The initial beta for Dark Souls 2 is now well underway; developer FromSoftware recently detailed the entry process for North American users, after inviting European gamers roughly a week before. This, in addition to the recent reveal of the game’s Collector’s Edition and pre-order goodies, has cemented the notion that the game is fast approaching and has reminded Souls fans that their next round of horrible, horrible dying is but a few months away. Having already covered the developmental diaries revealing which changes the game will — and, more importantly, won’t — be seeing, now seems like an excellent time to take a look at the core appeal of the Souls franchise and how striking a resemblance it bears to one of gaming’s pioneers, the original Super Mario Bros. platformers.
Heros? Dragons? I'm seeing double, here.
There are some obvious parallels, sure. For example: Sequel or not, gamers already know what to expect from Dark Souls 2, in much the same way they knew Super Mario Bros. 2 was basically going to be a new line of 2D levels to traverse. Whether or not those expectations hold up entirely remains to be seen, but we can at least find solace in knowing that we will die terribly. (To quote the succinct words of Borderlands 2’s Brick: “That may be my favorite sentence I’ve ever said.”)
There’s also the simple fact that players aren’t after innovative changes with these series. In fact, the last thing the majority of fans want their developers to do is muck with any of the core mechanics of the two. It’s fortunate, then, that FromSoftware has repeatedly professed (most recently in an interview with project director Yui Tanimura) their belief that “the core [game] lies within Dark Souls and should not change.” The same can be said for Nintendo, who clearly realized that their formula of “jump over stuff” needn’t be changed. (Though, admittedly, it’s about time they find a new horse to beat.)
Okay, so there may be a slight difference.
But these are common similarities. Now, far be it from me to equate one of the most engaging and nuanced combat systems among action-RPGs to the task of holding right and tapping jump, but I would argue that there are deeper underlining similarities between Dark Souls 2 (and subsequently, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls) and the Super Nintendo’s platforming progenitor: the introduction of and adherence to a simple but encapsulating gameplay formula. Granted, while this pattern can be applied to virtually every franchise that manages to carve its own niche, from Elder Scrolls to Call of Duty, the level of simplicity between Souls and Mario is markedly different from innovating on an established genre.
In spite of an enormous release gap, during which the games industry evolved to the point of unrecognizability when placed alongside its roots, both franchises have introduced (or reintroduced) the same thing to their respective eras: difficulty through fairness. The barebones, skill-based platforming of Super Mario is easily likened to the steep learning curve of Dark Souls which, while intensely difficult, is entirely consistent in its punishment.
But that doesn't make it any less painful.
Of course, difficulty isn’t unique to Dark Souls. From Rayman Origins and Mirror’s Edge to Resonance of Fate and Shin Megami Tensei IV, we’ve seen plenty of tough games this generation. With that said, it’s worth nothing that few — if any — games revere difficulty so highly. Dark Souls is predicated upon its ability to challenge the player; loss of acquired experience (Souls) upon death, enduring unpredictable attacks from other players (a la PvP invasions), a finely tuned and crushing medieval combat system and overwhelming bosses are the game’s selling points. You will never have your hand held, nor will the game hint at the solution. And in an age where developers often shy away from the trial-by-fire approach, no game can hold a candle to FromSoftware’s ostensibly difficult titles.
Furthermore, much like the barebones style of Super Mario Bros., Dark Souls all but obviates storytelling. This isn’t to say Dark Souls is without compelling canon and lore; it is, but those secrets and backstories — which are all obscured to the nth degree — are buried deep beneath the game’s core focus: gameplay. In this, another line between the unlikely pair can be drawn: simple stories.
It’s a safe wager to label “A princess was kidnapped by a dragon and an impromptu hero must brave perilous castles to rescue her” a generic storyline. While the underdog story of the Undead that is the foundation of Dark Souls may not reach this level of minimalism, it too makes use of plot only to give the player direction, to instruct them on how the game plays out and where they will progress to next.
In this case, the player is headed to Backstabville, Population: Just you.
While platforming your way to the next green flag of victory in Super Mario or duking it out with one of Dark Souls’ many bosses, you aren’t concerned with grand, thematic implications. More often than not, you’re far too busy dodging sticks of fire and trying to avoid a one-way trip back to the bonfire to care. And if you’re not trying to survive, it’s probably because you just died and are staring menacingly at square one.
Square one being this.
Is stark simplicity an effective tool for video games? Absolutely; just look at The Unfinished Swan, ICO or Journey in addition to Dark Souls and Super Mario. Should all games use it? No; there will always be a place for intricate, enthralling storylines in gaming like those provided by The Last of Us and Half-Life. In fact, many would argue that that side of the industry is in dire need of improvement. But this only bolsters the value of games like Dark Souls which succeed despite numerous departures from the norm. In addition, it highlights the significance of gaming’s origins and the titles that inspire modern games intertextually.
So yeah, Dark Souls is like Super Mario Bros.