Being A Dad Made Me Rethink Everything I Know About Mario

Super Mario 3D World. It was good wasn't it?

Yeah it was alright.

Here's how I described it before children: "probably the most conservative Mario game ever made".

Here's how I describe it now I am in possession of a three-year-old boy: "probably the best kids game ever made".

Played as a single player game, with a few forays into multiplayer with experienced Mario players, Super Mario 3D Land just felt so boring. After the mind-bending Mario Galaxy, with its boundless imagination, orchestral soundtrack, Super Mario 3D World was just... there. I played through it by rote. On a superficial level I had 'fun', really it just engaged me on this barely conscious level -- like a crossword puzzle on the train. It passed the time and little more. I was frustrated by its ordinariness, by its inability to dazzle me. I played Super Mario 3D World and I promptly forgot about it.

Then my child started playing video games. Then it all made sense.

One day my son, after watching me play another game on the Wii U, somehow managed to mouth the word 'MAH-REE-OH' after seeing Super Mario 3D World on my hard drive. Before I knew it I was replaying it. Before long he was saying the words "MY TURN". Before long I was handing him the controller saying, 'jesus-christ-please-don't-drop-this-thing-it's-expensive".


I want to talk about the very first level of Super Mario 3D World, because it's a level I've watched my son play through maybe twenty or thirty times.

On my playthrough I rattle through Super Mario 3D World's first level in roughly a minute or two. I might have gone back to pick up a secret star or two I can't quite remember. Point being: I thought it was forgettable garbage. Too easy, boring, zero personality. Blergh. Even as a tutorial level it felt like a failure.

Now, watching my son play, I notice little details. Intricacies I would otherwise have ignored.

To begin with, it's pretty difficult to die in this level. I should know -- my son has done a good job of trying. Surrounding the level: the video game equivalent of bumper bars at a bowling alley. You literally have to jump over things to die (which my son has done... many times). Even the game's enemies are mostly impotent. Mushrooms will kill you if you run towards them, but here's the thing: mushrooms also run towards you. If my son stands still and jumps endlessly -- as he is prone to doing -- chances are he will land on their head. It's a clever little trick that make players believe they've skillfully jumped and navigated onto the head of the enemy.

The wide open spaces of Super Mario 3D World, which I assumed were there to make room for multiple players, actually create a nice little training ground for children to explore. It's hard to understand as adults who play video games but, for children, the simple act of running in a circle and jumping is a pure joy. As a parent you try, you say, "go in that direction. Bloody hell go that way" only to be roundly ignored by the giggles of a child who is literally discovering what it means to project their giddy little self into a video game universe. Super Mario 3D World allows players that time, provides players that space to experiment with what it means to actually play a video game.

It's almost insane to say but my son finds it easier to play Super Mario 3D World -- a game that plays out in three-dimensional space -- than any 2D Mario ever made. That fact seems bewildering to me, a player who grew up on 2D games. But it's a fact, and it's testament to just how good, how accessible and how calculated Super Mario 3D World is as a video game for children.

Super Mario 3D World allows you to play with your children and literally carry them through difficult parts of the game. It allows you to store power-ups and then actually throw them on to less experienced players. I've lost count of the amount of times my son has demanded to "be cat mario" only for me to have a spare power-up in my back pocket.

And Super Mario 3D World is just packed with intricacies like this -- details that make it ridiculously easy to play for children. Example: the 3D level map, which my son has spent hours exploring. Example: the ridiculous power up that appears when you die a little too often. For adult players the Gold Tanooki suit feels like a literal insult. For my son it's just another power-up that transforms his experience from frustration to instant glee.

These are details I would never have noticed. Details that changed my perception of how game design works as a whole. Details that were clearly thought about, discussed and implemented with young children in mind. Details I would have ignored and dismissed had I not played with my own son.


Comments

    I thought the game was really good. It's not going to seriously challenge an adult in the early levels but it's fun. It mixes things up regularly and provides hurdles that challenge you without ever truly stopping your progress. I played it sort of like freeskate mode in the skate games. I'm not there to win I just want to dance for a bit.
    I think one really under rated aspect of 3D World is the cat power up. It gets credit for being cute but it's also a really good tool that feels great in the hands of someone who isn't an expert player. The way it scrambles up the wall, making you work for those last few steps that decide victory or defeat, really syncs up emotionally with the sort of people who can't help but move their arms when they play.

    I rate Nintendo as being in the middle of providing well for newbie gamers. In teaching my wife how to game I've had to scrape together a nice library across multiple platforms to keep her interested. Eventually I worked out the requirements for her to enjoy a game:

    1) Doesn't involve moving the camera around 3D space on more than 1 axis (preferable fixed camera). It's surprising how many family-friendly games violate this rule; beginners can't play them because they get motion sickness and can't figure out how to play and control the camera at the same time.

    2) Forgiving death mechanic. Nintendo's invention of the 2nd player returning in a bubble is genius. I'm glad Ubisoft aped it for Rayman.

    3) Doesn't make her feel like she's useless or a 2nd class citizen. This is a poor man's co-op, like DeathSpank or Super Mario Galaxy.

    4) Way for me to help her without it feeling like she's failed (ie I play tank and she plays ranged). I'd argue the carry mechanic in Mario platformers violates this; it's really an admission the game is too unfair on less skilled players. I think your son is probably too young to take much meaning out of it, but it made my wife feel humiliated when we had to use it.

    With tons of trial and error, I found a nice path for her that ramped up in complexity while building her motorskills:

    1) Mario Kart Wii
    2) Rayman Origins
    3) Rayman Legends
    4) New Super Mario Bros.
    5) Sonic Racing Transformed
    6) Mario Kart 8
    7) Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Subspace Emissary was great, shame they ditched it for Wii U)
    8) TowerFall Ascension
    9) Gauntlet (this was an amazing "in" to get her ready for Diablo 3, which in turn warmed her up to western RPGs)
    10) Mount Your Friends (she was really good at this one... )
    11) Yoshi's Woolly World
    12) Diablo 3: RoS (on PS4, we did play the original edition on 360, but RoS is so much nicer)
    13) Divinity Original Sin: Enhanced Edition

    We probably would've played 3D World, but NSMB burnt her out on Mario platformers.

    Nintendo is actually a big offender for games that failed to cater to her for various reasons:

    1) Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze has game/level design that penalizes you have more multiple players. Wtf. For example you effectively get half as many lives with a 2nd player following you through, and my wife would regularly die halfway through a level and she'd just have to watch me finish it alone. There are levels like the barrel/cart where she can't do anything either (while making me consume 2 lives on death, wow).

    2) Mario Kart 8 has no difficulty settings that cater well to new and old players at the same time. (100cc+ is brutal to players that get stuck in the middle of the pack).

    3) Mario platformers are brutal against beginners. My wife regularly fell down holes, got hit by enemies, etc. and would run out of lives halfway through the level, leaving her to sit bored while I get to the end of the level by myself. The bubble and carry mechanics helped, but made her feel useless at times.

    4) Splatoon has hardly any local co-op.

    5) Pikmin 3 has gimped local co-op.

    6) Smash Bros. for Wii U. has no story mode anymore because reasons.

    7) Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush camera follows player 1 exclusively, with my wife regularly falling off the screen.

    8) Captain Toad has no co-op (that would've been amazing, but we did hotseat it for a while).

    Last edited 27/01/16 1:43 pm

      I really enjoyed your analysis. I wish I could get my wife into gaming.

        I was starting to think no one read it, glad you liked it! :D

    On the most part the game was fairly easy (though still enjoyable) but did get pretty challenging right near the end, like the umpteenth layer of the space area you reach. My 3yr old just loved jumping into the rocket that went back and forth.

    I'm playing through Wind Waker HD again at the moment, she loves the idea of a talking dragon boat and opening treasure chests so she's been often asking me to turn it on and play it lately. The wife finds it boring as bat shit though.

      Oddly my wife loved Phantom Hourglass though. I installed DraStic on her phone, which handles touch only DS games great, and she nearly finished the whole thing (she got tired of the repetitive main dungeon towards the end).

    The levels in the first world... ugh... I've now played them sooo many times. But it's all pretty much as you've said. He started relying on the bubble when things got too hard. Now he's able to play those levels all by himself, and I push him out of his comfort zone in to the tougher levels sometimes. I'm way past the point of fun with this game, but it's one of the most valuable in our household and will be played for years to come.

    Actually, now that I think about it, the one main criticism I would level at this as a kids game is the lives system. It should have been done away with. It either ends up with them not being able to return in a level because you ran out, or with a parent exploiting an extra life loop to bank hundreds of lives. I think that the Rayman games are beautiful but a little empty, but removing lives is one thing they did right.

    Last edited 27/01/16 2:23 pm

      Also, @markserrels, Yoshi's Wooly World in "Mellow Mode" should be on your list soon. Hold the button to fly forever. The two of us finished the entire game that way.

        Yes! My kids just played through YWW in Mellow mode, without me! It was lovely to see them go through that entire game. I used to think those hand-holdy powerups and easy modes from Nintendo were so silly, but when you have kids they are the best thing ever.

      I think they could do a really good party mode with no lives, no timer, no stages where the screen moves automatically, bounce pads that damage when you jump in holes but spit you back out and maybe give power ups two hits before they go anyway. It's a mode for kids so it's safe to assume they want to play with the fire balls more than they want to be challenged.
      That said I'd like to see something replace lives though. I think kids are fine with the idea of dying and hitting a game over screen, they scoreboards, it's just that it tends to come with too big of a consequence. What might work is just giving them easy lives. Kids love chasing 1-Ups. What if when you got down to less than 5 lives it triggered an event? Like a bonus round where you run around in circles and refill your lives.

    I had a similar experience the other day with my 3 year old and Banjo Tooie on the Xbone - he just ran around the opening spiral mountain area for ages - simply amused by the ability to control something on the TV!

    This is the best game I've ever played through with my daughter (5 at the time), better than all the 2d Mario games (which we've also played through). We've 100%'d it, all except Champions Road, which is super frustrating because she really wants to finish it, but that level is too hard.

    The only thing I would like different for a more child friendly experience is to have the option to remove the time limit.

    One of my favourite games of all time, just because of how amazing it was playing through it in kid-co-op.

    I dunno, it'[s one of my Favourite Marios ever. Sure, the first few worlds are quite easy, but they are positively dripping with whimsy and interesting ideas beyond the classical "run, jump, bounce off enemies" formula (for example what about the level where you need to keep atop of a stone cube rolling over lava?). The new power-ups encourage exploration and experimentation. For experienced players that would find the clear path forward too easy, there are SEVERAL alternative paths that require precise jumping, lateral thinking or perfect timing. Usually you are rewarded with one 1-Up or three, or a hidden Luigi, but for me the true reward was being able to find them, the fact that they were there and that my curiosity and skill allowed me to find them.

    And then, once you complete the main story, the levels become pretty devious, satisfactorily difficult for my adult tastes while not being unfair.

    Maybe, Mark, you were so disappointed that it was not Galaxy or something even more blatantly different, that it discoloured your opinion of it?

    Anyway, it makes me Glad to hear that the game is also wondrous for little kids. That's what some call "lenticular design" (as it seems to be a different thing depending on where are you looking at it).

    Last edited 27/01/16 3:58 pm

      I played it when it first came out, before my son was old enough to play it with me, and found it a chore to complete. There was very little challenge until the bonus worlds, at which point I think it became fantastic and imaginative and, yes, a little like Super Mario Galaxy 3.

      I still think it's one of the lesser Mario games in single player, but does become much more fun in multiplayer. And, to be fair, that's exactly how they sold it.

    Long time reader, first time commenting. This article made me smile from start to finish! This is exactly how i feel with 3D World! My kids have made me appreciate the games design even more. I've tried to get them to play the 2d side scrollers but they cant do it! Give them 3D World agaisnt Bowser and they beat it! I love it! Thank you Nintendo! Great article!

    My son is currently trying to master Mario on the NES, or as he call it "Mawo". (he also calls Luigi "Gween Mawo" for good measure).

    He's two and a half, and I simply cannot wait to introduce him to games like Mario 3D World. Both my wife and I are gamers and he loves to watch us play anything, I can't wait for him to join us in that.

    Last edited 27/01/16 6:07 pm

    For a basic mario game, i had zero issues with 3D world. It was simple, elegant and fun. Just nothing exciting..

    While everyone talks about kids, this was great for getting my partner to play games with our boys. They didnt need the hand holding, but their enjoyment and eagerness got my partner to pick up the control and play for hours with us and we all loved it! Not many games we can do that together.

    Good read, did enjoy. More articles like this. Games analyses in not just "context", but in their full context.

    Even though I don't have kids and don't know if I ever will, I can relate to this article so well - having a girlfriend who doesn't play games at all, these are experiences where I get to share my world with her. I feel you with that slight frustration bit, in relation to trying to get your kid to go a certain way for example - it makes so much sense to us who have played games for decades, but for them, it's all new and different. Sometimes I gotta remind myself to just chill, we don't need to just push through the levels quickly - it's actually just fun to take it in and enjoy it at their pace.

    There's no way my girlfriend will ever jump into a game like Skyrim, but having these entry points for new people to learn, understand and enjoy our passion... Thank god for Nintendo.

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