As impressive as Sony's press conference was, their E3 booth is the same as ever, which is to say that it's a black hole in which you can lose half an afternoon.
I learned this firsthand on my first foray on to the show floor. Curious to see Horizon Zero Dawn, which is my current E3 Game of the Show, I wandered over to the Sony booth and started hunting around for the media desk. That was my first mistake.
As usual, the Sony booth was an impenetrable monolith, its nooks and crannies filled by the likes of the PlayStation Vue. Walking around in it, all I could find was rows upon rows of indie games, the booth's second floor being blocked by a scowling security man. Eventually I was finally able to find the media check-in, which was situated at the very back of the booth.
"Excuse me, is Horizon playable on the show floor?" I asked the lady behind the desk.
"Is what playable?" She asked blankly.
"Horizon Zero Dawn. Do you have it?" I replied.
"I don't know. This is just the check-in for the meeting rooms. You'll have to ask someone else."
I ended up asking three more Sony booth employees about Horizon, all of whom looked like they had never played a video game in their lives. Finally, I found the line for Horizon (and Last Guardian), but I had to leave because I didn't have time to wait for the demo. It was just as well; apparently there wasn't much more to see than the E3 demo, the only "playable" element being the ability to pan the camera around the field. I'm glad I didn't wait.
My sojourn through the Sony booth did pay some dividends, though. Along the way I happened to bump into Robert Boyd, who is currently in the midst of working on Cosmic Star Heroine, a retro-style 16-bit RPG that riffs heavily on Chrono Trigger and Sega CD RPGs like Lunar. I hadn't had the opportunity to play Cosmic Star Heroine at that point, so I decided to stop by and try it out, and I'm glad I did.
Playing it there on the show floor, all the complex systems that Boyd's described on Axe of the Blood God started to click. Basically, it's a combo system in which moves have to be planned several turns in advance. You can use a powerful attack right away, but then it's unavailable until you rest. It's much better to time things so that you buff a character right when their power meter is full and they can attack every enemy at once.
I have great respect for Zeboyd Games' understanding of JRPG battle systems. Their approach to Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Doom was a near flawless melding of Grandia and Final Fantasy XIII that featured a huge number of meticulously crafted encounters. Cosmic Star Heroine is superficially similar to Chrono Trigger, but is otherwise totally different, bringing its own unique ideas to the table. I was impressed with how well-paced it all felt, and I can't wait to play more.
Zeboyd Games has quietly been one of the best indie RPG developers for a while now, Cthulhu Saves the World in particular standing out for its outstanding soundtrack, strong battle system, and hilarious script (as I told Robert, I got into Cthulhu Saves the World because it made me laugh within the first five minutes of booting it up). Cosmic Star Heroine is their magnum opus, though. It is miles beyond anything they've done before, with lovingly crafted cutscenes and an atmospheric soundtrack; and in terms of presentation, it stands with anything I've seen on the SNES. It makes me glad that I got lost in the Sony booth.
Not far from the Sony booth is the Nintendo booth, which is dominated by Star Fox, Super Mario Maker, and The Legend of Zelda: Triforce Heroes. My tour with Nintendo isn't until this afternoon, but I'd like to take the time to clarify my position on Super Mario Maker, which I finally played for the first time a few weeks ago.
I don't think I need to tell you that Jeremy is excited about Mario Maker. His preview from last year was actually titled, "I'm Unreasonably Excited About Mario Maker," and he's not alone either. Lots of people are looking forward to Super Mario Maker. I'm not really one of them, but not for the reasons you might think.
So before you kick down my door, I just want to clarify that I think Super Mario Maker looks swell. It looks great, it makes it easy to edit levels, and its level sharing and discoverability is really strong. When you're finished playing through a stage, the game will make a handful of new suggestions, and you continue right on. It's very well-designed, and for Mario fans, I can see it lasting for an extremely long time, if not forever. I'm not sure it's for me, though.
So here's what's bugging me about Mario Maker, and you can tell me whether I'm crazy or not in the comments. One of the things I love about Super Mario Bros. is how meticulously crafted it is. Every level is a work of art, having been balanced to the point that it feels just right. The original Super Mario Bros. is considered one of the best games ever made in part because it's a master class in level design. The same can be said for Super Mario Bros. 3.
Super Mario Maker, however, is totally different. Its levels are designed with the intention of being totally bonkers, which can be a fun novelty, but is not a particularly worthy end in itself. Nintendo Super Mario Maker shoot 'em up level, which is an admittedly fantastic piece of design that uses Bowser's Clown Car in a very unique way, is tailor-made for viral videos, but it's ultimately a one-off. It's not part of anything greater. And what's more, there will be a lot of levels that will be hard for the sake of being hard, with tons of cheap traps and "gotcha moments" that reduce Super Mario Bros. to the level of cheap mod fodder.
I'm guessing that I'm totally missing the point with this. I'll admit, the Nintendo World Championships finale was a hell of a lot of fun. And when Super Mario Maker is finally released next year, I imagine it will be an instant hit with Mario lovers who want to sit around and tinker with the game they love.
I'll say that it's a novel tribute to the best platformers ever made, seamlessly melding 30 years or more of Super Mario Bros. into one unique game, and it's a logical successor to Mario Paint. Creative level designers will have a field day with it. But there's a part of me that is still crying out for another really well-designed Mario game. Super Mario Maker will have the novelty and the wackiness, but in the end, I'm not sure the novelty will last as long as people think.
After the glory that was the Nintendo World Championships, though, something tells me I'm going to end up eating my words.