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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What I Really Appreciate 4: Dragon Quest I and the Journey Back Home

In my previous entry, I talked about how Bravely Default allows players to set their encounter rate.

But on the other side of the coin, I really appreciate the stress that comes from the first Dragon Quest’s journey back home.

The first Dragon Quest is divided into a series of islands.  On each subsequent island, the monsters are tougher, but the experience points are better.  Each island also has a town with an inn where the player can replenish their health and magic.  So the game becomes a matter of venturing out from town, slaying monsters to grind for gold and experience, and then returning to town before dying.  Or venturing out onto the next island and finding that island’s town before dying.

Go as far as I can go safely, and then journey back home.  It’s not only “How far can I go?” like a game of Tetris.  It’s “How far can I go while still being able to safely get back home?”  That extra part is what I really enjoy.  And then I venture to the next island, and my journey must either end in finding that next town or death.  That part is terrifying, and where the fun is.

Steamworld Dig captured this same essence for me.  The next round, I’d dive a little bit further down the mine.  It was very satisfying. I imagine this is what the appeal of Dark Souls is.[1]

In the first Dragon Quest, if the player dies, they lose half their gold and go back to the starting point of the game, Tantegel Castle.  But all experience points, equipment, and items are retained, so the player stands a much better chance the next time out.  The earlier parts are now much easier, because the player character has leveled up significantly, allowing them to tear through trash mobs with ease.

To save the game, the player must travel the entire game’s map back to Tantegel Castle.  That’s right: the player must go back to beginning of the game to save.  Every round of Dragon Quest starts at the castle, and the player must go through the same islands again, to go a little farther.

I know, I just criticized Ocarina of Time was having poor checkpointing, and here I am saying that I appreciate a game mechanic that forces me to restart from the beginning every play session.  I’m still working through my hypocrisy.  Someday I’ll figure out why the exact same thing absolutely enrages me in one case and engenders deep admiration in another case.

Part of it may be that Dragon Quest I explicitly states that the only place to save is at the starting castle; while Ocarina of Time never tells the player.  The Zelda series has never been particularly good about spelling this out.  At the very least, A Link to the Past asks the player where they would like to restart (Link’s House or the Sanctuary); Link’s Awakening has a help room that explains its checkpoint system.

Dragon Quest I is unique game in its structure.  Most Dragon Quest games work linearly through its world map.  Like most games, it’s beat the town/dungeon (level) and move on. Rarely does the player need to return to previously conquered areas.  Ocarina of Time uses Hyrule Field like a hub.  The player goes through Hyrule Field several times, but only visits each general branch twice (once as Young Link; once as Adult Link).  Once the Forest Temple is done, there’s little reason to go back to Lost Woods.

But Dragon Quest requires the player to take a full journey through the entire game.  It’s an odd structure, but it works.

Full disclosure: I’ve only played the Game Boy Color version of the first Dragon Quest (from the double-pack Dragon Warrior I&II).  This version streamlines the first game into a nice, breezy 7-hour adventure (the original NES game is much longer, due to each battle dropping less gold and experience).  Perhaps that’s why I can appreciate its structure.  The game repeats itself, but not enough to wear out its welcome.

[1] The game is a blindspot to me.  I’ve played a lot of games, but for some reason never Dark Souls.

What I Really Appreciate 2: Dragon Quest IV’s Structure

I really appreciate the structure of Dragon Quest IV. 

The game is divided into five chapters.  Each of the first four chapters is about 2-3 hours long, and they each follow an individual character through some trial or tribulation.  Each chapter feels like a complete game. The character starts at a low level and levels up pretty quickly to beat the boss of their respective chapter.  There are minor callbacks and references to other chapters’ events and characters, but each chapter feels relatively isolated from the rest of the game.  Though the game doesn’t allow it, a player could theoretically jump into any of these four chapters cold and understand what to do; it’s just more rewarding to see the small connections.

The fifth and final chapter is a nice accumulation of everything that came before, since the earlier protagonists have to team up to fight a threat they couldn’t face alone (sort of like the Avengers).  This allows for a more satisfying ending than other games, which sometimes feel like the game ended because it ran out of levels.

But the main reason I like Dragon Quest IV’s structure is that it really manages my time well, because each chapter is only 2-3 hours long.

I’m the sort of player that goes hot and heavy with a game for a weekend, and then doesn’t play the game for months.  It’s how I’ve always been.  I’ll play an RPG one week then want to switch to a racing game or a puzzle game or a shooter or a platformer.

I recently listened to a Retronauts podcast about Harvest Moon, and decided I should go back to my Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life save that I hadn’t touched in a decade. For some reason, I didn’t think that I would have no recollection of my earlier Harvest Moon game. Aside from not remembering the controls, I didn’t know the routines for my animals and plants; I didn’t know if I was trying to save my money for a big purchase; I didn’t know any of my plans.

This approach to gaming is also disastrous for any skill-based game, like a twitch-shooter, platformer, or combo-heavy fighter.  Over the initial playthrough, I build up my skills, learn all the button combinations, and advance pretty far in the game.  Most games tend to get more difficult as they progress.  But it’s okay, because I have improve my abilities as the difficulty scales.  But I come back months later, and I’ve advanced myself to a level where I honestly can’t progress any further because my skills have depleted.

With turn-based RPGs, like Dragon Quest, my actual physical skills matter very little. The difficulty comes from remembering what to do.

I took a couple months off from Persona 4: Golden.  Coming back, I don’t know who my party members are – what their specialties are, how I was using them, and how they function in the story.  I don’t remember where I was on each social link.  I don’t remember which sport I signed up for and when practices are.  Persona 4 is a wonderful game, but it’s an astonishingly long game.  Continuing on while not understanding large parts of the story or game mechanics wouldn’t be fun.  But starting over and re-doing 10-20 hours of gameplay also doesn’t seem worth it to me either.1

In Dragon Quest games, I’ve learned to stop when I get to a new town.  Even outside of Dragon Quest IV, the Dragon Quest games have very episodic structures.  The player character arrives in a new town, and something is immediately wrong – the King’s gone mad, something is missing, the well has been poisoned, monsters are kidnapping children and taking them to a nearby cave.  Generally, the questlines in Dragon Quest stay focused in the town and surrounding areas. The quest lines don’t span several towns and evolve over the course of the game, like they do in a MMO.

When the problem is solved, the player character moves on to the next town.  They rarely go back to revisit old towns.  By stopping when I get to a town, when I return to the game, I can consult a guide or FAQ and start fresh.  In the past, I would spend half my time talking to NPCs I’d already talked to, and pursuing quest objectives I’d already completed.  I once re-did an entire dungeon in a Dragon Quest game just to get to a treasure chest I had already opened.

Dragon Quest IV takes this structure and expands it to the macro level.  In so doing, it makes every chapter into a nice 2-3 hour game.  I can start and finish each chapter in a weekend, and I feel a nice sense of completion.  It also appears less daunting than a normal 30-hour RPG, even though that’s exactly what it is.

The fifth and final chapter is much longer, like 15-20 hours.  It functions more like a traditional Japanese RPG at this point, wandering from town to town.  To be perfectly honest, this is where Dragon Quest IV falls apart for me.  I still get the micro-satisfaction of completing questlines, but I much prefer the sense of accomplishment from beating a whole chapter.  I like knowing that the chapter’s end is a stopping point.  I like knowing that I can safely stop playing a game, take several month-long breaks from the game, without missing a beat.  It means that I will actually complete the game, unlike Persona 4, which will likely remain in limbo for me.

There are a number of games that are structured similarly to Dragon Quest IV.  The Telltale games – from Sam & Max to Back to the Future to The Walking Dead – are all constructed as a series of short 2-4 hour episodes released every few months.  I can beat an episode of Back to the Future, then forget about it for years (which I have done), and jump back in.  Or I can play it all in one fell swoop.

Dragon Quest IV’s structure is a structure that works for my gaming habits, and that is why I appreciate it.


1 This makes me sound like a whiner, but I have an enormous backlog of games at this point.  I’m starting to realize I’ll never get to them all.  I would much prefer to play a new game than re-play something I’ve played before.