Continues, checkpoints, punches, puzzles, and what Super Mario 3D World could learn from Rayman Legends / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Super Mario 3D World

The single worst decision made in the development of Super Mario 3D World was whatever it was that led to pooling together everybody’s lives in the multiplayer mode. In the various co-op New Super Mario Bros. games, each player had their own number of lives, and that was that. Nobody's failings hurt any other players. I liked that, because I am significantly better at Mario games than all of my friends (the majority of whom don’t play video games and none of whom play platformers). So I would build up my store of lives to use for the later levels where having a store of lives matters and playing with others wouldn’t do affect that (unless they jumped on my head over a pit, but while that’s rage-inducing, it’s also kind of funny). That’s not the case in Super Mario 3D World, and it’s awful. For anyone interested in actually finishing that game, playing with a bunch of non-game players will actively impede your progress. It’ll be fun for the most part, because players with others is an inherently joyful thing, but when the difficult levels come up, their cute inability to land even basic jumps becomes maddening, because every time they die, you watch your own ability to progress drop down.

To give you an example: I was playing the game with my sister and her awful, terrible now-ex-boyfriend. My sister had played the New Super Mario Bros. games, and although she had a little bit of trouble adjusting to the 3D camera at first (as did I, and probably everybody else who played it), she wasn’t the problem. He, on the other hand, had no idea what he was doing and actively ignored me when I told him that we should go, say, down that special warp pipe over there. At that point in the game, I had built up a store of about 25 lives, and I was proud of having done that.

Ten minutes into this session, I was down to zero. And fortunately, when you run out and game over, you reset and each one of the players adds five to the overall pool, so rather than my own reset of five, we got fifteen. Problem? We kept playing. In minutes, we were back down to zero.

But it’s not just the fact that he’s terrible and dies all the time, but his refusal to listen and tendency to run ahead meant that the camera would follow him right off a cliff, leaving my sister and me to die as well. Which is also a fundamental problem, but I can understand why it was done that way. (Bigger problem, we still haven’t figured how to put yourself in a bubble using a Wiimote, if it’s even possible.)

So as much as I love Super Mario 3D World, I’m disinclined to play it with anybody ever again, because I’ve found a game that is undoubtedly a better multiplayer experience: Rayman Legends.

I bought Rayman Origins on the Xbox 360 so my sister and I would have something to play together, since she also likes co-op platformers and there hadn’t been one in a while. It was awesome. It really is an experience best done as a group. I mean, the punch button may serve the gameplay, but its only real purpose is to annoy your teammates and hit them into things. Does that sound annoying? Yeah, a little bit, except for the one major design difference that negates the problem entirely:

There are no “lives” in Rayman.

Honestly, I didn’t even think about it while playing Origins, probably because it was so far removed from playing a Mario platformer that I had entirely forgotten how different the systems were. But then the sequel was delayed and by the time I got it, I was already well into Super Mario 3D World, and I switched from game to game literally in the same play session. As I did so, it became clearer and clearer to me where Mario was woefully behind the times.

The thing about not having lives is that my sister’s boyfriend can jump in and be as terrible as he wants, and it won’t really matter. In fact, if he’s being annoying, I can just punch him into spikes and boom, I don’t have to worry about him for a little while. Also, it’s funny. But it’s only funny because doing that doesn’t affect my experience in any way. Even if someone else smacks me into some spikes, whatever. I can be annoyed, but with the exception of certain levels, the game has a pretty leisurely pace. And this is because Rayman Legends also lacks a timer.

There are likely multiple reasons for this, but the practical upshot is that in most levels there’s no real reason to worry in the game. The timer in Mario games doesn’t bother me, because it (sometimes) adds a sense of urgency to the levels, and that can be a good thing, but there’s something to be said for the ability to really explore levels, which is cool. Then again, there’s a lot more to explore in Rayman than there is in Mario. That is not inherently better or worse, just different.  

Speaking of different: the other day, I booted up BIT.TRIP Presents... Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, which I got on PlayStation Plus a few months ago, and gave it a spin. I played the original on the PC (using a Street Fighter IV Tournament Edition Xbox 360 arcade stick that I got back in the day, which was more fun than using a DualShock 3; unfortunately the sequel doesn’t seem to work with a DualShock 4).

But the thing about the original BIT.TRIP RUNNER is that it didn’t have checkpoints. At some point, the levels got harder than I felt like memorizing and I just gave up. Runner 2 has checkpoints. Like checkpoints in Mario games, they can be skipped (although Runner 2 gives you point-bonus incentive to skip it). But the Runner 2 levels are still pretty long, and one mistake can bring you back a ways. It’s not the three-minutes stretches that the original had (hooray!), but it can still be pretty irritating. Especially since the basic gameplay is not all that interesting.

There’s something I’ve realized about myself as I’ve gotten older: I hate replaying things because I don’t have a choice. I’m totally fine replaying things on my own, going for a high score or whatever, but doing a level I’ve done or replaying a skirmish in its entirety because there was no checkpoint after the fact is not an attractive prospect. I, like every other person who plays video games, have an astoundingly long backlog (thanks Steam sales), and games that waste my time by making me endlessly repeat things aren’t fun anymore (if they ever were).

(This is why I hated Grand Theft Auto IV. By the way, I hated Grand Theft Auto IV.)

(There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but they require the base game to have near-perfect mechanics that are stupidly enjoyable in and of themselves, or to totally lack a narrative, or to have permadeath as a fundamental system.)

So checkpoints are important. And frequent checkpoints, too. I still want games to challenge me, but once I’ve made that super impressive and complicated jump once, why do I have to do it five more times? I’ve figured it out. Let me get on with it.

It’s probably because I see a lot of games as puzzles, and once I’ve solved a puzzle, a lot of the enjoyment is gone. A gunfight in Call of Duty is a puzzle in the same way as Veni Vidi Vici is in VVVVVV or a round of Sudoku is. And once it’s been done (unless I want to show off my ability to do Veni Vidi Vici in VVVVVV), I don’t want to do it again. A checkpoint is the end of a puzzle. It’s a “Congratulations. We understand that you have completed this section of our game and have zero interest in doing it again. Please continue.”

(Exception: games about survival. The Last of Us is hindered by the frequency of its checkpoints. However, its combat mechanics are not enjoyable, so I’m not actually complaining.)

Back to my point.

Rayman Legends makes fantastic use of checkpoints. The levels in the game are on the long side, but you’re never pushed too far back if you and/or your teammates mess up. And you and they will, because although the game itself is pretty easy, trying to get all of the teensies can put you in some precarious situations.

Super Mario 3D World’s checkpoints are not terrible, but the finite number of retries negates them somewhat, especially if you’re playing with others. If you run out of lives (or your sister’s boyfriend runs out of them for you) in the second half of a level, you restart it entirely. That’s annoying.

(The fact that the game saves after you complete any level is the best design decision of Super Mario 3D World. In some ways, that’s like a checkpoint of its own, though for overall progression as opposed to within any given level. I always hated the fact that you couldn’t save anywhere until finishing the game. I’m glad someone at Nintendo realized how dumb that was, because as fun as Mario levels are, replaying them because the game didn’t want to save my progress is not high on my list of things I want to do. If I want to replay a level, I’ll do it myself, thank you very much.)

The reality of the situation is that the concept of “lives” is totally and completely antiquated. It has been for a really, really long time. The idea of a “Game Over” that truly sets you back to step one has all-but-disappeared (again, permadeath games exist as an exception to pretty much all of these rules, except the need for basically sound mechanics), and even finite retries (which is what lives are) as a concept is rare. I didn’t even think about it until I sat down to write this that I can’t think of another game that I’ve played recently that used it at all other than a Mario game. I’m sure there are games that have them, and I’ve very possibly even played some, but I couldn’t for the life of me name one. Certainly not a platformer

So the world has, for the most part, realized that the concept needs to be taken out back and shot, but Nintendo is still sticking to it, probably for the same reason every game they put out is from the same few franchises: comfort. Before Super Mario Galaxy 2, it would have been fair to say that no two Mario games were really alike (the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 never made it to America), and that meant that any game could really have been its own franchise (heck, the American Super Mario Bros. 2 was a different game that was Mario-ized for us foreigners). But out of comfort they stick to it.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has been widely praised for turning some of the fundamental systems of Zelda games on their head. And Super Mario 3D World actually does some head-turning as well. I mean, the cat suit lets players run up the pole at the end! That’s a stroke of sheer genius. The cat suit in general is sheer genius. So are basically all of the new power-ups for the game. They change things, but they’re held back by finite retries and the idea that the one-checkpoint-per-level rule, because that’s the way it’s been.

Same, too, with one button to run and one button to jump. Why, with controllers featuring dozens of buttons, is that still the norm? Especially since the run button is the same button that shoots fire balls and whatnot. It’s just unnecessary. Putting the run button on the triggers in Rayman Origins was a stroke of genius, and going to Mario afterwards feels like a notable step back.

I love Super Mario 3D World. It’s gorgeous, brilliantly fun to play, and every single level has some little bit of genius in it. It is easily one of the best games of the past few years. But it’s also held back by its predecessors.

Mario, like Zelda, needs a fundamental modernization. Its designers need to sit down and really ask why these mechanics are still in play. Rayman Legends is a truly modern platformer, and one that EAD Tokyo should really look at. I don’t want the next Mario game to feel like a Rayman game, but I don’t want it to feel like Super Mario 3D World either.