After selling almost 200 million games over more than two decades and generating untold billions of US dollars in revenue for Nintendo of Japan, Mario is back with two new games. Super Mario Galaxy, released this month for Nintendo's Wii console, is the first major new Mario game in five years. Also, Mario shares top billing with his longtime rival Sonic the Hedgehog in a separate new game, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games.
Mario has always starred in games for everyone. So to test whether it could still appeal to an overeducated, media-saturated audience, I assembled a panel of non-gaming yuppies in their 30s at my house last weekend, put the Wii controls in their hands and sat back to check the reaction.
Judging by the hours of giggles, chortles and guffaws, Mario still has the goods and that incessant tug to play just five more minutes.
The reaction in my living room and elsewhere around the world indicates that Super Mario Galaxy is more than a worthy successor to the franchise's considerable legacy of smiles. It is being widely hailed as the best game yet for the Wii and is drawing plaudits from gamers and magazines alike.
Super Mario is generally a single-player game, but in a nice innovation, a second player can jump in and use a Wii remote to control a separate cursor on the screen that can stun enemies, pick up treasure and otherwise assist the main user controlling Mario. The game's whole feel is so finely tuned, so infectiously enjoyable, that it's understandable why Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario's creator, has been one of the most famous game designers in the world for decades.
My panel of non-experts had a lot of fun with the game's Olympic "events" (up to four can play at one time), especially the trampoline, but that game still is not receiving the praise being lavished on Super Mario Galaxy.
Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa is another new game in an old series. How does it stack up?
The thing to understand is that playing a "massively multiplayer" online game, or MMO, is a commitment of money and time. MMO players routinely spend hundreds or even thousands of hours on their favorite games over many years. All of that time is an investment in building up the powers and abilities of one's virtual identity, not to mention the fun of adventuring with friends. For all that, players generally spend around US$15 a month.
Tabula Rasa is certainly a lot of fun, and it looks great. In an online gaming market deluged with dragons and elves, its fast-paced science-fiction combat is a refreshing change of pace. There are aliens descending all over the place and firefights stretching over gorgeously rendered landscapes.
Graphically, the game seems to take a page from Starship Troopers, with its bright colors and varied foes.
The big question is whether the game has enough depth to keep players coming back for months or years without devolving into a mindless repetition of "see alien, shoot gun, repeat."
Garriott and the rest of his team at NCsoft have been candid in saying that they are trying to appeal mostly to a broad base of casual gamers rather than to the smaller cadre of hard-core players who might spend 30 hours a week or more on a game.
More than four years after its debut, Eve Online is only now hitting its stride as one of the most interesting games in the world.