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Published February 28, 2012

Few people understand how powerful nostalgia can be as well as I do. I grew up dressing as Luigi (with a fake mustache), drawing new/impossible levels for Mega Man and humming the Fever music from Dr. Mario throughout the entire first half of my life. The 8-bit era left an indelible impression on me, and I can understand why so many young developers would want go back to that well. But to reiterate something I said on the podcast a couple week’s back, the minds behind high-profile throwbacks like Abobo’s Big Adventure and Super Mario Bros. Crossover 2.0 need to take a step back and ask themselves whether or not these old-school mash-ups have anything new to say. This isn’t a popular stance, and I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on these smaller passion projects, but I think we can look at this constructively and figure out a fitting tribute that isn’t just sprite dumping.

Podcast listeners know that my tastes don’t always align with those of the rest of the Pack, but the divide was particularly pronounced with Abobo’s Big Adventure. This game was designed to cram every childhood memory into an ambitious Flash game, with several different genres represented and the most packed roster of characters this side of Super Smash Bros. To that end, mission accomplished. Playing even just the first world, you’d spot more cameos from older games than your eight-year-old self could have ever imagined. But where I take issue is that none of these elements fit together. Each step is accompanied with non-sequiturs disguised as old school sprites, but very rarely does Team Abobo let its own style shine through.  And it’s a shame, too, as I love the premise.

Super Mario Bros. Crossover 2.0 has garnered a lot of love on the game blog scene as well, but that game misses the point, too. Unlike Abobo’s, there’s a unifying element here: the original Super Mario Bros. All of the 8-bit heroes (well, now 16-bit, too) have their signature abilities and moves, and the Mushroom Kingdom is basically broken as a result. That’s fine. I get that the game essentially becomes the player’s playground. The problem is that the level design just doesn’t make any sense in these contexts. Having to shoot dozens of shots into lines of goombas just isn’t fun, and I can’t help but feel that the developer could have taken these characters and designed a game that would be fun for all.

And while I’m being generally cranky, let me extend my rant to video game related literature. Namely, Ready Player One, which supposedly looks at the extensive world of MMOs on an even grander scale, while also commenting on how pop culture shapes our identities. In a sense, I guess it’s true to the times we live in, as the “references as jokes” model of comedy certainly has its fans. But when the author offers up a recreation, line by line, of “WarGames,” with little else to say besides, “Wasn’t that movie cool?” I’m left wondering what the point of all of it was. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating the Matthew Broderick “classic,” but why not ask the main character to change things up within a virtual simulation rather than have him slavishly stick to the stick.

What I’m getting at is that you can pay tribute to the past without slavish devotion to source material. Nintendo has certainly done it with the aforementioned Super Smash Bros. series, but I’d also direct gamers to the upcoming Retro City Rampage. It’s game that does its own things with its own mechanics and world, but at the same time, it features homages to characters of games past. There are parodies for sure, but when you’re bitten by a radioactive spider or the overhead city blends into a tactical espionage jungle, you can see a degree of creativity and care that some of these lesser efforts would do well to include going forward.


  1. Jard Jard

    I’m not sure I would classify ABA as a sprite dump. Obviously it recreates a lot of levels pretty faithfully, but there are enough minor twists that the underlying code is likely unique. Maybe that’s just the quip of someone who has programmed before.

    I can see your point on SMB crossover 2.0, but I think there’s something to be said for the subtle variation. What I mean is, it can be interesting to tackle a level you know with a character you know who didn’t originally belong to the level. This was essentially the premise of Sonic & Knuckles with Sonic 2 plugged in (less so with sonic 3 since it was made knowing that knuckles would be coming). Sure, it’s not as compelling as a brand new character with a brand new level, but there is design space to be mined that can be exceedingly rewarding. The nostalgia factor is a part of it, but there’s a subtle brilliance to making the player feel extremely smart when presented with a set of characters and levels they’re already familiar with and figuring out the combination that works well, or even in unexpected ways. If it wouldn’t be virtually impossible to program it, imagine how compelling it would be to use Kratos or the main character from Infamous/Prototype against the Collosi in Shadows of the Collosus. The only reason you see these 8-bit crossovers is because it’s something a single human being or a small team can actually program and afford to just give away for free.

    Damn… that would actually be pretty awesome.

  2. You’re right that it can be interesting, but as with that Knuckles example, a lot of the time, it ends up feeling wrong. He couldn’t jump as high, and none of those levels were designed with gliding or climbing in mind, putting him at a distinct disadvantage. Compare that to Sonic 3, where the stages were designed knowing that Knuckles would someday visit them. Alternate paths, lots of vertical surfaces – it just made more sense. I think if the Crossover team had built levels around multiple characters, rather than simply reusing Mario stages, it could have been a lot more successful. They could even reuse art assets to keep the budget down, as you astutely pointed out budget concerns.

    I agree that there is something cool about occasionally seeing characters from several series brought together. The Smash Bros. series and all of these recent crossover fighters are proof of that. I’d argue that you just need to build your own foundation first, which none of these games, well-intentioned as they were, tried to do.

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