I had a lot of trouble playing Super Mario 3D Land when I first picked it up; there’s something about the moving Mario around in a 3D space that I just couldn’t quite get a grip on, likely because I was so used to side-scrolling with the guy. Thankfully (or maybe not?), the game provides you with a safeguard against losing too many lives on one level: if you die a certain amount of times, the game gives you a Tanooki suit that’s also an unlimited invincibility star at the beginning of the level in question. At first I would sigh with relief but I quickly came to despise it because of how easy it made things.
I’m not saying that Super Mario 3D Land is so easy that it’s not worth playing. I’m not even saying that the leaf ruins the game. What I am saying is that, as game developers, critics, or just gamers in general, we should be aware of what makes a game good for us and why getting a little frustrated once in a while might actually be a good thing.
There are a lot of games that I think are too hard to be even worth playing (old arcade games, Ninja Gaiden, etc) just as there are games that are too easy to bother with (usually games that are below my age demographic, obviously). But what about the games that skirt that line of too easy and too hard?
I learned alot about myself playing this game. I learned that I’m the kind of person that, even if I get frustrated with a game and even put it down for a few weeks, I still don’t want the game to just hand me a victory on a silver platter just because I’ve died a few times. I learned that, even though I knew I could just NOT pick up the special Tanooki suit, I still would every time just because it was there and I was frustrated.
So how is it even fair that I can complain about this one thing, especially if it’s avoidable? The truth is, it’s in the game and it just doesn’t make sense to not use it if your goal is to beat the game. It makes beating the game easier, end of story. But should it?
Flashback: I’m procrastinating on yet another university assignment when I decide that I have to be able to master a Mega Man game if I can even begin to consider myself a real man. So I chip away at Mega Man 9 for…three months or so (yes, I finished the paper) and finally manage to beat it. In the end, it was incredibly frustrating and not a whole lot of fun, to be honest. But I did feel satisfied.
Maybe that’s why the Tanooki suit bugs me so much: it robs me of that feeling of sweaty, hard-won victory. Yes, I could just not pick it up, but it’s the fact that it’s there at all that’s the real issue. Maybe it’s my personality, but when there’s something so easily available after I’ve just spent the past fifteen minutes dying over and over again, I’m gonna grab it if only to ease my frustration.
Every time I finished a tricky level with the special leaf, though, I felt dirty. I didn’t feel like I did when I beat Mega Man. Instead, I felt like I cheated, and not in a fun, I-beat-this-game-a-hundred-times-so-check-out-this-Konami-code-thing kind of way. It felt like it would have felt if Mega Man had suddenly gotten crazy new powers after dying twenty-eight times: boring.
That’s probably what it all boils down to: as a developer, you have to pick what type of boredom your player might experience, given their inability to beat it. Either it’s a boredom born from the game being too easy or it’s a boredom born from the game being so hard that it’s pointlessly frustrating. Sure, there are fancy AI tricks you can do to make the game seem like the player is finally getting better at the game when in fact it’s just getting easier without telling you, but putting a get-out-of-jail-free Tanooki suit at the beginning of a frustrating level just doesn’t work for me.