Friday, December 23, 2016

Nintendo's Universal Worlds

I grew up with video games. If you asked me at age seven what my favorite place was, after Walt Disney World I would have told you it was the Mushroom Kingdom. Video games are dreamscapes, fantasy worlds that invite us in to escape. Along with cinema and amusement parks, video games are the third pillar of 20th century escapism - unapologetically popular entertainments which were created to amuse and distract the working classes.

If you dig into game design books, you'll see those links made again and again. The best games are said to aspire to be cinematic, and often are themselves pastiches of popular cinema - Die Hard on a spaceship, James Bond in an ancient pyramid. Disneyland is often brought up by game designers as a key inspirational space, a fully manufactured setting which is also clean, clear, and coherent across generations and cultures. Theme parks are just one other way to achieve immersion and escape.

And so, as a longtime Nintendo kid and a fan of the oeneric dreamscapes of theme parks, one would think that I would be preparing the paper streamers and rolling out the red carpet in advance of the announcement of the wonderfully titled Super Nintendo World - a mouthwatering expansion coming soon to Universal parks. And let's be clear here: I am. Having not been a fan of Cars, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, I finally feel like here's something elaborate that's aimed at me. As beautifully done as those areas have been or promise to be, my heart did not soar at my first sight of Hogwarts. But put a gold coin on a stick and have it spin around behind somebody's head, and I'm going to need to sit down.

So yes, I'm an easy mark. Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, Metroid, Mega Man, and Legend of Zelda were my 'galaxy far, far away' growing up, and I'm going to have a strong reaction no matter what ends up getting done. But that doesn't mean I can't have concerns about what's going to happen, and thoughts on the dividing lines between how video games, theme parks, and films create meaning.

So here's our chance to take a quick overview of Nintendo and theme parks. I've stated before on this site that I think Disney has so far failed to do justice to both games and immersive theming at the same time, and perhaps we can dig under that a little. Not a lot. It's a huge topic, and the year is almost up.

Super Mario Disneyland

So what exactly did Universal get themselves into here?

Super Mario is series which as of late has largely confined itself to the Mushroom Kingdom, but in its early years often took bizarre and irrational detours to lands abroad - the middle eastern Sub-Con, the Asian Sarasaland, the expansive Dinosaur Land. The visual style of each game was often totally different than the ones before it - the ghostly, abandoned open planes of Super Mario Brothers that gave way to a landscape strewn with multicolored blocks and checkerboard tile floors in Super Mario Brothers 3. Yoshi's Island, a prequel set in Dinosaur Land, is manifestly lush and tropical in a way no other game is.

Yet the games have a sense of continuity not so much through their settings and gameplay, as their sense of otherworldliness. The Mushroom Kingdom is filled with bizarre and inexplicable threats. In Super Mario Brothers, there is a palpable loneliness and danger to Mario's mission - only compounded if you read the manual and discover that those plants and blocks are supposed to be the transformed citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom! Morbid. No other Mario game feels as lonely and haunted until you get to Super Mario 64, where the echoing, stone clad interior of Princess Peach's castle leads to some truly heart-stopping moments where Mario is suddenly no longer alone.

The Mario series, like all video games of their era, exist in a world of easily comprehensible symbols. Just as nobody needs an explanation of why you're whipping monsters and ghosts in Castlevania, everyone knows to avoid roaming evil-eyed chestnuts, falling rocks, and leaping fire. In the Mushroom Kingdom, anything that can potentially help you has cute eyes, and everything else has a fierce (or at least dumb) expression. You don't need a language to understand these signifiers.

Super Mario, and the Nintendo Entertainment System generally, was a Japanese import which was wildly successful in an era otherwise terrified of Japan's economic ascendancy. Think of the Tokyo-inflected urban decay of Blade Runner, or potboiler crime pictures like Black Rain or Rising Sun. Super Mario crossed a threshold that Godzilla, Speed Racer, Ultraman and Astro-Boy could not. Even today, Godzilla is still made fun of by a certain generation for being a Japanese import. But Super Mario? That guy was an Italian from Brooklyn. He was pure kawaii nonsense delivered in an Americana candy coating.

Mario's world, with its bipedal turtles, swooping clouds, mobile cacti and cheerful hillsides, is a world of symbols not dissimilar to the fevered imagery incubator of Disneyland. Disneyland is also a place of inexplicable dangers, except Walt Disney used ghosts, dinosaurs, pirates and cannibals instead of mushrooms and man eating plants. They come to roughly the same end: we see these things and know that there's danger up ahead.

Magic Kingdom and Disneyland controlled visitor's experiences by intentionally limiting the number of options available at any time; you can either stop in this shop or this attraction, or keep walking. There's usually only one or two options available at any one time. The linearity of the experience is the defining quality of a theme park, compared to the open grid favored by traditional amusement parks like Kennywood or Cedar Point.

This too is basically similar to the structure of many Mario games - levels must be traversed from left to right, and in a specific order, to reach a specific goal. The most logical way to lay out a Super Mario area for a theme park would be on the pattern of Magic Kingdom's Adventureland - a themed corridor leading to a specific destination.

This imagery-heavy abstraction is the key to understanding why both Disneyland and Nintendo worked so well across generations and ages - both the classic theme parks and early video games created a pressure cooker atmosphere of heated symbolic interpretation, and clawed their way into immortality for their efforts.

Disneyland sticks out in America's literal-minded chronology obsessed pop culture, but I don't think it's coincidental that the Japanese recognized this quality in Disneyland and wanted one of their own badly. After years of rejections, Walt Disney Productions finally relented in the mid-70s - and then, only as a way to get a quick cash infusion due to spiraling costs on EPCOT Center. Tokyo Disneyland opened in April 1983 - just three months to the day before the release of the Nintendo Famicom in Japan. There's a family resemblance between the aesthetics of the Famicom and the Tomorrowland section of Tokyo Disneyland, as if one influenced the other.

In the Mario games of my youth, Mario was a cypher, almost mysterious. He wasn't cuddly - his game sprites made him look stoic, serious. It required a certain degree of interpretation if you wanted to know why this Italian guy was murdering large numbers of turtles. What his personality was like was up to your imagination.

On television, as portrayed by wrestler Lou Albano, the New York aspects of Mario were emphasized - his goofy accent, his constant need for pizza. One of the only other American depictions of Mario produced before the current Mario character debuted in Super Mario 64 may be found in the Phillips CDi game Hotel Mario, where Mario is voiced by actor Marc Graue in a style very similar to Albano's Mario.

In this sense it's easy to see how Americans adopted Mario as one of their own, and it's no wonder that many of us were taken aback by the voice and childlike attitude of Mario in Super Mario 64. Until that seminal game, although you played as Mario, there was no insight into what Mario was thinking or how he would sound, if he could speak. This actually isn't all that different than the abstraction of a WED classic like The Jungle Cruise. What does Trader Sam sound like? It's up to you to decide.

And it isn't WED Enterprises that's building Super Nintendo World, nor is it 1983. The Mario of today is as different from the Mario of 1985 as WED Enterprises is different from Walt Disney Imagineering. And therein lies some of my concerns.

The Difficulty of Complexity

Games grew up quick in the 80s. By the time Nintendo had premiered the Famicom Disk System in 1986, a new breed of interactive narrative was being carved out by innovative hybrid games like Castlevania 3 and Metroid. With the move from 8 to 16 bit consoles in 1988 and 1990, hardware and social forces were in place to give rise to the sort of epic adventure stories that Square Soft and Enix were pioneering. Video games began to resemble the sort of lengthy narratives best contained in novels.

But Mario did not change. Super Mario World may justifiably be called one of the most gorgeous video games ever produced, but mechanically it was very much like the 8 bit games which had preceded it. The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past more or less hit reset on the Zelda series, offering up a hugely expanded take on the concepts behind the original game. But if we really want to dig into the strengths and weaknesses of the expanding scope video games, we really don't have to look much further than Sonic the Hedgehog.

A sort of stepping stone between the pared down, symbolic creations seem on the Famicom and the hugely elaborate spectacles offered on the Playstation and Nintendo 64, Sonic oh so briefly stole the crown from Mario. Sonic may have been built for speed, but he wasn't really built to last.

In 1991, Sonic was something new from the world go - his sarcastic expression and waggling finger taunting you from the load screen. But the first game was actually an awkward series of jumps presented in a glossy, promising package. Through 4 subsequent installments, the series improved bit by bit, before coalescing into the exhilarating Sonic 3  / Sonic & Knuckles.

These are games of surface pleasures - the smooth controls, the buzzing rock soundtracks, the cool looks of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Dr. Robotnik. But the release of Sonic & Knuckles in 1995 was also the end: SEGA was never again able to leverage the blue hedgehog to a widely successful game. Part of this is due to the failure of four SEGA hardware launches in a row, but part of it is because Sonic never convincingly adapted to a new kind of game - a game that didn't just zip from left to right.

And it was when Sonic was down for the count that Super Mario 64 landed and went off like a bomb in the industry - reshaping conceptions of what these kinds of video game characters could do. Today, Sonic is a beloved character, but experienced best and most often in games where he races, or jousts, or fights Nintendo characters. More young kids have probably played as Sonic in Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games than they have in Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

There's no longer any kind of brand expectation from Sonic. And the reason is because maybe Sonic never really was about being in excellent games - maybe it always was that Sonic is always just Sonic; a better design, a better idea, than an actual character. Maybe the most compelling Sonic product in years has been the cartoon Sonic Boom, a ludicrous weekly excursion into weird humor and lame puns. People like the idea of Sonic more than they do the phenomenon of Sonic.

Sonic briefly represented the future, but in the end he was no more than a fresh coat of paint on the same old problem: people liked these characters because they were simple and relatable. Sonic and Knuckles exist barely more as figures in a silent serial: the cool guy who taps his foot, the evil guy who laughs. Mario is barely more than an abstract vessel to carry viewers through his games.

But isn't this very close to how theme park operate, too? If we're being rushed through a set at 3 feet a second, we don't have time for anything but clear, unambiguous images. Where Sonic failed is when he had to be more than that - to carry a compelling narrative about anything more than smashing robots and being cool.

We could also look at Capcom's Mega Man. Originally about little more than an Astroboy knockoff defeating a mad scientist, Mega Man presented a surprisingly bright, upbeat future of whimsical but aggressive robots. Being an early game, it was not properly translated and released with little fanfare - leaving the door open for American kids to discover and speculate on what exactly the deal with Mega Man was. Was he a soldier? A police officer? A human on an alien world? Early video games on the NES, PC and Atari were imaginatively stimulating experiences because of what they left out, offering players an opportunity to fill in the gaps in their own way.

Capcom eventually rebooted Mega Man into an elaborate and dystopian technology parable, heavily inflected by Blade Runner and The Terminator. And while several of those games are terrific, the flagship Mega Man series was sputtering out. By the early 2000s it had been rebooted yet again - into a form that little resembled its bright, cheerful, side scrolling roots. Today Mega Man is relegated to cameos and nostalgia pieces, even less relevant than Sonic is.

But compared to SEGA and Capcom's efforts to grow their signature game series, Nintendo went and doubled down on Mario's essential abstraction.

By the time Nintendo was selling copies of Super Mario 64, Mario was up against competitors like Solid Snake and Cloud from Final Fantasy VII - games that could shock or emotionally involve players in ways they had never imagined while pushing buttons on their NES. Mario was an abnormality - a cheerful but basically inaccessible fellow, eternally bubbly, in a world of bright colors and happy endings. And he stayed that way. Like Mickey Mouse, attempts to update Mario inevitably failed - and unlike Disney, Nintendo actually recognized this. Even while they branched Mario out into elaborate new genres like racing and RPG, Mario always was just Mario - he only required that players accept him as himself, a sort of mascot.

The Paper Mario series is an interesting case study in this. Hugely immersive and unapologetically long, Paper Mario expanded the intricacy and mythology of the Mushroom Kingdom in ways impossible to do in 16 bits - and they did it without even requiring Mario to speak. The cheerful, red-hatted avatar was the eye of the storm while his presence allowed Nintendo to draw on larger and larger canvases around him.

And yet, strictly speaking in terms of market share, the Mario series had been on a downslide since 1996. Mario 64 had sold less than Yoshi's Island before it, and Super Mario Sunshine sold less than Mario 64. Reissues of Mario's 2D adventures continued to do well on new formats like the Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo eventually gave up and launched a new series of 2D Mario games: New Super Mario Brothers, which has become the staple of Nintendo's portfolio. New Nintendo systems now tout 2D, retro-style Mario adventures.

Yes, that's right. The buying public voted with their dollars in favor of 1980s style abstractions, and Nintendo gave them what they wanted. Disney would've buried their heads in the sand.

Simple Mario Super Show

Which brings us back to Universal, Disney's greatest competitor. As I've claimed elsewhere on this site, Universal's most salient characteristic is their insistence on constructing their attractions based on actual linear narratives. Disney has copied the attitude, but almost none of the specifics - troweling  elaborate narrative justifications on top of random events. Universal actually sets up plot points in their queues that they expect you to keep track of and understand they're paying off later, down the line.

The thing is that I'm not at all sure that theme parks are actually any good at telling those kind of stories, and audiences don't seem to care. It's nice if they're there for the kind of people who go to blogs like this, but it isn't necessary - the kind of simple storytelling represented by a falling rock in Super Mario Brothers 3 or a floating candle in The Haunted Mansion works just as well.

Directly compare two recent Universal extravaganzas: their Harry Potter rides Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts. Despite a typically elaborate narrative setup, nothing that happens in Forbidden Journey makes any sense at all - what you're doing, why it's happening, or why Harry is tolerating it. He even shouts at you in one scene thanks to your inexplicable adventure through Spiderville. Compared to this, Gringotts actually makes a lot of sense - it's well paced, it has setups and payoffs, it actually rewards an attentive rider.

But none of that matters all that much because Forbidden Journey does things that work in the narrative environment that rides create, whereas Gringotts is telling you the kind of story better told in a movie. The strengths of Forbidden Journey are themed design strengths - crazy action, immediate dangers, weird illusions. People get off Forbidden Journey excited and inspired. The ride where you bop around in a mine car and characters on IMAX screens shout exposition at you cannot compare, and guests leave somewhat underwhelmed.

Nintendo games are about mysteries, things left unexplained, unpredictable explorations of bizarre worlds. They aren't about, and they don't tell, linear, comprehensible narratives in anything but the simplest way. They're about experiences and emotions, not about writing and plot points.

I don't know if the charm of the best Nintendo games will translate to a physical medium. While Nintendo's nostalgic appeals and retro-style product help convince me that the folks at Nintendo at least know where their strengths are, I've got less hope that the American themed design industry, so obsessed with minutae and specific storytelling techniques, will be able to make the jump.

In Super Mario Brothers 3, there's a room in a World 5 fortress that's empty. There's no secrets to discover in it. It's only there for atmosphere - to make you think about where you are and what you're doing, and to feel the dark and lonely atmosphere. To me it signifies all that's compelling about old school video games - the creation of compelling spaces without explanations or finger pointing. These things aren't all jumping and shooting, or at least they don't need to be. That's the magic of Nintendo. That's what Universal needs to aim at.

The eye of the storm.

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