September 11, 2004

Mario and the Jedi

by psu

In addition to an orgy of Madden Football, I've been playing a lot of RPG titles lately. I'm still in the early stages of both Knights of the Old Republic and Mario and Luigi, the latter of which I've already written about.

These two games seem completely different. Mario is a sort of platformer/RPG hybrid, while KOTOR is described as an epic story with complex character development. These characterizations may be true, but I think if you look past surface elements like presentation, graphics and combat engines, you find that they are really the same game.

For those who haven't played the games, here is a summary of what goes on in each one.

In Mario and Luigi, you control both brothers at the same time. They are sent on a quest to rescue the Voice of Princess Peach. The voice has been kidnapped by Cackletta who has also stolen a trinket of great power and plans to use the voice to unleash death and destruction on all the kingdoms of the land. Or something. Mario and Luigi have to travel to the Bean-Bean kingdom, rescue the Voice and save the world.

In KOTOR, you start out as a second rate nothing officer on a Republic ship that crashes on some shithole planet out in the middle of nowhere. You must go on a quest to first rescue a warrior who plays a central role in the current war that the Republic is involved in and in doing so start a journey toward your ultimate fate as a powerful Jedi who will turn the tide and save the galaxy (or not). KOTOR introduces a twist in the classic quest structure by allowing you to play the bad guy if you want. But ultimately, assuming you've picked a path, and that path is light side (which everyone does first), both games basically have the same high level structure. The light/dark side twist mostly serves as theoretical replay value.

But, the similarities between these two games goes far beyond high level structure, I think. After all, all RPG games are basically quest stories. So here are other similarities.

  • Both games have turn based combat systems that also reward a good sense of timing. The combat in both games also gets deeper and more complicated as the game goes on.

  • Mario lets you use various interesting cooperative attacks to defeat your enemies. The Zen of KOTOR is that you can control everyone in your party and using this to your strategic advantage is crucial in winning battles.

  • In both games, you eventually get force powers, er semi-magical, attacks to compliment your mad melee skills.

  • In KOTOR, you collect credits to buy medpacs and stuff. In Mario you obtain coins to buy magic mushrooms and stuff.

  • Both games have annoying mini-games that you have to suffer through once in a while.

  • Both games take you through a wide variety of settings, all of which are visually distinctive. In Mario, it's various areas of Bean-Bean. In KOTOR, it's different planets.

  • While both games provide diversions, the structure of each is essentially a linear walk through the story, although Mario doesn't really have side quests per se.

Having not played many computer RPG titles in my past, I found these similarities to be rather striking, but more seasoned gamers probably think I'm a raving lunatic for making such a big deal of the obvious. But, perhaps the more interesting story here is how each game takes this basic shell and wraps it in a completely different style.

Mario and Luigi is completely light hearted and utterly lacking in pretension. What it has is a wide variety of colorful and enjoyable settings, game-play that is so tight it is almost perfect, and a design and balance that allows the player to be challenged but hardly ever die, even when they suck as badly as me. As I've written before, the combat and puzzles, in particular, are marvels of gameplay design and an almost perect mix of real time and turn based mechanics. I mean, how can you not love a game that lets you control *two* main characters at once and makes it easier than most games make controlling just one.

KOTOR's gameplay is not nearly as well tuned as Mario. You find yourself fighting with the controls and screaming in anguish as your little computer people run around like morons doing things you didn't tell them to do. The game also takes itself just a bit too seriously. But, it makes up for this by weaving a more complicated tale and manages to almost make you believe that your actions have had some effect on the narrative, even though it's a lie. Not many games make you feel guilty for playing the bad guy, so this is not a non-trivial achievement.

Posted by psu at September 11, 2004 08:50 PM | Bookmark This

So, yeah, it's a pretty common theme in CRPGs that rather than making you directly learn all the right ways to twitch (and despite the quasi-real-time combat of KOTOR, I dispute that it is in any way a twitch game), you instead have little computer people who get better at twitching for you. So fundamentally, they're all "manage resources, see exotic new locales, and kill & loot from the inhabitants."

I find two aspects of CRPGs interesting. First, I like the abstraction. In Ninja Gaiden, I can get about halfway through before my weak, aged brain breaks down under the onslaught of pure ninja madness. In KOTOR, I can get all the way to the end, and I think we all know a Jedi can kick a ninja's ass any day of the week.

Second, I like the story and the dialogue trees. It's true that I have zero interest in replaying the game, since, as you point out, the story is still essentially linear. I think that's great -- I don't have another forty hours to put into that thing just to find out the whole crazy alternate path where you turn into a Star Destroyer and eat planets or whatever. I want to experience the core story on the first time through.

But! But! What's interesting is that the conversation trees and the smaller decisions I can make add texture to my whole, y'know, storyexperiencingcollaborativeblahblahblah ENVIRONMENT. There's some pressure, some feedback there. I played it around the same time as Kevin played it, and we'd talk later, and I'd be all "did you see the thing with the guy in the place!?" and he was all "what!? You could do that? It happened like this for me!" There were little small, interesting differences that responded to the game play, and that totally sucks me in.

But then again, I'm a big Sims slut, so what do I know? :)

Posted by Eric Tilton at September 13, 2004 12:31 PM

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