Sunday, August 2, 2009

Day 2: Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again!

I ended up borrowing a bunch of Nintendo DS games from a friend, knowing that I would need a steady diet of new titles to meet my "30 in 30" goals.

Coincidentally, I picked a spiritual sibling to Eets! in Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again! It's a pretty shining example in a long line of Impossible Machines meets Lemmings kinds or real time puzzle strategy games.

As much as I've raved about Super Mario Galaxy and the Paper Mario RPG, I don't really get all that jazzed up about the franchise from a "well, it's the new Mario and therefore I just need to own it" perspective. But it has been neat to see the same IP explored in various different game play genres over the years.

I found MvDK:MMA (I'll just call it MMA for short) to be an enjoyable first hour or so of game play -- and I'm looking forward to playing more. It had lots going for it and I really only had a couple of minor quibbles with it.

Basically, after the 4th board (level 1-4) I was pretty hooked and ready to dive in deep. I took a break as I was just about to get to the level 2 boss battle.

Interestingly, the game does NOT have a hint billboard system located within the game. If you want hints, you need to go to a separate "Help" location via the level-load menu. The help system is non-interactive and basically pings a "new" icon every time you are about to be introduced to a new game play concept. You can choose whether to go there and watch a mini movie or not.

I chose to dive right in as I figured that a Mario game would teach me through game play, anyhow (basically Super Mario Galaxy was one big tutorial that never really made you think "wow, I'm actually just playing a tutorial" because it was so well crafted).

I met with initial success (completed the first couple of boards), but didn't really learn some of the core concepts very well:
  • Although I could move mini-Mario by nudging him, I didn't realize that I could actually direct him left vs. right.
  • I could barely figure out the pink dot bridges and only through random mashings managed to get them to do what I wanted them to do.
  • I could not figure out how to use springs.
But, as with Braid, the game was basically calibrated such that I could complete levels and move on without really understanding some of the deeper game play concepts. I knew that I'd want to go back and replay the level later once I figured out more of the controls and mechanics so that I could grab the extra coins and cards and achieve a higher ranking.

That said, I did quickly try out the "Help" functionality and sat through the various movies (it started with a handful and added one or two every few boards). It didn't seem as offensive as other "watch a movie" tutorials I've seen, but I'm not sure why. That said, the concepts were simple and discrete enough that I think they could have been layered on through game play -- introduce concepts through level-specific content and challenges that have hints appear if the player gets stuck.

One really nice affordance was mapping the d-pad functions to the face buttons (A = right, X = up) so that I could hold the stylus in my left hand (I'm a lefty) and scroll the map with my right hand. Kudos!

One slight complaint: The silver star (ranking in between bronze and gold) looked a lot like an empty star which kind of confused me at first and led me to believe that I hadn't achieved any star rating for some of my completed levels.

All in all, I must admit that it was kind of exciting to just be dropped into level 1-1 with no tutorial or hints and be left to just "figure out" how to play the game. I mostly got it on the first try -- but was left a little confused (some of the action occurred off screen; I didn't learn the controls correctly) and I'm wondering what the experience would have been like had I failed to finish that level and had to exit out and then find the "Help" option.

To test this out, I revisited level 1-1 using a new profile. To complete this level a player really needs only to (a) touch one Mario and (b) touch one of the pink block wall pieces. It seems unlikely that a player would fail to "touch" one of the mini-marios. I could see a situation where a player might not click the pink boxes (I failed to do this initially because I focused only on the outlined empty boxes). So, I let the time run out without touching a pink block to see what would happen.
  • I actually missed it the first time (the clock went down to zero while I was looking away) and it seemed like the clock just simply reset to 300 seconds. Maybe it took a life away (I noticed I was down to x00 lives). Weird. I checked it again: Nope. The clock just reset to 300 seconds and nothing else happened.
  • I paid more attention the second time through. It was hard not to. I got the "Game Over" screen with options to "Retry" or "Quit". It's hard to imagine someone failing this level after clicking around with the pen randomly for 5 minutes, but I wonder if the player shouldn't have been directed to the "Help" applet.
One aspect of the game that I haven't tried out yet is the level editor. I'd also like to try out the content distribution system that Nintendo is using. Can you just share levels with friends? Or is there a community portal where folks upload and rate levels so that players can find great user created content?

Anyhow, to sum up, I'll definitely be bringing this one along with me on my next business trip.

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