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'Super Mario' Really Was That Hard

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Last week, we talked about the strange addictiveness of the so-called “stupid” smartphone game and how it has transformed our iPhones (AAPL) and Androids (GOOG) from functional devices into Angry Birds and TapFish arcades. Apparently, this was not part of major manufacturers like Electronic Arts (EA), Activision (ATVI), and Nintendo’s plan.

What was planned on was the incredible difficulty of early Nintendo games like Super Mario and Donkey Kong. Yesterday, scientists confirmed that all those hours spent playing Nintendo weren’t a factor of your lack of skill or, say, a social life but rather the inherent difficulty of the game.

According to the Washington Post, a recent paper titled “Classic Nintendo Games Are NP Hard” found that old games feature an extremely high level of difficulty. The term “NP Hard” refers to problems that are “most difficult to solve by computational means because the time it takes to find a solution tends to increase so quickly with the size of the problem that it just isn’t practical to perform the computation.”

What this comes down to, basically, is that there is a way to win at Super Mario but it takes a very long time to discover.

Interestingly enough, the paper overturns another piece of popular wisdom about the Super Mario franchise. Super Mario Brothers: The Lost Levels, reputed to be more difficult than Super Mario and, as far as that goes, one of the most difficult games of all time, does not meet the definition of NP Hard. The reason: Mario can pick up Koopa shells.

Contrast that with a game like Farmville, which was described in last week’s New York Times Magazine cover story on stupid games as a “[click-machine] powered by the human need to achieve progress by a predictable path and a willingness to pay small amounts of money to make that progress go faster.”

Then again, before you go pining for the era of mean-spiritedly difficult Mario games, it’s worth noting that a recent favorite for most difficult game of all time is available on the iPhone. English Country Tune retails for $4.99 and is almost impossible.
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