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Ben Hornsby Ben Hornsby
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'Fez' is probably worse than a guitar lesson

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This is a true story from when I was a kid: After months of playing the game, my best friend's brother came to town and showed us how to get the Magic Flute in the first fortress in 'Super Mario Bros. 3.' Then he showed us how to get the P-Wing in 1-4, and then how to drop through the white blocks. That last one, in particular, clung like putty, adding to the surface area of my brain.

I was smart enough to know that 'Super Mario World's' ghost houses were designed by jerks pretty much from day one, but they still fascinated me - almost as much as those parts of the Star Road that I could see but couldn't reach. As a child-adult I can comprehend, mathematically, that 'Super Mario Bros. 3' is a better video game, and that its mystique lies in the opportunities for virtuosity in every one of its stages instead of in its 'secrets;' as an adult-child, though, I mostly preferred to try and jump up to the secret exit of Donut Plains 1 without hitting the Green Switch Palace first.

'Fez' is the videogame that the world's biggest 'Super Mario World' fan would make with two million dollars and three years. It's littered with weird little secrets, with opportunities to unlock new rooms by pressing the right buttons in the right order or to collect gold stars for looking underneath the right platforms from the right angles. Many of these secrets - like those Star Road levels - even seem to be hiding more enormous secrets behind them. 'Fez' even takes the next step once in awhile, hiding strange images in its soundtrack and hiding in-game items that the collective internet seems to be unable to uncover.

The game's 'Hot New Previews' gimmick is that it takes place in a 3D world, but you only get to play in two Ds at a time. Your controller's triggers rotate the world 90 degrees in either direction; platforms that are situated on opposite corners of the x-z plane can form one continuous plateau as long as they line up clearly on your y axis. This would probably be enough to make a game out of (don't tell 'Super Paper Mario' that), and naturally it is used extensively, but the experience of playing 'Fez' is more saturated with cryptography than puzzly platforming.

Maybe-long story cut a little short: I like it, yeah. The puzzles are cool, and it's nice that some of them are enormous enough that they loom over the whole experience: What's up with the codes hidden opposite the giant chairs? What do I do with those little pillars with cubes inside of them? Is it this 'Tetris' puzzle that's dumb, or is it me? Also the game looks very nice, and sometimes it sounds fantastic, and it manages to repeatedly surprise in both senses.

But the game's missteps are just as surprising. The collection of things wrong with the game is probably the strangest I can think of: shudder-inducing references to internet memes, jokes about an annoying video game character that are much more annoying than that video game character, ridiculous QR codes as optional solutions to certain puzzles, things that its director wrote on Twitter.

The real problem, though: Clearing a stage in 'Super Mario Bros. 3' without getting hit is usually a much more interesting puzzle than any of the symbols scrawled onto 'Fez's' walls. I'm not saying 'Fez's' puzzles aren't fun, because they usually are, and when they're not making you feel like you might be a moron they can make you feel like you might be pretty smart, for a second.

Clearing 'Super Mario Bros. 3' without ever picking up a mushroom didn't make me feel smart; on the other hand, it definitely taught me how to play bass guitar. 

two stars out of four

Ben Hornsby used to have 'Rubik's Cube' races in middle school (he was very cool).


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