I have no buttons and I must jump

Recently, I’ve been playing a mobile game called ZipZap. It bills itself as a one-button platformer. Platformers are my favorite genre of videogames, so I was immediately intrigued.

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While the game is fun and inventive, it’s marketing push as a platformer got me thinking: how do you pull off a platformer through the clunky controls of an iPhone?

Nintendo also approached such a design problem when it slated Super Mario Run for release. How to take the nimble, portly plumber and move him into a touch-based interface?

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The answer for both ZipZap and Super Mario Run was to limit the controls to a single function: touch to jump. It is a brilliant fix to the pernicious problem of gamers’ affinity for buttons. But each game does it differently.

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Super Mario Run allows for several different types of jumps based on how long you hold down your touch. A quick tap produces a short hop while a held press produces a longer leap. Even while in the air, the player can tap the screen to make Mario twirl and extend the length of his jump. In this way, the player doesn’t have to worry about where buttons are mapped on the touchscreen but she still gets a sense of control akin to using a traditional videogame controller.

ZipZap does something similar. Instead of a jumping avatar, the game uses erector set-like contraptions with joints that bend with each press. Essentially, the game’s movable objects act like springs (though they grow more complex as the game moves on!) where holding down the touch results in a higher jump.

These smart decisions open up a world of possibilities for designers who are seeking to get in on the ubiquity and popularity of smartphone gaming while still giving the player the control they are accustomed to via a console controller or mouse and keyboard.

I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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Jam of the Week – May 10th

Of all the indie games, and all the throwback soundtracks, and all the retro platformers, and all the mind-bending puzzle games, and all the innovative ideas that have flourished from auteur game designers, Fez stands on the top.

That’s why the Jam of the Week is Beacon from Fez. A trippy little tune that manages to be wonderous and haunting at the same time. Enjoy!

You need Mario Kart’s Blue Shell more than it needs you.

With the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch, its that time again for internet-wide complaints about the blue, spiny shell.

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If you’re not familiar with the blue shell (or spiny shell, as it is technically called by Nintendo) in Mario Kart, here is a brief primer: the blue shell seeks out the player in first place and will hit them in a big, kart-slowing explosion. The shell travels on the ground (or in the air in previous iterations) knocking out any player in its path.

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Sounds pretty good, right? Well, here’s the catch: in a standard 12-player race, typically only players in the 8-12 positions, those at the back of the pack, receive the blue shell from an item box on the course. This typically means that when the blue shell arrives at its destination–first place–the player who shot the shell receives little to no benefit from disrupting the top of the order.

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And here is where the anger begins to build. Many players feel that the blue shell has now place in a semi-competitive game like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. If you’ve played Mario Kart for a decent amount of time, you have probably experienced getting blue-shelled in first place right before the finish line. Watching second, third, and fourth place breeze by you because of an action taking by someone in twelfth place is not fun.

But in reality, the blue shell is an amazing quick-fix design decision to help prevent runaway leaders. As someone who has put far too many hours into Mario Kart 8, I usually spend most of the rest at or near the head of the pack. The experience of being first or second as opposed to seventh or eight is entirely different. The driver in first place sees nothing but wide open lanes and clear skies. The driver in eighth place is inundated with banana peels, red shells, bob-ombs, and bullet bills. It is madness compared to the zen-like tranquility of driving in first place.

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And that is why the blue shell is a necessary evil. It opens up a space for the seed of chaos to be planted. The next time you get blue-shelled in first place, take a deep breath and think back to a time when you were in six or seventh, and with the help of a well-timed Super Star, you were able to zoom up into the top position, passing the first-place player who just so happened to be recently blue-shelled. Without that pesky item, the runaway leader problem in Mario Kart 8 would be even greater.

It’s a great design fix once you understand the actual functions of the blue shell.

 

Jam of the Week – April 19th

This week’s jam comes from the Professor Layton series. While every track in this series features calm, contemplative music to help set the tone for its various puzzles, Curtain of Night might be my favorite. It’s gentle use of accordion and piano gives the music a European feel that matches up nicely with the proper Professor and the overall setting from this game, the Curious Village. Enjoy!

Jam of the Week – April 5th

Child of Light is a beautiful game. Relatively simplistic RPG mechanics allow for the beautiful artwork, character design, and the sound design to shine. Even the dialogue is told exclusively through rhyming couplets! The whole thing functions as a dark fairy tale, and this track, “Aurora’s Theme”–sets the tone for the entire game. Enjoy!

Jam of the Week – March 29th

This week’s jam comes from the ultra-violent and ultra-neon Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. It’s a quiet, almost ambient track which contrasts the game play where the player is shooting people and splattering their blood all over random mansions. It’s a great song and shows how experimentation in music can find its way even in the standardized world of video game music.

The Question We Must All Ask of Ourselves

As a thirty year old man with a wife and two kids, sometimes video games can feel like the furthest thing from my mind. I coach my kids in sports, try to help my wife out around the house, and am currently working on my PhD. Time is at a premium most of the time. So, occasionally when I spend several hours on the weekend playing video games, I have to ask myself, “Why waste my valuable time playing video games?”

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It’s a question that I both ask of myself and receive from people who I tell about my research interests (which are in play and game studies, bringing in video games as an aspect of composing persuasive and expressive texts). So, I’ve had plenty of time to think and dwell on this question because it is one that repeatedly comes up, either internally or externally.

The question of “Why waste time playing video games” isn’t all that different form a lot of the types of questions society likes to throw at people when they aren’t immediately “working” or selling the labor (for my fellow Marxist’s in the audience). Whether it is a hobby or lesiure activity, we are constantly asked to justify the existence of non-work related activities.

When it comes to video games, I have attempted to answer this question by evoking some of the underlying assumptions of the question: that video games are a waste of time, energy, and money, that video games don’t carry any cultural value, that video games don’t impart any skills or lasting effects beyond an increase in aggressive behavior (all of these are false by the way).

 

I’ve talked about the ways in which video games improve cognition, improve meta-awareness and self-reflection, improve hand-eye coordination, offer opportunities for socialization, reward players for innovative thinking and analytical reading, and so on.

But more and more, these answers (though research continues to prove these as truer and truer), feel less satisfactory and more as a way to justify something I truly feel is great.

 

So, I have a new question that I pose to both myself and to any questioners when the idea of videogames being a waste of time floats by on a capitalist breeze.

 

Why is Mario so fun?

 

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This is the question I keep returning to after hours of reading games studies scholarship. While there are certainly great skills and valued processes bolstered and taught by video games, and while there are definitely tangible benefits–both cognitive and social–to playing video games, and while there are video games which critique and offer insight, all of that pales in comparison to the simple idea of having fun.

Fun needs no justification. Fun is both the means and the ends. Fun is fun and that makes it worth while.

I’m going to keep playing and writing about games until I can answer that question. Because, I mean, why is Mario so damn fun?