Something I’ve found myself interested in recently (recently meaning “since I started writing this article”) is the variety of ways one can approach difficulty in games. For one, there’s the many ways difficulty can manifest in a game. Even in a single video game, the multitude of ways you’re expected to interact with the world around you translate into a multitude of difficulties a developer can modify at any given time (EG Silent Hill scaling combat and puzzle difficulties separately). However, what’s captured my interest more is the variety of purposes difficulty can serve players. Even something specific like masocore games demonstrates that variety.
Hell, there may be no better place to see that variety in action than masocore games. To be certain, many of these games employ difficulty either as a novelty or as a form of posturing, but those aren’t the only things difficulty can achieve in these games. Looking at the situation from a purely mechanical perspective, there’s the delicate dance of a bullet hell shooter; the foreboding sense of fear something like Mamono Hunter Yohko invokes; and the sheer drudgery of loitering around Shin Megami Tensei If’s World of Sloth (not to mention what every other World in that game does).
And then there’s Mr. Gimmick. One of the earlier (but not the earliest) examples of a masocore game, this late NES game shares a very direct lineage with I Wanna Be The Guy. They’re both highly subversive games that share a lot of motifs (the exact action required from you, the secret items hidden away in esoteric locations), but that subversion manifests in very different ways for each game. Where I Wanna Be The Guy mocks you for thinking you can perform even the most basic action without punishment, Mr. Gimmick encourages you into a creative and playful mindset. Where the former confines you to a strict set of playstyles, the latter opens your mind to a multitude of such styles you may not have considered before. One of these games is restricting; the other is liberating.
Like many masocore games, a large part of what makes Mr. Gimmick feel so liberating lies in the contrast between expectation and reality. The very first expectations you’re likely to have regarding the game are purely aesthetic, IE Mr. Gimmick as the cute and cuddly platformer. This an image that the game is all too happy to reinforce. The soft, low-tempo music the game opens to puts you in a mellow mood, and the narrative premise would feel right at home in something like Little Nemo: a little girl gets captured into a fantasy world, and it’s up to one of her toys to brave this new world and rescue her.
At first glance, it would appear the game wants nothing more than typical subversion: project the image of a non-threatening experience and then violate it with one that punishes the player for taking even the most basic of actions. Playing the game a little further only seems to confirm this. When the levels aren’t delighting themselves with whatever new torture they’ve thought to put you through, they’re expressing irreverence by referencing moments from other games, stripping them of whatever gravity they originally had, and replacing it with an anticlimactic sense of absurdity.
Yet this is all surface analysis. The sort of contrasts that actually make Mr. Gimmick so distinctive rely on a deeper understanding of how platformers work. As a whole, platformers tend to be very deterministic. They may not be the most rigidly designed kinds of games out there (many RPGs, for example, boil down to a long series of math equations), but not a lot of platformers give you the room to challenge the rules you’re expected to play by. And why should they? Half the appeal of these games is your ability to navigate whatever challenges the game sees fit to throw your way. Therefore, it’s often in the game’s best interest to spell those rules out as clearly as possible and make they’re enforced as consistently as they can be. Returning to Mr. Gimmick, first impressions would lead you to believe the game is going to be this kind of platformer, too. The titular hero can only jump so far; his attack has a very predictable bounce to it; enemies behave in equally predictable ways; and the first level heavily echoes Super Mario Bros. in its insistence on this strict ruleset.
The moment you discover you can jump on your own projectiles, though, things go completely off the wall. I mean that literally: you can use those projectiles to jump off walls. More broadly speaking, the freeform physics behind the star projectile clash with the decidedly more rigid rules you had come to expect from the game before. This doesn’t mean that your star powers don’t follow their own rules. From what I’ve observed, there are all sorts of minor things to consider like conservation of momentum, the angle of refraction, how the star’s energy deteriorates over time, etc. But these quirks are all very subtly implemented and under no circumstances would they be compatible in a more exacting platformer. It’s like Mr. Gimmick exists in two genres at once: one part wants to be a controlled platformer while another wants to be a zany, off-the-walls pinball game.
Ultimately, neither side wins. Their mutual incompatibility isn’t resolved but instead produces a sort of dissonance, which itself creates a space for you to experiment with your surroundings. So you approach the game with a more playful outlook than you might have otherwise. No longer is Mr. Gimmick this rulebook whose guidelines have to be followed to an exact degree. Now it’s more akin to a toybox; a set of objects and relationships you can play around with at your leisure. Peering into the toybox, you begin to wonder what other surprises the game holds for you. That’s when you realize the enemies you encounter function as objects for you to jump on just as well as they do antagonistic forces to conquer. (That Mr. Gimmick refuses to explicitly highlight this fact makes the discovery all the more satisfying.)
Or consider the ways in which the level design contributes to the game’s spirited ethos. This is where the game’s harsh difficulty really comes into play; the secret items especially. I make that distinction because the rest of the game, to a certain extent, adheres just as strongly to masocore sensibilities as later games would. Much like those other games, the focus in Mr. Gimmick is on navigating a series of overly precise systems and meeting challenge after demanding challenge. What makes this premise work for Mr. Gimmick is the level of creativity, brevity, and leniency the game imbues those challenges with.
But to return to the secret items, their focus isn’t on adhering to the systems you’re presented with, but in finding where those systems break down. In fact, the focus could never be on adhering; because the items are optional to completing the game (at least if you don’t care which ending you get), any demands they make of the player are going to be inflected differently than if they were made anywhere else. They aren’t even demands anymore, but suggestions on how to play the game. They’re an encouragement to probe everything you’re presented with, take nothing for granted, tease out any cracks in the systems, and figure out the best way to exploit them. How else would you explain riding a cannonball several screens over when nothing you have seen or ever will see in the game suggests this is even an option? Don’t think what I’ve described is limited to the game’s secrets, thought. It applies just as well to the mandatory parts of Mr. Gimmick. The strict strategies the levels expect from you serve to keep you on your toes at all times; to make sure there’s no stability or comfort to fall back on. The anti-cheesing strategies (IE the way enemies literally jump out of the way of easy solutions) help move you away from thinking of the game in simplistic terms. Even the set pieces have a looseness to them that inspires play.
What Mr. Gimmick proposes is strange when you stop and think about it. If you were to take what the game’s saying at face value, you’d think the best way to foster a rebellious spirit is by following the game’s instructions to the letter. And sure, this message is highly informed both by the game’s genre and its historical context, but I don’t see that as depriving that message of its validity. If anything, Mr. Gimmick makes far more sense when you factor in both those contexts. Consider the sources of the game’s inspiration: on the one hand, you have the round and cute platformers of the late 80s and early 90s, whose innocent veneers promised a playful experience for those willing to seek it. On the other hand, you have the rebellious youth culture of the same era, represented through such forces as Sonic the Hedgehog and the late vestiges of kawaii (which itself began as a counter-cultural youth movement in the late 70s/early 80s). Fusing these two forces into a single being, Mr. Gimmick is somehow able to realize both the whimsical attitude of cute platformers and the rebellious spirit of youth better than either of its sources could on their own.