Quality Villainy Series – Super Mario RPG

What’s a good story without a great villain? All right, to be fair, there are phenomenal stories where the antagonist is not an individual, but is instead a force, idea, or other non-flesh-and-blood opposition.

But c’mon, we love (to hate) those more corporeal rascals and all the mayhem they cause. So why not look at a few of the greats in this new series I’ve devised? What are the different types of baddies we can find in video games, and how do they teach us to write excellent enmity?

I’m gonna be completely shameless and start us off with my childhood.

I’m imagining the confusion now. “What the crap?” the readers say. ” Why are we looking at a Mario game for tips on writing amazing villains? These baddies are so by-the-book.” Listen here, you little upstarts. You don’t question the greats of the medium. Sit yourselves down and get educated.

(Nya!)

(Okay, so maybe that was all a little unnecessary.)

Super Mario RPG boasts some serious randomness, and that certainly extends to its cast of villains. The plot’s primary team, after all, is made up of anthropomorphized weaponry. And what weird-lookin’ weaponry they are…

Add to these fellas a mix of sideline characters of dubious intent, and you have quite the pool to draw from. You have those villains who aren’t necessarily evil, but maybe just a tad deranged and in the wrong place at the wrong time. This leads to some thoroughly memorable characters – there’s a reason SMRPG diehards refer to the maniac manchild Booster so often, after all.

But I’m interested in exploring the nature of a villain whose motives are purely, deliciously devious. Someone who’s completely certain of her malicious intent. Someone who holds the honor of being one of only two female villains in the entire game – and the only one who operates as head honcho over her henchmen. Yes, she definitely has her ways of standing out –

…No comment.

-the illustrious (Queen) Valentina.

Her role in the game (for those who haven’t played – oh, and spoiler alert): in the faraway, isolated Nimbus Land, Valentina has plans to overthrow the present rulers by tricky means. With the king and queen quietly locked away and no one allowed inside the palace, Valentina raises the claim she’s found the long-missing prince of the kingdom, and he’s chosen her for his bride. But why does the prince of a fluffy cloud people look strangely like a giant black toucan…?

So why pick Valentina for this study on excellent villains? It’s true in many ways she’s “by the book” – out for power, going the most direct route by usurping a kingdom’s throne, completely rude and ill-mannered. There’s no subtlety in her designs (tactical or…illustrative). But you know what? Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Too many stories get caught up in the complex motives of their antagonist, or in the “twist” storyline where a seemingly innocent character was wicked all along. As for Valentina, she’s straight up vicious and awful, and there’s something wonderful about that.

See, because of her one-dimensional morality, the writers and developers can have all the fun they want with her. You think a “twist” villain adds interest to a conflict? Fair enough. But I’d rather have Valentina’s openly snide dialogue.

The point of creating villains is to make characters who stand out just as well as the heroes, and you don’t necessarily need complexity or a game-changing one-eighty to accomplish that. That’s why I love Valentina. She knows who she is, the audience knows who she is, and therefore we can delight in her perfectly devilish actions.

Besides, she still breaks the mold in her own way. It’s not every day you see a villainess get her own “happily ever after”.

#bestcouple

 

Super Mario RPG is the property of Nintendo/Square-Enix. You can purchase it for your own enjoyment through the Wii or Wii U Virtual Console, or play it through the SNES Classic.

First Impressions Series – Super Mario Galaxy 2

Summer’s over, my life has some semblance of order, so I’m back in the saddle, baby! Let’s kick things off with another Series post!

We’ve looked at video game openings from a mostly technical point of view – grading them on how well they present their information to hook the audience from the get-go. So far, most of this has included what information has been presented in the opening, but now I’d like to look at how information can be presented to engage your audience.

For this entry in the “First Impressions” series, it’s aaaaall about appearances. So why not look to a completely gorgeous game?

I’m not above getting superficial.

The Galaxy entries in the Marioverse are straight up works of art: in detail, in setting, in music, in gameplay – man, don’t even get me started. They are such a package deal.

Now, on the story end of things…there’s not much to say. You know the drill: Bowser’s up to mischief, and it involves kidnapping Peach. Mario’s got to do his Mario thing and come to the rescue. The main appeal – I mean, aside from fun and challenging platforming – is in the worlds he traverses and not really in the development of the plot. HOWEVER. Super Mario Galaxy 2 in particular still manages to give us a clever treat at its intro.

Games introduce their stories in many ways. From throwing the player straight into the action to treating them to a Star Warsian text-scroll, it was often the capacities of the current console that dictated how the story could be told. Cinematics took root as soon as graphics processors could keep up, resulting in hybridized movie intros that made you perhaps forget you were, in fact, playing a game.

Remember when these graphics were the bee’s knees?

These days, games borrow from all aesthetics to introduce their stories’ premises. (It’s the wonder of the modern age!) In a world where it seems movies and FMVs rule all, though, Super Mario Galaxy 2 takes a different approach: it begins its story in an interactive literary format.

And that. Is. The freakin’. BEST.

Look, I have a bias, I admit. I run a storytime at my work, and I’m more than happy to gush over a wistful combination of children’s illustrations and sweet, simple text. There’s an art form to picture books that isn’t easy to accomplish (and isn’t appreciated nearly enough). Super Mario Galaxy 2, I think, does manage to capture that childhood magic – platforming with a healthy dash of library corner. It’s like my dream come true.

Do you see how everything comes together here? First, the Mario series has a large market with the younger crowd, so this intro’s whimsical appeal works there in its favor. Second, there’s also a nostalgic draw for the players who’ve seen the series through its many evolutions over the past three decades. The game employs a storytelling device that pulls us back into our own childhoods, where we picked up the controller and zoomed 8-bit Mario through 2D worlds of wonder.

Third, and to tie it all together, the game treats itself as artIt’s Mario, sure – it’s a game about a short, round Italian plumber who’s best known for stomping Goombas and eating mushrooms – but it knows its legacy. And here, in a pinnacle point of its franchise, it celebrates that history shows that yes, games can be creative expression, in multiple ways.

(Just listen to the soundtracks for the Galaxy games while reading this, and you’ll know what I mean.)

You begin the game fully immersed from the start – aesthetically and emotionally. It’s a story that knows its purpose and knows how to honor its audience for their dedication to the Marioverse. Model your introductions to accomplish the same.

 

Super Mario Galaxy are the property of Nintendo. You can play both on the Wii or Wii U.

Don’t Take it So Seriously – Super Mario RPG

No one’s perfect, not even our most admired storytellers. If human beings can’t even get their own lives in order, what makes you think they’ll be able to flawlessly organize alternate realities? So next time you run across a plot hole in your favorite book or movie, cut the creator a little slack and – I dunno – clean that room in your house you’ve been neglecting. REMOVE THE PLANK IN YOUR OWN EYE FIRST, NITPICKER.

*cough* But still – no one likes a story with obvious plot neglect. It’s like driving over a road where sewage maintenance didn’t bother to cover the manholes. Fortunately, there ARE ways you can help your audience overlook *minor* suspensions of disbelief:

  1. Craft your world and story as thoroughly as possible.
  2. Rely on solid characters.
  3. Inject humor. Like, a lot of humor.

If you ask me, nothing covereth over a multitude of plot sins like a healthy dose of levity. Think about it: if you aren’t taking yourself seriously, your audience gets the message that this isn’t something that requires their heavy scrutiny, either. Case in point:

Now, Super Mario RPG has a GREAT story. It’s simple and straightforward, but still sweetly emotional with a sense of wonder. It’s by no means riddled with plot holes, but if I’m being straight with you, it wouldn’t have HALF its greatness if you took away the humor. Honestly, it’d be weird if such a bright, colorful game didn’t poke a little fun at itself.

If you feel obligated to critique Mario RPG‘s finer literary points, you’ll find loads of well-milked tropes. Stars and wishes, dolls coming alive, royalty that needs rescuing, the “obviously adopted kid doesn’t know he’s adopted” storyline…

I mean, you don’t have to look further than a Disney movie to find these clichés and more, yet Super Mario RPG can still hold its own. It finds originality in its heart and in its humor. Sure, you spend part of the game rescuing Princess Peach Toadstool for the zillionth time, but you can excuse the overdone plot point because this man-child with a totem pole face and zero understanding of normal social customs has kidnapped her with plans to marry her.

The hilarious scenarios continue through the whole story: Bowser fussing about losing his castle, a cake coming to life and attacking the party. a team of evil-doers based blatantly off of the Power Rangers. Not to mention the countless classic fourth wall-breaking one-liners peppered throughout the dialogue.

Thank you, Ted Woolsey.

The Mario RPGs have continued the tradition of humor to great success with both the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series. (I just don’t have much to say about them because my partiality remains trapped in the mid-90’s.) Considering the plump plumber’s longevity in this gaming genre, the approach must work pretty well.

Clichés abound in every story ever told. Sometimes the old adage applies: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” At times it’s better not to avoid the clichés, but to make the clichés work for you. Learn to laugh at them, and your audience will laugh with you.

 

Super Mario RPG is the property of Nintendo/Square-Enix. You can purchase it for your own enjoyment through the Wii  and Wii U Virtual Console.

Knowing Your Story – Mario vs. Sonic

[Currently listening to: Olympics, baby!]

Mario vs Sonic1

The Olympics are pretty much the only sports I watch zealously. I’ve had several friends and some family members try to entice me into the world of football, but I typically use those games as an excuse to nap on the couch (while my mom screams at the Denver Broncos and throws her foam brick at the TV). But dude, when the Olympics come on I’m like, “IS THIS WEIGHTLIFTING I LOVE WEIGHTLIFTING LET ME WATCH IT FOR FIVE HOURS STRAIGHT.”

This really is a video game post. Hang tight.

A recent gimmick in the Nintendo world has been to create a “Mario and Sonic at the Olympics” game whenever the event itself comes around. I’ve never played the series, but its existence – and the fact that this Friday lines up right near the end of Rio’s summer schedule – has given me inspiration for a storytelling study.

Mainly, who does storytelling better: Mario or Sonic?

Dat sweat detail.

Ah, Mario vs. Sonic – the rivalry of the 90’s. I was a Nintendo gal, so of course I had a built-in appreciation for Mario, but when I got the chance to play the Sega Genesis Sonic trilogy (+ Sonic & Knuckles; would that make it a quadrilogy?), I had a great time. The speed was innovative, Tails was adorable, and – of course – the music was always solid.

Back then, each franchise kept their stories simple, but console limitations didn’t necessarily force them to do so. Of course, they couldn’t make things flashy with CG cutscenes, but more complicated stories like Final Fantasy and Shining Force (possibly a poor comparison) were already demonstrating what video games could tell.

Mario‘s plots usually centered around a rescue – typically Peach, but sometimes other unfortunate kidnappees of the Mushroom Kingdom. Sonic‘s plots during the early Sega era focused on stopping Dr. Eggman from turning all those cherubic forest creatures into robots for his own evil designs.

Years passed; consoles expanded their capabilities. Mario and Sonic continued to deliver games, adding new characters, small twists, and different challenges. But despite their mended rivalry, their games’ respective receptions began to divert from each other.

Sure, Sonic has had struggles with glitchy games and incomplete programming, but I also think its lag behind the Mario franchise has been because – it doesn’t know its own story anymore.

*dodges raw vegetables thrown by Sonic fanbase*

Listen: in a platformer, you don’t need much story. You need engaging level design. Mario and Sonic both had that, and they had enough characters and world-building to keep players interested in progressing through the game.

But in recent years Sonic games have begun to experiment with more involved plots. More cutscenes, more characters, more dialogue. I certainly can’t fault them for getting creative, but so much dabbling at once can screw with the canon – and the flow of the games themselves.

Remember what the Sonic games did well: rescuing robotized animals. You didn’t need more than that; you just wanted to go fast through all the loop-de-loops. So why did the games divert into odd territory like Arabian mythology, Arthurian legend, and (who could forget) this unnecessary display of affection?

*hurk*
*hurk*

Mario sticks to kidnapping – what it’s done since the beginning. And yeah, you could argue that the trope is getting stale – the same old rescues, the same Bowser set-up – but it could also be argued that these games know what works, and they know how to bring in fresh ideas without over-burdening the gamers with new plot ideas or a barrage of characters.

Which brings me to my next point: There’s also this problem with dumping characters quickly into a franchise. Sonic no longer allows time for its new additions to settle in our hearts. In the span between Sonic Adventure and Sonic ’06 its platformers introduced us to: Big the Cat, Shadow the Hedgehog, Rouge the Bat, Cream the Rabbit, Silver the Hedgehog, and Blaze the Cat – not to mention a few others who didn’t stick around.

In the span between Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy (a roughly similar time frame), we were introduced to Bowser Jr. and…Rosalina. That’s it. (Remember, we’re talking about main platformers.)

Because it leaves time between each addition, The Mario franchise gives its characters a chance to breathe when introduced – like Rosalina, whose premier game made her a focal point to the story.

#bestprincess
#bestprincess

Remember when Sonic 2 gave us just Tails, and Sonic 3 gave us just Knuckles? We were able to connect with those characters because their spotlight wasn’t split three separate ways. Not to say Sonic‘s more recent characters don’t have personality, but they end up becoming just one more face in a crowd of over-the-top dispositions.

It’s something to keep in mind when creating a written story or series: how much is too much at once? Do you keep interest more by busying readers/viewers/players with tons of characters and plot twists? Or do you build a better story by focusing on the critical points and allowing a smaller number of characters space to grow? Personally, I bank more on the success of the second option. Mario’s had his own hits and misses, no mistake; but he’s never forgotten his story.

So, Sonic fans…no hard feelings, right?

*runs from pitchfork-wielding mob*

 

The Mario franchise is property of Nintendo. The Sonic franchise is property of Sega. Go play ’em both!

What’s at Stake? – Yoshi’s Island vs. Yoshi’s Woolly World

[Currently listening to: Yoshi’s Woolly World OST. Appropriate, no?]

 

If you think I can’t find serious literary juice in super cute and colorful platformers, then you’ve got another thing coming.

I’ve mentioned before that Super Mario RPG is the game of my childhood, but maybe I should amend this declaration and say that I have two games which hold such a coveted place in my heart. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island fills me with wonder every time I play it. The game mechanics are flawless, the world is beautiful, and the challenge is balanced enough that even when you die repeatedly attempting 100% level completion you still feel like you’re having fun.

(But will you just STOP CRYING, BABY MARIO.)

 

(Keep this on in the background for full enjoyment of post.)

I have two memories from when I first played Yoshi’s Island: the first was letting the title screen sit so I could hear this way good island melody play. The second was watching the end in awe, allowing my adrenaline to settle after finally beating giant baby Bowser, captured by the simplicity of 16-bit piano music and a stork intent to deliver two celebrity plumber babies to their parents.

It. Was. Immersive.

I didn’t keep up with Yoshi’s solo games after that. Once the next gen of consoles arrived, my brother and I opted to get the PlayStation instead of the N64. When the Wii was released, I returned to play the Super Mario Galaxy games, but by that point at least three Yoshi games had come and gone, and I’d heard they weren’t earth-shattering.

Fast-forward to the present year. Yoshi’s Woolly World makes its debut, and fans wonder if this will be the game that brings the magic back. And you know, it’s this blogger’s opinion that it did.

Yoshi post3
I never thought I’d fangirl over a yarn Chomp Rock, but there you have it.

Since it’s a newer game, I won’t spoil the nuances that Woolly World implemented to bring back memories of Island. Sufficed to say, there were several levels where I was grinning like a fool at the way Good-Feel perfectly pushed all my nostalgia buttons. They made a whimsical setting on par with the childlike world of Island and even mirrored some of the challenge present in the first game.

But this is a blog that talks about story elements in games, right? And while playing Yoshi’s Woolly World, I was surprised to realize: I wasn’t as interested in its story as I was with Island’s.

Yoshi post4
The plot thickens!

That seems silly, since platformers generally stay light on plot so the player can focus on enjoying level design. How could the two games’ stories produce such different responses from me? Well, aside from an obvious nostalgia factor (I won’t deny it), there’s that question every person who creates a story needs to ask concerning his/her plot: What is at stake for our characters?

In Island, the Yoshis are tasked with the protection of baby Mario, dropped from a sabotaged stork delivery and separated from Luigi, who’s been captured by Kamek. Not only does our dino friend have to keep Mario safe, he also must find a way to reunite the separated brothers and get them back on their way to their family!

In World, Kamek has turned nearly all Yoshis into skeins of wool to complete his plot of building Baby Bowser a bigger castle. The remaining Yoshi(s) must chase after him and rescue their un-spooled friends along the way.

Yoshi post6
Kamek knows how to get to the point.

Both plots give enough premise as needed for their games, but in the case of Island, there’s far more the player needs to care about. I mean, yes, rescuing your entire species from being un-spooled is serious business, but since Woolly World mainly uses it to create a goal for collectibles, emotional attachment is never quite established. Additionally, there’s no increasing tension as we near the end: We’ve saved several Yoshis at that point. The crisis has gradually been lessened.

Meanwhile, in Island, the risk is always increasing for Yoshi and the infant plumber. In later levels it becomes harder to keep Mario on the saddle; there are more enemies to avoid. Plus – provided the player has experienced other Mario games – there’s a sort of “destiny” on our shoulders to make sure baby Mario becomes the video game hero we’ve already known and loved for a decade.

Even today, this picture brings the relief flooding back in. That Bowser fight, man.
Even today, this picture brings the relief flooding back in. That Bowser fight, man.

How do we apply this practically if we attempt writing our own stories? Think about what’s at stake: for your characters, for your world, even for the readers. Is the potential loss serious enough to warrant emotional investment?

I mean, if a cute, green, tennies-wearing dinosaur can pull it off, then surely so can anyone.

Release Date: March 9th, 1996

super_mario_rpg_logo

Happy 20th anniversary, game of my childhood!

When I was a kid I had these stickers of all the main characters, and I thought they were meant for glass so I slapped ’em up on my bedroom window.

As it turns out…they were regular stickers, not window clings. And man, they were tenacious little suckers. I couldn’t even peel them off to take with me when I moved out for college.

They might still be on that window down in Wyoming, perplexing some new 10 year-old girl who wants to know why she’s got the Mario crew plus a cloud kid and blue-caped wooden doll obscuring her view outside.

(No doubt my mom scraped them off during the move. But it’s a romantic thought, okay?)

Geno-real-name
My main team forever.