A Mario mashup that doesn’t mesh

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY MICHAEL THOM­SEN Thom­sen is a free­lance writer.

Video games de­pend on ob­scur­ing in­for­ma­tion, pre­sent­ing play­ers with an ob­vi­ous goal that must be at­tained through in­di­rect and of­ten cryptic means. In Puz­zle & Dragons, a free-to-play mo­bile game first re­leased in 2012, one sur­vives mon­ster-filled dun­geons by match­ing rows of colored tiles in the time-hon­ored fash­ion of Be­jew­eled, Candy Crush or Jewel Quest. The game, made by long-time Ja­panese MMORPG (mas­sively mul­ti­player role-play­ing game) de­vel­oper GungHo On­line En­ter­tain­ment, has proved an enor­mous suc­cess. Its sim­ple game­play set against a fan­tasy back­drop made the color match­ing seem dou­bly pur­pose­ful, and helped GungHo earn more than $3.75 mil­lion a day.

This year the com­pany col­lab­o­rated with Nin­tendo to bring a new en­try in the se­ries to its 3DS in North Amer­ica along­side a ver­sion built around the Su­per Mario Bros. uni­verse with Puz­zle & Dragons Z + Su­per Mario Bros. Edi­tion. The game is a gen­er­ous pack­age with two lengthy games bun­dled into one car­tridge. But in many ways, the free-to-play ap­proach to de­sign feels at odds with the paid-for pack­age Nin­tendo has built its busi­ness around. Play­ing Puz­zle & Dragons Z + Su­per Mario Bros. Edi­tion feels al­ter­nately amus­ing and off­putting, overly easy and wildly un­fair, in­stantly un­der­stand­able and bloated with sec­ondary sys­tems.

The Puz­zle & Dragons Z por­tion of the bun­dle is set up like a Poké­mon game, with play­ers con­trol­ling a brave young­ster in a city of the fu­ture who is drawn into an academy where other chil­dren don VR head­sets and de­scend into dig­i­tal dun­geons, col­lect­ing color-coded mon­sters. Th­ese mon­sters can be col­lected and used to fill out their vir­tual com­bat team as they fight through ever more dif­fi­cult bat­tles. In the Mario ver­sion, things get mov­ing with Mario an­tag­o­nist Bowser once again kid­nap­ping the Princess and re­treat­ing across eight worlds, each filled with a familiar cast of Koopas, Goom­bas, Bul­let Bills, and Koopal­ings. They are dis­patched by match­ing tiles to trig­ger el­e­men­tal at­tacks.

There are six pos­si­ble tile colors — red for fire, blue for wa­ter, green for earth, pink for heal­ing, yel­low for light and pur­ple for dark — each of which is stronger against some and weaker against other tiles. You’ll be able to as­sem­ble a team of five al­lies, each with his own color-based el­e­men­tal to counter enemies. You col­lect th­ese team­mates from gift boxes that enemies have a small chance of drop­ping af­ter you kill them. Each can be lev­eled up to deal more dam­age by gain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence points.

There are hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent team­mates with el­e­men­tal-affin­ity vari­a­tions, and af­ter a few lev­els you’ll be spend­ing lots of time pre­par­ing your team ac­cord­ing to the level’s enemies, as well as the avail­able tiles — not all six tile types are al­ways avail­able in each level. The role-play­ing over­lay gives ex­tra tac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tion to the busi­ness of cre­at­ing long combo chains. Th­ese chains are made from tiles fall­ing into new spa­ces, cas­cad­ing into con­fet­tied bonus mul­ti­pli­ers that can turn weak teams into fear­some ones.

It’s here that the dif­fer­ing de­sign con­cepts be­come most ap­par­ent. Free-to-play games are de­signed around cre­at­ing con­flict be­tween short-term de­sires and long-term plans, in­duc­ing pur­chases on es­sen­tially use­less ingame goods. If you die mid-level in the free-to-play ver­sions, you can buy Magic Stones that al­low you to con­tinue with­out hav­ing to lose all of the items and up­grades you have col­lected. But in the 3DS ver­sion, you sim­ply col­lect them as in-level trea­sures. Stripped of their real mon­e­tary value, th­ese stones, and the sys­tems they connect to, feel strangely dis­rup­tive.

Ramin Shokrizade, a games econ­o­mist and writer, de­scribes Puz­zle & Dragons’ “mas­ter­ful” use of the idea of re­ward re­moval through its level de­sign, each of which has five or more regular en­emy bat­tles be­fore a dra­matic dif­fi­culty spike with a boss battle that threat­ens to wipe away all of the items and power-ups earned through­out the level. “The longer you al­low the player to have the re­ward be­fore you take it away, the more pow­er­ful is the ef­fect,” he writes.

The rel­a­tively small tile grid — six across and five down— am­pli­fies this ef­fect, of­ten forc­ing play­ers to guess which tiles will fall. This even­tu­ally feels like an av­enue for ar­ti­fi­cially tweak­ing the flow of com­bat for re­ward re­moval me­chan­ics. It might work on a free-to-play phone game but feels ar­bi­trary and in­tru­sive in a full-price game. The tac­ti­cal thought and skill devel­op­ment re­quired to ad­vance even­tu­ally feels like a ve­hi­cle for co­erc­ing play­ers to over­com­mit to a game that’s en­gi­neered to en­sure fail­ure.

In con­trast, the de­sign ethos of Su­per Mario games isn’t the threat of loss, but de­light in vari­a­tion and dis­cov­ery, games de­signed to en­gi­neer suc­cess rather than fail­ure. Nin­tendo’s Koichi Hayashida re­cently de­scribed the phi­los­o­phy of Mario games with the con­cept of “kish ten­ketsu,” a four-part nar­ra­tive struc­ture adapted from Chi­nese po­etry. An idea is in­tro­duced, de­vel­oped through com­pli­ca­tion, an un­ex­pected twist re­veals some un­con­sid­ered as­pect in the orig­i­nal idea, and then ev­ery­thing comes to­gether in the con­clu­sion. In­stead of us­ing un­re­vealed in­for­ma­tion as a way to make play­ers spend money once they feel max­i­mally in­vested in a level, Mario games are built with a self­dis­ci­pline that en­sures sur­prise and dis­cov­ery in each new un­seen twist.

Play­ing Puz­zle & Dragons Z + Su­per Mario Bros Edi­tion feels like be­ing caught be­tween th­ese two de­sign philoso­phies. It’s a long and com­plex game in which one can spend dozens of hours as­sem­bling teams, gain­ing lev­els, learn­ing abil­i­ties and fight­ing new crea­tures. But the undis­cov­ered won­ders one hopes are wait­ing in the gaps al­ways end up as the wrong tile in the wrong place at the wrong time.

PUZ­ZLE & DRAGONS Z + SU­PER MARIO BROS. EDI­TION GungHo On­line En­ter­tain­ment Nin­tendo Nin­tendo 3DS

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