Reflections From the Middle of The Last Story

I haven’t finished The Last Story; in a way, I hope I never do. This isn’t necessarily a rare thing for me to feel when playing a great game, but it is a rare thing for me to feel about a game’s narrative. It’s even more rare to feel that way toward a game that features, for lack of a better term, “conventional gamey storytelling,” a phrase which here means “a game where one plays for a bit, puts the controller down to watch a cutscene, then plays some more.”

And yet this is the real magic of The Last Story — the effortless way in which it cements the importance and, indeed, nobility of things we thought we outgrew, or at the very least were sick of. Things like cutscenes, yes, but also things like stories about destiny and forbidden romance; things like pirate ships and castles and wicked kings and noble knights; things like princesses who are fed up with their boring lives of royalty, and hidden caves filled with frightening creatures; things like mystical forests and fiery volcanoes and villages full of simple folk who want nothing more than to sell you shields and potions. Things that have been slightly rehashed and moderately relabeled ad nauseum in every Final Fantasy game you’ve played in the past seven years, but which are presented here in The Last Story with an essential ingredient that has been missing in nearly all of them: sincerity. Never mind that the storytelling present here is genuinely good, the performances are genuinely dedicated and the art direction is genuinely some of the best you’ll see this year.

The comparisons to Final Fantasy are inevitable seeing as the game was directed by the man who invented the series, but Hironobu Sakaguchi (who has now left the series to work on original games with his new company, Mistwalker) should be proud to be one of mainstream gaming’s few creators who possess a truly distinctive style. We see his hand in the art direction, which is a perfect expression of Sakaguchi’s love of Medieval architecture, here mostly unmarred by the tired trope of steampunk; we see his hand in the characters, whose personalities are immediately apparent, yet whose motives are ambiguous enough that we want to get to know them better; and we see his hand in the story itself, which (again, in contrast to the current, Sakaguchi-less Final Fantasy) thankfully cares more about charming us with its characters and astounding us with its imagination that it does boring us with pointless mythology that we will forget by the end of the game.

Yes, The Last Story spins a good old-fashioned yarn about a band of mercenaries who go on spectacular adventures in which mysterious islands are explored, pirates are fought, treasures are plundered, sick children are cured, and princesses are saved; but even if you didn’t grow up obsessed with Treasure Island and The Legend of Zelda and therefore aren’t a total sucker for fantastical adventure stories like I am, it’s nearly impossible not to be impressed by the sheer innovation of the gameplay itself. RPGs have long featured team-based battles, but rarely have they actually felt like teamwork, so much as they often feel like I press a bunch of buttons on a bunch of menus to make a bunch of people do a bunch of stuff.

In The Last Story, you only control one member of your party (Zael–yes, silly names are present and accounted for) yet you must rely on everyone in it. You are just a…well, a role player in this team, but as a result of actually having to rely that team instead of directly controlling their every move, you end up caring about them, even respecting them more ; in effect, the times where you are in fact able to give orders to your team-mates are more exciting due to their relative rarity.

This is an accomplishment. I’ve often felt a disconnect in RPGs in which the story tells me I’m supposedly an innocent underdog, yet behind the controller I’m a godlike presence controlling the decisions of not only my avatar but everyone around him. It just doesn’t feel true. It’s like in Grant Theft Auto IV where Niko’s cousin tells him “We’re broke!” and yet we look up at the top of the screen and see we’ve amassed several hundred thousand dollars from our dirty work. In The Last Story I have found no such disconnects, and if they’re there, I’ll happily ignore them. There is no such thing as a perfect game; it’s just that some are better at distracting us from their flaws.

I’ve set the game on the shelf for now, but not for a lack of interest or boredom; I’m savoring the experience. I’m waiting for a rainy day to come along, or a sleepless night, where I can curl up on the couch and be swept up in more of the gang’s adventures; reminded of the times when I’d stay up all night with my favorite book, immersed in the escapades of pirates or knights. The Last Story, of course, is not the last story, but it is the first game story in a very long time that I’ve cared about.

Journey Through the Past: The 1990s

Friend of the website Dave is hosting a 1990s blogfest today. He’s managed to rope quite a few great bloggers into this (complete list and his own choices here), and we’re also now selling cosmetics door to door on his behalf. The idea is to choose one thing — one anything — as your favorite thing from each year from 1990 – 1999, and write a short bit about it. He also did one for the 2000s, which was pre-Noiseless Chatter I think, but since everything released in that time period was garbage you missed nothing. (And, honestly, I’ll probably end up doing a 2000 – 2010 one just for the heck of it.) Anyway, enjoy…thanks to Dave for hosting this, and let me know what some of your own choices might have been in the comments below. Or tell me I’m wrong in a profane way…I always like that!

1990 – Vineland

I feel more than a little intellectually guilty for only including one novel in my year-by-year rundown, but I’d have to say that the 1990s weren’t particularly well served in a literary sense. Fortunately, though, the decade opens with perhaps the warmest, most welcoming book my favorite author ever wrote. Vineland takes place in 1984, but is very much a love letter to the 1960s. It introduces us to Zoyd Wheeler, a cultural isolate from that lost decade of love, sex and freedom, who’s been reduced to throwing himself through windows to keep up a stream of mental disability checks. It’s an innately comic setup, but the backward, twisting path through time, loss and inevitability is perfectly heartbreaking. Zoyd’s reliable antics, after all, began as an act of genuine desperation when his wife left him, and it’s only been the steady march of time that’s diluted them to meaningless repetitions of what once meant so much. That’s the angle Pynchon takes as he explores the effect aging has had on this world, and ours. It’s Zoyd’s daughter who pulls the narrative along — or backward — as she uncovers, thread by thread, who her mother was. And who her mother became. And, if she learns enough from what she finds, how to avoid a similar fate for herself. Pynchon’s narratives hurdle unfailingly toward doom, but Vineland is the one that reminds you that life is always worth living…regardless of where you might actually end up.

1991 – A Link to the Past

It’s a fact: the Super Nintendo is the single greatest video game console of all time. Consequently, the early to mid 1990s were a veritable goldmine for gamers. While the NES introduced us to massive numbers of endearing and enduring characters, the SNES took everything at least one step further, and managed to refine and build upon game mechanics without overcomplicating them, or losing sight of what made them work. Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Super Castlevania IV (among so many others) all represented a realization of promise, a step deeper into fantastic and complex universes that we always knew existed just below the surface. But it’s A Link to the Past that really stands out. Taking absolutely everything that worked about the first Zelda game and disposing of everything that didn’t, A Link to the Past laid the precise groundwork for every game in the series that followed, regardless of console. And while certain later entries, such as Majora’s Mask or Wind Waker, attempted to pull the series in other directions, it’s A Link to the Past that rightfully gets the credit for building the solid foundation and framework that gave those later installments the room to expand. The graphics are gorgeous, the music is great, and even if the challenge is somewhat lacking, every new secret you find on the map feels earned and satisfying. I love A Link to the Past. It’s one of perhaps two or three games in the history of the universe that does literally nothing wrong, and it’s a perfect example of what made the SNES so great.

1992 – Glengarry Glen Ross

For a movie with no action, Glengarry Glen Ross is riveting. For a movie with two locations, Glengarry Glen Ross feels enormous. And for a movie with so little at stake, Glengarry Glen Ross feels profound. It’s a story about selling real estate, and how difficult a racket that can be, but it’s also a story about despair, about self-preservation, about pride, about confidence, and about what it means to be a man. It’s all of these things, and it’s more, and the same answer is never given to the same question twice. When a nameless emissary drops by the sales office to address unsatisfactory work, he motivates the sales force by setting them at each other’s throats: the two most successful salesmen will be rewarded to varying degrees, and the other two will lose their jobs. What follows is a single, seemingly-unbroken narrative that spans the rest of that night and the next morning. To say any more than that would likely both give away too much and artificially enhance the importance of anything that happens. The magic — and the story — is all in the dialogue. Glengarry Glen Ross began as a stage play, and it shows. Its big screen adaptation does not seek to overwhelm, astonish, or impress; it seeks to focus. It seeks make you notice every shift of the eye, twitch of the finger, and speck of spittle that accompanies a profane explosion, making it feel like an even smaller and more intimate experience than the play could have ever been. It’s a film that’s terrifying, and it’s terrifying mainly because there’s nothing here to be afraid of. After all, these are just people. Highly and eternally recommended.

1993 – Mega Man X

I deliberately avoided mentioning Mega Man X when I basked in the glory of the SNES library above, simply so I could single it out here. Mega Man is unquestionably one of my favorite game series ever, and Mega Man X deviates from the classic formula just enough to justify it as a spinoff. With an increased focus on item collection, upgrades and lingering effects of defeated bosses, Mega Man X brought additional levels of non-linearity to an already legendarily non-linear experience. While the series may have gone off the rails after another four or five games (it’s debatable), the original is a stone-cold classic, with great bosses, impressive stages, and gameplay so versatile that fans, almost 20 years later, are still discovering new ways to play it. Mega Man was never about deep plot or engrossing storylines; these were action games through and through. Mega Man X wisely didn’t try to separate itself from the originals by way of an epic storyline…it simply enhanced the action, layered on new and impressive complications, and married it to a stellar soundtrack. Mega Man X is just fantastic.

1994 – Monster

So nobody likes Monster. I know that. I also know that that’s their loss. R.E.M.’s hardest rocking album might be so much of a departure from their usual sound that it’s hard to consider it a legitimate installment in their discography…but so what? It’s fantastic. When I listen to Monster — which I do for weeks at a time whenever I stumble across it again — I hear some of the best straight-up rock and roll to come out of the decade. And it’s not entirely devoid of R.E.M.’s signature songwriting, either…you just have to listen through some thrashing guitars to find it. Songs like “Strange Currencies,” “Tongue,” and “Crush With Eyeliner” are all pulled off with the band’s usual sideways insight into the human condition, with all of the disappointment and humane absurdity that implies. The band just happened to couch that insight in some brilliantly distracting, raw, unpolished instrumentation, and that brings with it a charm of its own…a little taste of R.E.M. as the up-and-coming garage band they never were. Some fans are all too eager to dismiss this brief experiment. For me it’s top shelf material, beaten only by Automatic For the People and Lifes Rich Pageant. If you’ve written it off before, it may be worth a reappraisal.

1995 – “Knowing Me Knowing Yule With Alan Partridge”

I love Alan Partridge. He ranks easily among my five favorite comic creations throughout all of human history, and that’s due in large part to the way that Steve Coogan slips — seemingly effortlessly — into Alan’s skin and becomes him. Though he started behind a sports desk and then moved into the chat-show format, there was always something more to him. He was never a “type,” and the humor was not situational; Alan was a human being, free to be himself wherever — and with whomever — he was. He was a person, a person with insecurities, interests, and a uniquely slanted perspective. “Knowing Me Knowing Yule” is a one-off special that bridges the gap between Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge and I’m Alan Partridge…two very different, but perfectly complementary, insights into this fascinating man. It’s presented as a needlessly expensive and woefully inessential yuletide installment of Alan’s chat show, and it’s what seals the casket on his broadcasting career forever. Considering that the last proper episode of Alan’s chat show saw him shooting a guest through the heart live on air, that gives you an idea of just how poorly this festive outing manages to go. It’s a great and always welcome entry into the Christmas special canon, and worth a watch at least once per year. Alan getting threatened by a transvestite, failing to properly lip-synch “The 12 Days of Christmas” and struggling desperately to halt an in-process bit of product placement never gets old. Watch it during a family gathering. Believe me, it will make you feel better about everyone you’re related to.

1996 – “22 Short Films About Springfield”

Coming at a time when The Simpsons could genuinely do no wrong, “22 Short Films About Springfield” reads like a time-capsule today. It’s a relic — and a loving, fascinating, and clever one — of a time when Springfield was more than just a sea of caricatures and types; it was a place, fully functional in and of itself. One operating under its own logic and impossible to mistake for the real world, but real in its own way all the same. It’s a half hour without plot, without intention, and without a moral…just a simple, and undoubtedly well-earned, chance to take a deep breath and survey the incredible playground the show had built up for itself by that point. The characters were so well established and the dynamics between them so fruitful that all you needed to do was let Apu take some time off, bring Reverend Lovejoy and his dog to Flanders’ front lawn, or give a stranger the chance to turn the tables on Nelson, and comedy would flow. Effortless, wonderful, eternal comedy. “22 Short Films About Springfield” floats by like a whisper, as it should. While any other show on television could work harder and harder every week to make even a fraction of the impact on the cultural landscape that The Simpsons made, The Simpsons itself didn’t seem to need to work at all. It could just step back and see what the characters were doing…and, here, that’s what it did. The Skinner / Chalmers segment will go down in history as an all-time best sequence no matter how long the show runs, but even if that clear highlight were to be somehow excised from the episode, “22 Short Films About Springfield” would still be a perfect gem. With so many forgettable seasons behind us now, the episode is almost like footage of a great civilization long gone: those of us that were there will always have this souvenir, and those who missed it will be eternally grateful for this brief — and brilliant — window into the past.

1997 – Time Out of Mind

I’ve talked a bit about Dylan’s lost years here, but I didn’t say much about what brought him back to life. Time Out of Mind is what brought him back to life. For me, it was released at the perfect time; just as I started to explore Dylan myself, this came out. Suddenly the warnings to avoid “the recent stuff” went quiet…and I do mean suddenly. Time Out of Mind is a bullet of an album…a shot through the brain that lingers and haunts and does not let go, and critics and fans alike flocked to it immediately. Time Out of Mind doesn’t feel like a comeback album…it feels like he never left. Though his youthful, nasal prophesying is replaced here by a gravelly howl, it’s Dylan to the core, providing one of his best love songs (“Make You Feel My Love”), some chillingly vague danger (“Cold Irons Bound”), and a classic meandering tale of introspection, playing Neil Young at high volumes, and ordering hard-boiled eggs at a restaurant (“Highlands”)…it’s a gloriously meandering shaggy-dog story that caps off an aimless-by-design rediscovery of who Dylan is. It would be quicker to list the things I don’t like about this album, because there really aren’t any. Songs like “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and the bluntly desolate “Not Dark Yet” triggered suspicions that this was Dylan’s final statement…that the man had pulled it together one last time, to end his career on a high note. He’s released four more albums of new material since then. Dylan’s going out on a high note alright…he’s just making sure to sustain it this time. On his next album, Dylan would sing “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” That would have made more sense before Time Out of Mind, which disproves it conclusively.

1998 – Rushmore

There may not be much more I can say about Rushmore than what I’ve already said here, but that by no means dampens my excitement for talking about it yet again. Rushmore is, by many accounts, Wes Anderson’s best film. Anyone who says that to you, however, is lying. What it is, however, is Wes Anderson’s mission statement, and it’s a solid, fantastic, indelible one. Coming off of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore represents an almost unprecedented stylistic and qualitative step forward. It’s not a film in which Anderson finds his voice…it’s a film in which we find Anderson’s voice. The soundtrack, the costumes, the visual design, the character dynamics, the relentless attention to detail…everything here established what it meant to be “classic Anderson,” and it both defined a career and forever cemented a fanbase. It also introduced the world to Jason Schwartzman, and reintroduced the world to a penitent Bill Murray…a gift to humanity that Anderson should always be praised for. It’s one of those movies packed so densely that no two viewings have to feel the same, and there’s literally always something new to notice, tucked away in the corner of a quick shot, or hiding in plain sight while the camera dwells and your eyes wander. Rushmore is a great film, and while I enjoy it most for what it allowed Anderson to do down the line, I can never watch this one without coming away impressed all over again. And crying when Max introduces Mr. Blume to his father. Because that part’s fucking gold.

1999 – “Space Pilot 3000”

When Futurama debuted, it seemed like it was just going to be the less-deserving little brother of The Simpsons. But arriving, as it did, just at the time the elder show was losing steam, it established itself immediately as a more than worthy successor. While The Simpsons took a few seasons to establish a flow and sustainable gag-rate for itself, Futurama burgled some writers and hijacked that momentum, allowing it to fire on all cylinders right from the get-go. The result is an almost impossibly strong first season, kicked off by one of the most confident and well-handled pilots I’ve ever seen. Space Pilot 3000 has barely aged at all. While the voice actors may have still been getting a handle on things, the writing is sharp and solid, and the groundwork for countless fantastic episodes of smart science-fiction, piercing comedy and genuine emotion is laid here. There’s a long love letter to Futurama that I’d like to write, but as the years go by it keeps getting longer…eventually I’d just end up with too much to say. After all, what can I say to a show that gave me “Jurassic Bark,” “Time Keeps On Slipping,” “The Luck of the Fryrish,” “Godfellas,” “Lethal Inspection,” and so many others I love beyond words? Futurama is by no means a perfect show, but for some silly cartoon knockoff of another silly cartoon, it sure managed to exceed expectations quickly. It brought an end to the 90s, but ushered in a whole new expanse of grand adventures and brainy plotwork. Philip J Fry inadvertently froze himself, and woke up in a far stronger television landscape. Welcome to the world of tomorrow.

External: Mario Kart 7 Contest

Just a quick note to say that friend of the website Jeremy Hardin is hosting a Mario Kart 7 tournament, starting on Saturday, October 27. That’s just over a month from now, so get your practice in, and register for the event!

I’ll do my best to be there, and it should be fun. Mario Kart 7 is a great game, and Jeremy’s giving away a WiiU and some games to the winners, so it’s worth checking out.

If you have any questions, remember, this is a Nintendo Fuse event, not mine! So check out his site and find out what you need to know. Hopefully I’ll see you there, and thanks to Jeremy for the heads up!

A Further Defense of Stubborn Refusal: New Super Mario Bros. 2

I’ve been considering writing this post for a while now. Since the moment I first played New Super Mario Bros. 2, in fact. But, obviously, I put it off, and it’s only due to Jacob’s brilliant piece on the game that I thought I’d revisit it, dust off my ranting cap, pull on my bitching pants*, and get down to hollering vaguely at the metaphorical children on my lawn.

With a high profile release such as a Super Mario Bros. game, reviews are everywhere. That’s fine. And they vary pretty widely in opinion, which is fine too. What’s not fine, as far as I’m concerned, is the perpetually echoing criticism that it’s not different enough from New Super Mario Bros. That’s missing the point, and it’s missing it in several substantial ways.

First of all, I will concede this: you have every right to be disinterested in New Super Mario Bros. 2. Of course you do. What baffles me, though, is that anybody would expect the game to be something other than what it is…and even to hold against the game the fact that it isn’t something different.

The Super Mario Bros. series has splintered over the years into so many spinoffs and subseries that it’s literally quicker to list off the genres that Mario hasn’t made his own than to name all the ones he’s branched into. That’s where New Super Mario Bros. came in. It was a deliberate exercise in getting Mario back to his purest platforming roots. Gone were expansive 3D worlds and game-long gravity gimmicks. Mario’s primary weapon and mode of transportation were once again, at long last, one and the same: his feet.

New Super Mario Bros. was a massive success, and it still sells well to this day, in spite of the fact that at least five hardware upgrades and countless releases stand between us and its release date. The reason for that is simple: it promised a return to basics, and consumers voted en masse with their pocketbooks to say, yes, that’s exactly the kind of promise we’ve been waiting to hear.

That was in 2006. Six years ago. The fact that a sequel was released just last month doesn’t exactly scream “cash grab.” Enough time has passed since the original’s release that it’s fair to assume that fans might enjoy another set of worlds to hop, stomp and somersault through, so Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros. 2. And it’s been criticized almost universally for not being different enough from its predecessor.

This is puzzling, as New Super Mario Bros. made its intentions clear. They were intentions that millions of gamers supported, and with pleasure. To criticize any game in the New Super Mario Bros. series for not being different enough is to miss the point; if you want something “different,” there are enough Mario games to suit your needs as it is. So many, in fact, that a return to basic platforming required a whole new subseries. That’s this. “Different” is explicitly against its reason for existence.

I’m always surprised by the “not different enough” criticism of video games. Mega Man games faced that problem. Ditto Fallout and Fallout: New Vegas. But why? Is “not different enough” really a fair complaint? It’s one thing to say that you’d prefer not to play through another game so similar to the first, but that’s a matter of personal preference. To try to blame the game for that is a bit unfair, as that’s what the game has set out to do: further explore the world, characters, and game mechanics that it laid down in previous installments. If the series feels a need to evolve it certainly will — or will branch off into multiple paths of sequels — but should it be obligated to constantly do so?

Video games seem to occupy this strange place in the culture that expects them to always be changing, always evolving, always hurtling toward the future at a pace we unfairly expect to exceed our own. This isn’t the case with films; we don’t expect the sequel to a gangster movie to be a musical about time-traveling leprechauns. Ditto music; when Neil Young releases several albums in a row of raw, rusty country-rock, we don’t complain that he didn’t do a disco album, followed by speed metal, followed by Gregorian chants.

We know what Neil Young does well, and we like it when he does that. (In fact, the times he has deviated substantially from our expectations, he’s been critically raked over the coals for that transgression.) We don’t expect every song or album to sound exactly the same, but we do expect that it will fit into the scope of talent that suits him best. We want it to be Neil Young, and that’s a desire we can only have where there exists a set of expectations for something to be Neil Young.

So why do we expect video games to always be offering substantially different experiences with each installment?

Personally, I don’t want that. I’d rather know what I’m getting into ahead of time. I know I can rely on Mario to give me a fun adventure every time, and it’s that reliability that keeps him so dear to my heart. I don’t want him trying to surprise me every time, because then I can’t know what I’m getting into. Or, if he does feel the need to surprise me, I ask only that he make that clear from the start, by slapping a Sunshine or a Galaxy on the label to make me look twice, and consider this new game on its own merits and of its own potential, separate from whatever other expectations I may have.

I don’t want the next Fallout game to be a real-time strategy. I don’t want Half-Life 3 to be an anime-influenced choose-your-own adventure. And I don’t want the sequel to a game I know to deviate so far from the original that it no longer fits into the world it created for itself.

It’s sometimes nice to know where you stand.

It’s sometimes nice to have expectations.

And it’s sometimes nice to come home to old friends.

That’s why they’re friends. We took the time to know them, we know what we can expect from them, and we’ve become comfortable around them.

“Not different enough” isn’t a criticism. And especially in the case of New Super Mario Bros. 2, it’s practically a compliment.

* That’s as in pants I wear while bitching, not pants that are so stylish that they could affectionately be described as “bitchin'”. Though my bitching pants are also pretty bitchin’.

Video Games as Video Games: New Super Mario Bros. 2

Philip’s Note: Please welcome Jacob Crites to the Noiseless Chatter team. He’s going to provide some great articles to carry you through the times when I’m not posting meandering, unfocused bullshit. I hope you don’t mind.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the best 2D Mario game since Super Mario World. I’d say it was better, but my nostalgia won’t let me. That’s the thing when it comes to comparing and contrasting Mario games — nostalgia. The ones that mean the most to us are typically the ones that came during formative years in our lives.

Super Mario World, for example, was the first video game I ever played; not surprisingly, it’s also my favorite. Because, for a lot of us, Mario was our Mickey Mouse — Mario was the embodiment of youthful optimism and sprightliness that was missing from our cynical, assembly-line cartoons; as a result, the thought of any game being “better” than those formative, child-hood-defining games, be it Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or Super Mario 64, is ridiculous.

But take those childhood favorites off the pedestals we’ve placed them on and look at them for what they really are — brilliant, creative platformers with hearts of solid gold — and it’s plain to see that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is every bit as good, if not quite able to overtake those special corners of our heart.

Where most major franchises are striving to imitate Hollywood and take notes from the language of film, Mario’s games feel more like ballet. There is less a story here than there is the suggestion of one; our emotional attachment to the character springs not from dialogue but from the grace of movement, form and balance in association with vivid musical compositions. The music informs the movement, the movement informs the level design, and so on; each individual element crafted with what must be exhaustive meticulousness to tie into a larger whole. When combined with brightly colored, vivid stereoscopic visuals that make you feel like you’re staring at a magical shoebox diorama come to life, New Super Mario Bros. 2 becomes something quite special: a video game that knows it’s a video game, that likes the fact that it’s a video game, that joyfully uses and expands upon the language of video games. When one attempts to explain what makes pressing a series of buttons that causes a virtual Italian man to jump on fishes with bright, golden trails of coins trailing from their butts fun, one has realized how indescribably different this medium can be from any other when it rejects Hollywood and embraces its gamey-ness.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 also has fully embraced its formula, which may not be as bad a thing as you think. The game has been accused as being formulaic, which I find to be an odd thing to accuse a Mario game of being. It is the universal familiarity with the Mario formula that allows the game to play with our expectations and surprise us just when we think we’ve slipped into a groove — the surprise, this time around, being that coins actually matter. A lot.

Your unofficial goal is to collect a million of the things, and this idea alone brings with it a myriad of potential issues that Nintendo masterfully sidesteps. Namely: how do you create a game based on collecting things without it turning into a collect-a-thon? The trick, Nintendo shows us, is to make the collecting a natural extension of the platforming experience, rather than a bland, Easter-egg-hunt-like distraction.

A new fire-flower variation, for example, causes Mario to shoot a projectile that turns whatever it hits into a sparkling explosion of coins; passing through bright, golden rings will cause every enemy on the screen to leave a shiny golden trail of coins behind them. All of this could have ended up looking disastrous and chaotic, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but what elevates the game into something of a masterpiece is how gorgeously fluid and downright symmetrical Nintendo makes it all look. Seeing a sea of fish leaping out of the water in perfectly synchronized alternating patterns with shimmering strings of gold trailing behind them is was of the more astonishingly surreal sights I’ve seen in a game all year…until I got to the next level and Nintendo found an even more wonderful way to surprise me.

A screenshot or Youtube video can’t do these moments justice; in fact, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a strong argument against antiquated reviewing systems that assign individual scores to Gameplay, Graphics and Sound. Because here, once again, each element relies on and informs the other, and it is only by working in tandem that the game is able to achieve such visceral pleasure.

It would have been easy, I think, with this goal of collecting one million coins, to inadvertently turn Mario into a greedy punk like his brother(?) Wario; and yet this, too, Nintendo has sidestepped. Mario isn’t tasked with collecting a million big ones to buy something, or to unlock some expensive reward; but rather because…well, collecting all those sparkly coins is kinda fun. And that’s the real accomplishment of this game: Fun.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a game full of artistry and masterful craftsmanship, but the only thing it really wants to do is entertain us. To put a smile on our face.

When I play these games, I’m reminded of classic Disney Mickey Mouse cartoons; Walt would construct these stories on big moving steamboats or massive clocks that required insanely complicated animation…and that was the point. Walt Disney understood that animation worked best when it concentrated on, well, animating — which is to say, movement. The more complicated it was, as long as it contained charming, loveable characters, the more fun it was to watch. The physical humor found in early Mickey Mouse cartoons is still second to none, and it could have only be done in that medium.

Mario has been likened to the Mickey Mouse of the video game world, and it’s a comparison he’s earned. Mario’s games come from a good place; they encompass a child-like sense of wonder that no other developer has been able to surpass, because no other developer is willing to try quite so hard to make us smile.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn’t try to redefine the medium, and it shouldn’t have to; it’s perfectly content to remind us of why it makes it so great.

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