Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Rant Concerning the Horrifying Implications of the Mario Party Series

I am certainly not a stranger to being the odd-one-out in a debate. Though not by choice, I often end up as the black sheep when discussing the many facets of popular culture. In a conversation with me, exclamations of, “How can you not like X?” or “What’s wrong with Y?” are fairly commonplace. By no means is this intentional, but I’ll defend my opinions to the death anyway, with a fervor that one might not expect from such conceptually unimportant topics.

And never was this more apparent than when I declared my hatred of Mario Party.

A thousand curses upon thee, foul box art!

Upon the release of this crucial information, a feverish frenzy of words soon followed. And since I always explain myself much better in written form than in the hot seat of such an active conversation, I figured I’d take the time to fully exposit what Mario Party, and Nintendo as a whole, has come to represent.

Now, unless you were born at any time before the collapse of the Soviet Union, you know these games well. A string of eight titles (currently, and not including handheld titles) ranging all the way back to the humble Nintendo 64, Mario Party was just one of many new spinoff genres through which Mario could snake out of actually being in a platformer again. At heart, it was an electronic manifestation of the classic Milton-Bradley board game setup; players rolled the die, moved their bulbous-headed, big-eyed mascot of choice an according number of spaces, and watched the consequences play out. At the end of each round, a minigame would occur that players could win for an added bonus. The goal was to gather as many stars as possible (because, as an influential critical hero of mine has stated, it is always stars); whoever has the most when the last round has finished wins. This simple concept has remained popular and lucrative to this very day.

But let not the simplicity of the concept nor the colorful cuteness of the graphics blind you from the fact that, at heart, the Mario Party franchise is a dark, unfeeling entity. After all, there’s much to be said about such a basic idea having spawned seven rather unnecessary sequels over the course of three console generations, serving little more purpose than to add minor revisions to the already well-rounded formula at the expense of a $50-$60 tax per victim to throw onto the Official Nintendo Money Pile™. But that’s not even the true source of my distaste. No, the Mario Party games, in my mind, represent something far grander and more sinister than that.

Although I'd also like to point out that these games are also partially responsible for creating this abomination.

To understand why, you have to mentally wind the dial of time back into the late 80s and early 90s. Nintendo was a very different entity back then, as was the home console market. The former, having finally secured a safe future for the latter with the good ol’ NES, was thriving profitably in the limelight. Of course, the market was also young, and it largely maintained the sensibilities of its arcade predecessor, i.e. the desire to siphon every quarter from every pocket of every dumbstruck grade school reject. And of course, the best way to ensure that kids would keep on pouring coins into the slots of arcade machines worldwide was to make the games damn near impossible to beat in one try. Unfortunately, even with the dawn of gaming machines that had no need for such a thing, this tradition lived on. These days, my friends, were the days of “Nintendo Hard”.

Also known as the "Ninja Gaiden Effect".

One-hit deaths. Limited respawns. Bosses that took up half the screen and had a health bar eight times the size of yours. Such were the hidden trademarks of this time in history, casually hidden behind the inviting 8-bit graphics and memorable MIDI sound effects. But while these types of games could be frustrating, they were, paradoxically, entertaining at the same time. Every time you heard that ominous “game over” tune in Super Mario Bros., you weren’t sad that you died; you were excited to see how much further you could get next time. It was all about mastery through repetition, gradually taking hold of the game’s inner mechanics and bending them to your whim, just so you could have the satisfying reward of eventually overcoming the challenge, or at least finding out if the princess really was another castle. “Nintendo Hard”, in many ways, was a blessing for the culture and art of video games as much as it was a curse for the average, weak-thumbed consumer.

And nothing is a further testament to the long, strange history of Nintendo than just how ironic this phrase has become. Because while the age of “Nintendo Hard” has long since passed, the demand for the gradually mastery of games lives on in many (if far-less unfairly difficult) modern titles…except most Nintendo games. And while this current situation has had a number of factors behind it, if there’s any one scapegoat I can blame for this transition, it would be Mario Party.

In essence, Mario Party is the exact opposite of “Nintendo Hard”. There is little to no room for improvement; ultimately, your fate is controlled not by you, but by the almighty die. In general, the minigames are the one area of game in which actual skill comes into play, and surely enough there is a fairly noticeable advantage to anyone who can actually play these games the best (however simple-minded they may usually be). But in the end, all of your well-earned coins and stars (the currency by which you are intended to win the game) can be stripped away from you in an instant, most times not by a mistake on your own part but by a simple twist of fate.

Worse yet, the game delivers rewards to those who don’t deserve them. Simply landing on the most of certain colored spaces – a factor, once again, controlled by that big ol’ die in the sky – can earn you a precious star in the end, which in itself may be enough to secure victory. You can even win a star for having the most coins at the end of the game…when you stole almost all of them in the last round by playing a battle game and winning by sure luck. What are you trying to say Nintendo? Are we rewarding last-second burglary now? And let’s not forget the infamous Fortune Spaces, which randomly (I can’t help but use this word as much as possible for emphasis) assigns one player to cough up their goods to another. It may just be a game, but when I see all of my hard-earned stars handed over to some schmuck who couldn’t even figure out how to make a single combo in the Mario’s Puzzle Party minigame, well…

Yeah, pretty much this.

All of this, in my mind, vehemently assaults a key tenet of good gaming: when you fail, you should feel like it is your own fault. Random factors come into play in almost every game, that much is certain; however, a well-designed game will not make you feel as though you were doomed to your ultimate end for any other reason other than your own ineptitude. This is the very same drive that invites players to try again with a new approach, actually improve their capabilities and, when done properly, render random chance a non-factor. Mario Party, on the other hand, revels in its chaos. It considers the arbitrary nature of the game as a vital element of its fun. Ultimately though, part of the fun in competitive games is a sense of order and understanding of the rules, and to be a given a chance to utilize whatever skills they may have that pertain to the game. In so many different ways, Mario Party desecrates this ideal.

You may claim that game remains fun regardless of its chaos, but just think about the philosophy in-and-of-itself. Who would play football if the success of every play rested on a dice roll? Or if the pins of bowling randomly re-aligned themselves before every round? Or if in baseball, occasionally, just occasionally, a bomb would fall on first base and kill the runner if he happened to be there? Do these games remain fun? Or does the soul-siphoning realization that every action can be thwarted by dumb luck drain every bit of dignity from them?

And it’s not just Mario Party, not by a long shot. As a whole, Nintendo has chosen to move all of gaming in this direction in order to appeal to the “casual gaming” crowd. Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii have both received lukewarm or even downright hostile reactions from many fans of the original games, and from my experience this rests solely on the house that Mario Party built. Hell, the Wii itself thrives on the concept of accessibility over depth and mastery. I can’t help but emphasis once more the irony of the whole situation.

They have certainly proved, of course, that this is a lucrative path. And, hey, despite my twisted ramblings, most people will still claim that they love these games. And power to them! I can understand why; the emphasis on multiplayer shenanigans and sheer wackiness of it all makes a direct callback to that aforementioned era of board game dominance, just without all the choking hazards. But at the same time I can’t help but feel like they serve as a detrimental antithesis to many of the aspects that make video games interesting and more evolved than their tabletop cousins: constant discovery, evolving gameplay, and the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles. These are elements that connect the art of gaming to that of the film medium, allowing us to personally reach highs and lows in the same way a character might in a movie.

I guess if Mario Party were a film, it would be kinda like Meet the Spartans.

EDIT: It just occurred that this comic strip essentially sums up everything I just wrote in about three panels.


BinocularFever said...


But seriously. I don't think any reasonable person could dispute any points you make during your rant here. Your points are educated, well-expressed, and properly supported. However, the problem, in my humble opinion, is that the target market for these games is, obviously, children. At the age at which I see it appropriate to be begging mommy for the latest installment in this horrid franchise, I expect that the concept of competition may be just out of grasp.
As such, winning and losing become nearly randomized, and thereby separate a Mario Party from any semblance of an actually organization competitive event. Nintendo manages to have their cake and eat it too: they are able to produce a "competitive" party game aimed at children all the while separating any true sense of competition from the game. Truthfully, I feel this has more to do with the issue of a cultural overprotection of children than of the game itself; Mario Party just becomes a focal point for this rage.
As an old man, I often say "In my day we had 'x' and you couldn't get away with that nowadays", and, as senile as I am, there is some truth to this. As a culture, we try to preserve the innocence of children by keeping the realities of life away from them for as long as possible, even when such realities are concepts such as "skill". Is Mario Party to blame? Absolutely. It is a truly horrific example of a non-skill based "game". But really, I blame culture and what culture we distill for our children. Boom.

Josh said...

I may be wrong, but I believe Waluigi was created for Mario Tennis. Check me on that, but my nerd ego is screaming foul.