“Let’s go!” goes Mario, Luigi and two color-coded toadstools’ rallying cry (is this right?) into adventure in the latest Mario installment, New Super Mario Bros. on Wii. The world’s most famous, most Italian* plumber returns yet again to give the privileged class the middle finger with his drug-fueled jumping and scatological love of going deep inside (usually magical) sewer systems. This time, however, he does it simultaneously, with up to three buddies.
This being the second time I have sat down with the game, I am prepared for the Chaos that is going to ensue. The game plays exactly like previous Marios with a few notable additions. There are Wii-centric controls that the new costumes take advantage of (such as an Inspector-Gadget-like propeller hat which allows Mario momentary flight at the flick of the wrists). A movement of the Wii-mote can also pick up various items. There are three collectible “star coins” in each level that function like the stars in Mario 64 and the sunshines in Mario… Sunshine. There are also new challenge stages between the levels proper which consist of either moving obstacles, or stationary mushroom-shaped dwellings. The biggest addition, however, is the new four-player co-op play. Four living, breathing, possibly seething human beings (Na’vis need not apply because they are ridiculous) can go about ruining the evil dinosaur’s, Bowser’s, and his family’s noble, if criminal, aim of saving Princess Peach from a probably abusive relationship with a dwarf-like, drug-addled, shitlover.
This play session is my first time going at it with four players, and I should be excited but am in fact terrified to my core. I am Mario, my girlfriend, sitting next to me, is Luigi. Her brother and my best friend Eric round out our team, playing as the yellow mushroom and blue mushroom, respectively. This combination leads me only to trepidation. I have been dating my girlfriend Azusa for nearly two years, but have only recently been introduced to her non-English-speaking brother (who from now on will be just “Brother”). Brother needs to like me. If he doesn’t, it will only make my life difficult. I want this play-date to go well, having no reason to think it wouldn’t.
And it goes fine, but like most times in my life (from the enjoyable to the terrifying) I cannot relax. My obsession with everyone’s approval cripples my ability to let negative feelings go. My neurosis has shackled my anxiety and locked it in a cage deep in my bowels. I long for release, to feel it all spill out of me, but no, there it is, the clenching in my gut like a just-consumed habañero-powered, carne asada burrito with beans, guac and a whole lot of cheese.
We start playing and I begin noting every little occurrence, reading it meticulously to see if it displeases Eric, Azusa or Brother. “Oh, these moving platform sky levels are great,” says Eric. “Yeah, they are great,” I say, my heart beating faster. That was English. I understood. Azusa understood. Brother? What about him?
Now, Brother is a man I know very little about. He recently moved back into his family’s house in northern Japan after living in the Tokyo area for several years. He has worked in a restaurant before, like Azusa, but also has numerous other technical and artistic skills, like Azusa. These skills have the potential to make him a living, or so I’ve heard. In atypical fashion, Azusa and Brother get along extremely well. They talk and laugh together regularly. Their conversation is one created out of deep camaraderie, respect, and includes an apparently limitless amount of in-jokes and surrealistic asides. They are like two sides of the same pod, or like two peas in a coin. In typical fashion, I know almost nothing else about Brother. Azusa never talks about him, nor of him, nor to him (she does plenty of talking with him though). I have asked her questions about what he did in Tokyo, where he lived and why he suddenly showed up in Iwate to live with her, and she cannot answer me. It seems the two of them are too busy confusing the words bath and bus (in Japanese it’s the same word basu, a mistake they have both made numerous times when talking), than to talk about practical, but highly unnecessary things like employment.
So there Brother sits, his eyes are glazed over as he urges his yellow mushroom across the screen. Does he wonder what we were saying in English? Does he care? He can’t understand, right? Does he want to understand, should I translate? Maybe he thinks we are talking about him? Maybe he thinks we said a joke at his expense? We could have. We could have said he was holding us all back, and the game would go much more smoothly if he was not so inept at moving his short little fingers. We did not say that, of course, but how could he know? He couldn’t know. Oh God, already my plans are in shambles. We will say jokes in English and laugh, and brother will feel more and more alone, separated from the group, ashamed that his primary school days of English instruction could not prepare him for this barbarian invasion. Oh no no no…
“Eh? Nanda? Shinda.” says brother (which roughly translates as “What? What the fuck? I died.”) in a matter-of-fact tone, as his yellow mushroom smiles contentedly and falls off the screen. Good. He does not think we were insulting him in English. It seems he is having fun. Let us have fun.
But I cannot. My stomach is in more knots than that girl I saw in that quaint S&M video last night. The game continues and everyone has a ball. They laugh and point at the screen. Azusa kills Eric and me on purpose with a red shell while her brother laughs. Eric puts down his controller and mimics a Japanese TV personality with too-long fingernails and claps the palms of his hands together while slowly saying “Sugoi!” (in English, “WOOOOOOOOW!”). We all do our best to mimic the various high-pitched noises the two mushrooms utilize for communication instead of words. I play along and effectively hide my discomfort.
My discomfort illustrates New Super Mario Bros.’ biggest failure. It is fun. It allows four people to enjoy themselves. But that enjoyment is predicated upon individual enjoyment. The game creates no sense of camaraderie.
We are all having fun, but our group dynamic remains unchanged. Playing multiplayer games usually elicits feelings of camaraderie. Gears of War’s and ‘Splosion Man’s two-player co-op modes build camaraderie because they require players to work together to beat challenges. In games like Halo and Street Fighter, competition builds respect and intimacy through one-up-manship; understanding comes about through realizing your opponent’s strength and experiencing the joy and sadness of triumphs and failures together. A game does not have to be co-operative to achieve solidarity. Maybe for the first time in the history of fun multiplayer games, New Super Mario Bros. does not generate these feelings.
The Chaos of the game is the problem. The single-player and multiplayer games both use the same world. Judging by the size of the stages and the constant bumping between the characters, the levels were clearly designed for single-player enjoyment. In multiplayer, players can pick each other up, jump on each other to jump higher, share items, and perform different roles (e.g. one person controlling a platform or a spotlight). These levels of interaction are cosmetic since every level can be cleared by a single player. Simultaneously, because of all the bumping between the characters on overcrowded platforms (and the accidental deaths that follow), it is often easier to clear levels solo than with a team.
For this reason, New Super Mario Bros. fails. Here I sit with Eric, Azusa, and Brother, all of us tuckered out. The night is almost done and the knots inside me start to unravel. I am no closer to Brother. I did not identify his face with the yellow mushroom on screen and I did not exchange more than a handful of words with him. I had hoped that tonight would be the night to finally feel a little love for Brother. Mario could have been that love-making tool, but his game never made us feel like a team. I should have known better and relied upon my usual love-making toolset: booze and pornography. Men like pornography, right?
(*disclaimer: level of Italianicity remains unproven.)
Image courtesy of pcworld.com.ph