Donkey Kong, one of Nintendo’s prized characters, did not have the fantastic transition to 3D that most of his close peers did. Donkey Kong 64 may hold a special place in the hearts of those who played it growing up, but today the title is often scrutinized with negative intent. However, among all of the issues that Donkey Kong 64 has (and there are many), its identity as a “collectathon” is the most lamented. Essentially, Donkey Kong 64‘s gameplay is strung together by an idea no deeper than “collect everything,” and while permissible to some, many consider the over-reliance on such a shallow element damaging to the game’s overall quality.
While everyone plays games for different reasons, reward is typically a huge factor. Each video game handles reward differently. The variety of options available to today’s gamers only expand the breadth of ways that games seek to reward players for their hard work. Destiny II offers dedicated players enhanced loot that continually makes challenges easier, Overwatch quantifies skill through a carefully measured ranking system, and single player epics, like the Souls series, provide gear that makes players steadily feel more able to handle the harsh realities of the world that surrounds them. In each case, these massively popular titles offer rewards that quantify players and, in theory, make their continued playing experience a more positive one.
But in 2017, Nintendo went against this grain with the releases of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. In both cases, they stray away from the extrinsic motivation that recent games have relied on, and instead promote gameplay that, on its surface, is just as “rote” as the collection featured heavily throughout Donkey Kong 64. But what gives these games a pass? A majority of the time spent in Breath of the Wild is spent hunting korok seeds and completing shrines, and an even greater majority of Odyssey‘s time is spent in pursuit of moons. In Breath of the Wild‘s case, the seeds and shrines contribute to the player’s “strength within the world,” although loosely. Despite the game’s starting difficulty, cooking and increased weapon durability make it no harder than past Zelda games by the time credits roll. After this point, these seeds and shrines become mechanically optional – simple marks on a checklist for the player to cross off. However, throughout my entire time with Breath of the Wild, my engagement was firm.
Super Mario Odyssey is an even more curious case. The game’s primary objective, collecting moons, is extremely limited in its purpose. Other than the small amount of moons required to make it past each level, the cosmic collectible does nothing besides slow progress at the end of the game, when a larger amount is suddenly required to reach post-game worlds. But, perhaps the strangest part is how almost every task Mario completes throughout the world is rewarded in the same exact way – a single moon. Some moons are laying out in the open, others are given when a sparkly spot is ground pounded, and many are given after tormenting, jump-rope-related challenges that danger your sanity. There is no “progressive reward” given in the way that has quickly become traditional, and collecting moons is utterly devoid of purpose beyond adding another number to an ultimately meaningless list. Like Breath of the Wild, my addiction was powerful in Odyssey, and I had a great time collecting the moons (roughly 600, if I remember correctly).
Yet, the mechanics that define these games are not only tolerated, but also adored. Through critical acclaim and fan reception, these two titles are undeniably successful and are the two heavy lifters of Nintendo’s sudden resurgence into video game relevance. How have they succeeded to such a strong degree despite not conforming to recent game aspects of reward? They aren’t entirely isolated in the way they present objectives and goals, but when it comes to triple A titles, they certainly stray from the trend in this regard more than anything else. In fact, Breath of the Wild and Odyssey‘s shift away from calculated, quantifiable enhancements and lottery-based prizes may be the very reason they succeed. Even beyond these two games in particular, Nintendo has bucked many of the trends of calculating success in gaming, including their continued decision to keep an “achievement system” off of their newest platform. But their passion for creating a pure “gaming experience” manifests most strongly in these recent two titles.
So much of the praise for these two titles strikes similar chords. The “joy of exploring” Breath of the Wild’s world is cited just as often as the “smile-per-minute” ratio of Odyssey, and both are relentlessly touted as a return to the purely “fun” nature of the games “we played as kids.” In fact, the remarkable success of both is a shining testament to the idea that truly great games don’t require an overabundance of shiny, extrinsic rewards, and that a world that’s fun to explore or navigate is more than enough to magnetize players in.
Perhaps the way Breath of the Wild and Odyssey were lauded and adored is a subconscious, collective rebellion towards the reward systems featured in most other games. Perhaps even those who genuinely love RNG-based loot have a deep-seated hatred of the lottery-based system that enslaves them, and those who love having their skill displayed by a virtual medallion have a suppressed frustration towards the stress it causes. In many ways, these two Nintendo titles offer a path of escape from some of the modern cruelties of today’s gaming. Donkey Kong 64 wasn’t missing tangible rewards; it was missing fun gameplay. The quality and nature of a reward is inconsequential if the path to get there is engaging and well-made, and my hope is that Nintendo continues to craft masterpieces reflecting this philosophy. After playing so many games in my life, only the ones made in this vein still manage to give me the pressured nag to play more. I don’t think I’m alone.