Writing a review is not about being clever or brilliant. It's not about using your thesaurus ad nauseum, or trying to impress others, or vomiting every single thought you have on a subject onto a page. It's about giving an open and forthright view whether people like it, or whether it fits into the personal constraints the reviewer tries to impose.
When I sat down to write the New Super Mario Bros. review, I figured it would be easy. Mario is an icon in videogames, and he contributed prominently to the germination of my habit. I might even have been a bit of a fanboy. While his image has suffered a bit lately by being a bit of a corporate whore with his head-scratching appearances in Dance Dance Revolution and the snowboarding game, SSX On Tour, I still held out hope that New Super Mario Bros. would sweep all that aside and restore Mario to greatness. Even before I played the finished game, I knew I would have to like it. After all, it had received so much press, and held the lofty hopes of so many gamers—myself included—on its one-square-inch-cart shoulders. While I thought writing the review would be a piece of cake, it turned out to be one of the most difficult and educational experiences I've had in my time as a critic. I also learned what it means to be a critic in my own terms.
At the beginning of the review process, I tried to write about the first positive thing that came to mind about New Super Mario Bros. so I wrote:
"[The game is] something that can be picked up and played, and be a damn good time without any hand-holding whatsoever."
That was my angle. I felt it was pretty clever, actually. A game without tutorials! The rest of the review would easily write itself. Or at least, it should.
However, in my attempts to express how I felt about the game, I started making some bad critical decisions. Not just a little bit bad, I mean really bad. I also said in my first draft:
"The level design is truly top-notch, almost reaching Yoshi's Island proportions."
But it's not. Looking back, the hyperbole itself was hyperbolic. Yes, the level design is well-done, but it wasn't enough to love the game to the extent I wanted to. I couldn't fathom not adoring the first new 2D Mario game in 15 years. So, onward I went, complimenting the game, detail by detail.
However, it wasn't long before I really stuck my foot in it, and ruined everything I had worked towards:
"To make a long story short, the new items are pretty useless."
It's a sad truth. The power-ups plainly didn't fit with the tone of the rest of New Super Mario Bros. They were more means to find new paths on the map or collecting a silly gold coin, but aren't integrated into the level design of the game in any significant or meaningful way. They aren't even handy, like a raccoon tail or fire flower. They're actually inconvenient, interfering with control or outright putting you in a position to be killed quickly.
The warning sign was there for me to rethink, but my angle was just so amazing, so perfect, that I pressed on regardless. I thought I could squeeze my feelings into the mold of a "review" but somehow, it wasn't fitting. I tried saying silly, reviewish things like "[Control] is so simple, it's sublime!" or "…the game is brilliant!" I was trying to write sound bites, not a cohesive whole. For all these compliments, though, I wrote over 300 words describing what I didn't like, yet I ignored it all in my conclusion. I thought I wasn't being "fair" to Mario.
I was suitably—and deservedly—panned for it.
In a critique of my drafts, I was told by an editor:
"It's less about being fair and more about making sure the reader understands where you're coming from. If the game has some large flaws that you can't get over, then you need to re-evaluate where you stand with the game and focus on the right points given which direction you want to review the game."
In a title that's supposed to herald the next coming of a gaming messiah, something as important as new power-ups should not feel like afterthoughts. They're not fun, and that was the key element that was missing. I always looked forward to getting new power-ups in other Mario games. Here, I actually avoided them. Without that crucial element, New Super Mario Bros. isn't lots of fun. It's merely fun.
There. I said it.
What you're reading now is the sixth draft of the review, one that is completely removed from the intentions and tone I had at the start of the project. Putting together meaningful sentences in a way that gets my point across both clearly yet eloquently was much more difficult than I imagined. What I lack in eloquence here I tried to make up for in honesty. I can talk about why the game is fun, but I can't lie and say the game is brilliant. Mario isn't what he used to be. There are glimmers and flickers of greatness in this game—moments where I felt the magic might almost be back.
But it's not. Not yet.