Are we approaching Mario fatigue?
Earlier this week, I wrote a news story detailing the cooperative multiplayer mode in the upcoming (or already released, depending on where you live) New Super Mario Bros. 2. The story highlighted how the mode almost didn’t make the final cut, as the team working on the game didn’t think it would be possible to implement it in the time they had to complete the product. This story spawned a great deal of conversation, stretching from Nintendo’s “laziness” in almost abandoning the co-op mode because it seemed too difficult, to their overall stance on multiplayer gaming, especially online. However, a different topic stuck out to me: whether or not we have too much Mario right now. It's something I felt, too, after this year's E3, when Nintendo announced a pair of 2D Mario games for 2012.
So what’s the problem? There was a time when Nintendo could have announced a new Mario game for each of the 128 Marios in that old GameCube tech video and I would have started counting out the thousands of dollars necessary to buy them all. Are we really suffering from Mario overexposure, or is this apathy (if not worse) for the upcoming games a reaction to the quality of the games themselves?
By the end of this year, Nintendo will have released a total of seven traditional Mario games since 2006: New Super Mario Bros. (2006), Super Mario Galaxy (2007), New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010), Super Mario 3D Land (2011), New Super Mario Bros. 2 (2012) and New Super Mario Bros. U (2012). So that averages to exactly one standard Mario platformer per year over a span of seven years. Now let me stop you right there, guy who is beginning to argue that the 3D and 2D Mario games should be considered in a different light: the games are all platformers, differing only in dimension. Thematically they are the same, and as such, I am putting them together.
So, seven games in seven years. That trails Call of Duty by only one entry, a series that will see its eighth game in that same timespan released later this year. Indeed, Mario games have been coming out like clockwork. But using that figure alone to argue that Nintendo is annualizing Mario as a means to make a quick buck falls flat when you look at the number of Mario games released in the same amount of time during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
From 1985 to 1991, Nintendo released six Mario games (going by the Japanese release date unless otherwise noted): Super Mario Bros. (1985), Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan 1986), Super Mario Bros. 2 (US 1988), Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988), Super Mario Land (1989), and Super Mario World (1990). That’s six games in seven years, and I don't think anyone would argue those games suffer from coming out too rapidly. The issue, then, wouldn't appear to be quantity.
With the exception of the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2, each of the other five games released from 1985 to 1990 felt drastically different from its predecessor. From level selection screens to the ability to fly, friendly dinosaurs to drivable submarines and airplanes, no two Mario games were the same. They didn’t look or sound the same, either. Each game featured new worlds and unique soundtracks that set them apart from the others. In other words, each Mario game stands on its own as a momentous and noteworthy addition to the series.
The same can’t be said for the recent Mario games, not entirely anyway. The Galaxy games are the shining example of what happens when Nintendo gets creative and defies what is expected of them. Up, down, left, and right are only a matter of perspective as Mario manipulates, and is manipulated by, the gravity of the different planetoids he finds himself on. Nintendo took the familiar and expanded upon it, not unlike during the ‘80s. Even Super Mario 3D Land, which is essentially a marriage between Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Bros., was inventive enough to stand on its own.
New Super Mario Bros., though, as a series, is sort of like a prolonged Metroid game, where Mario has been stripped of all his familiar and most beloved abilities, only to gain them back one by one across four different games. Yoshis; the ability to fly; expansive world maps—New Super Mario Bros. purposefully de-evolved Mario. One could argue that was the point; it wasn't "Super Mario Bros. 4," it was a rebirth of the franchise, a new beginning that could tread its own path. That argument doesn't hold weight, though, as each subsequent game after the original has included something from Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World as if to say, "Look! We are getting closer to making the game you wanted from the start." (That game being a continuation of 3 and World, of course.)
More egregious, though, are the recycled assets. Each New Super Mario Bros. game looks and sounds exactly the same. The series now spans four different systems, and apart from some anti-aliasing and improved geometry, there is no differentiating between them. Nintendo has picked one style and decided it's all Mario needs. Meanwhile, other 2D platforms, such as Kirby's Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Rayman Origins, play with lighting, perspective, and level design in a way that exudes creativity.
New Super Mario Bros., as a series, is stuck in neutral. The games function well enough and there is fun to be had, but if you've played one, you've played them all. That couldn't be said about the games in the ‘80s. That's the problem right there: Nintendo has become complacent, implementing only incremental upgrades from game to game. In the latest Iwata Asks, the team behind New Super Mario Bros. 2 talked about the Mario Cram School, where employees from several different departments come to learn how to create 2D Mario levels. It would appear to me the Mario Cram School needs to offer some extra courses, because the students have been turning in the same assignment for the past seven years. It wasn't that noticeable before, but in a year with two strikingly similar games coming out just a few months apart, it's impossible to ignore.