Technical Difficulties: How To Improve An Almost Perfect Game

[For today’s Monthly Musing blog, Vali tells us why, contrary to popular opinion, he found Super Mario Galaxy 2 to be too easy, why he thinks others found it too difficult, and what tweaks he would make to the game to bring it to a place he believes everyone would be happy with. We’re promoting blogs all month on this month’s topic — if you want the chance to see your blog on the front page, all you have to do is participate. — JRo]

Let me preface this with my bias towards Super Mario Galaxy 2‘s difficulty: I went in with too high expectations after hearing from others that it was truly difficult, and walked away slightly disappointed that the game only got difficult on a few stars in the very late game. If I’m not remembering incorrectly, I got the very last star in about 15 minutes and aside from a few others, it didn’t feel like the game posed much/any challenge at all.

The general consensus on the game is that was, in fact too difficult. I am in the vast minority in that I found the game to be too easy. This definitely poses a problem, given that many people gave up on finishing what is truly an excellent game. SMG2 was marketed, unashamedly, as a more difficult game than it’s predecessor, and they definitely succeeded in that respect. The trouble is the game does very little, in my opinion, to allow players who are struggling to ease up the difficulty. I’ll quickly go through why I feel the super guide is an insufficient solution to this problem for the majority of gamers and how difficulty levels could be introduced in fairly inventive ways that would (for at least the most extreme of them) never get implemented due to the amount of work. But a man/woman/little star creature thing can dream, right?

In short, the super guide will often create a negative mentality for players. There are plenty of people that might not care whether or not they skip a particularly difficult section, and having the option there is definitely a positive thing. However it doesn’t address the fundamental problem for a player that wishes to complete a section in at least some respect if the actual level design is beyond their technical skill as a player. G.I. Joe says it best: “knowing is half the battle” and unfortunately knowing exactly what to do would not necessarily enable a player that simply cannot execute the demonstrated techniques to complete the section for themselves. Sometimes it is just that one damn section, though, and players that wish to see the solution can easily do so and then attempt to practice it themselves.

However, not only does the super guide not account for cases where know-how isn’t the problem, requiring use of the super guide sets an ugly precedent for the rest of the game’s content. If you’re finding that you need to use the super guide on a third of the levels of World 3, how on earth can you convince yourself to keep playing if by World 5 you’ll be skipping virtually everything? Adjustable difficulty levels have the edge here, although by no means do the systems have to be exclusive; being able to lower the difficulty of all levels to a suitable level doesn’t necessarily create the idea that you’ll also need to skip further areas.

So how would I sacrilegiously go about implementing difficulty levels in a Nintendo game (of all things!)? I’d probably start with a minimum of 4 difficulty levels: Very Easy, Easy, Normal and Nintendo Hard. Depending on your view of of Super Mario Galaxy 2 that could very easily be “Easy, Normal, Hard and Nintendo Hard” instead, with the current SMG2 difficulty placing as either “Normal” in the first list or “Hard” in the second. Personally I’d hope that people would at least attempt the designed difficulty first and thus would opt for the first, but if your opinion is that it’s way too hard to begin with then the default experience definitely could be toned down. A fifth could be added for good measure although it may require a disproportionate amount of work to for what I’m about to suggest to gel together: Custom. Let’s go through some key variables that I think could really improve both accessibility and difficulty (if we’re to swing the pendulum both ways). For the sake of simplicity, I will use the VE/E/N/NH scale.

These are bright ideas, get it?

1) Star Requirements

Let’s be fair here, is there really any need for high star requirements for less-skilled players? A lot of people I’ve read got put off by simply not being able to do some levels that they couldn’t do or didn’t enjoy playing and then gave up because they couldn’t progress any further. There’s no reason that Very Easy can’t have a lower requirement than Easy, that Easy is again lower than the current Normal, and that Nintendo Hard couldn’t demand that you master 95% of the stars available to you before then. Easy way to punish the masochists while easing up the pressure on the less-skilled, and would take no effort at all. Possibly not something worth including a whole difficulty level selection for, but that’s why there’s there rest of the list, right?

2) Coins

One of the really clever ways that Nintendo have always used coins is to highlight certain areas that are either contain secrets or the correct path when its slightly more obscure. What I’m suggesting for Very Easy is a balls-to-the-wall optimal path for running the level from the startline to the finish in coins. Perhaps that might be too much handholding for some, and would take away some of the exploration possibilities and sense of discovery, but compare it to the super guide that literally plays the game for you instead of just showing where to go, although maybe it should be included as an option (say give Lubba some actual use and give him the option to toggle it on/off). Easy would see maybe a few more indicators on where to go but overall an just an increased number of coins when compared to normal to make health regeneration and Luma-coin-challenge collecting easier. Nintendo Hard would be purple coin prankster all the time of course, gotta collect all of them coins on every level.

3) Lives and Health

Ok, this really has nothing to do with adjustable difficulty but lives have just got to go. They’re outdated, archaic, unnecessary, whatever you wish to say about them. Moving swiftly on to health, for Very Easy there are a couple of choices. You could give Very Easy players 6 health right off the bat and then either increase the health to 9 with a megashroom or increase the amount of life that coins give. Perhaps if there are plenty of coins around with the coin-path then this wouldn’t be necessary (although I still think an initial 6 would be good). For both Easy and Very Easy, make falling off into the abyss place you back at the edge with a health penalty rather than outright death that sends you back to your last checkpoint. Nintendo Hard? Daredevil, no checkpoints.

4) Enemies

For Very Easy and Easy, reduce (to varying degrees obviously) enemy numbers and frequency of attacks while increasing the downtime suffered from a failed attack. Bosses being more accessible if they gave a greater window of opportunity for attack seems like a no-brainer to me. For Nintendo Hard I COULD suggest increased enemy numbers, aggression, malicious placement and upgraded enemy types right off the bat, but it’s already pretty sadistic so…

5) Level Design

This is the big one. Throughout SMG2 I just couldn’t help thinking that plenty of opportunities were missed and that the expectation on the skill of the gamer took way too long to build up for a difficult game. That and armed with the knowledge that people had a completely polar opposite experience to mine, I feel that there are definitely areas where a bit (or a lot) of work could be put in to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to actually complete a level. The design process I guess would go something along the lines of designing the levels for Normal level then making the platforms bigger/closer together for the easier levels and reducing their size or removing some of them outright (or both!) for Nintendo Hard. Walls which require a bit of tricky jumping to get up could be done in two sections or have platforms added to help in Easy and be more like steps in Very Easy while having Nintendo Hard adding elements to make it even trickier. My biggest lament when playing SMG2 was Cloud Mario. I absolutely love Cloud Mario but he was never challenged with any sort of difficult platforming throughout. At worst your three extra jumps only became 1 or 2 “get out of jail free” cards instead of 3. Just take a look at the screenshot below:

I know unfairly that its pretty much one of, if not the, first instance of getting the power-up but honestly I felt it never really evolved past that. Way too many platforms for the ability and cloud regeneration on every single one of them. You could strip all but the furthest platform away and still be able to complete that section. I would just love to see the developers be able to really make fantastic but diabolical level design based around this sort of power-up. I don’t know how much extra work it would actually constitute, probably far too much to actually make it worth it, but it really would go a great deal of a way in providing something for people of every skill level (if done right).

That just leaves Custom. If included, it’d be great if players could toggle and mix’n’match their preferences. Maybe somebody wanted Nintendo Hard level design but didn’t want the hassle of collecting all of the coins on every level or the added tension of Daredevil. The coin-path would be best if it was limited to Very Easy only but I can’t really see why other things couldn’t be set as the user saw fit.

I know you can do it Nintendo, reach for the stars.

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