Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gaming Past: 16 Bit Gaming


My real foray of console gaming

It's been a week since I wrote the last entry, and looking back, this title seems a little too much. It's not that I didn't consider the Famicom that I had a system, but instead, it's the first time where I would be stuck picking and choosing a much more limited choice of what I can play. The end result, for me, is a much deeper appreciation for what each games did and didn't do.

I got my SNES at Woolco (yeah, remember those, yeah, they don't exist anymore) soon after moving to Canada. It was the crazy bundle that came with Super Mario World, Mario Paint, and Mario All-Stars for some ridiculous low price (I recall it being around $130, it's the good old days when consoles can be bought with games for sub-$200, good times). Those games lasted me for a good year, and with very good reason.

Let's get the surprise out of the way first: Mario Paint. Mario Paint, for me, opened up a interesting view into what entertainment can be. Like most people, I gravitated to the only thing resembling a game in the package: "Coffee Break". Using the mouse to wack flies was infinitely entertaining, and even though it was obvious that most of the game was pure chance (enemy position is random). Difficulty ramped up as the stages started to repeat, but that didn't matter to me back then as the high score was the only thing that mattered.

While that game never got too tiring, I did eventually discover the joy of creating both art and music with the "game". I never really had the patience to properly paint a full screen of something, but creating the small pixelart icons and music tracks was a blast. The MIDI music creator baffled me in the details of creating a full music track, but I never got tired of replacing the mario theme with just dog and cat barking sounds. I also never really considered myself to be awesome at creating those small icon pixelart, but I remembered having fun creating alternative colours of the 1Up mushrooms (changing colours was the easiest thing to do, and I made an awesome yellow/red one that Nintendo went on to steal with the Mega Mushroom.

The second pack-in was Super Mario All-Stars, a collection of Mario Bros 1,2,3 and Mario Lost Levels. This became the first opportunity where I completed Mario Bros 1 from start to finish (with improved graphics!), and my first exposure to both Mario Bros Lost Levels, 2 and 3. Lost Levels was a baffling experience, clearly created to spite my 10 year old brain. A mushroom that shrinks you/kills you? EVIL! To this day I still haven't gone back to play through the entire game (which I should someday). Mario Bros 2 and 3were also eye-opening experiences, breaking down my conception of what a platforming game is (which was mostly formed around Mario Bros anyways).

Mario Bros. 2 was an interesting game because it was just so weird. Floating enemies that chases you when you take a key? Pots that shrinks in size? Potions that create doors and alternate paths? Birdo? BIRDO! Timing that stupid egg was annoying! However, the idea of having 4 playable characters, each with slightly different jumping and running mechanics was very very appealing. In hindsight, the Princess' floating mechanics (Yes, it's Princess, not Peach, what the hell is going on there?) was a brilliant move in making me (and probably many people) feel like they're cheating the game and making them feel awesome. I've probably abused every single jump in that game with the floating move.

Mario Bros. 3 was even more interesting, with the frog suit and all, but unfortunately for me, I finished Mario World first, which made 3 feel like an awkward time warp of a game that I didn't really enjoy. A lot of the mechanics were wonderful in hindsight, and I really wish I had learned to appreciate it more back then. The bonus item for clearing each world was empowering; the new abilities were fun to use; the end level bonus reward cards reinforced stage grinding; the silver blocks where you can crouch down and find a secret path was brilliant; the idea of equipping an item into any stage was the best thing ever created since slice bread. Similar to the Princess' floating jump, the idea that you can bring an item into a difficult stage is an empowering cheat that makes players feel like they've gamed the system, even though clearly this was a planned possibility.

However, all the above games are overshadowed by Super Mario World, which was a fantastic experience from start to finish. The first time finding Yoshi; finding out chaining 8 hits in a row earns an extra life; finding out how to get the feather, and mastering flying; finding the ! switches; discovering about multiple branching exits on the red stages... everything about it was carefully paced to deliver a new discovery at every level.

More importantly, the jump from the Famicom to the SNES created a new sense of atmosphere. The SNES, like all my game systems, was placed in the basement with the main TV. Playing games often makes for a chilling experience, where the temperature drops to around 15 degrees on average. This fact greatly contributed to what I remembered in Mario World: The Ghost House was haunting and scary; the mines was cold and echo-y; the Butter Bridge was breezy (hmm... apparently all of the game was just cold, which I guess, doesn't work as well at the Valley of Bowser). The Forest of Illusion, by far, was the most memorable set piece, a haunted forest with no clear exit.

The most mind blowing fact of Super Mario World was when I found out about Star World, and eventually, Special World. Branching multiple paths was cool in other stages, but this "broken glitch" created this illusion of awesomeness about my gaming skills (which, of course, most people did stumble upon anyways). In hindsight, what I appreciated most about it is how all of this was put together: Star World represented "bonus stages", but were also special places to have unique mechanics that were not placed together (Like Star World 3's Football guys, Lakitu, and Grab Blocks); Special World were even more extreme applications of awkward mechanics, like Gnarly's extreme use of vertical space, or Awesome's slippery floor.

To wrap up SMW: Yes, I do have a 95* save; All the turtles are now walking heads; I have opened up every stage, including the Cheese Bridge exit to Soda Lake; Tubular was designed by the devil; Yes I exploit Star World 2 for Blue Yoshi; Yes, I have cleared Bowser's castle once as regular Mario; Forest of Illusion 3 still has it's mid-checkpoint, as it's the fastest ways to rack up 1Ups.

One of the goals for these introductory posts for me was to do a fairly detailed chronicle of the types of games I sunk deep into. I hoped that by looking into the past, it gives better insight into who I am as a gamer and a "designer". At this rate, I'll end up covering way too much detail about too many minor things, without getting on the eventual goal of "actual design topics on my mind". I guess I'll map it out now (at least for maybe the next 2 posts), for both my sake and yours...

Even though I only have 10 SNES games, they have made such a huge impact on how I see games are be played and what made games fun and magical. In the next post, I'll cover what I considered the 3 greatest games of that generation (and miraculously, some of them are also well regarded too! :P ) : Donkey Kong Country 1/2, Super Mario Kart, and Uniracers. After that, I'll cover the rest, for example: Super Mario RPG.

Up Next Time: My top 3 SNES gems.


  1. You've summarized my intial experience with SNES as well (aside from the Super Mario All Stars - my bundle was the original US bundle, which had SMW and the second controller).

    Looking back at the system, my own best memories were of the existng franchises that took their 16-bit spins. I didn't think about it then, but I can now identify what made the 16-bit era so great: creativity.

    Dont deny the existence of Atari and Collecovision and the like, but SNES was the first improvement to an existing platform. Developers were already comfortable with developing for the NES, and I think that allowed them a great deal of creative freedom, even in updating the classics.

    Contra 3 saw a few new weapons, but the core gameplay was the same. However, little twists to the platforming such as leaping from missile to missile while flying through the clouds, or riding your hover cycle through a barren wastelands while avoiding the mothership looming overhead were completely new experiences. Illusion of Gaia had mechanics (like phasing inbetween walls and floors) that were probably considered unviable up until that point.

    What 16-bit did for me, as a child, was show me that anything is possible. I think developers these days are far too concerned about accessibility throgh familiarity, simply building over existing notions. We're sick of the red exploding barrel. What about the electrocuting yellow box, or the nitrogen filled blue canister? Why have game mechanics seemed to stagnate these past generations?

  2. Noob, you could get the free 1-up from consecutive hits since Mario 1! Was probably made easiest in Mario 3, world 1-2. But, guess I shouldn't talk as I've never beaten Super Mario World (never owned a SNES).

  3. Joe > Well yes, of course there's been easy consective hits, but nowhere close to being how easy it was on that area. :P

  4. >Developers were already comfortable with developing for the NES, and I think that allowed them a great deal of creative freedom, even in updating the classics.

    >What 16-bit did for me, as a child, was show me that anything is possible. I think developers these days are far too concerned about accessibility throgh familiarity, simply building over existing notions.

    I think for the most part you've hit the point. The SNES was at the point of refinement, the concept and the fundementals of gaming on 2D has been well tested by then, and it's no surprise that people were more than ready to accept something that's slightly more out there.

    Which is a good contrast to now: Even though we're now 15 years into the era of "3D gaming", I think for the most part we're merely grasping at standards that should be set. Even today, there's still countless ways and countless debates on what makes a good 3D camera. Also, the rising cost of development, and the increased scrutiny over product success leads to fewer risks being taken.