Super Mario Bros. vs. Burnout 2

18th July 2008 – 9.06 am

Over at Killed in a Smiling Accident Zoso posited a theory about on-line gaming and how players flit from game-to-game after their first experience with the genre. That got me thinking about how I like both platform and racing games as genres and will seek out new games of that type because they appeal to me on a fundamental level. When I play those genres I also have some games in mind that, to me, are the pinnacle of game design, balance, and enjoyment, which are currently Super Mario Bros. on the NES for platform games, and Burnout 2 on the Gamecube[1] for racing games. It is certainly possible for those games to be usurped by better examples of the genre, after all Burnout 2 is quite a recent game considering my twenty years or so of playing racing games and has displaced others, but at the moment I consider them both to be the best example of the genres that I have played to date.

It was when I was thinking about both games and what appeals to me in each of them that I realised a similarity to both games. It may seem odd to compare a modern racing game like Burnout 2 with the relatively ancient 8-bit Super Mario Bros. but there is certainly at least one striking similarity between the two games that creates an appeal for me: both games have an initial set-up that is constant, and if the game is played the same way by the player then the game behaves predictably each time.

As was typical for just about any genre of game at the time, Super Mario Bros. has each level's obstacles laid out in a specific manner as part of the design of the level, and each time the level is played everything is reset back to these initial conditions. There is no change in what enemies, power-ups, or obstacles are placed where between sessions.

In Burnout 2, the game has a feature that allows the entire race to be played back for review after it has been finished. To achieve this, and I am making assumptions here that may well need to be corrected, the game makes use of parametric equations so that, given an initial set of conditions and some mathematical formulae, series of events can be determined. Rather than storing the video information for the whole race, which would require a large amount of memory, the game instead stores only the player's input and some initial 'seeds'. Using this information the game then effectively replays the race dynamically, calling the same code as for a normal race, but with the player's inputs replaced by the saved inputs. As the same code is called for playing the replay as for playing the game then the same traffic, lighting effects, and collisions are all recreated as before, because it is a deterministic process.

That each game has a consistent set of initial conditions is not the appeal of the game for me, but it is the cause of the appeal. The initial conditions allow for a repeatable experience each time the game is played and, more importantly, and experience that can be perfected.

The enemies in Super Mario Bros. are all dependent on the player being present, in that the Goombas, Koopas and all the others don't wander around until Mario forces them to appear on screen. Similarly, the traffic in Burnout 2 is triggered when the player reaches a certain point on the track, the traffic not advancing along the road independently of the player, as evidenced by the same traffic being present in the same place on each separate lap, such that it must reset on each lap. Thus if the player progresses at the same rate and performs the same actions each time he plays a level he will encounter exactly the same experience, and hence where the promise of being able to perfect the game comes from.

It is possible in Super Mario Bros. to run at full speed, holding down the 'B' button to make Mario run, collecting coins, hitting blocks, and jumping on enemies' heads and complete levels with no surprises, as long as the same pattern of moves is performed within a tolerance each time. This means a player can practice and work out the enemies' movements and where all the power-ups are and be able to defeat the game by perfecting it. The same is true for Burnout 2, where once the course and traffic placements is known, along with some skill in controlling the player's car, it is possible to race around the level following a determined pattern that allows for a perfect experience.

This link between two quite different games, published some twenty years apart, fascinates me. It gives me the motivation to continue playing until I have 'solved' each level, when I have the ability to race confidently and fluidly at full pelt through the paths whilst avoiding the obstacles with practiced movements. Getting through a level of Super Mario Bros. the same way I have done many times before, or getting a perfect laps with continuous burnouts in Burnout 2 gives me a sense of achievement different from other games, but a sense of achievement none the less.

[1] It must be noted that the choice of platform for Burnout 2 is based solely on having only played the game on the Gamecube and is not suggestive of that being the definitive version.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed.