On the Jazz #23: Mastering the Plumber

It’s-a him Maaario!

By Matt Springer
March 05, 2005

I have just died for the sixth time in a row at the exact same spot in Super Mario 64 DS.

I’m trying to collect all the red coins to get a star in the first Bowser level. It’s part of my excruciating current effort to go back and earn the stars I skipped in these smaller sublevels, like the rescuing Mario level or the secret bonus level under the black brick in the moat. For the most part, these levels are sons of bitches that require excruciating effort and meticulous control.

Something’s not clicking. Either it’s my fault, or the goddamn DS’s fault, or both. Probably both. So I die, and I die, and I die.

(I think it says something fundamental about those who play video games that their choice of recreational activity revolves obsessively struggling NOT TO DIE. What exactly it says, I don’t know. Luckily, this piece is about Mario and not the mysteries of the universe, so I can simply lay out a statement like the above, and then move blissfully onward.)

Dying in video games is something we all hate. Oh, the stories we could tell–the controllers broken, the walls punched into, the screaming that woke the neighbors. Me, I hit myself when I die, and so there’s a constant slight bruise on my right thigh just above my knee. Some days, it’s worse than others.

Right now, thanks to Mario and his accursed inability to do what I want him to, my leg hurts like hell.

As I pound my leg into a bruised mess, it strikes me that Super Mario 64 DS is that rare game whose weaknesses simply underline its strengths. This particular occurrence of multiple deaths seems an ideal example.

After a bit of exploration, I know where these eight coins are. By now I have a rhythm down, so that each time I go into the level, I manage to get the first seven in relatively rapid succession.

Then there’s coin number eight, perched atop a platform that requires a subtle, tricky pair of jumps to be reached. These jumps must happen just out of easy camera range…or if I so choose, I can fix the camera and mess up my entire sense of direction. A weakness underlines a strength: The visuals still pop for the eyes, and you want to drink them in, and the camera innovates so that you can guzzle what you see and play effectively at the same time. Except when it’s stuck somewhere, and then it sucks.

I have tried these jumps over and over and over again. The one time I made it was the one time I realized the last coin I needed was back at the damned BEGINNING of the level, and so I had to backtrack all the way to the place where I started. Naturally, I suffered a stupid mistake along the way and fell to my doom.

I still thrill regularly at the greatness that is Super Mario 64 DS. My stomach jumps when Mario jumps, and I find myself physically moving in time with my fingers on the touch screen, as if by imitating Mario’s motions with my own body could help me move more effectively in the game. But the freedom is too free when it leads me to make an idiotic move just because the game let me.

Why can’t I make these two jumps? What’s the problem? I’m the problem, and the game’s the problem, which is no one’s problem. I cannot master the damned touch pad control of the DS on this particular game; I’m good at it, but I will never be great. Unlike the analog stick on the Nintendo 64, this is a method of control that can never be fully learned, because it is too good, too sensitive, to be mastered. It responds too well; it senses too much. There’s nothing physical for my body to respond to, and so I can just as easily overcompensate as I can hit my marks with dead-on precision. And undercompensating is almost always doomed to failure, so I don’t even bother trying.

This control is fundamental to the game. It was fundamental when the game was just Super Mario 64 and we all marveled at the freshness of the experience. It allows us to go everywhere…or at least, everywhere Shigeru Miyamoto and his crazed team of artists want us to go. It’s the perfect kind of freedom–the kind with limits you can’t even perceive because you are too thrilled by what you CAN do to ever think about what you CANNOT do.

Of all the weaknesses that underline strengths in Super Mario 64 DS, the control is the most wondrous and agonizing, because it is all that connects we the players with that little pudgy fucker in the overalls. It is glorious when we can make him do the right things, whether they’re exhilarating or mundane, and it is fucking frustrating as hell when we force him to do the wrong things. He’s our guide through the world we see on the screen, but he follows us.

Anyway. SMB64 ROX DOOD.