Super Fighter M - A Review (2020, Mobile)
I saw a video on Twitter of what appeared to be a mobile game with Mario, Final Fantasy and Sonic characters. Clicking on Rosalina from Mario would lead to her saying "Your friend is waiting for you! In the garage." A friend suggested it was a joke dub, but a comment showed it was a real Android game! The listing doesn't say anything about Mario, nor do the store screenshots show Mario or any of the other characters. Hmm! Interesting! So, I installed it. It asked for my phone calling and file storage permissions: file storage is not that weird, but phone calls? A little odd, but what's the worst that could happen? I made an account and was told to name my character, who was Mario. I was randomly assigned the name "PaigeAbbi" and accidentally clicked "ok" before I could change it.
I played a bit and posted this thread on Twitter.
Sometimes finding the good in a game is all in looking at it through from the right angle. Super Fighter M is a pile of shit, just like every gacha game in existence: a dopamine treadmill, a sedating experience, where progress is limited by your willingness to navigate complex menus, manage ever-growing economies of resources, and resist spending money to make the numbers go up a little bit more. Why review it, then? Well...
Super Fighter M, or officially (when not released under an American shell company) - "Super 3D Mario 文明大冒险", is a 2019 Gacha Game made in China, with a large number of assets from Nintendo games like Super Mario Odyssey. According to @gottaspeedkeed (who researches these kinds of games in their spare time), it's not uncommon for games like this to show up in the Chinese mobile game market. Often times, games will be made in one engine and then reskinned with popular assets (like Mario), and then released until getting taken down. Usually the games get shut down pretty fast once localized to English, which makes me wonder - why even bother localizing them?
Well, I have no idea. For some reason, SFM *is* localized. I have no idea who actually made it. Searching on Baidu leads me to this page saying the creators are some company formed in 2019, based out of Jiangxi Province. Here's the company listing: Here.
I have no Chinese internet literacy so I can't tell if any of this stuff is real, but a company forming in 2019 lines up too neatly with the release of this game! I would assume that it's probably common to form distinct legal entities when releasing games with Nintendo assets in order to avoid certain kinds of Bad Situations. They don't call them shell companies for nothing!
WHERE IS GOD WHEN YOU NEED HIM?
That's what Evil Mario - an official Super Fighter M character - says when you click his character.
My thread on SFM has gotten a tiny bit of traction, and I've noticed a few patterns in the questions I see in my replies.
First: "Why does this exist?" One could choose to not answer this question, and the game becomes an object of mystery. But the boring, human answer is that every weird, fucked up commercial game exists because someone, somewhere, needed or wanted money, and they felt - out of all their options - making or working on this game was the best or most convenient way to reaching that goal.
Second, who made it? Obviously, humans, somewhere (in China), made Super Fighter M. Who? I don't know. Probably a bunch of people in their 20s like you or me looking to make money and make a living. Who greenlit this project? Probably a manager in his 30s or 40s trying to improve the bottom line of a game studio - maybe to prove something to higher up execs who want 'good numbers' for quarterlies.
Third: why is it so polished? This question appears because normally the western perception of China is "bootlegs, knockoffs, etc", even though they probably have the biggest mobile game market! This may be surprising, but SFM is pretty polished for a gacha game. Sure, the game sucks ass, and sure, the localization gets fucked up here and there ("Injury Value" for damage, a 75% off deal being translated to 400% off), but it's clearly a game made by professionals who know how to run a gacha game (which is - while not a creatively difficult task - is not a logistically easy task, by any means.) To understand why a game is polished, you have to view it as a money-generating machine. A business won't put money in to fuel the machine unless they expect more money to come out.
Thus, SFM is polished because the creators expected to make money on it. It costs a lot to make one of these from the ground up, probably more than would be worth stealing assets, so the creators are probably a big mobile game studio, and SFM is a legally grey game made under a shell company. Using Mario was done to take advantage of Mario's brand visibility, and cut through the competition. As mentioned above, it's likely SFM is a reskinned version of another 3D action game.
The next question is: Is this game official? Well... no. One fun conspiracy theory I have is that SFM is actually a canned, contracted project by Nintendo, which was rejected by Nintendo (after their recent corporate direction shifting away from mobile games which have been "hurting their brand"). The company making it figured they were close enough to finishing it, and released it anyways.
More likely, though, is that the assets were ripped from the corresponding games without permission.
And the last question I would see is: WHAT GAME IS THIS??? I answered that in the thread!! Why have I gotten this question 10 times...
Well, there. That should be all the mystery out of the way as to this game's existence. Nintendo sells and has appeal, and one company wanted to take advantage of that, even if it was legally grey. The average person who worked on it is probably a little older than me. Maybe they go home to a family, after a day of finely balancing the resource curves that'll force you to spend 200 stamina to reach level 30. Maybe they finished their boss's orders - to balance the pricing schemes for the premium currency packages. Maybe their spouse says, "What if Yoshi said, "Jump on my back?", and they laugh. It's the first time in a while that they've laughed, since the past few weeks have had crunch. But for a moment they feel they should be thankful. Making Super Fighter M, perhaps, wasn't what they envisioned as a young, hopeful programmer, but in this world, it is hard to complain when you have a steady flow of income without having to put your body at risk. Before they sleep, they write the idea about Yoshi down, and the next day on lunch break they mention it to a coworker, after getting a bowl of noodles at the cart right outside of work, and it's added to a spreadsheet to be sent off to some voice actors. The developer sits down at their desk, and reads through their IMs to figure out what's next on their to-do list: "Make Mario scream" Go, Cappy!" whenever using his special attack.". They sigh, gaze out the window, imagining a thousand little Marios, carrying tiny bricks, one-by-one, building a sturdy castle, only for it to be knocked down. Over and over, day after day.
SFM sucks, but so do all gacha games. Sure, there might be a cool idea or fun moment scattered here and there, but cutting a cucumber is also fun. SFM has some occasional dry humor ("No one knows who their mothers are," says a loading screen fun fact in reference to the Koopalings). Its cutscenes can be funny, featuring Mario, Sonic, Cloud, Peach, and more, in some mysterious, incoherent conflict - although arguably no more incoherent or sparse than the plot to your average Mario game - dotted with actual Mario Odyssey cutscenes, and a professional voiceover that is often not 1:1 with the captions in amusing ways ("Time Machine" is often voiced as "Washing Machine", which, for an inexplicable reason, is in fact the device you use to do gacha pulls.). Perhaps the reason Mario games rarely have voiced characters is because it would draw attention to how absurd their tropey stories tend to be.
The voiced cutscenes seem to stop about 5 worlds in, so I've lost most of my interest in the game, although I've yet to unlock a few stat-boosting subsystems. The majority of the game is running boring, Dragalia-Lost-but-worse action dungeons and grinding for resources to upgrade your characters. One day Nintendo will strike down this game, or the company will shut off the servers. The world will be no better or worse of for it, and it will be permanently forgotten to time, having made no noticeable impact on the history of games, its funds redirected to the next soulless project.
If you grew up with Nintendo in the USA (or most "Western" countries), playing this game is weird. It's your childhood characters yelling weird shit while they beat the crap out of other childhood characters. The plot vaguely mimics Super Mario Odyssey, but you're brain-blasted every 10 seconds with a popup or some sort of new item you've received. At the start of a new day, aboard the Mario Odyssey spaceship, you're pinged with like 20 different ways to acquire new resources.
The creators of this game seem to have respect for Nintendo: many of the fun facts, despite how humorously they may be worded - seem to be 'canon' or researched. There are many costumes for each character, referencing various other Mario games. I like to think the developers had fun making the game.
It's unknown how much humor was intended by the developers. It's entirely possible the weirder voiced lines were ad-libs, and whoever localized this and voiced this was fucking around for fun. China has a different relation to 'bootleg' usage of other IPs compared to the USA: for a long time it was hard to get consoles and console games, so bootlegs were more common there. What this could mean is - the usage and mashup of various video game icons might just not be as weird to the average Chinese game developer, compared to the average American game player. So was this game intended to be absurd or humorous? I don't know. Making generalizations about 'cultures' is a pretty bad slope to go down, but... based on money alone, I'd just assume that most of the humor was by accident or by some lone person who had to write all of the lines and "story", whether they be on the Chinese team side or the localization side. Everyone's human, everyone loves to amuse themselves, and game developers are no different.
Taken more abstractly, SFM offers a view into an alternate future (maybe overlapping Emilie M. Reed's Example of one). In it... Nintendo characters can frolic freely in any kind of game. I could put Mario in Anodyne 3. The empty vessel of Mario no longer solely exists in order to make money under the guise of 'spreading innovative and family-friendly gameplay!', making us pay $50 for half-assed re-releases of 3D Mario platformers with minimal options menus. Mario could tell Cloud to go fuck himself, or something. Maybe Luigi and Sonic could go on a date. Maybe AAA would have trouble existing as they can't monopolize IPs - maybe they'd have to break down into smaller studios, creating more interesting, smaller works, since anyone can use their characters. SFM probably wouldn't exist - as the 'marketing trick' of using an existing IP to break into a competitive gacha game market wouldn't carry as much weight. Maybe Mario would still be a dominating game cultural force, but at least he'd be "our" Mario.
Let's just end this by saying: SFM may steal assets, but mechanically it's no less a bootleg than many other games! How many open-world games make us open a laggy map and zoom in looking for the next quest marker?
Super Fighter M is a crappy game, part of a lineage of a the mostly-crappy gacha game genre, whose only innovation, really, is steamrolling over the entire idea of 'game design' in exchange for modular, shallow game systems (except Puzzles and Dragons I guess...) that force us to make these games a part of our daily routine (or spend money) in order to progress. A genre which has, over the 2010s, gutted out every single good aspect of JRPGs - the story, the exploration, the combat systems - in exchange for the 'menufication' of the JRPG: collect a reward, convert a resource to another, make your power number go up, repeat, all with very little relation to some underlying story or theme or world. Sure, maybe you'll get to read a tiny little story or do something fun now and then... but the way these games are designed to fit into our lives is insidious and doesn't provide us with an enriching return other than temporary ecstasy, a come-down of emptiness, and maybe a lingering anxiety. We don't even know who wrote the stories or made things half the time. Like many big games, it feels inhuman. Who are these games for, anyways?
In some ways, Super Fighter M rules. But also, fuck Super Fighter M and fuck Gacha Games. The workers behind these games could be doing so many more meaningful things, either in games or some other industry. There's no need for this shit. Escape and comfort are necessary in these times, but why does it have to come in the form of parasitic games funnelling money to god-knows-who, threatening to turn the boundless medium of videogames into a shitty singularity of daily-login-bonus? I love games, but not these ones.
Oh yeah, my game Anodyne 2 is on sale.