Piggybacks, Yoshis and good co-op game design

By Neil Merrett

Yoshi’s Crafted World, released on Nintendo Switch in 2019, developed by Good-Feel

The addition of cooperative multiplayer to the classic Super Mario Bros series should have been an unambiguously good thing for gamers raised on the famous plumber’s traditionally solo gaming adventures.

However, the reality of bringing up to four players together on a single screen is not without challenges. Compromise and communication are often needed in order to succeed as a group or rather fail as a chaotic gaggle of so-called friends.

If these player’s can’t find a way to work together they might find they’re less of a team and more of a timebomb. 

With the introduction of a piggy back mechanic in 2019’s Yoshi’s Crafted World – Nintendo appears to have found one elegant solution to overcoming more challenging and precision-based platforming when playing in unison.

The parable of cooperation

In the sub-genre of religious parables told to children during school assemblies – one of the more interesting is surely the concept of heaven and hell as identical buffets, whereby a rich selection of dishes are just out of arm’s reach at the centre of a gigantic table.  

Every ‘guest’ in these scenarios is given a single half of a chopstick. In the hellscape, this is used to greedily try to grasp anything on the table, presumably smashing and mulching the cuisine into barely edible scraps of a once decent meal. 

By comparison, in the heaven scenario, each diner collaborates with their neighbour to share their chopsticks and spend eternity in a hearty and fulfilling buffet – because that is just the sort of people that they are.

The premise of the parable obviously runs on a few suppositions and logical flaws, but poetically, it works as a metaphor about the value of collective thinking and actions as a species.

It also somewhat comes to mind when trying to coherently bring together friends and loves ones to play through any number of the multiplayer Super Mario Bros or Super Mario World games launched over the last decade or so. 

2009’s New Super Mario Bros Wii took the bold step of allowing four players to simultaneously go through the game together. It was a radical move at the time for a series of games that had thrived as a single player experience.

In theory, players could assume the roles of Mario, Luigi and two colour-swapped Toads and collaborate to leap and blast their way through a classic 2D Mario game.

To say the game is cooperative however is to vastly simplify the experience of four players having to share a screen together.

Just as it’s possible to use your fellow players as emergency platforms to leap off to reach seemingly unscalable heights, or take turns to jump on and pummel a boss, you can also doom them by accidentally hurling them to their death or standing as a literal roadblock to their progress as precious seconds tick away.

Without some form of coordination, players, friends and loved ones can be more of a hindrance than a help to a Mario player with a clear, single minded idea of how to play.

As often tends to happen when expanding human participation in an activity, multiplayer can be a chaotic affair that adds unsurmountable challenges to some traditional levels. 

Take for example a classic Mario challenge of having to take precise leaps over lava that functions as certain death for the player upon contact.

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Life in a bubble

Two or more players having to share small platform together without getting in the way or actively driving each other off a ledge can take a level of precision bordering on the mathematical.

Even in this earliest multiplayer outing, developers understood how certain sections seemed to punish most group players. 

They therefore invented the option of putting a player inside a bubble so they could temporarily tap out of the game and follow the remaining players progress without being harmed or interacting with the game world.

The bubble could be triggered either by losing a life while other players were in the game, or if the player wants to opt out of a certain area.

However, the game is over should all players become trapped in bubbles and there is no one to literally pop them back into the level.

It can also somewhat undermine the team aspect of the game, when having to rely on a single player to carry the others through.

At significant parts of the game, it can begin to feel that the screen is literally not big enough and accommodating for more than one or two players.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my Yoshi

Although 2019s’ Mario universe spin-off Yoshi’s Crafted world is designed for a maximum of two players – it does make some interesting concessions to more collaborative play.

In keeping with the game’s more gentle, yarn-based aesthetic where the player can assume the role of various coloured felt dinosaurs, two players under pressure can opt to give a piggyback to their partner.

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

While they can leap off the other player at any point, the mechanic elegantly lets one player take responsibility for moving and jumping through particularly challenging sections. Meanwhile, the individual on top is charged with aiming their egg shots to bring downs enemies or unlock secrets and passages hidden in each level.

Its an arguably child-like solution to balancing how to ensure multiple players can more effectively navigate a world often built around the idea of a single player in charge.

It’s also a mature design decision that makes the title one of the more satisfying and accessible Mario games to play through.

Like two players working simpatico, the introduction of piggybacking is more than the sum of Yoshi’s Crafted World’s many charming parts.

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