Friday, 21 December 2012

Supercharged and indestructible; the joy of the power up

Let me start by saying that I freakin’ love power ups. As a platform gamer at heart, the opportunity to beef up my character with a stronger attack, quicker movements, or momentary invincibility always brings a smile to my face.

Between Crash Bandicoot’s Aku Aku masks, Sonic’s invincibility boxes and Talmit’s wing-and-clone-floating-vortex-of-death combo (btw, if you’ve never played Talmit’s Adventure, I hope that last example will convince you that you should) my childhood was full of moments where I could unleash my fury on unsuspecting minions, even though most of the time I could generally make my way through the level without such upgrades.

What could be more fun than being possessed by an ancient spirit you found in a box?
And there is what I believe a power up should be; unnecessary fun. You should be perfectly capable of progressing without the use of any upgrades. Power ups should reward you for finding them by allowing you to let loose and go crazy, making the game slightly less difficult and slightly more fun.

Naturally the king of the power ups is Mario; whether it was fire flowers, capes or stars most people first encountered power ups through this series. Not to mention that if asked to name a power up from a game, most people will respond with be “super mushroom”. What was important about Mario's power ups is that they felt like an optional advantage; you can complete the sun level in Super Mario 3 on your own, but using the P-wing will always be more fun.

I'm not sure what Copernicus would think of this game, but I 'm pretty sure he'd hate this guy
Yet for a series with such strong roots in power ups, installments such as Super Mario Galaxy disappointed me. Consider the Bee costume and the Spring costume; these power ups change the mechanics of the game in order to allow you to complete the task at hand. There is nothing ‘upgradey’ about them, they are a necessary obstacle, and they introduce a new way of controlling your character in order to overcome a challenge. These are not power ups; they are cleverly disguised vehicle sections.

Super Mario Galaxy's Bee costume
Often modern power ups will take this form; more and more games use power ups as a way to integrate new game mechanics into the world they have created, and that is fine, but I do miss the fun that comes from the traditional power up. Luckily though, whenever I worry about the future of power ups I just remember the New Super Mario Bros Wii Penguin costume, because no power up will ever beat its pointlessly daft, slidey fun. Also... 3D Land's Boomerang Flowers are a just a bunch brilliance in a can. 

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