.
Most Super Mario levels, and most Super Mario games, can be played without need for serious rehearsal, if not totally blind. What is key is to improvise, to see new problems as they arise, react, and endure. You slip through stage after stage by thinking on your feet, but not here. Succeeding at "Champion's Road" is not a matter of skill, and thus this stage cannot be run blind.
Or, if it can, only by a genuine bodily-kineasthetic genius, which I am not.
No, this level is too chaotic, too demanding to be taken in at once, to be anything but a puzzle to chip away at, a routine to be memorized, life after life, wild guess after guess. It's all a matter of time invested for patterns to emerge from the noise, and shortcuts and strategies to suggest themselves.
Most Super Mario levels are not too difficult. Most official ones, anyway. But I would like to meet the designer of this one and ask them if they've played any good ROMhacks, because you'll only find gags like these in the works of Kayin and T. Takemoto.
Or so I thought.
I used to joke about how the game handed you lives on a silver platter, but if I'd known what to expect, I would've asked for a doggie bag. As is, I had a whopping hundred-fifty, give or take, and I still had to reset over and over again.
So why did I stay? Why did I choose to subject myself to an entire night of this torture? There were a number of reasons. It was the last level of the game, for one thing, for real this time, and the Sunk-Cost Glitch dictated that I had to see this through to the end. especially since (or so I rationalized to myself,) this was the only free night I'd have for a long time. I'd even stashed a bottle of soda away for the victory I could've sworn was coming six hours ago. I wouldn't touch it again for a week afterwards.
But more than that, I think I liked it.
I was a zombie at the end of the night,
only nominally awake,
reduced to a half-conscious node in an automated feedback loop,
hope of payoff approaching zero,
and I liked it.
I fed on my pain,
on my numbness,
on my shock and awe at the cruelty of the thing,
and I liked it, somehow! Somehow.
But then, it was only painful the first few times.
After that, I went on autopilot,
and I reached a point where I could move without thinking,
and simply will myself from one segment to the next,
many accidents notwithstanding.
It was a trance, a meditation, my incorporation,
not like mastery, not even close.
Mastery was an endpoint; this was the in-between.
Mastery brought knowledge; this brought nothingness.
Rhythmic, ritualistic motions that so burn themselves into the grooves in your brain
that your hands feel uncomfortably light after you've put the controller down.
What I mean by incorporation is really when you fall in sync with the rhythms of the game.
Those rhythms were pleasant enough to carry me through to the end,
the jumps and dashes as dashes and dots,
action and rest,
straightaways and curves,
hypnotic, like a song, its points and counterpoints ever evolving,
a callikinetic composition.
It's something so ridiculously simple, but you could build an entire game on it and walk away happy.
...Yes, but do we really remember any of it?
I'd like to take a moment to address a concern raised by Daniel Floyd (Narrator, Extra Credits) over the merit of a medium which leaves so little to the memory, such that players can barely recall the details of a half-hour session, relative to literature or cinema.
I think videogames do leave a lot to the memory. I think Mr. Floyd's just checking the wrong partition. Remember that long-term memory comes in a few different forms; Where the other media mentioned are allocated to episodic memory, videogames stick to procedural memory, and they stick with a grip like all the glue in the world. You may not be able to consciously recall the set of inputs that got you to the other side of World 8-4. That makes sense; it's implicit memory, not explicit. It's below conscious awareness. But it's still there, and you can still retrieve it, and if I hand you the controller again after a year's gone by, you'd waltz through that maze like it was yesterday.
It's like learning to ride a bicycle. You remember how to ride a bicycle, don't you?
I find it fascinating that there exists a form that plays with that corner of the brain in much the same way that literature plays with language
and cinema plays with light and sound. And I find that I do remember those aspects of the game that I had to think about the most, to be the most aware of, to process and internalize the most deeply. If you gave me a piece of paper, I could draw from memory a fairly accurate map of "Champion's Road", all major landmarks intact. If you asked, I could recite from memory the steps that made a successful run, more or less exactly, The procedures and the shape of the space.
Which brings me to my third motivating force: that I liked the moves I was making.
I'd sometimes stop and stare, stunned, at my own actions, the kind of moves I'd until then only seen from a Naegleria or a Siglemic, a speedrunner. And here I was, moving with a level of grace and precision that was as delightful to watch as it was utterly alien to watch coming from me. I can't remember whether it was after this level or the one preceding it that I had to momentarily stop playing and glare at my hands in disbelief.
It was mystifying, but also demystifying. That's really all there is to it, isn't it? Hours logged? I guess I'd simply never had to try so hard.
That's right. I did have to try, and try, and try, just to keep my head above water. The first few attempts were chaos, which is to say that the level, what little I saw of it, registered in my mind as utter chaos, as television static,
platforms splayed about with no rhyme or reason or escape from an endless barrage of cannonballs. But soon as I'd managed to eke out a few opening moves, the space around me began to take on a very different shape. A level, a grid, emerged from the static as though out of thin air, and I was acutely aware of the way that this arbitrary stimulus was being decoded into a meaningful pattern, a process that would normally be subconscious, automatic, imperceptible...if the subject weren't so disorienting.
It wasn't until I had those opening moves down that I was able to think clearly,
and once I could think clearly, I could improvise, experiment with alternative strategies, time savers and backup plans, go from trying to keep my head above water to really swimming.
They didn't make it easy to focus. The level often looked like it was deliberately designed to intimidate, the final section so cluttered with dash panels and shockwave generators as to evoke the kind of very enthusiastic child who turns on Super Mario Maker and dumps in a bucket of Bowsers, or turns on Lode Runner and throws you nothing but spikes.
It's only once you're in there that it starts to make any sense. That's all part of the show, of course, just a way of setting the mood, much like the various characters that pop in from time to time to cheer you on as you make your slow progress, or the reappearance of old friends from throughout the game who wait for you at the final screen, which is set on a fairytale castle with a floor made of puffy white clouds, decorated with stacks of treasure, which you ride into on a rainbow slide.
It's the reason the level is set in the heavens, for one thing.
I mentioned earlier that the level was a puzzle to chip away at. Allow me to go into detail. "Champion's Road" is full of little sections like this:
These are what I like to call "Puzzle Jumps". Half the challenge of Puzzle Jumps is in the planning, in examining these arcane arrangements of blocks and objects and calculating the exact series of dashes and jumps that will get you from one end to the other. It's a puzzle with Mario's moveset as the pieces. Executing a plan is only feasible once you've solved it, and given that the solution is so unapparent on its face, a few wrong guesses are necessary as you feel around for a plan that might work, or at least take you a step further in the right direction.
In that sense, it's like Portal, only every time you guess wrong, you die. Which is also like Portal, actually. But Portal gave you infinite lives, and I didn't have those that night.
What matters here is that you have a level where dying at least once is unavoidable, and a level that looks and plays like a screen full of Bowsers,
And this is interesting because this is unusual compared to most official Mario levels, but also because it's the sort of thing that would get a custom level labeled "unfair", one the worst insults you could ever lob at an amateur Mario Maker.
"Fairness", as a standard of quality, matters so much to some players. Everything must be properly telegraphed, you have to respawn close to where you died, new rules must be introduced bit by bit, etc. The telegraphing thing is particularly inane, if you think about it. Telegraphing is assumed to mean that all obstacles can be recognized before they run the risk of harming the player.
Floors flash before disappearing, monsters rear and turn red before attacking, dangerous surfaced are clearly marked, you know. No sudden moves. No surprises. The assumption is that in a "fair" level, failure should feel like your fault and not the game's. Ideally, every obstacle should be fairly avoidable.
The problem is that this is not how it works. You know this is not how it works. Once your level is above a baseline level of difficulty, everyone is going to die at least once, no matter how fair it looks, and the higher up you go, the more seriously I mean everyone. Why say that "Rainbow Run" is "fair" while Syobon Action isn't? Either way, you're going to die at least once, no matter how "fair" the former may appear, no matter how strictly it may stick to protocol.
Such a death may not be literally inevitable, but it is functionally so, so what's the difference?
It's not like "fairness" is directly correlated with difficulty, anyway. There are masocore games that aren't particularly difficult, where finding a way around a death trap isn't particularly hard once you've tried it out the one time. Likewise, there are purportedly "fair" games and levels that are harder even than many ROMhacks (You're looking at one.) Sure, a hypothetical player should be able to clear a theoretical level without dying once as long as it's fair. But given the kinds of hoops they try to force you through late in this game, you start to wonder what this hypothetical player must be like. What does she have, six arms? Vibrating fingers? Future Vision? (Actually, that sounds pretty cool. I should draw her sometime.)
I think that a lot of the standards of "fairness" are arbitrary, focused less on the actual difficulty or completability of the level than on making the player feel powerful, capable, secure, that everything is orderly and within the player's control. that the machine is your friend, that the world makes sense,
the standard-issue power fantasy, which is probably the exact opposite of the effect you want when you're making a game like Mario. You want the player to squirm. You want them to wet their pants. You want their hearts to race as they hang on by the skin of their teeth. You don't want their brains to shut off because they know it's only a matter of time before they get their un-emotional payoff.
We may marvel at the fairness of the original Super Mario Bros. today, but was it really perceived as such back then?
...Well, that's definitely not what was emphasized.
What kept me from panicking all that way was the faith that Nintendo would never make an unbeatable level. But maybe it would've been more fun if I had panicked. It certainly would've given me more to talk about, anyway.
One final note on my demystification regarding speedrunners:
All games are like this, once you dig deep enough. As long as the layout of the world is fixed and its denizens move in fixed patterns (and Super Mario 3D World runs like clockwork!) there will always be an optimal route from any point A to any point B, maybe two or three, depending on what you're looking for (Highest score? Lowest time? 100% completion? All three?) Speedrunners are scientists in all but name, and they're in the business of disillusionment.
Furthermore, it's not just in "Champion's Road" that the game is a puzzle
and you have to balance planning and execution. You can view the whole game that way. You're always thinking about which moves to use in a given situation, and how to use your environment to your greatest advantage, and there's always a solution or two, of course. It's just that early on, the "planning" phase of the puzzles is trivially easy, and all you really need to concentrate on is the execution. Note that a low planning-to-execution ratio doesn't mean that a given stunt is "easy". Rhythm games are pretty easy to read, but they're also pretty easy to mess up on. You can tell a particular section of a level has a high planning-to-execution ratio from the amount of time that you actually have to stop and look at it before diving in. I had to do that a LOT post-game.
You could go even further and generalize this metaphor to every action game,
and this is where the walls come down and things start to get creepy,
because if every action game is a puzzle where you have to find an optimal route,
and if in all of these games, the layout of the world is fixed,
and its denizens move in fixed patterns,
then it follows that every game has an optimal route,
even "non-linear" ones,
even the ones that seem infinite and open-ended.
We've already torn Donkey Kong apart,
Hit a perfect game of Pac-Man.
Super Smash Bros. Melee is next, eventually.
And don’t even get me started on Tetris.
The only reason most of us don't notice is because most of us never get that far, nor do we need to in order to have a good time.
Even games that appear random work according to broader principles of behavior that are fixed,
And thus you can always devise a series of optimal srategies that will allow you to survive the puzzles these random puzzle generators generate forever,
or max out the score counter,
or reach the Kill Screen,
or whatever it was you were trying to accomplish.
There was this one guy who managed to last in a game of Battlezone for 6 hours. The arcade manager had to unplug the machine and kick him out. And all it comes down to is hours logged. This could be you.*
The rules of the game determine the shape of the space, but they also define its boundaries, and all games are bounded spaces,
and no game is truly boundless, and..and...oh.
...Is that what @iaiamothrafhtagn was talking about?
Some people don't take hearing this very well. For some people, hearing this is like hearing for the first time that there is no God. The one real tragedy of Chris Crawford's life** was that he spent the entirety of that life chasing the infinite, believing honestly that the fate of the entire medium depended on finding it. Here was a person who called games with branching narratives "primrose paths" because the story couldn't throw new twists at you indefinitely,
as though that ruined them somehow. At the time, I didn't know how to respond to that. But I do now, because it is never asked whether a game like Siboot, his dream project, loses a potential quality of vividness,
the touch of an author, in its push for extreme quantity of interactions
and for the systems of play that allow for that multiplicity, because all this talk about videogames as virtual dreamscapes that's been going on since the 1980s, doesn't even begin to take into account the value of authorship, or the inevitable trade-off between quantity and quality of actions and reactions, doesn't even begin to consider that if a game's principles,
it's rhyme, its reason,
it's character and psychology
are what bind it,
then the only game that could be truly boundless is a game with no principles,
no rhyme, no reason,
no character, no psychology,
no personality, no authorship,
no premise, and no purpose, and no point.
The singular pursuit of simulatory depth for its own sake is the pursuit of Virtual Reality. We are not making Virtual Reality here. Don't give us its baggage.
And why should a game last forever, anyway? What’s so wrong with the game as it is? So "Champion's Road" doesn't really let you improvise. So maybe there's a right path through every game like this, through every game.
Fine. Then let's talk about the path. Let's talk about the moves of the dance. I like that this level has a structure, because that means I get to appreciate it, to admire it, to turn it over and talk about how it's constructed and the effect that construction has on me, the player, like I'm doing right now.
To be presented with this and ask for more depth, more levels, more sequels, more content, is like being presented with the greatest meal ever,
then wolfing it down and whining that there isn't infinite food at the table.
I BET YOU DIDN'T EVEN TASTE IT.
...Do we ever just stop sometimes and ask ourselves what we're asking for?
No game lasts forever. That's not the point. The point is appreciating the contents and the shape of the space that does exist, appreciating what's actually there, and that shouldn't be a question of how many interactions you can manage, but of whether any of those interactions were worth anything to begin with.
I eventually did beat the level.
It was a night the following weekend. I was worried that I wouldn't have as much time as I did last time, and I didn't, but I finished "Champion's Road" on my second attempt, to my astonishment. It must've been muscle memory, or the consolidation of information in muscle memory, like the difference in retention between well-spaced study sessions and last-minute cramming. And, uh, being fully rested probably helped, too. In the end, I'd used far fewer lives than I thought I'd need. Ironically, just prior to this I'd discovered how to max out my life counter, to the point that it ran out of numbers and all of the digits were replaced with crowns.
The crown has had a unique history as a rare and valuable prize throughout the games it has appeared in. It first appeared in the original Super Mario Bros. and you could only get it by getting 10 lives, which would replace the number on your one-digit life counter with a little crown, which was tucked away in the leftover ROM space as a reward for players with the dexterity and quick wits needed to accomplish this.
To say that it took a special class of player to get 10 lives sounds ridiculous today, but the game was set up very differently back then. there were only two ways to get that many lives, and one of them was to get through about a quarter of the game without losing a single life, and that was assuming you collected every coin and 1up Mushroom available.
The other way was to perform the Infinite 1up Trick, a famous maneuver that involved setting a Koopa shell up next to a wall and jumping in such a way that you could bounce on it indefinitely, landing not so late that the shell slipped out from under you, but also not so soon that it nailed you. To sum up the timing needed to start a reaction like that, let alone sustain it, this accidental side effect of the game’s laws of physics was only left in the game because the developers figured that barely anybody would be able to pull it off. And to this day, they were right. (unlike in Super Mario 3D World, where they practically goad you into doing it.)
The crown also appears as the shape of Crown World, the post-post-game bonus world in which you find "Champion's Road" and the also very interesting (and demanding) "Mystery House Marathon" (which I will probably cover at a later date.)
It is also, not so coincidentally, the icon of "Champion's Road" itself.
So this item, needless to say, has acquired a bit of symbolism over the years.
That symbolism is related to another recurring feature of the series, the term "Super Player". It started out as a title bestowed by Peach on players who cleared Super Mario Bros.' Hard Mode, which replaced all the goombas with fireproof, jump-proof Buzzy Beetles, sped up the enemies, modified level layouts, and added hazards where there weren't any before. a mode that you had to beat the game to even be allowed into. "Super Player" went on to be part of a subtitle added to Super Mario Bros. 2 (which also used the phrase after you reached the secret World 9) when it was ported outside Japan as part of Super Mario Bros. Deluxe for the Game Boy Color, a move that was meant to denote the game's difficulty, but also the kind of player who might be interested in it, the kind of player that the developers of these games have always gone out of their way to acknowledge, the kind of player designated by the crown.
But "Super Player" is not just meant to refer to someone who's good at the game. It's crucial to note many of the post-game rewards, like an instant life refill, or 28 P-Wings to provide you with unlimited flight until the timer ran out, or a seasonal makover for the world and all the characters, or even just the ability to select a level freely (a big deal in 1985,) were intended to encourage exploration. What kind of exploration? Exploration of just the levels? No, not just that. Exploration of the game itself, its possibility space. The same spirit of exploration that might lead someone to discover the Infinite 1up Trick, or uncover the crown, or understand the game so completely that you can beat it in 5 minutes, coming from the kind of player on whom you know that the beauty of the game's structure will not be lost, the kind of player whose existence makes gestures like these worth it.
At the end of each level, you can post a comment that other players may see when they beat it. The comment can be either text or a drawing.
I drew a picture of a crown. Accompanying it was a message congratulating the player, saying that they'd earned it, that they were a Super Player. Not a lot of people get this far, but maybe somebody someday might see it. I guess I just wanted to complete the experience, in whatever small way I could.
There are lots of small ways you can complete the experience in this game. While Miiverse kinda fails as a social media platform, Super Mario 3D World's Miiverse integration makes a combined product that is better than either of them would have been alone. It's the reason I have a Miiverse account,
the only one. Players commenting on the levels can post their best times (for lack of a global leaderboard,) and share secrets (I did need to resort to this once,) in addition to commentary on the level in question. They can even comment on the world map; their Miis will appear as ghost-like avatars who will spout their saved comments when you walk up to them. These are the people who will gasp at plot twists, rage at hard levels, and celebrate getting as far as they do. They're like the audience in a theater; their energy is infectious.
Granted, a lot of the potential of the feature is hamstrung by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the game’s players are children, so that for every really effective post you get a bunch like this:
or, uh, this:
But another interesting result of Miiverse integration is that you end up with moments like these:
It took until I reached Crown World for me to realize that we were the NPCs in this game, that we had all unwittingly written ourselves into this story, become a part of this unfinished project, even poor little Alex. At the time, I thought the best I could do with my account was comment on the experience, not realizing that I could also choose to be a part of the experience, to be an NPC worth stumbling upon. And so, after I popped the victory bottle (of Ramune. It's a long story.) I drew a congratulatory message.
Actually, I drew two of them.
Well, I got my sister to draw the second one:
Two people have
liked "yeahed" it.
I don't think they got the joke.
They were children.
Miiverse is 90% children.
It's lonely up here.
Before I cap this one off, there is one last thing I want to cover. It's another one of those old Super Mario conventions with a special purpose.
You'll sometimes find that the designers of Super Mario levels write with blocks, coins, or other objects. Here's a simple example from Super Mario
Writing with blocks is a convenient way to present messages in contexts where normal dialogue isn't possible, and Super Mario games aren't the only ones to use them. It also serves an artistic purpose:
When you write with blocks, your words take up space in the world.
Large words impose themselves on the viewer, and the effect of even a simple message is amplified when that message is made into a monument.
There's a bit of mystery to it when done especially well, an artifact left by an unknown sender, possibly lingering, possibly long-gone, transmitting a thought across some huge gap of either time or space, or both. It's slightly uncanny in the way that Easter Island statues are uncanny, or in the way that old hieroglyphs are uncanny when you first uncover them, how they seem to contain the echoes of their absent creators.
It doesn't even have to be a videogame for this trick to work. Gunbuster, anyone?
But beyond that, it's a very effective way to reach through the fourth wall and grab the player directly. I think a comment on the above linked post about Bubble Bobble best sums it up:
I’d even go as far as saying this is something similar to metalinguistic jokes; when the designer screams his presence like this, the player finds himself playing _with the designer_, not just with the game. Cf. “you are a super player‼” in super mario world and so on.
As you can probably guess, it's hard to fit in more than a few words this way. But it's the timing of the words that makes the moment.
At the end of the level, I was exhausted. I was tense. I needed a break. But also, I felt a small pang of doubt. I'd worried since that first night that I had really only wasted a lot of time on something silly and insignificant, something that could only ever mean this much to a weirdo like me. What difference did it make, in the grand scheme of things, whether I got this routine down or not? I had studying to do, sleep to catch, a life to live. Who cared that I got this far, anyway?
So imagine my surprise when I reach the penultimate screen.
I'm shuffled through a series of glass pipes, and at first I'm not sure what it means when they light up.
But soon it dawns on me what is happening, and I can guess what I'm looking at before I reach the end. As if in response, it was a voice:
No, thank you.
My brother brought home a Wii U a few months ago. I was hoping this would be that special variety that came bundled with Super Mario Maker (I’m a sucker for level editors,) but all I found was this. I wasn’t expecting much, but I figured I’d at least give it a shot. This was the result. Well, part of it. There’s some writing on the rest of the game proper saved somewhere. I might add that sometime. It might help this post make a little more sense.
Super Mario 3D World, as an experience, is a bit hit-and-miss, but where it hits, it really hits, and this was one of those hits. That’s the super-simplified version, anyway.
This wasn’t a commission, but if you liked it, I am taking commissions for reviews of games on certain platforms. See this post for details.
*The name “ROBO” is a bit ominous, isn’t it? It’s hard to tell which was more masterfully programmed, the game or the player.
**Note that I said the “one real tragedy”. I didn’t mean to imply that his whole life was a tragedy. Indeed, that couldn’t be further from the truth, and there are a lot of things I like about the guy. My feelings about him are complicated. I hope he doesn’t read this post (though it is fortunately rather unrealistic to even consider that he might notice something like this.) The resulting exchange would be very pained, and would probably not result in anything worthwhile for either of us, or anyone else. By the way, I think we should support his Patreon. I really want to see how this turns out.
(Also, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t consider Siboot a “video game” per se, but that’s a long story.)
TITLE: Super Mario 3D World
RELEASE DATE: November 21, 2013
DEVELOPER: Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development, Tokyo Department
PLAY TIME: A LOT.
COMPLETION RATE: 100%