Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story – Traditional RPG Systems meets Functional Design

December 17th, 2016

Bowser’s Inside Story‘s battle system adheres to Nintendo’s clean and functional approach to game design (see earlier articles on narrative and level design). Attacks operate in real time and test a variety of different skills, while the turn-based structure organises the moments of action into clean, discrete chunks. This strong core is surrounded by levelling, equipment, and badge systems which both enhance and weaken the game’s key asset. In this post we explore what happens when functional design meets traditional RPG systems. 

Stats and Levelling

BIS retains the levelling system of the earlier games. As the player defeats enemies they gain experience points through which they level up and increase their attack, defence, and other stats. Levelling up is necessary to counter the increasingly stronger enemies the player encounters on their journey. This connection between levelling and enemy strength sustains most RPG battle progression. And yet I don’t believe that it serves the genre—nor BIS—very well.

BIS’s battles hinge on the player’s ability to successfully attack and dodge enemies. We know this because if a player cannot achieve these actions, then they will lose. Assuming the player is levelling up their eyes, mind, and fingers (which they are by virtue of them defeating a stream of unique enemies), then what purpose does having statistically stronger enemies serve other than to artificially inflate the difficulty? More to the point, how does levelling enhance the attacking and dodging functions which are central to BIS’s battle system? The numbers on screen change, but the animations, hit boxes, tells, and mix-ups powering the core functions remain the same.

(I’m a bit worried that my proposition here is somewhat simplistic, but so far I haven’t been able to come up with a counter argument, so we’re going to roll with it for now).

I would be lying, however, if I were to claim that the numbers game doesn’t serve some useful (albeit limited) purposes. Levelling clearly communicates to the player their progress in the form of a digit, even though they have no barometer at which to measure, compare, and ultimately make sense of the number. The player can also use levelling as a means to increase or decrease the challenge as needed by either avoiding or grinding enemies. Unfortunately the leeway afforded by levelling systems can be exploited so as to decrease the challenge to the extent that the game is unable to “squeeze” the player and express meaning through its gameplay challenges.

By removing the levelling system and visible statistics (aside from HP and SP), more emphasis would naturally fall on variation within the battle system (variation between individual challenges = difficulty curve). Between the large range of enemies, different combinations of enemy types, the enemy mix-ups, differences between the Bros and Bowser attacks and dodges, and external elements such as Bitties, there’s more than enough variation to sustain the gameplay. The player would still have access to a variety of existing means of scaling the difficulty, such as buying healing items or finding more beans. Speaking of which, a lack of levelling would increase the significance of beans and encourage the player to partake in this worthwhile side activity.

Equipment

The clothing (equipment) system is similar to levelling, but not quite. Multiple times throughout the adventure the player can spend coins on new clothing items which increase either the Bros.’s or Bowser’s stats. This routine adds another layer of artificial progression and does not support the core of the battle system. Purchasing goods itself also isn’t terribly interesting. Yet like levelling, equipment provides some wiggle room for less proficient players. Assuming enemy stats did not rise as the player reaches new areas (as mentioned earlier), I think it would be best if the clothes stores in the Mushroom Kingdom all closed shop.

Closing down the clothing shops wouldn’t actually have a significant effect as a great deal of clothing items aren’t available in shops. Rather, they’re strewn across the overworld in various nooks and crannies. In this sense, clothes are similar to beans, a reward for being observant and participating in extra tasks on the overworld. So while buying gear only serves to combat the artificial growth of enemies, finding gear makes the overworld portion of the game more engaging.

I would be remiss in not mentioning that a significant number of clothing items do more than simply prop up the stats of the avatars. Some items regenerate health, increase the chance of critical hits, potentially make the enemy dizzy after you jump on it, etc. Again, I can’t really fault this aspect of the equipment system either because such gear adds player-determined variation to the battles and encourages the player to experiment with different strategies and gameplay styles. Below, I have included some of my favourite examples:

Coin Socks

If the wearer takes no damage during a battle, 1.5x coins awarded

Gall Socks

Foes are 50% more attracted to attack the wearer

Challenge Medal

All enemies have HP, DEF, & SPEED increased by 50% and POW increased by 150%, but coins gained from battle increase by 50%

Heroic Patch

Special attack POW +30%, but SP cost doubles

POW Mush Jam

When wearer eats any type of mushroom (healing item), POW +20%

I just couldn’t go past the Softener Gloves:

Due to a coding error, occasionally raises enemy DEF by 25% rather than lowering it.

The examples above are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. The majority of non-stat-increasing clothing items are buffs and therefore aren’t terribly different to stat boosts at all. Where levelling was completely artificial, the equipment system is perhaps half synthetic (the routine of buying better gear and clothing as buffs) and half functional (clothing as collectables, clothing as adding variation and options to battles).

Badges

Badges are the third and final piece in the pie of systems which surround the core battle system. Mario and Luigi each have their own badge halves which connect together. As each character lands “Good”, “Great”, and “Excellent” (well timed) hits, their badge meter increases. Once both meters are maxed, the player can tap the touch screen to activate an effect. Mario’s badge determines the effect and Luigi’s badge determines the degree of effect. Unlike levelling and equipment, badges support the core functions of the game by rewarding the player for attacking and countering enemies. They also allow the player to customise battles so as to support their own playstyle. For example, I set the badges up so that after landing enough well timed attacks, I could heal half of the Bros’s SP. This meant that I had more opportunities to use the special attacks, something which I felt I needed more practice with.

The levelling system and some parts of the equipment system don’t support the core of what makes BIS’s battle systems so unique and engaging, and so they’re more like clutter than the potent force they are in more traditional RPGs. On the other hand, badges and some parts of the equipment system support the core functions of attacking and dodging and also enhance other areas of the game, such as the player’s engagement with the overworld. So depending on the implementation, traditional RPG systems can both complement and clutter a functionally designed core.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story – Delayed Interaction

December 11th, 2016

Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story employs a functional approach to RPG design where the experience is centralised around player actions. We saw this in the game’s story which hinges on the interplay between Bowser and the Bros, and we see this once again in the game’s level design.

Although BIS is an RPG, the employs higher order forms of level design, such as those popularised in Metroidvania titles. Much like those games, BIS has the player criss-cross a large, interconnected world which slowly opens up over time. Progression into new areas is dictated by a sequence of new abilities and the Bros. and Bowser’s alternating access to certain parts of the overworld. The beauty of this template lies in how the player’s experiences in different game states (i.e. with different ability sets) are layered together in rich and organic ways. To illustrate this particular point, I’d like to talk about beans.

Delayed Interaction (Beans)

Many games foreshadow new abilities, areas, or collectables before the player is able to reach them for the purposes of priming, creating anticipation, or testing the player’s ability to recall information. Beans in BIS are one such example.

For the first third of the game the player can only traverse the overworld as Bowser. During this time they’ll come across curious markings on the floor which they cannot yet interact with. These niggling elements linger in the mind and as the player comes to notice their consistent presence throughout the game world, they’ll begin to commit them to memory (whether consciously or subconsciously). After all, video games worlds aren’t natural environments, they’re intentionally designed—and so surely such ubiquitous markings must have some kind of purpose. Later on, the Bros leave Bowser’s body and are able to burrow under these markings and uproot the beans underneath for a permanent stat boost.

In many ways beans are similar to missiles in Metroid. The two sets of collectables increase the player’s power (number of strong attacks and player stats) and present their own mini-challenges (often based on observation).

The duration of the delayed interaction differentiates beans and missiles. Depending on when the player first sees the bean hole, the delay between the player seeing a bean hole and then being able to uproot the bean can range from 1-8 hours (8 hours roughly being the time in which the Bros. are captive in Bowser’s body). In a Metroid game, the gap is closer to 1-5 hours. Throughout this time the location of the beans fade in and out of your short-term memory. And as the game trudges on and presents the player with new information, remembering the older details becomes all the more difficult. So finally being able to close the knowledge gap by uprooting a bean hole can be a huge relief, cathartic even.

The number of beans is simply too great for any player to remember. Rather the challenge is keeping as much as you can in your head until you can act on it. The tension from this process therefore releases over the many hours it takes to collect the beans one by one.

Fortunately, the game world provide a structure for which the player can organise the vast amount of information. Beans (like missiles) are tied to specific areas of the map, and so the player recalls relevant information as they move through the game world. Speaking from my own experience, I find that collecting beans tends to complement the existing gameplay. The game will point me in a direction and as I begin the trek visual landmarks in the environment will reactivate my knowledge of nearby bean holes. In this sense, I feel that beans are a neat way of extending the gameplay and giving the player something else to do during the low-intensity gameplay of exploring the overworld.

Since the game world is large and interconnected, the player has a degree of freedom in determining the order in which they collect beans. They also have a lot of freedom in how much they wish to partake in the collectathon, with 251 beans in total. Alternatively, some players will choose to ignore this optional layer of gameplay, and that’s fine too. BIS accommodates both interested and non-interested players and allows interested players to engage however much they wish, however they wish.

By delaying the player’s ability to uproot beans, a connection is made between the player’s initial overworld rhomp as Bowser and their subsequent run as the Bros. In effect, the designers elicit two forms of engagement for the price of one. As Bowser, the bean holes invite the player to observe, chunk out, and retain sections of the game world in their short-term memory. As the Bros, the player draws on their short-term memory to recall and then uproot the beans. Whether you’re playing Metroid, Mario & Luigi, classic Resident Evil or any other games which utilises this higher order form of level design, this process of mentally reconstructing fragments of the game world in your head is a highly engaging top-tier challenge.

Overall, I think beans work so well because they rely on the player’s curiosity (give the them some buy-in); create anticipation through delayed interaction; and allow the player to retrieve the beans organically, at their own leisure, and in a sequence which suits them.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story – Insights into Narrative and Function

December 7th, 2016

[The Mario & Luigi series applies Nintendo’s function-driven perspective of game design to what is often a genre which skews towards abstraction. The benefits of more grounded gameplay are present throughout each game in the series. The following series of three articles will explore this idea through a handful of examples from what is perhaps the best game in the series, Bowser’s Inside Story. We shall first begin with the game’s narrative.]

Bowser’s Inside Story‘s character-centric narrative is told through a series of individual narrative arcs which tie together through interdependent character motives and the unbeknownst interplay of the involved parties. The game’s design frames the relationship and interplay between the Bros and Bowser through the symbolic use of interface and input. Together the game’s plot, segues, interface, and input design help unify Bower’s Inside Story around the central concept of connectedness.

Plot Threads

BIS’s interweaving story threads can initially overwhelm the player. Bowser is without a castle and his army is under Fawful’s control; the Bros are trapped inside Bowser; the Mushroom Kingdom is plagued by a body-inflating disease called The Blorbs; and Fawful has made Peach’s castle his new residence. The locks and keys knot together with enough complexity and interconnectedness that I found it difficult to foresee how the events would shake out. Details wash in and out of conciousness. So when a plot detail sitting just outside your short-term memory range comes full circle to solve a present predicament in the story, the resolution fills an information gap and feels all the more satisfying. BIS often makes such connections (usually between character motives and abilities), which in culmination lead to a cohesive, interconnected story.

The developers undo the narrative knot one motive at a time. The Bros must find Princess Peach and Bowser must reclaim his castle. The story then turns to the Bros escaping Bowser’s body and curing the Mushroom Kingdom of The Blorbs. With the main characters distracted by these initial obstacles, Fawful has enough time to hatch the next part of his master plan, the Dark Star. During this time the Bros. and Bowser also become strong enough so to level the field between themselves and the Dark Star bosses. Undoing the initial narrative knot therefore facilitates the conditions for the game’s second half. So the individual character arcs build towards the game’s finale. Again, we see that cohesion and connectedness are central to BIS.

Segues

The player occupies a space where they are witness to the adventures of both the Bros and Bowser and their unbeknownst run-ins. The player takes the role of Bowser until he comes across a situation where the state of his body changes (passes out, stomach ache, etc.) allowing the Bros to advance. Once the Bros mend Bowser’s body from within, he can continue on his way. The Bros help Bowser overcome the obstacles preventing him from reclaiming his castle, while Bowser’s overcoming of obstacles opens up new areas of his body that the Bros can explore to find both Princess Peach and a way out. Neither party is fully aware of how dependent they are on the other. Yet the player can see everything from their external vantage point. For the whole game I felt like I was privy to characters who didn’t know that they were on camera (especially for Bowser). The writing plays into this dynamic by capturing some of Bowser’s more embarrassing moments.

As Bowser and the Bros. stumble around in-game, the player’s big picture view establishes frequent anticipation. The player has more context than the in-game avatars which allows them to foresee what will happen next in the minute-to-minute storytelling. And so every time the Bros. tinker with Bowser’s body or Bowser does some buffoonish stunt, you wonder what effect one party’s actions will have on the other.

The interplay between parties also provides the context for transitions in story and gameplay. There is always a reason within the fiction for what happens next.

Character Roles through Game Design

Bowser’s Inside Story reinforces the theme of the Bros. and Bowser’s relationship through the interface, input, and the DS hardware design.

Connectedness is both an idea which underpins BIS narrative and the construction of the narrative itself. Cohesion is created through the interweaving plot threads where a solution establishes the context for the next dilemma; the use of interplay as segue; and the use of interface, gameplay challenges, and input design to communicate character and interaction. Various elements support the core in a highly functional manner.