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Flameseeker Chronicles: Why I love Guild Wars 2's Super Adventure Box

Anatoli Ingram

Back in April, ArenaNet played what was arguably the greatest MMO-related April Fool's Day prank of all time when it released level designer and jumping puzzle maestro Josh Foreman's labor of love, Super Adventure Box, in Guild Wars 2. I was but a wee Massively commenter then, and I recall that my comment on the news post about that particular revelation was something to the effect of "I'm not leaving this place until they kick me out. See you all next month!" I remember this because I was only half joking, and I really did spend most of April inside Moto's palace of 8-bit wonders.

I love Super Adventure Box. I don't just love it because it's retro or because I get the references or because my first foray into it left me laughing fit to kill (OK, maybe the last one). I love it because, entirely independent of GW2, it's a game I can spend a whole month playing and not get tired of it. Jump with me past the cut, and I'll tell you why.

Everything I need to know about life I learned from video games

There's something weird that happens when I've been playing a game with well-crafted 8- or 16-bit graphics for a while: I start to forget that it looks dated. I'm not sure if it's my imagination filling in the blanks or what, but I distinctly remember being impressed with the graphics of Final Fantasy VI after spending hours playing it. Super Adventure Box has similar visual appeal for me, even though I know intellectually that it only looks like it's under those graphical restraints and that the design team probably has the full power of the GW2 engine at their artistic disposal.

Visuals aside, I don't have the same nostalgic connection to the old games SAB takes inspiration from that a lot of other kids of the '80s and '90s probably do. At the ripe old age of 30, I'm certainly in the right bracket for it, but luxuries like a gaming console were out of the question when I was growing up. Until I was old enough to support my own gaming hobby, my sole exposure to classic platforming games and RPGs came through visiting a childhood friend who owned every Nintendo game console as soon as they were released. At the time, I never really tried to play them myself; I was content to curl up on the couch under a blanket for hours, watching in fascination as she catapulted Mario all over the screen. It looked like magic to me -- magic I thought I wouldn't be able to do.

Of course, I eventually found out that I could, and here I am.

This isn't to say that I'm particularly good at platformers or SAB itself. In fact, I kind of suck at SAB. The only thing I have going for me is sheer bullheaded tenacity. The same thing that allows me to enjoy leveling gathering professions in Final Fantasy XIV and completing ridiculous reputation grinds in World of Warcraft and the original Guild Wars lets me also enjoy beating my head against a series of jumps that I'm absolutely horrible at for hours on end. Practice and muscle memory eventually prevail over my lack of awesome reflexes, and I flail my way to success.

I think that's a large part of why it entertains me so much. There's a distinct feeling of improvement as I go along, and the a-ha! moment when something clicks is addictive. Once I've completed one challenge, it's hard not to go on and do just one more section, and then another, and then another. It took me hours to figure out the mushroom bouncing in Zone 3 of World 1 so that I could reliably complete the achievement to find every bauble, but when I did I finally felt like I had beaten the zone. And once I've done something that was difficult for me, it's fun to go back and do it again and again until it becomes easy.

If it weren't for SAB, I'd be way worse at open world jumping puzzles than I am. Stuff that seemed intimidating prior to spending hours in the box is no big deal now, so if Moto's goal was "edutainment," he's definitely hit on something. It makes me a little sad that some of the mechanics found in SAB probably wouldn't be viable in the open world, not only because of camera collision issues and environment design but because keeping SAB's relative difficulty locked away in the box appears to be the only thing keeping people from being too upset about it.

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World 2: The worldening

When World 2 was released, it was immediately less popular than World 1. It was easy to see why, even though I personally enjoyed it. Many of the mechanics are trickier and require more trial and error to figure out. It was hard to disagree with some of the complaints; a guildmate of mine who eats platformers for breakfast and has completed every jumping puzzle in GW2 said that playing through World 2 wasn't fun for her at all. She had no problem with the mechanics themselves, but since SAB is an MMO environment masquerading as a platformer and doesn't allow for pixel-perfect precision on jumps, some of the new areas were more frustrating than intended. It's very easy for your character to appear as though he's standing within the boundaries of a rock, only to be flung into the rapids -- or to stand in the rapids and apparently be counted as within the bounds of a rock. It's no fun to feel like you've been screwed over by bugs or glitchy objects or camera collision instead of your own mistakes, especially when the World 2 zones take quite a bit longer to get through than World 1 and therefore make it less easy to switch off the proverbial console and cool down before trying again. In that sense, the nerfs were warranted.

On the other hand, there was a fair bit of grumbling directed at World 2's general difficulty increase, which is a little worrisome. One forum poster complained that GW2 had been fun when it was "nice and casual" but that challenges like Liadri from Queen's Gauntlet and SAB's World 2 and Tribulation Mode were turning him away. This sort of attitude has already spilled into discussion of the upcoming Tequatl revamp, a common argument being that challenging content doesn't belong in the open world because people will abandon anything that doesn't give easy, quickly repeatable rewards. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about that, and the reaction to SAB World 2 hasn't been reassuring. There's a considerable, vocal portion of the GW2 community that might be politely termed "risk averse," who respond to challenging content -- or requests for more of it -- with muttering about supposed elitism and anti-accessibility.

There are few things that could possibly be more accessible than Super Adventure Box, which can be walked into solo at any time and is entirely self-contained, complete with its own currency, weapons, and skills. A giant dragon in the open world that anyone can run up to and hit is slightly less accessible, but only because it's in a mid-level zone and spawns on a timer. There are players who are disabled in ways that might prevent them from participating fully, but many of the complaints about challenging content focus on the idea that sheer difficulty is an unreasonable barrier to entry, when it's the one thing that's under the control of most players. The lure of challenging content is getting good enough to beat it, not in being good enough to waltz in and immediately come out smelling like a rose. But if MMO stories are increasingly about how the awesome player character defeats all comers effortlessly, MMO content seems as though it's increasingly expected to maintain that illusion.

Call me old-fashioned, but I love that Super Adventure Box maintains the mechanical feeling of a classic RPG, and in its intentionally simplistic, goofy way, it also maintains the narrative of one. You're handed a stupid stick and told to get your butt out there and save the princess, and the game doesn't waste time patting you on the head for being the designated main character. It's crazy that I feel more like a hero on a journey when I'm making my way through the silly, octopus-studded, ninja-filled Pain Cliffs than when I'm doing GW2's personal story, but there it is. The opening tutorial fights of GW2 were meant to invoke big, important, visually impressive raid bosses, but they can be defeated within a minute or two by setting your character to auto-attack or even standing aside and letting the NPCs kill it. Most of the story missions following it aren't much harder. I hesitate to bust out the highly subjective "immersion-breaking" buzz phrase to describe how I feel when the story calls me a big hero for doing something that was designed to ensure success and took little to no effort whatsoever on my part, but I'm not kidding when I say that I'm almost more emotionally invested in the quest to save Princess Miya from Lord Vanquish than I was in the fight to kill Zhaitan. A large part of that is the struggle actually meaning something to the player -- me -- who is really bad at fighting assassins in the Pain Cliffs and needs to become considerably better at it to continue the story.

I'm grateful to Josh Foreman and the rest of the SAB team for creating a piece of content that I enjoy running over and over and over, simply for the pure joy of playing in it. The rewards are nice -- I love my Engineer's new pistol -- but they mostly appeal to me because they're visual reminders of something I have a lot of affection for.

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A reader asked me last week how I felt about the infinite continue coin, which is a gem store item that grants infinite lives inside Super Adventure Box. In the interest of full disclosure, I have one sitting in my inventory, although I'm swimming in a cat's age of regular continue coins and haven't felt the need to use it yet. I didn't think too much about it until I saw people speculating that World 2 difficulty and Tribulation Mode had been added to sell infinite coins. I think Foreman's answer to that speaks for itself.

As far as the idea of it being pay-to-win, I don't think it fits the bill at all. Farming coins is very easy and not even all that time-consuming. I know people who have gotten through Tribulation Mode without the infinite coin, and while I think I'm probably going to be glad I bought it when I finally give that a serious try, I don't see it as being much different than owning a home copy of an arcade game. I haven't been prompted to INSERT COIN after screwing up a song three times in a row since our local mall got rid of the Dance Dance Revolution cabinet sometime around 2008.

Next week: Tequatl and the ever-changing farming culture! In the meantime, how are your endeavors progressing? Did you make it through World 2? Have you dipped your toes in Tribulation Mode, or are you plugging away at Ascended weapons? Discuss at your leisure in the comments, and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

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