Does Nintendo actually want us to have friends?
I’ve long had my doubts. As much as I loved playing Pokémon Stadium and Mario Tennis with my sister and inviting friends over to play Mario Kart and Mario Party, those childhood memories are as much defined by the fun we had as they are the arguments.There’s a reason the Mario Party series is known for destroying friendships—it’s because the studio making it is absolutely committed to doing so. At this point, I have to wonder if it’s Nintendo’s agenda: Play its games to test the boundaries of your closest friendships.
Super Mario Wonder, the latest big Nintendo game out on Switch, has only reinforced this idea for me. I’ve been having a blast with the game, finding infinite thrills in observing the gorgeously detailed environments, discovering new ways to change or complete the level, and switching between the eight different characters to see how, say, Princess Daisy looks as an elephant. (The new elephant power, which turns everyone from Mario to Toad into an adorably brutish elephant that walks on two legs, is a gift to mankind.)
But I’m most enjoying all of this by myself, which would be fine, except that Super Mario Wonder is designed to be completed by up to four people. It’s certainly not required—Nintendo would never exclude the isolated homebodies among us!—but it’s a feature I generally celebrate, as the more people playing games, the better. In fact, some levels are easier if you have another person there to help you out; for example, one person can stand on a switch while another goes through the door it opens, collecting the necessary item. Yet there is no way to play Super Mario Wonder with even one other person in the same room with you without your playtime devolving into shouting, deep sighs, and perhaps even aggressive slams of the controller.
That’s been my experience with it over the last two weeks. I’m the slow-and-steady Player Two to my gaming partner, a very competitive Player One. We decide together who we’ll each play as; we mutually agree upon a power-up to kick the level off with before it starts. But no matter whether I’m the high-jumping Princess Peach or the sturdy Yoshi (one of the only characters that can’t take any damage), I’m the one apparently screwing us both up. Most recently, we were trying to complete a level that involved making quick jumps across moving platforms, lest we fall into a sea of poison below. Player One made the executive decision to run and jump ahead of me, leaving me to fall offscreen, if not into the goo. But when I tried to keep up with him, he found himself dying too—which, he said, was because I was “intentionally” jumping underneath him, causing him to fall due to the lack of room on the platform. “This would be so much better if I wasn’t playing with you,” he said curtly, tossing the controller onto the coffee table for the umpteenth time and ending our session for the night.
A lot of this stems from our playstyles not meshing well—I like to take my time thinking through every move I make, and he likes to finish each level as fast as possible. But I’d also like to blame the fact that the game’s camera only follows one player at a time. Whoever has traveled farthest or hit a checkpoint first lays claim to a crown, which begets a problem: Everyone wants to be the person with the crown. And while everyone is ostensibly working together, the person with the crown surely doesn’t want to have that anointment usurped. The crowned player will, without fail, sprint as fast as the game allows them toward the right, grabbing all the items before their party members can, planting their flag at each checkpoint, and attempting an important jump without cluing anyone else in first. If they do all of this to the point where someone is left behind at the back of the level—or even completely off-screen—the game turns them into a ghost; the other players are then responsible for tapping them back into the game within five seconds, lest they die completely.
Technically, no one can hurt another player; Nintendo made sure to remove any possible player collisions, learning from its mistakes with past multiplayer Mario entries. But letting your friends live and die as ghosts is basically murder. Why would anyone tap the ghosted player back into the game if they’re already playing it functionally solo anyway? The answer is that there’s no reason to, except from the goodness of their heart. And Nintendo, by building a game heavily reliant on sprinting and jumping and making quick decisions, doesn’t encourage us to pause and find that goodness. Instead, it asks for acquiescence on the parts of the plebes who don’t have that vaunted crown.
I love the game, truly, despite being the one that’s constantly yelled at by my compatriots. I’m not great at video games, and I’ve accepted this; I can take the frustration in stride. Plus, I know to expect this kind of rage after 25 years of dealing with Mario: I’ve been the recipient of a friend’s Blue Shell in enough entries of Mario Kart to know that no amount of love shared matters in the name of winning. I’ve touted my Super Smash Bros. Ultimate prowess to friends, only to have them gleefully throw me offscreen ad infinitum. I played Super Mario 3D World, another recent Mario adventure on Switch that I adored, with someone all the way through, during which I was blamed for our constant failures.
That infernal, godforsaken Mario Party really is the apex of this phenomenon. It’s the one game that likes to help us losers over the finish line by literally giving the worst-performing players stars at the end, to the point where they may triumph over the partygoers who were actually trying to win the whole time. That should say it all about Nintendo’s bad intentions for our social lives.
That said, Nintendo seems to have a solution that will keep loved ones from turning into ones-you-hate: playing with them online, where you can do a level together without having to actually interact. There are actually plenty of nice examples online of how well this works, showing that players are way more inclined to help each other when they don’t have to be invested in or responsible for their progress. Yes, just like the fan-favorite Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Mario Wonder reinforces something I’ve been telling myself since I was 11 years old; the best kinds of friends are the ones you never actually have to spend time with in person.