What was your first Nintendo experience? Mine was playing the original Super Mario Bros. on 2-player with my uncle in my grandparents’ basement back when I was three or four years old. I don’t remember very much from back then, aside from the first time I got to World 5 or the moment when I discovered the Warp Zone. What drew me in was not the level design, the difficulty, or the graphics (I was three years old and the NES graphics weren’t exactly pretty), but instead the experience of togetherness that came with playing.

My first home console was a Nintendo 64. Can you guess what my favorite feature was? (I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t the 3D graphics, the analog stick, camera control, or the Rumble Pak.) While the single-player outings like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Banjo-Kazooie earned their way among my favorite games ever, in retrospect I probably spent more time with the 4-player games such as Mario Party, Super Smash Bros., Pokémon Stadium, Perfect Dark, Diddy Kong Racing, and Mario Tennis. The same goes for the GameCube, on which I logged personal records for total hours played with Super Smash Bros. Melee, Mario Kart: Double Dash, and Phantasy Star Online. I’m starting to notice a trend, aren’t you?

Wii hasn’t been without its share of multi-player experiences. Heck, its kingpin title, Wii Sports, has become the best-selling video game of all time, and other Wii titles like Wii Sports Resort, Wii Fit, and Wii Play have followed in its footsteps. We’ve also seen the return of classic franchises such as Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., and Super Mario Bros. with great success, and more recently Wii Party, GoldenEye, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and Donkey Kong Country Returns. 2011 doesn’t look to be left out of the picture either, with Mario Sports Mix just around the corner.

And yet…by and large, I’m not as satisfied with this software generation in terms of multi-player experience. Where once the multi-player games dominated, now they’ve faded into the background. At least for me. Why is this? I have a few hunches.

wii_multi_games_img_1.pngThe original Super Mario Bros. games were surprisingly fun to play with others, even though they weren’t really built with a strong multi-player component in mind. The first game in particular, even though adding another player had essentially no impact on how things progressed, somehow managed to worm its way into the collective memory due to its competitive nature.

Cooperative multi-player took off with the later installments, namely Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, and even as they were still quite a ways from the simultaneous multiplayer experience eventually delivered by New Super Mario Bros. Wii, my wife and I still find ourselves playing the classic Mario games together more frequently than the recent ones.

Why is this, I wonder? It doesn’t make much sense for the “take turns” style employed by the primitive Mario games to be somehow more engrossing than the hectic heyday that is New Super Mario Bros. Wii‘s cooperative multi-play. What could possibly be more fun about playing through half of the levels while deferring the other ones to a friend?

The answer, I think, is this: the earlier Mario games didn’t try too hard to modify the game to put in multi-player. There wasn’t a wacky everybody-at-once option. None of the level design features felt any different based on how many people were playing – how could they? There was only one person playing at once! Compare this to New Super Mario Bros., where while the game plays beautifully in single-player mode, but several features – the “player-sensitive” motion-controlled setpieces, the chaos that ensued from having four players on one crowded screen – didn’t necessarily feel like they belonged in a Mario game. That’s not to say the game’s not fun with more people – it certainly is – but at the same time adding more players shouldn’t interfere with the core experience.

Other Mario games didn’t have this problem. You worked together to complete the worlds, but you played separately. Back then, watching your partner play was just as much a part of the fun gaming experience as simultaneous play is today. Sure, if there was drastic unbalance between players sometimes it seemed as though one person dominated, but the same is true – and even more apparent – in modern co-op play, where if you lag behind too long the player in front can force you to an unwelcome death if you’re not careful.

For other multi-player games, I feel as though some of my favorite fun-frenzy-with-friends features have taken odd hits in their latest iterations. The best example of this is Mario Kart Wii‘s Battle Mode, which featured… team-only play? Victory by point score versus survival? Even with the comeback of many classic stages from Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64, I felt somehow cheated and left behind by the change. Couldn’t this massive team-thing have been an option for Battle Mode instead of the norm? I mean, the racing portion of the game is near-perfect now that they’ve effectively eliminated snaking, but now it seems like my fond memories of Battle Mode have been condemned, forced to remain in the past. I’d like my childhood back, please…

wii_multi_games_img_2.jpgThere are quite a few similar culprits. In Super Smash Bros. Brawl several characters received unpopular changes from Melee, such as Mario’s F.L.U.D.D. attack, Link’s Gale Boomerang, and Samus’s weightiness in comparison to her previous appearances. The overall slower physics also didn’t go over too well with many who really enjoyed Melee‘s fast-paced battles. While this doesn’t do much to affect single-play, the broader metagame definitely seems to have taken a big hit.

The recent console Pokémon games – you know, the ones that don’t have Stadium in the title – while great if you want to have battles with your hard-built team on a bigger screen with flashier graphics, seem to be missing some of the features that made them more accessible on a casual level. I’m talking things like available rentals for the full cast of monsters, minigames (surprisingly one of my favorite features in the N64 games), and my personal favorite: Gym Leader Castle. For the hardcore player, there were the several levels of difficulty as well as an entire redux version of the game in Round 2. By comparison, Battle Revolution looks like some kind of bad joke. Sure, the cast of creatures and attacks is far greater, but do you know how far disc space has come since then? Let’s see more of the fun stuff that made us buy Stadium in the first place.

The tradeoff? Piss-poor online play, although that might be a little unfair to some of the better structured online games like Mario Kart or Goldeneye. But for someone like me who’s living at my college campus and therefore has no way to connect my Wii to the Internet? I can’t say the prospect of playing online especially excites me.

Don’t get me wrong – Wii’s still oodles fun to play with friends. But with all the changes to the multi-player experience I’m beginning to worry that I’ll never find another game to play for hours upon hours with loved ones. They’ll just see short bursts of play at a party or something, then go right back on the shelf to collect dust until the next get-together.

I always promise myself I won’t get nostalgic, but when the experience of gaming together was such an important part of my life, I just can’t help myself.

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