How much is a coin worth? (February, 2020)

In my books, this month’s biggest release was actually rather small: Bowser’s Fury — a bonus feature packaged with the Switch reissue of Super Mario 3D World, originally for the Wii U. Bowser’s Fury is a stand-alone experience constructed out of the engine and assets used in 3D World, but manages to feel completely fresh thanks to a different camera perspective and unique game structure. I find myself amazed by how effective it manages to be with the frugality of its construction, but since I wrote about a similar topic last month concerning Hitman III I will not retread the same ground here. This month I found myself thinking much more about the game’s incentives and punishments.

Coins are one of Mario’s great gifts to the world. They signal enticing challenges. Their sound effect is the perfect two-note symphony. They make us feel rich. But in games as in life, coins have suffered from inflation and devaluation.

Games were once much more harsh and punishing. Arcade games took more coins than they gave; a necessary consequence of the coin-op business model. When they moved from arcades to the home, games battled trade-ins at used game stores by becoming longer, but kept the full reset Game Overs. Eventually this inaccessible abuse of time lost favor, and games matured beyond the bully who beats up a nerd for their lunch money. What they became is something more nebulous. We have games for more types of people than we ever have in history — but for series that have been around since arcades, there is something of a crisis of identity. How can a game balance incentives without being punitive? Or to put it another way: What is a Mario coin worth these days?

Mario coins are a basic unit. The developers use coins to guide player attention, create acoustic rhythm, and provide extra lives. Coins mean a second chance. It doesn’t hurt to miss them, but it feels great to grab a bunch. However, their fundamental utility has collapsed. Game Overs are too punishing for a wide audience, so the consequences of dying have been pruned with each new game. 35 years later, Mario will still hit a coin block until that counter rewards another life, but now it is hollow. It does not take a savvy player to see that coins can be ignored entirely, and that can leave players to miss some of the most pleasurable challenges and exploration of a game’s level design.

So what is Mario to do?

In Bowser’s Fury the player collects coins. 100 coins rewards a power-up, which is banked in a tiny inventory. There are five power-ups, and the bank can hold five of each. A power-up is lost if the player is hit while equipped with it. The power-ups provide a safety shield at the minimum, so there is always a good reason to have one equipped at all times. The power-ups help overcome challenges, so struggling players will want them. This encourages struggling players to try to collect coins, which often challenge players’ precision. In effect, it recreates one of the original goals of coins: it rewards players who need training wheels by making them practice to keep them, until they are skilled enough to no longer need them.

A talented player will not lose power-ups, so the coins quickly become worthless. This was true of the original 1-Ups as well, so coins in Bowser’s Fury are neither better nor worse for talented players, but they are improved for struggling players. Coins provide an incentive to practice by rewarding various abilities that make the game easier, but can be quickly lost. Coins regain their effectiveness as a carrot by becoming more delectable, while the stick of Game Overs disappears from view.

What becomes of the punitive arm of Mario’s game design? Both talented and struggling players still need some friction to fight against, and here Bowser’s Fury sees a small innovation as well. Previous Mario games have relied on the “bottomless pit” as their primary antagonist. Bowser’s Fury does away with the bottomless pit. Instead, the linear courses are embedded in the overworld. They jutt out of the sea, giving a clear direction to travel (up) and a new, natural punishment for falling off — the player has to swim back to shore and climb back up. This is similar to a normal respawn, but with two crucial differences. First, it takes longer to swim back to the level than it would to respawn. Second, the enemies defeated previously remain defeated. 

The tedious time spent swimming back initially rubbed me the wrong way. It is wasted time, completely worthless. However, I quickly realized it encouraged a new behavior: stepping away from the challenge and trying something else. When the player lands in the sea the friendly dinosaur Plessie appears to ferry you across the water. Plessie makes travelling between the island courses fun and about on par with the increased friction required to retry the last challenge. If a player does swim back and retry, then they will not be confronted with as many enemies. But they might be more likely to step away, try something else, and come back to it later.

I like this approach! I become frustrated when I fail at the same thing over and over again, and often find myself more able to overcome tough challenges after stepping away for a little bit and returning with a cleared head. And by that same token, I did not find Bowser’s Fury particularly challenging, but the threat of having to swim back if I did fall kept my close calls feeling tenser than they would if I could just instantly respawn. 

In short: the game system keeps the play experience embedded in the world without any loading screens, guides players away from behaviors that can increase their frustration, and creates slightly more riveting consequences for failure. This is a classic Mario solution, as creator Shigeru Miyamoto said: “A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.”
Could this game structure be expanded to a game twice the length or more? I am unsure. Bowser’s Fury is only a few hours long, and the map is small enough to allow players to travel from one end to the next in under a minute. The bigger the map becomes, the more friction emerges during travel. If time is wasted returning to the last challenge and time is ALSO wasted travelling to a different challenge then the system completely falls apart. Yet Breath of the Wild is a game with a similar embedded world, and it manages to captivate some players for hundreds of hours, so I cannot speculate. I am just glad that this game is what it is, and I cannot wait to play it again.

Other games I played:

  • Super Mario 3D World
    • It’s good, I love it.
  • Triangle Strategy (Demo)
    • I am a sucker for everything about this game’s pitch. That said…
    • The voices talk s o s l o w
    • It is so hard to read the sprites and tell what character is which because the post-processing effects are caked on so hard.
    • They use the same ambient particle system in every single scene and it drives me NUTS!
    • I will buy this game regardless
  • 13 Sentinels
    • I think the DESIGN part of the narrative design actually hurts more than it helps. It doesn’t hurt it much, but it doesn’t help it at all.
    • The battles are messy in every single way, but I had fun with them. Not enough to be enthusiastic about the thought of trying Hard mode.
  • Majora’s Mask
    • I am very sad that the character designer retired recently. Takaya Imamura defined the flavor of this game, and we will never see something else quite like it again.
  • Wario Ware Inc.
    • Re-experiencing this game through the eyes of someone who has never played it before was a joyful highlight, and it reinvigorated my love of games like nothing else this month.

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