In the past few months, I’ve been slowly shedding the heavy, cruel yoke of World of Warcraft, and so I’ve had spare time to spare. Back on the consoles, and, especially over the holidays, back on the DS. Playing newly released games and older ones that have escaped my attention until now has crystallized some thoughts on the difficulty level of gaming.

The thick, corrupt roots of gaming which trail from arcades are foul things – glistening with corruption and pulsating softly. I feel as though I’m stealing this metaphor, but I cannot remember where from; arcade machines were, to no small extent, electronic muggers, shaking children down for their precious quarters. Games were often designed to be punitively difficult as more deaths meant more continues meant more money. Of course, overcoming these challenges, honing one’s Donkey Kong skills to an ape-killing edge is a rewarding experience. Setting record high scores is all well and satisfying, but leaving the arcade with a record amount of change still weighing heavy in your pocket is all the better. So after you’ve dropped a small fortune in change, or, god forbid, tokens, and mastered a game, you can rest easy on your laurels, engrave your three initials where nobody can supplant them, and wow your friends.

For better or worse, gaming has moved out of the arcade and into the living room (or the bedroom, or the passenger plane/train/bus, or anywhere else) and the transition has been understandably rocky, and made all the rockier by the medium’s growing and diversifying audience. Different audiences want difference experiences, and I suppose that’s up to the developers to research and provide. But now, in a truly subtle manner, let’s forget the big picture and focus on me.

I’ve been playing video games since the days of my Commodore 64, but the hobby began in earnest shortly after I moved to the city and my mom, in what was perhaps a miscalculated move to ease my transition here, or perhaps just a unnecessary but very effective method of currying my favour, bought me a Super Nintendo. I’ll speed up the trip down memory lane: I’ve played platformers, RPGs, strategy and fighting games, both at home and at arcades, as a pretty serious hobby since then, so, having been building my core gaming skills for nigh-on twenty years, I’ve come to count a good stiff challenge among a game’s cardinal virtues.

All that said, I was amazed at how well Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story held my attention. By all accounts, this game was dead easy. The game showers the player in money and healing items, the enemies are not particularly deadly, nor are the puzzles particularly puzzling. I think the hook, the catch, the little bit of heroin at the end of the cigarette, is the game’s brilliantly designed combat system. On the surface, it appears to be a standard turn-based RPG affair – choose Attack, Magic, Item, Flee, as appropriate and take turns with your computer-controlled opponents punching each other in the face. The one with the tougher face wins. In this case there is, of course, a twist. It’s a simple rhythm microgame, played with every attack, with every defense. Just hit the appropriate button right as your attack lands and do more damage, and have your performance instantly judged as Okay, Good, Excellent!. Similarly, learn your enemies’ attacks, like a poker player slowly teasing out their opponents’ tells, and dodge/parry/riposte your way to victory.

The game has eschewed the old-fashioned big investment/big payoff system of reward with a slow, steady drip of tiny successes. Fail to make an attack land? Don’t worry, you can try again in five seconds. Botch your defense and get smacked for a ton of damage? Nom a tasty mushroom (Mario Bros., remember?)  and try again. No more having to finagle an allowance advance from your parents, you’ll be Excellent! soon enough.

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