It’s 5:30 in the morning, and I’ve been up for an hour already, something I’m going to blame on the cold I’m dealing with. I took some Albertsons-store-branded Sudafed-a-like when I got up, and hopefully it will let me get back to sleep soon. I’ll warn you in advance that you’re about to get hit with a wall of text, and after writing it I think it’s got some good points but is really disorganized and needs a solid editing job before being put up on the blog. I’m going to put it up anyway.
That’s not really important, though. What is important is Super Mario Brothers 3.
I’ll be upfront: This is one of the most beloved video games of all time, and I hate it, and I think I may have finally gotten why this is so.
It boils down, I think, to community.
SMB3 is one of those games that has an incredible number of little hidden secrets, warps, power-ups, branching paths… the game is theoretically about saving the princess, but it’s really more about exploration. I’d argue further that was – when it was released – about shared exploration, sort of like crowd-sourcing if the crowd is your immediate circle of friends and whatever data you all could glean from playing the game, reading Nintendo Power and books by Jeff Rovin and watching The Wizard.
It’s a game that you and your friends might play to finish, but the real bragging rights didn’t come from finishing it but rather from puzzling out secrets, and the important thing was that you were all obsessed with the same game at the same time.
I didn’t own an NES back when it was the popular console; my first console was a Sega Genesis and so I naturally identify myself as being on the Sonic side of the eternal Sonic Vs. Mario war, yet I’ve never really gotten in to any of the Sonic games besides Sonic 1 & 2. I think I’ve finally figured that out, and the reason why ties nicely into the reason I can’t stand SMB3.
See, when I first saw Sonic, it was in the company of a friend who’d played the game a bit and who knew some of the hidden bits. He showed me the wall in Green Hill where you can crash through bricks if you’re going fast enough; he showed me the hidden room with the 1-up in it in the next zone, he taught me about getting 50 rings and jumping through the big golden ring at the end of the level, and we shared both frustration and elation about that god-damned spinning bonus stage.
He also taught me about the level select, which let you jump straight to the final boss, if you wanted, and beat it, and see the ending credits, all in less than 5 minutes.
I think everyone, on finding out how to jump to the final boss, did so, beat him, watched the ending, and then got back on the process of beating the game “right” – starting from level 1-1 and getting all the way to the end, beating the final boss again, and watching the credits again.
In looking back, I realize that it made me approach the game differently from how I play these days. I’d plug in the Sonic cartridge and think to myself; what do I want to do? Should I try for a complete play-through or should I use the level select to skip straight to those god-damned water levels and get more practice on them?
Once I got to the point where I could get through the game properly, it became a question of how I could do it more beautifully or more efficiently. The first Sonic game has multiple paths through most levels. Each of them gets you to the end of the level, of course, but some are just plain tricky to get to – and once you’re on them, they’re tricky to stay on. Miss a difficult jump on one of them and you’re, well, not dead, but you’re not able to get back to where you were.
Anyway, during the whole thing, I’m talking to my friend about Sonic, reading magazines full of how-to tips about Sonic, reading BBSes where people are talking about ways to beat levels more beautifully and how to get to hidden bits…
Sonic 2 came out and of course everyone bought it day one, and there was the same sense of community; I was playing through the same game as everyone else at the same time, trading secrets and – along with everyone else – trying to find the Level Select code, which the designers had hidden quite well.
After Sonic 2 came Street Fighter II, which was Yet Another Community game; it was the game that inspired my small circle of friends to all buy Super Nintendos and swap tips on how to pull off different moves and hunt for the Hidden Cheat Code – which, surely, MUST exist, right? – that would let you play as the boss characters.
The game was still about standing at the left side of a screen and beating up the guy on the right side of the screen, and there was never any question about whether or not you’d be able to do it – it allowed you to set the difficulty level quite low, and you had unlimited continues, after all. It became more about beating the game at harder and harder difficulty levels, about continuing fewer and fewer times, and of course about beating up your friends in two player mode.
The next sort of shared community games were probably Virtua Fighter, because I and an awful lot of folks I knew all bought Saturns when Sega released them ahead of schedule and it came bundled with the console, and then Toshinden because it was the Playstation’s Answer To Virtua Fighter, Only Flashier And A Cute Girl.
It’s kind of funny, now, how many slavering rabid Toshinden fans there were. I know it got a few sequels, but they were released later in the system’s life, when they could no longer benefit from being the One Game Everyone Owned, sold poorly, and the series died a rather quick death.
Anyway, I’ve gotten rather off track. The root point I was trying to reach, I think, was that games like Sonic and SMB3 and SF2 were games that existed on a couple of different levels – there was the game you played, by yourself, with a controller, console, and TV, and there was the metagame, where the players existed as part of a greater community. I missed the chance to be part of that community for both SMB3 and Sonic 3, and this is why I can’t really get in to either; I see them only on one level, whereas someone who played SMB3 as a kid can pick up the controller and play them as an adult and get a completely different experience. It’s not that they’re just playing SMB3 again, it’s connecting them to their childhood – and, more to the point, it’s a connection to all the people they played it with.
Come to think of it, this is probably why Everquest hooked me so hard and so long; there were message boards and guild dramas and spoiler sites and all kinds of things that existed outside of the game proper. The decline of my interest in EQ started around the time that the community started splintering and dying out.
It’s also finally provided me an answer to why people buy new release videogames at full price rather than wait for them to get marked down, inevitably, to a more reasonable $20 or so: games are more fun if you’re playing them WITH people, which is one of those statements that’s bloody obvious on the face of it but what the hell, and if you’re playing a game at the same time as other people, it doesn’t matter as much that it’s a single player game, you’re still getting a shared experience out of it.