Sunday, July 7, 2013

What happened to the Mario series?

A couple weeks ago Nintendo revealed Super Mario 3D World, the latest entry in the Mario series for the Wii U.  And the response was subdued, to say the least.  Some people were excited, but most seemed to greet the game with a collective yawn.  And some were straight up upset about the reveal.  I can count myself as one of the many who found the game to be a bit underwhelming.  But why?  After all, 3D World looks to contain all the hallmarks of the series that have made it so enjoyable over the years, and even brings back the character roster from Super Mario Bros. 2, Princess Peach included.  By all means, Super Mario 3D World looks like another excellent title for the series.  And yet, it just wasn't met with the kind of excitement that has been the norm for new Mario series reveals.

That the Mario series, despite not suffering from any significant drop in quality, has lost its appeal for so many gamers is the result of two key problems that I have identified.  Either problem on its own would cause the series to become stale, but the fact that the Mario series is suffering from both of them together has accelerated the process significantly.  Each issue exacerbates the other, which has resulted in the Mario series quickly falling from grace in the eyes of many longtime fans and turning what was once Nintendo's most beloved franchise into one of its most hated.  I'm going to examine each issue separately below and then explain how together they have soured so many fans' excitement about the series.  Let's begin, shall we?

Main Series Mario games are becoming too common: 


First, let's take a look at a timeline of when all the main series Mario games were released.  This is just kind of a general overview, excluding some oddities like The Lost Levels and Yoshi's Island:

1985 - NES - Super Mario Bros.
1988 - NES - Super Mario Bros. 2
1990 - NES - Super Mario Bros. 3
1991 - SNES - Super Mario World
1996 - N64 - Super Mario 64
2002 - GCN - Super Mario Sunshine
2006 - NDS - New Super Mario Bros.
2007 - Wii - Super Mario Galaxy
2009 - Wii - New Super Mario Bros. Wii
2010 - Wii - Super Mario Galaxy 2
2011 - 3DS - Super Mario 3D Land
2012 - 3DS - New Super Mario Bros. 2
2012 - Wii U - New Super Mario Bros. U
2013 - Wii U - Super Mario 3D World

In a series that spans almost thirty years total, half of the games have been released in the last seven years, with 2008 being the only year since 2006 not to have a main series release.  Why is that?  There are two main reasons, that I can tell.  First, the series now has to serve double duty, as Nintendo handheld consoles have advanced to the point that ports of old games and small scale spin-offs like Super Mario Land are no longer enough to get the job done.  Since the Nintendo 3DS can handle games just as good as what the home consoles deliver, the main Mario series is now serving as the lead system-seller for both Nintendo's home consoles and their handheld consoles, resulting in many more Mario games much more frequently.

In the olden days, this would have still been the most recent Mario game.

Furthermore, after New Super Mario Bros. turned out to be a monster hit on the DS, the main Mario series splintered into two facets:  the 2D side-scrolling "New" series and the 3D games that continue the legacy of titles like Super Mario 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy.  It has now become a tradition for all Nintendo consoles to host not one major Mario title, but two, with every console receiving at least one New Super game and at least one 3D game.  The Wii even got two 3D Mario games.  With the 3DS and the Wii U releasing within only a couple of years of each other, the result is four main series Mario games in three years.  Heck, NSMB2 and NSMBU were released within only a few months of each other.  Gone are the days of having to wait for six years between major Mario titles.  Now they're a dime a dozen.  There is never a time now when a new major Mario game is not on the horizon.

But, of course, that's also how the Mario series began.  The first four main series Mario games were also released in rapid succession of each other, with three of them even being on the same console, and World showing up before Super Mario Bros. 3 even had a chance to get comfortable.  And yet, all those games were considered classics of their time and remain among the most revered video games ever created.  What's different now that makes the Mario series appear to stagnate so much compared to back then?

Back then games were smaller and cheaper to create.  A major triple-A title didn't require an enormous team of developers and a huge budget to create, which also meant they could be created faster.  Furthermore, the staples of the Mario series had yet to be established, so all four of these games were still inventing the elements that remain the cornerstones of what the franchise is today.  Despite being released with only a year or two separating them, the first four Mario games were all radically different from each other, with their own visual styles, gameplay styles, power-ups, and more.  They all brought something very new to the table.

It took three sequels for the first screen of the game to change enough to actually feel like something new.  Also, was that arrow sign at the beginning of the first level of NSMBWii really necessary?

These days it's not so simple.  Games cost a lot more to create and it takes a lot longer to polish them up to perfection for today's significantly more advanced technology.  Back when consoles would play host to only one Mario game instead of several, there would often be a five or six year wait between them, not because Nintendo wasn't working on something that whole time, but because it simply just took that long to develop something new.  Now that Mario games need to be released much more quickly, the same teams of people are continuously jumping from one game to the next.  The team that made Super Mario Galaxy then jumped immediately into Galaxy 2, then 3D Land, and then 3D World.

Because there is little downtime between the games to develop brand new ideas, most of the innovations brought to the table with each successive game are relatively small in scope, meaning that the overall experience between the games is very similar.  Without having the time to create something truly revolutionary with each new Mario game, the series has sort of settled into a formula that most games, both 2D and 3D alike, follow now.  Following the first Galaxy game, the Mario series began to feel very standardized, with a lot of gameplay elements, power-ups, and ideas being shared between both the New Super games and the 3D series.  A new Mario game these days is more about refining what the previous games did instead of doing something entirely new because there simply isn't enough time for every game in the series to do that anymore.

3D World looks less like a sequel to 3D Land, and more like a home console counterpart, similar to a game like Sonic Lost World.  It feels more like having two versions of the same game instead of two distinct games.

The same phenomenon also began impacting the Mario Kart series once it became a staple for both handhelds and home consoles.  There was a four year wait between Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64.  There was a five year wait between Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart Super Circuit for the GBA.  However, it was only two years later when the series showed up on the GameCube in the form of Mario Kart Double Dash!!.  All of these games were significantly different from each other, each having their own unique look and feel that made them all seem distinct from one another.  However, starting with Double Dash, new entries in the series have become much more common, with games showing up in 2005, 2008, and 2011, with the latest set for early next year.  As the result, the overall look and feel of the Mario Kart series has become much more standardized, with Mario Kart 8 not looking all that distinct when compared to Mario Kart 7, Mario Kart Wii, or even Mario Kart DS, especially considering that all three of those games remain readily available in stores today.

Nintendo prides themselves on creating titles that are "evergreen."  That means that their games are able to consistently sell lots of copies years after their initial release.  The problem that arises, however, is that if a previous installment of a series is continuing to sell and remains fresh in consumers' minds five or six years after being released, a new entry has to be an obvious step up from the previous game or it won't feel like it's truly a worthy successor to what is already available.  When it's only been a year or two instead of half a decade, it's even more critical that a new installment really prove that it's worth playing even if you've already played the previous games.  Even if a new game is extremely good, why would you want to spend the money to get it when you already have a similar game in the same series that provides the same kind of experience?  Sequels, especially frequent sequels, must prove that they will provide fresh new experiences that previous games can't deliver or consumers will start to lose interest.

And, frankly, the Mario series just isn't cutting the mustard anymore.  Because all the games in the main series have become so homogenous, with few significant advances between titles, it's extremely difficult to get excited about playing another Mario game that appears to be so similar to the last Mario game, let alone the last four or five Mario games.  Which leads me into the second issue that is plaguing the modern Mario series...

New Super-itis:

The term "New Super-itis" is one of my own invention.  I've tossed it around before on this blog in various articles about the Mario series, but I've never really explained quite what I meant by it before now.  In 2006, Nintendo hit upon a gold mine.  A massive gold mine.  That year, Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS.  Not only did this mark the first time that an original full-scale main series Mario title was being released for a handheld console, it was also the first new 2D side-scrolling Mario game released in nearly fifteen years.  As such, the game played like a trip down memory lane.  The worlds consisted of nice familiar themes already seen in previous games: a grassland, a desert, a beach, a forest, and so on.  The game also stuck very closely to the formula of Super Mario Bros. 3, a game often cited as the best in the series.  There were some new elements introduced that had never been in a Mario side-scroller before, but many of them were simply elements from previous games brought back in a bigger way, like Mega Mario.  The game was comfortable, safe, familiar, and marked a major turning point in the series.

It was at this point that Nintendo discovered that simple and safe Mario games that relied on the legacy of the series sold better than the bold new games that took the series in different directions.  They discovered that there was a huge audience out there for side-scrolling Mario games that eschewed the complexity and openness of the 3D titles for basic obstacle courses and nostalgic level gimmicks.  And that audience would become known as the infamous group known as "casual gamers," a term that can refer to anyone anywhere in the range between "only plays games from time to time" to "complete idiots who don't know how to perform the simplest of tasks."  Or, at least, that's how Nintendo seems to see it based on their modern approach to the Mario series.  It's the same gigantic audience that made the Wii a success, buying up consoles in droves to play Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and the like.  In an era where Nintendo had lost most of its relevance in the video gaming industry as a whole, they found their new niche via casual gaming.

Who knew this game would have such an impact on the series as a whole?

 New Super Mario Bros. got the ball rolling, but it was New Super Mario Bros. Wii in 2009 that cemented the fate of the Mario series.  That game sold like nobody's business.  To date it has sold nearly thirty million copies worldwide, an astronomically high number by any standards.  Compare that to the eleven million or so copies that Super Mario Galaxy has sold to date and it quickly becomes clear which type of Mario game is the preferred choice of Nintendo's new audience.  And it sent a very clear message to Nintendo:  Mario games don't need to be groundbreaking innovative adventures to sell well.  They just need to be easy for anyone to play.  The graphics don't matter.  The music doesn't matter.  All that matters is that any person, no matter how young or old, no matter how much or little gaming experience, no matter how smart or dumb, could pick it up and finish the game.

And thus, the Mario series came down with a serious case of "New Super-itis," a complete restructuring of the entire series to conform to the mold of New Super Mario Bros. Wii in the hopes that all Mario games could now sell the ludicrously high number of copies that NSMBWii did.  And the way to do that, it seems, is to assume that your audience is made up of people who don't even know how to turn on a Wii, let alone understand any concepts of gameplay.  3D Mario games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine were suddenly labeled as being "too confusing" for new players.  Open level design could no longer be a part of the series because players could "get lost."  Linear levels were the only way to ensure that players could enjoy themselves.  Features like the "Super Guide," which let the game effectively play itself, became standard for the series, and extra lives were handed out like they're going out of style, making the Game Over screen a rare sight indeed. 

When Super Mario Galaxy 2 was released, a series of "How To" videos accompanied it.  In the US they were (and still are) available to watch on the website, but in other regions of the world they were actually packaged with the game on a DVD.  So, just in case the concept of plugging a nunchuk controller into a Wii remote is too much for you, you can pull out your handy DVD and watch a tutorial.  I wish I was being sarcastic, but that's actually covered in the first video.  Nintendo began designing Mario games to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  A denominator that was assumed to be so low that they might not even understand the very most basic aspects of playing a video game.

Which World 1 is which?  And why does Peach's castle keep losing details?

The other far more detrimental result of "New Super-itis" is that it was apparently determined that all new Mario games should also look like New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  That way, even the most uninformed consumer could look at a game, recognize the scenery, and decide to buy it because it reminded them of NSMBWii.  Suddenly the generic plastic worlds of the first two NSMB games became the only worlds to appear in every Mario game, main series and spin-offs alike.  Since the NSMB games relied on looking to the past of the series for ideas, suddenly all Mario games became focused on delivering up nostalgic re-imaginings of elements from previous games.  "New" features weren't really new anymore.  Instead, they were old features given a new coat of paint, like the Tanooki tail.  Nostalgic enough to keep old fans interested, but familiar enough and simple enough to not upset the balance of entertaining any possible person who might pick up a Mario game.  Complexity was out and patronizing simplicity was, and still is, in.

Three other Mario games that have come down with a case of New Super-itis.

The result?  Mario games have become forgettable.  They are still fun.  They are still incredibly well designed and polished.  They still have flashes of the brilliance that made the series what it is today.  But they no longer have a sense of identity.  There is no longer a sense of scope.  No sense of discovery.  No sense of surprise.  No sense of challenge.  When Mario games do offer up legitimately new ideas these days, they are usually reduced to little more than basic gimmicks for one level which are fun while they last but leave little in the way of a lasting impression.

There isn't necessarily anything wrong with Mario games like this.  Pick up and play any given main series Mario title and I guarantee you will enjoy yourself.  They are essentially the gaming equivalent of comfort food.  But it means that every game in the series is now very homogenous and nothing really stands out anymore.  Super Mario 3D World looks like a good game, but it also looks incredibly similar to 3D Land, NSMB, Galaxy 2, and all the other main series Mario games from the last few years.  The moment it was revealed, I felt like I had played it already.

Okay, Frisch.  Get to the point:

So, in the end, it basically boils down to this:  The Mario series is tired.  The quality of the series hasn't declined, but there's nothing fresh about the series anymore.  The limited scope of the gameplay lacks impact, the standardized look of the series has become overly familiar, and the increased number of releases over the last six or seven years means that we've all just seen it all too many times to get excited about it again.  New features from game to game tend to be small improvements and minor gimmicks and the standardized graphics and design ensure that even while experiencing something new, most new Mario games feel incredibly familiar.

The solution?  Mario just need a vacation.  The 3DS has its two main series games now.  Once 3D World is out, the Wii U will have its two games as well.  At that point, the quota for current-gen console Mario games will be met.  It's time for a break.  It's time to let some other Nintendo franchises step up to the plate and carry the torch for the next five or six years.  Then, when the next console generation is upon us, Mario will be rested, reinvigorated, and ready to lead the charge once more.

Furthermore, when the Mario series does make its return, the New Super series and the 3D series need to be given separate identities once more.  Compare New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy.  They are two entirely different games, both extensions of different aspects of the Mario series, and both with a unique audience.  If the main series is to remain split into two ongoing lines of games, there's no reason not to let the 3D games have large open worlds again, a larger scope, and cater to more experienced gamers, as the 2D games have the more casual audience covered.  That way everyone can have what they want.

Is that what Nintendo will do?  Unfortunately, I doubt it.  And, by all means, if they don't I do not think the Mario series will be ruined.  He'll still be a dependable hero for good solid platforming antics.  But the sense of excitement and anticipation for each new Mario title will continue to diminish and would be a shame to see such an extraordinary series be reduced to simply an ordinary and unexciting one.

Just my two cents on the matter.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to pre-order a copy of Super Mario 3D World...

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