Insomnia | Commentary

Winners Always Use Drugs

By Joshua Farrelly / July 30, 2009

It began with the recent unveiling at E3 of the Wii-bound sequel to 2006's New Super Mario Bros. Within minutes of the announcement, identical topics were being created across the video game forums of the world. Interestingly enough, discussion was focused not on the game itself, but on a particular optional feature, an "innovation" as it were, said to be flaunted for the first time in this latest instalment to one of the most important and celebrated brands of the two-dimensional action genre. This was not a trivial issue.

The feature of course is the now famous Demo Play, an option which will allow "gamers" to switch from player to spectator on the fly, at which point the reins of the player's avatar will be seized by artificial intelligence routines. Multiple bullet-points were produced to explain the feature's functional significance, but it was obvious to most anyone that its primary use would be as a means of opting out of scenarios deemed by the "player" as too challenging.

Many applauded the idea as innovative (though their applause was nothing to match that echoing from Nintendo's boardrooms I'm sure): the perfect solution for further increasing the accessibility of video games. Others wondered why non-interactivity should be promoted in a medium that is defined by interactivity. One person even saw it as a pathway for developers to reintroduce one of the forgotten values of gaming (i.e. the demand for pattern-recognition and reflex response to overcome rigorously designed sequences under the threat of failure; more simply known as "challenge" in the English language) to the modern era without diminishing an ounce of their product's marketing viability. This is the perspective I found to be most fascinating.

While there's nothing stopping the latter from ever happening in theory, one thing for sure is that it's not happening in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Assuming all the footage I've seen isn't from some basic build, all signs point to stage structures and boss designs duller than a teenage amateur's first efforts in a game making program after distilling whatever showy dressings are employed by Nintendo's professionals. In such a shape, forget about contrasting the game against its own lineage, it won't even stand up to Super Mario Fusion, a fan project created in Game Maker by a single (talented) amateur. With this in mind, it seems the most relevant question Miyamoto-san inadvertently poses with New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Demo Play is this: To what extent can game designers embrace commerciality before they altogether cease being game designers and start being businessmen?

Now would be as good a time as any to reveal that this new feature isn't really new at all, but an evolution and the logical conclusion of a device we've had for more than two decades: the Game Genie. I can remember many sessions of Super Mario Bros. and Hudson's Adventure Island with things like unlimited lives and moon-jumps. I can even think of them as fond memories. But even as kids, my friends and I knew exactly what we were doing, and what we were robbing ourselves of, which is why we tapered off of Game Genie as we got older and developed those things called "motor skills". Maybe we learned this only because the act of cheating wasn't being directly condoned by the people who had made the games, and I can't help but wonder whether the new generation will also end up reaching the same conclusions when it's God taunting them with the fruit instead of the snake. At any rate, if Demo Play brings anything new to the world of cheating, it's prolonging the process by acting out the solution instead of immediately skipping to the next stage. Cheat GUI with bloat.

So if it's not the cutting-edge innovation that the slogans suggest, what the hell is it?

Judging from the fact that New Super Mario Bros. Wii is, by all accounts, already going to be condescendingly juvenile when it comes to its stage designs, and also taking into consideration the trajectory of electronic gaming during the past decade, chances are good that Demo Play's place in gaming's history will not be to establish any kind of return to form. Instead, it will probably be remembered as yet another milestone on the long road of the degradation of traditional video game ideals, much like continuing, increasing the frequency of 1-ups, quick-saving, simplifying stage layouts, etc., have done in the past. Going well past merely piss-easy games, this development could very well bring us to the point where not including the ability to immediately shift to the A.I. "win button" could spell commercial suicide for a new title. This is when that new generation of gamers, the ones who will grow up, become designers themselves, and complete the downward spiral so that pop gaming will finally be analogous to pop music (if you think this is a compliment you are not thinking), will ask their parents how they ever put up with those rock hard games like Super Mario Sunshine and Densetsu no Starfi. Today's breed of New Games Journalism-loving "games easy enough to be beaten with one hand so I can stroke my chin with the other about its deeply deep post-meta-semiology" hipsters could very well be viewed as... hardened veterans, like how us mortals look at the players in those score-attack DVDs of 2D shooting games.

Maybe I'm being overly pessimistic. Maybe New Super Mario Bros. Wii's cynical evocation of heritage in one aspect while abandoning it in every other is not as closely connected to the inclusion of Demo Play as I believe. It wasn't the source of the first game's tragedy, after all. Still, I just have to ask. To those people expecting Demo Play to in any way reverse the inertia of now longstanding industry paradigms of reduced challenge for increased profit: what shrooms have you been chewing?