While my son was taking a break from Monster Hunter Tri today, he went back to Super Mario Galaxy, a game he started last year but never finished. I sat beside him with a Wiimote of my own doing "collect the stars" duty while he put Mario through his paces, but it wasn't long before he began to struggle and hit some problems.
My kid is definitely no slouch at games, but he was having trouble maneuvering Mario with precision in some of the weird gravity worlds and a couple of the bosses were starting to aggravate him. It was a little surprising since this is the same kid who's seen more of Tri than most of the people who've reviewed it, but there you go. As I was trying to coach him through the rough patches, it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn't quite sure who Mario's target audience is anymore.
The game is bright and colorful, and makes its home on the Wii—by far the most kid-friendly console of the big three. I think it's pretty natural to assume that most kids who play more than just Wii Sports will probably play Mario at some point. Kids aside, the Wii is the console that has clearly been making the biggest push towards casual gamers. Wii Fit has sold like gangbusters, but it seems logical to assume that Nintendo would want to sell a few copies to casuals who might be inclined. With those two things in mind, the recent trend of Nintendo increasing the difficulty of their games seems to run counter to their strengths.
Although I haven't played either title yet, New Super Mario Brothers Wii was widely reported to be too difficult and cumbersome to play in the later levels, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 has also been tagged as being more difficult than the first, not necessarily in a good way. I find this interesting since in my mind, the only people who would theoretically want more difficulty are the old-school gamers or hard-core gamers who Nintendo's basically distanced themselves from over the last few years.
I've had a few people mention that Mario has traditionally been much more difficult in the past, and they are right. However, we are living (and playing) in different times. Back then, people weren't targeting demographics or strategically designing their games; they were just making the best games they could, and whoever could play them did. That's not the case anymore. We've got distinct genres, distinct age ranges, and even distinct consumer psychological profiles. To break it down in the most grossly generalized terms, kids need something approachable, casual console gamers don't appear to get into anything too deep, and the old-schoolers apparently dislike cakewalks.
How do you design a game that satisfies all three groups, straddling what appear to be completely opposite demands on each side? Is it even possible? Iconic status and uber-enviable Q-Score aside, I'm starting to wonder who Mario's really aimed at these days? Following that line of thought, I started to wonder what would really be lost if Nintendo had made Galaxy 2 easier and positioned it strictly for casuals and kids? Of course a certain segment of the gaming population would be up in arms if they were able to blow through the game in three days, but is that really so bad?
As a parent who supports videogames as a positive hobby for kids, it can be tough coming up with titles that are interesting, appropriate, and playable for children who don't have the knowledge and reflexes from a lifetime of experience. Looking at something like Mario which is so warm, friendly and appealing to such a wide variety of people and then seeing my son get frustrated and disappointed by the difficulty spikes, I can't help but wonder what would really be lost if Nintendo put all their eggs in one basket and proceeded on the path they've been on for the last few years. Sony and Microsoft definitely have the mature angles covered, and there are no shortage of titles that I can only play after my kids are in bed. Is it wrong to think that Nintendo letting the older players go and solely focusing on being a gateway to newcomers might actually be an acceptable thing?
I'm not sure that I've completely captured the spirit of this thought here on my blog, but I suppose it's a bit like books. Libraries need Dr. Seuss and Dick & Jane, but no one expects those books to challenge older readers or to satisfy everyone who might glance at the cover. Is it right to expect Mario to do so? If not, would the players who grew up with him be all right letting him belong to a new generation?