Friday, October 10, 2008

Time to Line Up (for a Wii)

NPR posted an article recently comparing the rise of recent videogame sales to the rise of movies during the Great Depression. In the pun-tacularly titled article "In Tough Economic Times, Video Games Console", writer Laura Sydell examines how during the Depression people started going to the movies more in order to find some cheap entertainment and forget their worries, and sees similarities to our modern times. While movie revenues continue to remain even, sales of videogames are up 43% from this time last year. She sees this in part as "getting more bang for your buck." Looks like more and more people would rather pay $50 for something that will keep them entertained for months rather than something that lasts just a few hours.

With Nintendo Wii's still flying off the shelves (I've yet to actually see one on a store shelf and they've been out for nearly two years now), combined with Nintendo's heavy marketing focus on families and the casual gamer, plus the rise of HDTVs, it looks like more Americans are deciding to stay in instead of going out. And with the Dow dropping another 679 points today, it may be that way for awhile.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bungie Announces New Halo Game, Internet Asplodes

Late last night, or early in the morning if you were there at the Tokyo Game Show, Bungie announced that the new game they are working on is Halo 3: Recon. With an amazingly cool trailer and equally cool box art, the internet promptly asploded into a million bits. This time there's no Master Chief, it looks to have a darker tone (doesn't that Covenant ship look a lot like the ships from Terminator?), and it looks to take place on Earth between the events of Halo 2 and Halo 3. Well actually it takes place during Halo 2 since in the trailer you can see the slipspace rupture caused by the Prophet of Regret's ship entering slipspace which promptly destroyed New Mombasa which happened right after the first few levels of Halo 2... oh just watch the trailer here.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Number 1: Super Mario Bros. - "World 1-1" (Nintendo, 1985)

Number 1 on my list of best first levels in videogaming is the first level of Super Mario Bros. This level is probably familiar to anyone who has had even the remotest contact with videogaming. It's also probably THE most played level in any videogame ever if you think about it. Who doesn't know those opening few steps, running up to the '?' block, the little Goomba which makes its way towards you, only to be squashed by Mario's jump, with a mushroom power-up as a reward? And then there's the memorable tune, the Super Marios Bros. theme if you will (not sure on the actual title or if it even has a title). It's so simple, yet so catchy, and ultimately very memorable. Nearly anyone who played the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the 80's can hum along with it, it practically defined the sound of videogaming during that time.

Then there's the story of a plumber named Mario and his brother Luigi, off to rescue the princess of someplace called 'the Mushroom Kingdom' from a giant turtle/dragon thing named King Koopa (the name Bowser would come later). Moving his way from left to right, Mario conquers his foes by 'stomping', or jumping, on top of them, encountering bizarre enemies such as large turtles, some of which have wings and fly, fireball spewing piranha plants that pop out of giant oversized pipes, flying men in clouds that drop spikey turtle things, hammer tossing turtle brothers, and all sorts of strange and bizarre creatures. Oh, and in order to 'power-up' the character Mario, he acquires giant mushrooms that pop out of bricks, which glide away unless Mario runs after them. Who the hell came up with this stuff??

The man behind this madness is Shigeru Miyamoto, whose name belongs in the above credits more than Nintendo does. A student of art and industrial design, Miyamoto was hired by Nintendo of Japan in 1977 as a staff artist. A few years later, when the newfound Nintendo of America was struggling to come up with a hit, Miyamoto was recruited to design a new game. This was rather unprecedented as nearly all videogame designers at the time hailed from the computer programming field, no one hired 'artists' to make games. He ended up creating two of the most enduring videogame charactes to date, a giant barrel-tossing gorilla, and a little mustachioed protagonist originally named 'Jumpman'. This of course was the game Donkey Kong. The name Jumpman was changed for the American release. The story goes that Miyamoto and the other designers were sitting around trying to come up with a name for this character when their landlord Mario Segale came knocking, asking for the overdue rent. And thus Jumpman became Mario.

World 1-1 is a great level because it does nearly everything right. Right off the bat it teaches you that you can stomp on your enemies to get rid of them. The '?' blocks invite you to 'hit' them from below, and the very second block contains a power-up, which is nearly impossible to avoid since it slides around and bounces off the pipe in front of you, coming back in your direction. The aforementioned pipe teaches you to jump over obstacles. What makes it all work is that the gameplay just feels right. Mario's controls are very tight and precise. There's a lot of nuance in his jump, so that with a good run Mario can leap over a long chasm, or with just a short press of a button he'll jump correspondingly shorter. Mario's stomping move is also well implemented. Enemies such as goombas are defeated with just one hit. Koopas require two hits to get their shells moving, but even then there's the danger that their shell will bounce off of an object and come flying back, sometimes resulting in a shell infininetely moving back and forth. The addition of the fire flower power-up allows Mario to shoot fireballs, with koopas now dying in one hit, thus adding another level of depth to the simple gameplay. All in all, everything from how Mario controls, to how the enemies behave, to the availability of power-ups, it all just works.

Gaming journalists often talk about a lack of a 'Citizen Kane' of videogames. Newsweek's N'gai Croal doesn't like this debate, in this article from, he says this:

"Would you ask whether literature had produced a Guernica, or whether photography had produced an Oedipus Rex, or whether film had produced a Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde? What's with this urge that many people have to compare games to other media—particularly movies—and find them wanting on those other media's terms? (Are we all Roger Ebert now?)"

I can see what Croal is trying to get at here, that every media should be taken on its own terms. Perhaps in comparing videogames to film we are missing the point, we should be looking at the genre of videogames as their own unique medium, it's just not fair asking for a Citizen Kane to come along and legitimize the form.

While Croal and others are arguing over this I think they're missing the Citizen Kane of videogames lurking right here in their midst. We've had it since 1985, and it's the game this article is about. I would say that Super Mario Bros. is the game these guys are looking for. Super Mario Bros. was responsible for arcade games transitioning into modern videogames. Until that point gaming was something you did at arcades, bowling alleys, and bars - something to pass the time away while you threw back some beers. The purpose of games like Pong, Asteroids and Donkey Kong was to provide the consumer with some fun while getting them to throw another quarter in the slot. There was no real concept of 'progress' within a game, there hadn't been born the idea that a game could be 'finished'. Have you seen The King of Kong? (highly recommended by the way) Only a handful of people have ever gotten to the end of Donkey Kong, and there's no real end, the game just sort of bugs out. With Super Mario Bros. gamers were invited to play a new kind of game, one where they could progress through a series of levels and ultimately defeat a big bad guy and win the game.

Super Mario had elements of arcade games that came before it, and through a combination of an amazing art style, memorable music, a bizarre world, and expertly crafted gameplay, it helped elevate gaming to something that hadn't been seen or done before. Gaming was no longer just about playing a game to see your high score, it was now about enjoying the whole experience, from the music to the visuals, familiarizing yourself with the layout of each level, and learning how to master the controls until you too could get to that final castle and save that damn princess!

Oh, and to take the analogy of films and videogames one step further, it would probably be better to compare Super Mario Bros. to The Godfather, with Super Mario Bros. 3 as The Godfather Part II.

For all these reasons, Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 is my pick for best first level of all time. Watch it here.