Revolutionary is a loaded word. In fact, it’s a pretty strong contender for being the most loaded word in industry vernacular, next to ‘fun.’ (Ooh, and ‘cinematic’. What does that even mean?) It’s supposed to conjure up images of Super Mario Bros., or Half-Life, or some other example of the many design milestones we’ve hit over the 50+ years videogames have existed, and as a result, people in the industry tend to throw it, or synonymic words, around a lot—unfortunately doing so when describing theoretically ambitious but ultimately very orthodox videogames. Apparently God of War: Ascension‘s multiplayer is revolutionary. And so is…Splatoon? Heck, even Bioshock Infinite was being called revolutionary back when it was new.
A Non-Review of a Game That’s Been Out for About Eight Years Now
For example, does anybody remember when Super Mario Galaxy was announced? And how it was hyped as the most anticipated game for the at-the-time unreleased Wii in an August 2006 issue of Nintendo Power, out of a sizeable 25 choices? It wasn’t surprising.
The Mario series has had a reputation for being revolutionary in real, tangible ways. It didn’t invent quite as many tropes as we like to give it credit for, not any more than Steve Jobs ‘invented’ the smartphone or the GUI. In fact, some of the tropes Mario popularized predate him altogether. But there is a reason that we do give him credit for them: He made them visible. He often perfected them, and for many players, he was their first time seeing them. Through an approachable, entertaining adventure series, Designer Shigeru Miyamoto (helped along the way by co-designer and friend Takashi Tezuka, and by his mentor Gunpei Yokoi) exposed the masses, and the mainstream game industry, to what were until then obscure or experimental concepts.
With its wonderland of scrolling worlds, labyrinth castles and secret exits, The original Super Mario Bros. tetralogy (Super Mario World was originally called Super Mario Bros. 4 in its native Japan,) brought depth and exploration from the fringes of PC MUDs and RPGs to the center of the industry’s psyche. Super Mario 64 was a major turning point, making 3D a viable pursuit outside of the shooter genre by introducing such now-elementary features as analog controls and a fully controllable camera, one that was nevertheless smart enough to adjust itself to your surroundings. And while Donkey Kong may have the dubious honor of fathering the modern cutscene, it’s primitive love story also took the pursuit of storytelling out of the PDP-1 text adventure and into the rest of the medium, alerting designers and players alike to the possibility that you could make a story out of a game.
Mario didn’t start the fire, but he always knew how to turn it into an inferno. Mario was a tastemaker. Mario led the zeitgeist. Mario made it cool. Even videogames as a whole owe a lot to the Mario Bump; the original Super Mario Bros. was instrumental in bringing videogames back from the brink of obscurity following the infamous Crash of ’83, acting as the NES’ killer app. As a long running series, it had racked up a longer list of accomplishments than any other and had earned a reputation to match.
But the Mario-as-gaming-phenomenon well had begun to run dry since then, and for a crowd of increasingly testy gamers craving their regularly scheduled dose of the ‘Mario Experience,’ the most recent installment of the series, 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine, had been underwhelming, bordering on divisive. So naturally there was a lot riding on this one. People were expecting it to be the next quantum leap from Super Mario 64, nearly ten years prior. They actually used that term in the issue, “quantum leap”.
And it seemed to make logical sense, right? In theory, if you started in 2D and then transitioned to 3D, then the only place left to go was wraparound worlds, right? It was an airtight, deceptively simple analogy, and on paper, it seemed flawless.
The perfect way to describe how it felt, how we felt about it at the time, was that it was like being exposed to 4D geometry. Walking around upside-down on a planet’s surface was one of the first truly disorienting experiences since discovering 3D all those years ago, and one of the last truly disorienting experiences left for a generation that had more or less mastered the genre in the interim. Pulling somersaults and backflips felt a lot more impressive when you were bouncing in and out of a planetoid’s micro-atmosphere, and every now and then they’d let you do something really wild, like pull a long jump that sends you straight into a planet’s orbit, circling it over and over and over again, or slingshot yourself back and forth between the pull of two opposing planets, playing the flag in a short but sweet game of gravitational tug o’ war. At their best, the way the game played with its own physics reminded me of the gravity-powered acrobatics that drove Kim Swift’s Portal a few years earlier.
At the very least, the game gets props for using space as a real mechanic, meaning that it’s a game about space, not just a functionally ordinary game with a starfield for a backdrop.
That feeling of exhilaration was bolstered on by the live performances of the Mario Galaxy Orchestra, and something almost resembling a story thanks to inclusion of the mysterious Rosalina, whose rapid surge in popularity has got to have at least something to do with the fact that she’s the only humanoid woman in a Mario game that has not yet been abducted. And that story concluded with the most mind-boggling ending since Neon Genesis Evangelion, for which the animators deserve a special congratulations. It was everything I’d hoped for and more, at least at first.
It’s telling that Super Mario Galaxy managed to temporarily dethrone The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the “Greatest Video Game of All Time” on Gamerankings.com. A bad omen if there ever was one–few games should reach that level of unanimous, absolute adoration. Pray few can survive it. Ocarina sure as heck didn’t.
And just as you’d expect, something began to set in. It was a small something at first, but it grew with time. A feeling of mild disappointment which turned first into dissatisfaction and then into discomfort before finally metamorphosing into disillusionment. This was the supposed revolution?
I had my misgivings. For one thing, the game’s gravity mechanics were vaguely reminiscent of Portal‘s multi-directional freefalls, and they had the potential to be just as engaging, too. The only problem is that the game rarely ever decided to make good on that potential. Most of the tricks that come to my mind when I bring up the topic (like these, for example) are more glitches and exploits than explicit, planned features of the game.
Shigeru Miyamoto and Yoshiaki Koizumi’s explicit intentions were aimed at making a solid action game. They could have spent time developing gravity mechanics (if I can even call them full-on mechanics) into an interesting game all their own, but they just went with the usual “Get to the end of the obstacle course!” route, and much of the game played on solid, flat ground to boot. It seemed a bit unsure of this mechanic, like it wanted to ease us into it, although I personally would have liked the whole game to be all about it.
If you’d like a real review of my thoughts on Super Mario Galaxy as it compares to Super Mario 64, let me know. For now, though, I’ll stop digressing.
The Mario Experience
The point is, it wasn’t really the next Super Mario 64. It wasn’t revolutionary. But wow, would it ever look that way from a distance! It has all the usual markers of a ‘revolutionary’ videogame: a huge world, a soundtrack performed by a blazing orchestra; an impressive technical leap, and ‘drama’ (as much as you can get away with in a Mario game, that is–Koizumi had to write what little ‘pathos’ we did get late at night when nobody could see him.)
But that the whole ‘spherical planets’ thing never really caught on tells you everything you need to know. Outside of a few stray flash games, that long awaited chance for a wide-scale Mario Revolution fizzled out like a small star that had run out of hydrogen and just wasn’t big enough to go nova. It’s an opportuinity that has never really come back since. Games following Galaxy have simply been content to mix and remix existing features and mechanics, and it’s becoming clear that the series is either running out of Trump Cards or has already done so. And after a lot of thought, I’ve been getting the uneasy feeling that, with his bag of tricks used up, and his admittedly very competent creator entering the latter section of his life cycle, Mario might be on his way out.
But that seems like total hyperbole, right? Mario, of all videogames! I even wrote a fairly feel-good piece in 2013 about Super Mario 3D World that voiced a similar concern, that Mario was “a symbol of gaming’s past, but not its future”, and risked fading into irrelevance. It was sort of silly and fanboyish, but in the interest of context, I guess I might as well link to it anyway. Of course, being the kind of person that I was at the time, I ended things on an optimistic note, something like “as long as people have room in their hearts for fun, they will have room for Mario.”
But now I’m not so sure. If the mass groaning over the New Super Mario Bros. series is any indication, it isn’t enough for Mario to simply make a solid action game, as the New Super Mario Bros. games admittedly are. Without the kind of groundbreaking titles through which it used to build its reputation as a leader in the industry, the Mario series risks meeting with a terrible fate: If not near-complete irrelevance, then a slow decay into a shadow of its former self.
And this is the real secret of Mario’s success. When we look back on what we love most about Mario, level design and controls may be brought up, and fun factor might be flung here and there, but the real truth is that it’s something deeper, something much more powerful that sets it apart from other action games, even ones that could objectively be called better.
What we really crave is ‘The Mario Experience.’ We want to relive the excitement and surprise of glimpsing Super Mario Bros. 3 at the climax of The Wizard, back before E3 and the video game marketing machine made these grand gestures all too routine. We want to relive the joy of our first leaps in Peach’s courtyard, when 3D worlds were still little more than a novelty, or the strangeness of seeing the Super Mushroom work its magic for the very first time. What we really want is the shock of the new, to have our expectations blasted wide open, just like they were when we were children. It had become a time-honored tradition, much like the equally old tradition of importing upcoming Mario games straight out of Japan once we’d grown too excited to wait.
It’s an intoxicating emotional high that plays on our collective nostalgia. We (and if this sounds self-contradicting, it is) chase after the familiar feelings that came from playing groundbreaking titles in the past, often during our childhoods, the kind of games that did things we didn’t even know were possible. And it isn’t just The Mario Experience we’re chasing. This effect is the reason we so often wish worn out or poorly handled series would return to their former glory, to what we remembered them to be all those years ago. We’re also chasing The Final Fantasy Experience, The Metroid Experience, The Sonic Experience and, as of E3, The Doom Experience.
This has just as much to do with our memory as a group as it does with our memory as individuals. The medium has, so the story goes, developed very rapidly in a very short amount of time, and as such many of these events are still fresh in our collective subconscious. We’ve become somewhat conditioned to expect this same experience, this same high, at regular intervals, over and over again, perhaps indefinitely.
But we can’t go on like this forever. I don’t even think we can go on like this much further. Frankly, I’m amazed that we’ve managed to keep this shtick in motion for so long, because all of this, all this talk of innovation and groundbreaking titles, all of this is FAKE.
This is The Most Boring Revolution Ever I Swear
Yeah, I know, videogames have “developed at a breakneck pace” and all that. But has anyone considered that maybe the reason this has happened is because they’ve only developed in such a narrow, hyperfocused way?
Let me give you an example. It’s a popular pastime online to put together lists of the most important videogames of all time, or the most influential videogames, or the most important innovations in videogames, or something along those lines. They’re almost as frequent as lists of the Greatest Videogames of all time (Go on, plug “most important video games” into a Google Search. You’re going to a lot of results.) They come from a spirit of celebration, and that’s all well and good, but take a look at some of those choices. Colossal Cave Adventure and Pac-Man I can kind of understand, but Sonic the Hedgehog? The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Madden??
Sure, maybe you might look at the titles above and see perfectly valid choices, but when I look at them I begin to wonder whether our priorities are in the right place. Many so-called ‘important’ games are only important as a now-dated technological bump; ‘influential’ titles are only influential within the particular niche they either invented, codified, revived or improved upon. The whole concept of “revolutionary games” begins to fall apart once you take a good, hard look at it.
And that’s bad enough, but I think where this word really fails us is when it comes time to look back on what we’ve accomplished during those 50-odd years of design, and what in turn we should aim to accomplish in the future. Or worse, what even qualifies as an accomplishment.
For instance, we tend to equate innovation with increases in scale. You know, bigger worlds, more to interact with, more realism. The usual changes. This is almost certainly a holdover from the VR-Holodeck opera fantasy that people have burdened associated videogames with since their inception. All of the things we’ve held up in the past as major innovations have been judged according to how much closer they bring us to this ideal. It’s why things like voice acting and vector graphics were raved about when they were new, and it’s the reason why Wii Remote had such a meteoric rise and fall: When the idea was announced, it seemed like we were finally getting one step closer to the vestiges of virtual reality, of the ultimate escape from real life as we knew it. But when it turned out that Nintendo wasn’t quite intending to give us the equivalent of Full-Motion VR Gloves, reception flew south. Never mind that the controller, which was a heck of a lot less intimidating than any regular videogame controller, really did manage to bring in a slew of new players from all walks of life. That only ever seems to get brought up when we’re discussing the rows and rows of shovelware that lined the shelves of the console’s library, as proof that “filthy casuals” are ruining gaming.
The Wii Remote was the revolution we needed but didn’t want, just as Super Mario Galaxy was the revolution we wanted but ultimately didn’t need, however clever it might have been.
And another thing: When we decide that videogames are nothing more than toys for personal amusement, gratification and escapism, we tend to rate potential innovations based on how good they are at bringing us just that. It’s the reason our repertoire of so called “genres” are just slight tweaks on the same core mode of engagement, and why the creation of new tweaks or the combination of old ones (First-Person-Role-Playing-Bullet-Time-Strategy Action Game!) is so often a cause for really undeserved celebration.
But the worst part of all is what this all ultimately comes down to: That our idea of “Revolution” is limited to making popular mechanics, the more general or fundamental (and therefore more easily assimilated) the better. Reinventing the wheel, or as we like to call it, “Redefining Gaming”, is seen as the ultimate ideal, a goal pursued for its own sake. And this is especially sad because we never actually want to redefine gaming. We almost certainly want to add rules, but never change them or (gasp!) break them.
And the problem with this is that there are only so many times that someone will actually need to reinvent the wheel. I mean, the expression itself usually implies that someone is putting in a lot more effort than they ought. We already have the basics figured out, just like we’ve already discovered all seven continents. Yes it made headlines when Antarctica was reached, but it’s not like we can just go back and rediscover it. As an idea, that doesn’t even make sense. (Rediscovery is just a figure of speech, people!) We don’t need a 4D Mario.
No, what we need is take the knowledge we have accumulated up to this point and do something new with it.
Importance doesn’t have to be measured exclusively by the number of games copying yours. Importance can mean other things. Media has a powerful ability to affect the way we live our lives, both as members of society and as a society itself. That’s important. A videogame can be imbued with a value that transcends the insular merit system of gamer culture. That’s important. You can take a meaningful insight away from the experience, out of the virtual world and into your real life. That’s important. A videogame can be a refuge, a place in which one might find solace in seeing her own struggles acknowledged and overcome, a reminder that she isn’t alone. That’s important. It can be used to put a person in the shoes of someone different, fostering a sense of understanding and appreciation for a diverse range of people. That’s important. And it can be used to take people way out of their comfort zones and confront them with choices that throw their true natures into sharp relief. That’s important, too.
There are so many other ways that a videogame can be important. Those are just few of them I’m sure you can come up with at least a few more. Why can’t we move past the limiting, singular definition we’ve unwittingly imprisoned ourselves in?
And why is it that when a game does come along that manages to finally accomplish these goals, it never gets the sort of credit conventional games do? How is it that Madden is the classic while games like Papers, Please and Cart Life are brushed aside as novelties?
I’m tired of revolutions. I’m tired of groundbreaking titles, and I’m tired of watching people reinvent the wheel. I’m tired of the paradox of pursuing innovation for the sake of nostalgia. And if I see one more headline about a game that’ll revolutionize gaming forever, you’re going to need a crowbar to pry me out of the fetal position.
I don’t want a ‘revolution.’ I want actual change.