Kids are much smarter than we give them credit for. It is one of the reasons every parent considers his children to be geniuses whose brain power would blow the top of the chart of any IQ test. We judge them to be unable to draw conclusions and learn more complex ideas, and next thing you notice they are going on and on about the storyline of a movie they just saw. Still, as great as their capacity to learn might be, they - just like ever other human being who isn't an autodidact - need a helping hand when faced with a brand new concept; be it a new task at school, a new toy that works a little bit differently, or even a game that presents new kinds of challenges.
I have a six-year-old cousin who is growing into a big Nintendo fan - something for which I am willing to take half of the credit (the rest goes straight to Nintendo for producing games that are so brilliantly awesome). He owns a Wii, a 3DS and a brand new Wii U, and throughout his gaming life he has been mostly engaged by simple sidescrollers such as Kirby's Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong Country Returns and - his biggest addiction of all - New Super Mario Bros Wii; and it is easy to understand why. Games like that, after all, are simple to grasp and easy to get into. They have no focus on story, their gameplay is very natural - encompassing organic motions such as jumping and running - and they involve going from the left end of the stage to its finishing line on the right.
His tastes, though, began to change a little bit last week when he excitedly presented me with Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time, his new favorite game. Going from sidescrollers to a decently complex RPG is quite a leap, especially for a six-year-old. Partners in Time has a lot of dialogue and story development - an absolute nightmare for a kid whose native language is Portuguese, its exploration is not exactly linear, and its battles involve more evolved mechanics like menus for attack selection, not to mention the ability to avoid incoming attacks. Still, after showing me the game, he proceeded to tell me about how “the Evil Queen of Space kidnapped the princess with her army of purple mushrooms, and Mario and Luigi have to go to another dimension to save her”, and how during the battles “you need to choose the hammer to fight spiked enemies and when they attack you have to press A”.
Maybe I was also victim to the syndrome of underestimating children, but by the time he was done explaining me how the battle system worked, it hit me like a ton of bricks: Nintendo is extremely didactic in their games. The company understands that, due to the association of their name with family-friendly brands that are extremely alluring to children, their games often serve as a kind of doorway into the gaming world. Their Mario plaformers are responsible for many kids' first steps into gaming, and from there kids are tempted to explore different kinds of gameplay, which include their very accessible but still deep RPGs (Mario and Luigi, Paper Mario and Pokemon), their wacky takes on otherwise bland sports titles, and - eventually - their grand Hyrulean and Zebian adventures.
For most young children, their parents serve as the filter that will determine what they will play and what they will not. Therefore, any game that is dropped too soon by the infant will ultimately tell the parent his child either does not like or does not understand the game. To Nintendo, in one less disastrous (but still pretty bad) case, the family will migrate to their other franchises, but, in a more dramatic turn of events, a game unable to teach a child how it should be played in a decently entertaining and clear way might mean Nintendo products will be dropped altogether as the family experiments with other brands. To a kid, gaming could be seen as a series of doors locked by progressively complex puzzles that need to be, little by little, figured out. If any of those puzzles is accompanied by poorly detailed explanations, the journey might have its course finished or changed.
Nintendo, much like other companies, has been slowly advancing in their didactics as years go by. One clear parallel that displays that evolution can be drawn between the early Donkey Kong Country games and the recently released Donkey Kong Country Returns. The original trio of games does have instructions as how to perform the Kong's numerous moves, but all of them are hidden in instruction manuals, which - aside from that moment between the purchase of the game and your glorious arrival at home - is not read at all. Not only does Donkey Kong Country Returns presents in-game instructions, which will naturally be seen, they are also presented in a very didactic manner, as dialogue balloons with images of the Wiimote will pop up to tell players what buttons need to be pressed and what movements need to be performed. Very effective strategies like that can also be seen on the early stages games in the Kirby and Wario series.
RPGs like Paper Mario, and Mario and Luigi present two even tougher challenges. First of all, they have plot. A plot requires storytelling; storytelling leads to dialogue; too much dialogue bores kids who cannot read; and bored kids leave games behind. Nintendo's solution to that problem, which is undoubtedly aided by the cartoonish nature of their games, is giving birth to plots that can be told in an equally effective manner through text and image. The characters in those games are extremely expressive, making kids fully aware of the heroes' emotions, and the cutscenes feature very subtle strategies that indicate what is important. Though missing the dialogue does cause the loss of the specifics of the whole situation, the core of the plot, as proved by my cousin's little speech, is still properly transmitted.
The second challenge that games of that kind face are its battles. They are not exactly trivial, and - in the case of the Mario RPGs - they frequently require sequences of timely button presses, not to mention the pattern memorization that is demanded if enemy attacks are to be avoided. Nintendo and their partners counter this with tutorials that are activated by default, and they pair up the text, that can either be confusing or unreadable - depending on the age of the child, with visual cues that indicate what needs to be pressed and when. In the case of the recently released Dream Team, which further proves that Nintendo is constantly improving their didactics, more complex attacks even featured a demo that displayed the brothers in action before players could jump in and practice the complex attack at will.
For us, old boring grumpy gamers, those details and tweaks go completely unnoticed. When they are clear, we - and I mean to say “we” as the overall reaction of the gaming community, especially its reviewers - bash them for breaking up the pace of the game or being too invasive. However, truly, they are carefully placed handrails that guide youngsters through the early stages of this little journey of theirs. And, in the grand scheme of things, they might be a key part of what has been keeping these franchises alive for such a long time. After all, all of us have known what it was like to be young at a time when not much attention was given to gaming didactics. The titles that we left, even if temporarily, on a dusty shelf after we had struggled through them for hours to little avail are a sad testament to that.