The Dilemma of Difficulty and Its Latest Contender: Smash Bros.

Smash Bros. For Fun for Glory

We endeavor in an exercise of struggle, dare to engross ourselves in unrelenting challenge, and risk everything for glory, all for the sake of cultivating a personality of endurance, perseverance, excellence, annnd…can we take it easy? After all, a game is just a game, right? Plus there’s all that other malarkey that we have to deal with in real life, and correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t video games supposed to be an escape from reality? They weren’t supposed to spur new struggles.  We want struggle, but something that we can handle. One we can actually beat, for crying out loud!

There’s got to be balance.

What seems like such a fundamental goal to strive for is, in reality, probably the hardest aspect of game design to achieve. How does one go about cretaing perfect balance? Well, for starters, it’s not easy. Below is a snapshot of the latest iteration of Smash Bros. for the 3DS and the latest contender in the fight against this difficulty dilemma.

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Masahiro Sakurai, the man behind the Kirby series and most recently Kid Icarus Uprising, is introducing a mechanic in which players decide on their own difficulty level. This alone doesn’t sound revolutionary, but Sakurai’s scale is not as elementary as as choosing from two options like an easy or hard mode. Likewise, this mechanic is showing up in a major Nintendo title of all places, which is a bit surprising considering the company’s more recent efforts aren’t known for sadistic difficulties.

What’s unique about a scalable difficulty level is that it provides the player with the freedom–or perhaps risk–of reward. Pick a lower setting and you’ll be able to defeat your opponents, but you may not yield anything in the end. Ratchet it up too high and you may lose everything you’ve fought for, which is never a pleasant experience. Smash Bros. is a very special fighting game to say the least, but its reward system has always been unique in that it’s been superfluous to the main game. Nevertheless, there’s been a trophy system in past entries where coins, collected by just playing the game, can be used to purchase trophies encrusted in retro lore and nostalgic luminesce. So far it sounds like that hasn’t changed, only amplified by the introduction of this new difficulty lever.

This presents an important dilemma because, in many ways, this is what separates the casuals from hardcore players. With the eruption of the Wii, a reprisal of the original casual video game player, this duality has got more notoriety. However, Nintendo recognized this duality since the early days of the NES and, without it, the Big N’s system-sellers may have never catapulted to timeless stardom.  That’s right, the original Super Mario Bros. and subsequent successor Super Mario Bros. 3 were crafted with this mentality in mind: the distinction between hardcore enthusiasts and casual fanatics.  Shigeru Miyamoto implemented Warp Zones to alleviate the strenuousness experienced by players with less aptitude. In these cases, everyone wins because skilled players get to enjoy extra levels whereas casuals can actually ‘beat’ without bending over backwards to reach the end of each level. Problem solved!

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Super Mario World for the SNES essentially carried over the idea of Warp Pipes with its secret central hub Star Road. Super Mario 64 also was another stab at streamlined progression with its even bigger emphasis on the hub principle; gone was the tired linearity of the NES and SNES Mario worlds which also eliminated the need for Warp Pipe functionality. Furthermore, each tier of Peach’s Castle had more than enough stars to unlock the subsequent tiers above it, which meant that many levels were effectively optional. This concept was toyed around with in SMB3, but each world only had about two or three optional levels and SMB1 had actually zero. Zero! Even with Warp Pipes gone, Super Mario 64 achieved this difficulty equilibrium of choice by providing players with more options.

What made this concept revolutionary for Mario, while flying discreetly under the mental radar of the player, was that the player chose the levels they skipped; this was not done in the NES and SNES titles. In each world that offered seven stars you had levels that generally did not differ much in difficulty of platforming technique, but rather in difference of character and personality; some players really just enjoyed other levels more than others! For the most part each level within a world was largely a cosmetic variation upon the other and employed only a slightly different approach to solving it. So much of the difficulty engagement was up to the discretion of the player; every player could satisfy their appetite in their own unique way. In other words there are so many more combinations for beating Super Mario 64 than there is for any of its predecessors.

Below: The black dots represent linearity found in SMB1, 3, and SMW.  The blue dots represent SM64, Sunshine, and the first Galaxy title.  In reality the blue dotted hub is still governed by a linear tier system.

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Super Mario Sunshine and Galaxy both carried over this new formula embedded within the new concept of a tiered and seamless central hub world. Galaxy 2 added in the Super Guide along with a retro callback to the linear worlds from the NES games that now governed the behavior of the world map; an odd hybrid that may have simply grown out of Nintendo’s desire to make Galaxy 2 even more mentally accessible than the first one, which many would have already argued was already the most accessible 3D Mario yet. In any case, the next great leap came with New Super Mario Bros. Wii where the “Super Guide” was invented. Let’s not overstate the simplicity of this concept; a computer controlled Luigi will beat the level for you to show you what you’ve got to do. Unlike the strategies that came before it, this was not entwined within the fabric of the game like the Warp Pipes and central hubs that came before it; it was either present or not present and the game remained the same. In fact, this was a very non-creative solution that defeated the problem head on solely with raw artificial-intelligence muscle and manpower.

This previous lack of technological progress may be directly responsible for the creative work-around that came before it resulting in the Warp Pipes/Star Roads and tiered central hubs. Aside from the super guide, NSMBW had cannons (warp pipes) and secret paths (within worlds) in higher quantity. So really, nothing too creatively new. NSMBU was the same thing merely with the cosmetic design of Super Mario World employed to the world map. Last, but not least, was the addition of multiplayer wherein players can now cooperate to help each other reach new places with less platforming strategy and could even prevent each other from dying by sharing multiple lives within the course of even just one level. Super Mario 3D World was the next, and latest, iteration within the series and it may very well be the ultimate hybrid of the entire series when it comes to this department.

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Super Mario 3D World looks like an NES-styled map, but in reality is a Super Mario World-styled map when conceptually zoomed out on. It has secret warp pipes, an abundance of optional levels, local multiplayer aid, super-guide-assistance, bosses reached only with a certain amount of stars collected, and the entire map, despite it’s retro layout, is a hub world in and of itself! Where can Mario possibly go from here? This is the ultimate soup of difficulty flexibility that Nintendo has ever made all while avoiding the emotionally insensitive smack-in-the-face of a “Hard or Easy” mode. Ironically, this article was about Smash Bros.

Well, right now the Super Mario series has been on a nose-dive since it’s re-proclamation with NSMBW, and the Wii U is in need of a savior. But this time it’s not Mario. Honestly, we don’t know who it will be, or when, but Smash Bros. is the next tryout to audition for that role. It very well may fundamentally be the same game too, which is why I think it becomes even more important to take note of the finer details surrounding its main arena. Again, difficulty is one of the main bridges to be crossed between the casual and hardcore audience, and right now that bridge does not look so friendly to the casual audience that once flocked to the Wii. More importantly, one may wonder if this difficulty solution is representative of Sakurai’s overall vision and philosophy behind the malleability of the game. How else will this notion of player-controlled difficulty permeate the rest of the game? The series? How about other Nintendo titles?

 

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Food for thought…

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About The Author

News Reporter

I'm an EarthBound kinda guy but I love everything Mario and certainly anything Nintendo related. I was born in North America and live there presently.