The Worst Part of Great Games 2: Super Mario World and the Final Battle

The final boss battle of Super Mario World is suitably epic.  The HUD disappears, leaving just Mario and Bowser on screen.  Bowser flies up in a clown-faced helicopter – which seems non-threatening for the big bad villain of a videogame, but it somehow works.

In the game’s boss battles against the Koopa Kids, the player must jump on the boss until the boss fell into lava.  Or the Koopa Kid present decoys, and the player must stomp on the “real” Koopa Kid.

The final Bowser battle is a little different.  Bowser throws out Mecha-Koopa enemies toward the player.  The player must stomp on the Mecha-Koopa to disable it, then throw the Mecha-Koopa into the air so it falls and lands on Bowser.  The final boss battle in this Mario game is all about throwing items.

For the most part, a player can get through Super Mario World without ever really mastering the “throwing items in the air” mechanic.  There were a few times I would have to throw blocks in the air to access a secret exit.  But the critical path of the game does not teach the mechanic well for it to be the centerpiece of the game’s final battle.  And not really in a way where the player can learn the timing for throwing an item in the air and having an enemy fly underneath the item as it falls back to earth.

And yet, if that skill isn’t well-learned (as it was in my case), the final Bowser battle is pretty much impossible.  I always thought this particular boss battle was a poor design decision, because it did not match the rest of the game. It’s unlike anything the player has seen before, but it’s also…unlike anything the player has seen before.

The origin of this post came from criticism of the boss battles in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  The Deus Ex series prides itself on allowing players to develop multiple ways to solve the same problem.  Players can kill every enemy in sight (like a normal game) or play the game non-lethally and navigate through the game stealthily.  Deus Ex is a little deeper than that binary description, but that’s the general idea.  Except when it came to boss battles.  Bosses had to be killed.  There was no other way for the player to solve the problem.  The game touts its openness, and then forces players into a linear playstyle. For the Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut released two years later, the boss battles were overhauled to allow players to play the bosses like they’d played the rest of the game.

Similarly, Mario’s boss battles are generally antithetical to the idea of Mario.  Aside from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, which are about exploration and collection, the Mario series is about navigating through an obstacle course and getting to the end of the level.  It’s not about sitting in an enclosed space and jumping on Boom-Boom three times.  Or about jumping on the right Koopa kid instead of the decoys.  And it’s certainly not about throwing dead Mecha-Koopas into the air.

All of this probably explains why my favorite two Mario boss battles are the final Bowser battles from Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World.  Bowser pursues Mario through the level.  He hurls projectiles; he attempts melee attacks, he destroys platforms.  All the while, Mario runs and jumps to get away from Bowser.  In Super Mario 3D World, Mario hits POW blocks to deal damage to Bowser.  Because that’s what Mario does: he runs and he jumps and he hits blocks.  It’s refreshing to have a boss battle that really is about platforming, and not hitting something three times.

Admittedly, Bowser is window dressing.  The same exact gameplay could be achieved through an auto-scroll and disappearing platforms.

The first Super Mario Bros. is a little different, because the fights against Bowser aren’t really fights (although he can be defeated with fireballs).  Bowser is a giant final obstacle standing in front of “the end” AKA axe.  The player must play chicken with him and figure out a way to jump over or under him.

I love the Super Mario series, and I think the series’ platforming is amazing.  But I also believe that the boss battles are the weakest part of the series, simply because they do not match the core gameplay conceit of the Mario games.  The final Bowser battles in Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World feel like the true culmination of everything in their games, only more challenging: the jumps are harder, the speed is faster, and there are most projectiles and enemy attacks than ever before.

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The Worst Part of Great Games 1: Ocarina of Time’s Checkpoints

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a great game. It was the first thing I ever anticipated for years, and it delivered on every promise.  Huge chunks of the internet are dedicated to singing its praises, so I won’t bore you with my second-rate interpretation of the game.

Instead, I want to talk about Ocarina of Time’s one design decision that is so dumb, unilaterally terrible, and utterly indefensible – its checkpoints.

If the player saves and quits the game inside a dungeon or temple, the player will restart at the entrance of said dungeon or temple.  But if the player is anywhere else on the map, the player restarts in one of two locations:

  1. Young Link always restarts at his house in Kokiri Forest.
  2. Adult Link always restarts at the Temple of Time.

Replaying Ocarina of Time, I spent my first hour getting my sword, beating the first dungeon, and navigating to Hyrule Castle Town. I thought to myself, “That was a good session.  Let’s save, and we’ll do the whole stealth section tomorrow.”

I load up my game the next day, and I’m in Link’s House way back in the Kokiri Forest.  So I have to truck it all the way back to the Castle again.

I have never been able to make it across Hyrule Field to the Castle in the one day (daytime is about two and a half minutes long).  I assume speedrunners probably can make it, but I always get there right as the drawbridge is going up.  So I had to wait through a night (one and a half minutes) before I could get into the town.

So all told, four minutes to get back to where I was.  It’s not much in the grand scheme, but it would have been a lot easier just to start me at Hyrule Castle Town.  And this is how the game is.  The game does restart inside dungeons and temples.  But nowhere outside of the dungeons.  Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  Why one but not the other?

As the game goes on, this becomes less of an issue.  The player gains Epona to quickly speed across Hyrule field.  The player is taught songs that allow warping to the game’s key areas.

I cannot understand why this wasn’t fixed in the Nintendo 3DS remake.  Remember, the 3DS is a portable, designed for quick pick-up-and-play.  It makes no sense to force players to re-cross Hyrule Field at the beginning of every play session.  Getting to the third dungeon is no mean feat – the player has to leave Kokiri Forest, cross Hyrule Field, traverse the Zora’s River, do some minigames in Zora’s Domain, talk to King Zora, and finally enter the dungeon.  At no point is there an opportunity to stop the gameplay session and safely return back to the same zone.

What should it do?  Ocarina of Time should have its checkpoints at every dungeon and every place the game loads a new area (towns/villages, Death Mountain Trail, etc.).  If the player selects “Save & Quit”, upon restarting, he or she should be brought back to the entrance of that area – be it Goron City, Lake Hylia, or Hyrule Castle Town.  Accounting for the different time periods, there are maybe 30 different locations?  That’s one digit in an alphanumeric save file.

The game already knows to restart at dungeon/temple entrances.  Why can’t it restart at Hyrule Castle Town?  Link’s Awakening re-started players at the last door they exited before saving, and that came out 4 years earlier and for the Game Boy.

The Metroid Password Generator online breaks down exactly how the original Metroid kept track of progress.  Each missile container, each boss, each energy tank represents a different value.  That’s how these passwords and save files work as 1’s and 0’s, and that’s how it knows that Missile Containers 1,2,3, and 7 were collected, and 4,5, and 6 still need to be found.

Similarly, Ocarina of Time knows which Golden Skulltulas have and haven’t been killed.  And it shouldn’t be any different in Ocarina of Time – “What is the numerical value for having the slingshot, 5 heart containers, Epona’s Song, and starting at location 12?”   To me, retaining information about the Skulltulas seems far more resource intensive that saving a few extra starting locations.

The checkpointing system’s failings are an odd thing to harp on. But it’s a strange design decision in an otherwise great game.  I presume this was not brought up in any reviews, because reviewers tend to marathon gameplay sessions.  I am having a hard time finding time to play Ocarina of Time, knowing I will have to play at least an hour to make sure I do not lose any progress.

Luckily, there’s always sleep mode.

What I Really Appreciate: Sleep Mode

The Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita have a miracle feature: Sleep Mode.  With the 3DS, I close the clamshell; with the Vita, I quickly press the power button.[1]

The system goes into a power-saver mode.  I open up the clamshell or tap the power button again, and I’m right back to where I was.

Why is this a miracle?

I have a newborn. He cries, as babies are wont to do.  And babies can’t be placated with the “Let me find a save point” argument that I used to pull with my wife.  And sometimes he can be calmed down and asleep in five minutes; sometimes I may not get back to the game until the next day.

Before my son was born, I derived a lot of anxiety from trying to find a place to save my game.  And once I found a save point, knowing where my next one will come from.  Can I find another save point before I need to stop?  Every road trip and every gaming session would end 30 minutes early, because I didn’t want to lose progress because I was unable to find a save point.

This was especially troublesome with portables.  With consoles, I could leave my system on for days and come back to it.  With a portable, I may only have a few hours before the system dies.

I never played Turok 2 because I heard stories that save points were two hours apart and really hard to find.  I have no idea of if these stories are true, but I believed them.

The first few Resident Evil games gave the player a finite amount of saves, in the form of ink ribbons.  I could not waste one of my ink ribbons just because the baby is crying.  On top of not knowing where the next typewriter was, I also was contending with limited opportunities to save.

But now, it’s easy.  Just play until the last possible second, then pop the system into Sleep Mode.

No worries.


[1] “Oh no!  Push the power button?”  There’s no way to accidentally shutting the Vita off.  To turn the Vita off, a player must hold the Power button for a few seconds.  At that point, the Vita brings up a prompt on the touch screen to turn the system off or cancel.  So if you press the Power button and the screen goes dark without seeing that prompt, then the system’s in Sleep mode.  I mention this PSP-3000 had a power slider – moving it to one point turned the system off, another point put it into Sleep mode, which wasn’t well communicated. To be perfectly honest, the PSP’s Power Button was the bane of my existence for many years, but we’ll get to that subject another day.