Mario and the Jedi

In addition to an orgy of Madden Football, I’ve been playing a lot of RPG titles lately. I’m still in the early stages of both Knights of the Old Republic and Mario and Luigi, the latter of which I’ve already written about.

These two games seem completely different. Mario is a sort of platformer/RPG hybrid, while KOTOR is described as an epic story with complex character development. These characterizations may be true, but I think if you look past surface elements like presentation, graphics and combat engines, you find that they are really the same game. For those who haven’t played the games, here is a summary of what goes on in each one.

In Mario and Luigi, you control both brothers at the same time. They are sent on a quest to rescue the Voice of Princess Peach. The voice has been kidnapped by Cackletta who has also stolen a trinket of great power and plans to use the voice to unleash death and destruction on all the kingdoms of the land. Or something. Mario and Luigi have to travel to the Bean-Bean kingdom, rescue the Voice and save the world.

In KOTOR, you start out as a second rate nothing officer on a Republic ship that crashes on some shithole planet out in the middle of nowhere. You must go on a quest to first rescue a warrior who plays a central role in the current war that the Republic is involved in and in doing so start a journey toward your ultimate fate as a powerful Jedi who will turn the tide and save the galaxy (or not). KOTOR introduces a twist in the classic quest structure by allowing you to play the bad guy if you want. But ultimately, assuming you’ve picked a path, and that path is light side (which everyone does first), both games basically have the same high level structure. The light/dark side twist mostly serves as theoretical replay value.

But, the similarities between these two games goes far beyond high level structure, I think. After all, all RPG games are basically quest stories. So here are other similarities.

Having not played many computer RPG titles in my past, I found these similarities to be rather striking, but more seasoned gamers probably think I’m a raving lunatic for making such a big deal of the obvious. But, perhaps the more interesting story here is how each game takes this basic shell and wraps it in a completely different style.

Mario and Luigi is completely light hearted and utterly lacking in pretension. What it has is a wide variety of colorful and enjoyable settings, game-play that is so tight it is almost perfect, and a design and balance that allows the player to be challenged but hardly ever die, even when they suck as badly as me. As I’ve written before, the combat and puzzles, in particular, are marvels of gameplay design and an almost perect mix of real time and turn based mechanics. I mean, how can you not love a game that lets you control two main characters at once and makes it easier than most games make controlling just one.

KOTOR’s gameplay is not nearly as well tuned as Mario. You find yourself fighting with the controls and screaming in anguish as your little computer people run around like morons doing things you didn’t tell them to do. The game also takes itself just a bit too seriously. But, it makes up for this by weaving a more complicated tale and manages to almost make you believe that your actions have had some effect on the narrative, even though it’s a lie. Not many games make you feel guilty for playing the bad guy, so this is not a non-trivial achievement.