Thursday, December 31, 2009

Multiplayer Coop Games

The new Super Mario Bros. game keeps making a bunch of Top 10 lists for 2009 (#3 on Wired's list and #2 on Gamasutra's).

I just have to reiterate: NO.

As a game that is billed as cooperatively multiplayer, this is one of the very worst-designed co-op games I've ever played. Characters occupy the same space and most levels contain surfaces or tunnels that only allow for a single character to stand on or squeeze through. Even if you are trying to help each other out, on any given level you are more likely to accidentally push a friendly character off a ledge to their death, steal their power-ups, or otherwise screw them up. I actually got a chance to play with 4 people over Christmas, and as I suspected, the result was even more hideous. Any time one character dies, as in single-player mode, the action pauses for half a second or so. If you are about to execute a jump that needs good timing (and virtually every jump in this game requires good timing), that little time jag will throw you off and, you guessed it, cause you to die.

Another fun-killer for co-op is the fact that the characters all look amazingly alike, so it is extremely easy to accidentally follow the wrong character for a second or two, thinking you are controlling them, while you are actually running your character into a pit of lava. Fun!

If inadvertent death and frustration are what you look for in a co-op game, then the new Super Mario Bros. is your cup of tea. Again, single-player mode or competitive mode most likely work much better, but some of us actually want to play alongside our friends.

If you want to play a game that actually implements co-op multiplayer in a good way, this year that game is Trine. It's a beautiful side-scrolling puzzle game with wonderful attention to detail. The art design is amazing, but the gameplay and puzzles are great too. In single-player mode you can toggle between three characters: a wizard, a thief, and a knight, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The wizard isn't just a magic version of an archer, he can create metal boxes and platforms and move physical objects. To complete any given level, you have to use all three characters' at various times.

And multiplayer is great. If you're playing with two people, the two of you can be any combination of the two characters (but not the same character). So if your friend is the wizard, you can toggle between the thief and the knight. If you are currently the thief, they can transform into either the wizard or the knight.

Characters have distinct looks, so they are not easily confused. And they do not occupy the same physical space, so they can stand on the same narrow platform without knocking each other off. Gameplay is designed so that the adding players enhances the experience. One of you can cover the other from attacking skeletons while the other makes a bridge to get across a chasm. You actually feel like you are accomplishing goals together, not getting in each other's way. This is the fundamental principle that the game designers on the new Super Mario Bros. forgot (or just ignored).

The only real drawback to Trine is the controller setup. It probably works great on a Playstation, but on the PC you need XBox compatible controllers for additional players. A networked version would have been great, too. But purely in terms of game design, Trine is a perfect example of how you do co-op multiplayer right. And the new Super Mario Bros. is exactly how to screw it up.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Finally got around to seeing Avatar on Christmas. My impressions were much in line with the reviews I'd read...pretty to look at with a silly story.

First, the visuals: It's easy these days to get jaded when it comes to special effects. They've just gotten so good. I don't think Avatar revolutionizes film making (as some of the more hyperbolic reviewers have proclaimed), but it does take things up a notch. I hadn't seen a modern 3D movie, and it was done extremely well. No gimmicky scenes to point out to you that you are in a 3D movie, just an extra element to add to the already great visuals. The effects were good enough to help me suspend disbelief and make me feel like I really was looking at an alien world.

The culture and language of the Na'vi, the biology of the various species on the planet, and the technology of the humans were all very well thought out. I liked the way the Na'vi had co-evolved with the various species on Pandora to allow them to interface directly with them (I had used a similar idea in a novel that never really got off the ground). The various species on Pandora were inventive and fun to watch. The human tech wasn't as creative, but looked believable and created an immersive experience.

Unfortunately, the story was not nearly as original or well thought-out. It was also moralizing and preachy. Humans have traveled all the way to Pandora to rape and exploit its natural resources, in particular a ridiculously named mineral called "unobtainium". We never learn why humans want this stuff, only that it is insanely valuable. Might it have made the military-industrial cardboard cutouts seem a bit more human and made the story a bit more interesting if this mineral were vital for continued human survival? For all we know, rich people back on Earth just like to make earrings out of the stuff.

As it is, the corporate stooge is a generic bad guy. The military commander is an over-the-top bad guy with claw marks on his head. And the only humans with an ounce of decency are the protagonist, one military defector, and a few scientists. I don't mind simple stories with clearly-marked good guys and bad guys. If you're going to do this, I'd suggest divorcing it from any sort of thinly-veiled, half-baked political preachiness. Just make the bad guy wear black and look ominous and want something simple like ruling the entire galaxy. Cameron, unfortunately, didn't do this...he so obviously wanted to make some sort of commentary on the modern state of things (the loony military dude even gives a paranoid rant where he says something like "We gotta protect ourselves by launching a preemptive strike"). The phrase "shock and awe" was also used. The corporate honcho says things like "We've built them schools, hospitals, and roads...what more do they want?" This is not subtlety. This is stupidity. Pandora is not the Middle East...if only it were.

The politics of the film frankly made me want to barf. If you're going to make a film that says something interesting about colonization and exploitation, then make that film. If you want to make a fun, awesome sci-fi adventure, don't beat me over the fucking skull with your infantile geo-political caricatures of reality.

Final verdict:

Direction, special effects, design: A
Story: F

Still, it's worth seeing.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Game Review: New Super Mario Bros. Wii

The new Super Mario Brothers game for the Wii apparently just won Best Wii Game at the annual video game awards. This ought to be an indication of how crappy the selection of games is for the Wii.

I've played quite a few levels now with my girlfriend. We're always on the lookout for good coop games, because they just don't make that many, and the ones that are made generally aren't that good. We were excited when we heard the new Super Mario game would be cooperative, with up to 4 players. Man, were we set up for some disappointment.

First of all, if you're playing with Mario and Luigi, they can't occupy the same space, i.e., they bounce off each other and can push one another off ledges. This is not good. More often than not, you interfere with one another rather than helping each other. Often there are limited places to jump to survive, and one player almost inevitably prevents the other from making the jump or gets pushed off into oblivion themselves. Players can jump on top of each other to reach places they otherwise wouldn't be able to, but this doesn't really help because once one player gets up there, the other one is stuck below. So one player might get a bunch of goodies, like power ups and coins, while the other just got his face stepped on.

The game works much better if you're actually playing multiple players, but you're actually competing against one another. It does NOT function well as a cooperative game. It is much easier to fug up your co-player than it is to assist them in just about any aspect of the game.

A couple of very simple, but very large changes I would have made to the game design to make it, you know, actually cooperative, would be:

1) Overlapping players: Instead of bouncing off each other, you overlap one another. This might make it difficult to see your character if they're behind another one, but that would be a much more desirable tradeoff than trying to jump on a 1-inch ledge that's already occupied by your partner, only to either shove them off to death or bounce off their head to death yourself.

2) Tethers: This would make the game truly coop and a hell of a lot of fun. Have the characters tethered to one another with a flexible bungee cord. If they're both on the same screen, there is no effect. If one player either lags behind horizontally or vertically, the other player is able to pull them up to their current location. This should be extendable to 3 and 4 player as well. On vertically-scrolling levels, there is endless frustration when one player falls too far and dies, rather than simply falling to the last stable platform as they would in single-player. A simple tether system would alleviate this aggravation and make the game feel a lot more like people working as a team.

There are some neat little additions to the game. The ability to shoot snowballs and freeze opponents is a cool power-up. But the game feels mostly like an early 90's retro side-scroller. This is fine...but what's unforgiveable is billing this game as coop and then implementing it in such a horrible, thoughtless way. As the game is currently designed, it would be much more fun to take turns with a partner in single-player mode rather than playing with multiple players, which is, frankly, dumb-fuck stupid.

Nintendo gets a B+ for single-player mode and a big-ass F for coop.

Although one good thing might come out of it, and that's the implementation of a tether system in one of my own games, either a side scroller or perhaps a coop mountain climbing game.