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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is Nintendo Oversimplifying Things?: Metroid, Mario and the DSiXL

I last played Metroid Prime on the Gamecube.  It was a lot of fun, for the most part.  I died a couple of times, but eventually made it to the rock monster in the Phendrana Drifts.  There I died, repeatedly.  I fought him over and over, and he kept running me over and killing me.  I couldn't understand why.  I put it down and never really returned.

Fast forward to yesterday.  I'm playing the Metroid Prime Trilogy, and I get to the same part.  I'm expecting to throw the controllers down in frustration, and I cruise through the battle.  My health never even dropped below four full energy tanks.  It took a while, but it wasn't grueling.  It was almost easy.

When I first played Super Mario 64, I was repeatedly flummoxed by various stars.  I got so upset that I almost threw the game aside.  I persevered and eventually beat it, but the bitter feelings remained.  Later on, I played Super Mario 64 DS and breezed through it.  It was almost too easy.

What happened?  Did I just get better at games?  Possibly.  There was a 5-year-gap in between the last time I played Mario 64 and my playtime with Mario 64 DS.  The Metroid Prime thing is a little harder to explain, since there wasn't a huge gap in between playing it on the Cube and on the Wii.  There's another reason, and it fits along with what's happening with Nintendo's newly announced DSiXL.

It's now become a well-known fact that Nintendo deliberately dialed back the difficulty on the Metroid Prime Trilogy.  If you want to play with the original difficulty, you have to choose the Veteran option at the beginning.  Otherwise, you're playing in what can essentially be called Easy mode.  Similarly, certain tasks in Mario 64 have been made far easier.  No longer are there Wall Kicks, but easier-to-manage Wall Jumps, that just require you to fling yourself at the wall, slide on it a little, and then jump.  Likewise, the DSiXL is easier to read, easier to see, and easier to hold.  It's more like a netbook than a DS.

Nintendo's been going about this for a bit now:  Making their properties easier to handle and easier to understand.  Is it a bad thing?  Some would say yes.  For instance, Metroid has always been about three things:  Solitude, exploration, and tension.  You may have played the same boss several times, but that boss will still give you a beatdown if you're not careful.  If you make Metroid too easy, you take away the tension.  Now those enemies that first looked so imposing and terrifying are mere annoyances that are swatted aside.  For instance, I should have to wait before crossing through a plume of flame.  I shouldn't be able to say, "It'll only take away 4 points of my health, so I'll just waltz through it."  I should have to respect that hazard.

Is Metroid Prime worse for being easier?  To a degree, but now I'm able to see the whole gameworld without struggling or having to scrounge for powerups in fear.  I'm able to be a little more brazen and take some risks, which is entertaining.  Plus, they greatly reduced the incoming scan messages that direct you to your next objective.  Now, they only appear when you've been wandering for a while, and they're far more welcome.  Still, Metroid always has been a more difficult experience, and it feels like it should stay that way.

Is Mario 64 worse for being easier?  Absolutely not.  While some franchises live and die on their difficulty level, Mario's never been that way.  Yes, Mario games are challenging, but they're not hair-pulling frustrating, nor are they supposed to be.  Complex controls in Mario obfuscate the underlying game and create more problems than they solve.

Finally, is the DSiXL going to be worse for what it is?  Meh.  It's not a great idea in my book, but it will make internet functions easier.  It might erase a little of the stigma of carrying around a video game system, but it does seem a case of too much oversimplification or a drinking binge in the marketing department.  Of the many barriers to purchasing a portable game system, I doubt that "It's too small" ranked near the top.  I hope that this isn't the case, but time will tell.