Soapbox: Super Mario 3D World's Playful Whimsy is Refreshing, But Faces a Vital Commercial Test
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Will an overwhelmingly positive critical response and buzz deliver success?
Something slightly surprising, to me at least, happened yesterday. Super Mario 3D World had a wonderful series of reviews that went live, on any major outlet you'd care to name, bang on the embargo. I'm not talking about the scores — which were excellent — but the omnipresence and content of those reviews; there seemed to be an overwhelming appreciation for the fact that here's a game that, once everything else is set aside, is pure fun. It's the job of writers to say more than "wow, this is a joy to play", of course, but that seemed to be the overall message once factors such as design, controls and visuals had been paid their dues. I've been playing 3D World a ridiculous amount yet, still, had a case of barely controllable giggles this week when recording multiplayer footage with boss-man Damien McFerran.
I was lucky to do our review, but I'll admit it was one that had me on edge as I wondered whether my love for whimsical nonsense — which Mario platformers deliver — would stand out in a sea of harsh proclamations that Mario's just doing his thing and it's all a bit old; even with the level of creativity on show, you never know. Thankfully, that didn't happen, and it prompted me to pop the bubble that can sometimes envelop me and realise that, actually, maybe there's hope that Nintendo can still transfix gamers and provoke fierce loyalty in the home console space for years to come; perhaps an audience for silly fun is still out there, and ready to buy a Nintendo system for the pleasure.
To give some added personal perspective, as someone that spends days writing about Nintendo I sometimes wonder whether being a 'Nintendo gamer' is the equivalent of being someone who'd sooner listen to Classical music rather than anything in the charts: in other words, not with the majority. The combined launch of PS4 and Xbox One have dominated the gaming media — which is unsurprising and only right — with a tone that I've nevertheless found aggravating. For one thing, the focus on technical aspects such as resolution, gigaflops and a load of tech-jargon has baffled me, especially as neither system can "win". There exist PC rigs that can probably outperform both systems already, and they'll start getting cheaper before we know it; who knows what impact Valve's Steam Boxes (Steam Machine sounds silly) will have, though that'll ultimately depend on various factors. I used to play on (until I moved recently) a very modest PC that produced better visuals than a PS3 or Xbox 360, while my brother has a PC that comfortably outperforms both. In the tech race, the PC will always win.
So the obsessive focus on technical details has been a little too much, for my taste; it's fine to care about this stuff, especially apps and integrated features not so common or easy to use on a PC, but endless talk of RAM and processors is less interesting to me. What I've cared about is whether either system has a launch line-up that would tempt me to splash out money I barely have and, for both cases, the answer is no — I'm not that bothered about watching TV or streaming my gameplay on a console, but that's just my personal preference. It's a case of "not yet" for both, but then launch line-ups always have a borderline impossible task in roping any but the most dedicated and cash-rich fans.
But it's not just about that. Personally, I enjoy plenty of variety in the games I play, and have indulged in plenty of 'triple-A' fighty-shooty titles on PC in years gone past and, in recent months, PS3 and Wii U. In recent times I've enjoyed a bit of Splinter Cell Blacklist, Assassin's Creed IV: Pirate Edition — oh alright, Black Flag — and I'm a huge fan of The Last of Us, which I can't stop praising due to the fact that it has that ultimate rarity: a well-written, thought-provoking script. But the thing is I haven't beaten any of those games, not because I don't like them — I really want to finish The Last of Us — but because I can't bring myself to play them regularly. ZombiU is another, a game I've gone to bat for to defend, but I'm yet to complete the final scenario, which must be all of 45-60 minutes of gameplay.
The fact is that these are all intense, violent mature games, whether in a serious or Hollywood-slapstick way, and demand a certain level of engagement that I can't always offer. With crummy sleep patterns, a full day of work and then boring grown-up chores to do, it can often be 9pm or later before I sit down at my TV, and I often opt for simplicity over tackling that bit I'm stuck on in Last of Us — I'm too stubborn to play on the easy difficulty — because I'm weary and want to relax. That's where Super Mario 3D World comes in. I'm at that stage where I'm scrabbling to collect the toughest of the remaining extras, so it's difficult, but it's also charming, colourful, ridiculous and super-easy to control. Even deaths come with a comical animation and a silly jingle, not with a horrifying zombie knawing off my face.
And that's why many of my PC and PS3 games lie uncompleted while my Mario games have shiny stars. It's not just down to genre, either, as I always play my collection of The Legend of Zelda games to the end; sometimes that series is dark and it is, after all, violent, but it's also fantastical, too, with just the occasional bow and arrow crosshair to worry about. The reason I'm on the fence and not planning to get a PS4 or One until next year — I'll probably opt for the former, or see what the Steam Boxes from Valve offer — is because the games on offer mostly fall into categories I'd play and not finish. With notable exceptions like the poorly received Knack and well-praised Zoo Tycoon, there's plenty of driving/shooty/fighty games; I'd love to play Resogun, meanwhile, but won't spend £350 for the privilege. I'd sooner go back to complete my ridiculous backlog on PS3 and Wii U first.
But to get to the point, how many active home console gamers actually feel that way? Often I feel like a relic of the '90s that's not with the modern gaming scene, happier to jump on Goombas than get a headshot online in CoD. That's the test for Super Mario 3D World, the Wii U and Nintendo in a broader sense. The 3DS has made waves in the past couple of years with its own mix of quaint or oddball titles; A Link Between Worlds, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Pokémon X & Y and more this year alone. But that's the handheld space, where the hardware costs less and, by its very nature, taps into a different part of the gaming landscape. In the living-room battle of home consoles, we'll soon find out whether an outstanding 3D Mario game can not only gain perfect scores in reviews and gushing praise from loyal fans, but the sought-after sales of the greater, sizeable mainstream gaming public.
That audience is largely, based on Nintendo's advertising in North America in particular, down to families, thought there are plenty of adult gamers that may be drawn in by the hype around Mario's latest. That the buzz for the game will help is a given, but it's by how much that will be fascinating, which will be amplified further once Mario Kart 8 is on the scene. I think it's a real unknown, as a point made in the office that the Wii's foundations of success were largely attributable to Wii Sports and Wii Fit is one with merit. Yes, other major franchises performed well on the Wii, but the role of iconic, innovative experiences that grasped mainstream consumers shouldn't be ignored. Without the starting gun of those innovations — I doubt their new iterations on Wii U will hit the heights or have the same level of impact as the originals — how significant will the power of Mario be, in pure numbers?
Next week will give a fascinating first look with the Japanese charts, while mid-December will bring November NPD sales for the US. The most conclusive results will come in Nintendo's next quarterly reports in late January, when it'll report solid figures. Yes, there are other Wii U Holiday releases that'll play roles, along with bundles, but none have seemed to blow the doors off. Super Mario 3D World has, in terms of its reception by the media, but what sales will that excitement turn into in the big, bad world?
I hope they're strong results, not just for the sake of the Wii U's short-term prospects, but also to show that silly, fun nonsense still has a place in the mainstream home console market. As so much effort is expended on selling 'next-gen' concepts and the march towards photo-realistic visuals, I still yearn for a substantial space in the games industry for cartoon-like shenanigans that can be shared with friends on a couch. I want to shoot stuff and put together combos / parries, too, because that's an enjoyable part of modern gaming; just not necessarily after a long day, or when I simply want to chill out.
Maybe I want games to divert my mind to a nonsensical fantasy world without guns — Nintendo and the Wii U give me that.