Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Super Princess Peach

Ever since stumbling across Super Mario Bros. in an arcade I’ve been terribly interested in the naming conventions of the Mario franchise. Why was it Super Mario Bros.? Did it have any relationship to Bros the boy band? It was a puzzle.

Many years later I still find Nintendo’s stock of prefixes and suffixes intriguing. Like primary colours, they can be mixed together to create more interesting shades; case in point, Super Paper Mario--the name defines the game. With Nintendo so reliant on wringing out their old franchises, it’s easy to imagine a large fruit machine on one floor of their headquarters, with every prefix, suffix and middix Nintendo have ever used on its reels. Iwata steps up, gives the handle a tug and the next year’s releases are designed by rote. Go on, give it a try. Imagine the E3 crowds going crazy for Paper Mario Party, Bowser Sports Resort, or Luigi’s Haunted Kart.

My point is you know what you’re getting when you buy a game from the Mario family. The characters are so clearly defined they tint the games around them. Luigi is timid. Wario is bullish, obnoxious and grasping. Their games perfectly reflect their personalities.

So you have to wonder what was going on in the Nintendo hive the day they played the one-armed-bandit and rushed Super Princess Peach into production.

Peach has never been one of gaming’s feminist icons. I get the impression here, taking centre stage for the first time on a console that--thanks in no small part to Nintendogs--was beloved of little girls around the globe, this was Nintendo’s attempt to snatch the juvenile female market away from Imagine Babiez and Babysitting Mama. Peach is a cipher whose in-game abilities heretofore amount to floating, baking cakes and being kidnapped. As with Yoshi’s Island and Wario Land, in Super Princess Peach Nintendo had the chance to craft an identity for her. They could have made a statement: the sisters are doing it for themselves.

And if you’d only seen the game’s intro--in which Mario, Luigi and Toad are kidnapped and Peach vows to rescue them--you might think that’s exactly what they were trying to do. In Super Princess Peach our heroine isn’t beholden to any man or mushroom; she is a force unto herself, taking on all comers with only a brolly for self defence.

So imagine the titters that arose as developers designed Peach’s arsenal of moves, her--good grief--vibes. Instead of collecting fire flowers and tanooki suits, with the help of her ‘vibe wand’ Peach assaults enemies with her emotional states. She’s a quivering pre-menstrual nightmare, dashing in floods of tears one minute, the next minute setting fire to things in an irritated huff. When she’s happy she floats on a cloud of pure bliss and when she’s merely content, in a yogic trance she heals her physical well-being. You can practically hear the guffaws of Nintendo’s corporate suits: “Women--so emotional!” As a demonstration of nuanced characterisation it makes flatulent fattie Wario look like Sidney Poitier.

Triggered on the touchscreen, each of Peach’s emotions is used to negotiate some obstacle or puzzle, or dispatch the foes in her path. Not that the puzzles are particularly troubling. Super Princess Peach is simple, and only in its final stages does it present even a hint of a challenge. There are no lives to collect and no penalties for dying, and every puzzle is preceded by a hint block which tells you exactly how to overcome it.

With its candy colours and a twee art-style reminiscent of--yet inferior to--Yoshi’s Island it might be the perfect introduction to platform games for young girls. But as a Nintendo platformer it’s deeply unsatisfying. Compared to sister title The Legendary Starfy, Super Princess Peach lacks charm and intelligence. Peach’s world isn’t memorable, it doesn’t contain the tricks and sparks of inspiration we’ve come to associate with this kind of game. Though never less than amiable, it treads a fine line between being enjoyable in a simplistic sort of way and being the kind of bargain bucket dross that overwhelms the DS market, the Nicktoons branded kind best ignored out of hand. Without its pedigree it might have been a diamond in the rough, but with Nintendo’s name on the box I certainly expected more.

My expectations have d coloured my opinion--it’s hard for them not to. After all, Super Princess Peach follows a grand legacy containing some of the best video games of all time. While I was playing Super Princess Peach my wife was playing Super Mario 3D Land beside me. Whenever I looked over her shoulder I’d see some exciting new power up, or some twist on the formula. “Look at this!” she’d say, showing me this or that crazy level: platforms that march in time to the soundtrack, a stage filled with doors that teleport Mario here, there and everywhere.

In return I had nothing to show except Peach’s moods, which--in a lazy move that’s also one of my own personal bugbears--more often than not replace keys as a way of unlocking doors. Melting ice doors, blowing away cloud doors, dousing flame doors--is this really the best the developers could come up with? Even when slightly more exciting gimmicks are introduced--a level where you have to fight gusting winds, or one where buttons tilt platforms ninety degrees, changing the direction of the gravitational pull--they’re used half-heartedly. Most of the time Super Princess Peach feels so hollow because it plays like a proof of concept, a demonstration of features that are repeated and recycled in lieu of new ideas.

Padding out the game are lacklustre power-ups bought with your collected coins (because girls love shopping, don’t they?), a few touch-screen minigames, submarine shoot-em-up segments leftover from the original Super Mario Land, and--the last cry of desperation from any DS game developer--an extensive selection of jigsaw puzzles. Considering its lack of variation, its amazing that the game’s elements manage to feel so disparate.

Sadly, that’s the most interesting thing you can say about Super Princess Peach. It’s a reasonable amount of fun, and the younger you are--and the more you like the colour pink--the more you’ll get from it. But its still a shallow grab bag of half thought out ideas, so padded with dull minigames its few original ideas are smothered beneath them. It’s an experiment in mediocrity foisted upon a public who want and deserve better.

It may have been conceived to capture a certain elusive demographic, but with its contents as randomly assembled as its name, the only demographic the finished game truly appeals to is one Nintendo would be better off without.

1 comment:

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