I’ve been gaming since I was able to summon up the hand-eye coordination required to mash the keyboard on my parent’s computers. Still it wasn’t until the original Nintendo Entertainment System came along circa 1987, although I think I got mine sometime in 1989, that I had my first experience with console games. My very first game on this new platform was of course Mario Brothers (combined with Duck Hunt, yeah!) and it provided many a good hour glued to the TV usually with my brother or friends from the neighbour close by. It would seem that the success of the Mario franchise made Nintendo drunk with power and every platform since the NES has had at least one Mario game amongst its launch titles. This wouldn’t really be a problem since they’ve done the same with their other lines of IP (the Link¹ series jumps to mind) but apart from graphics upgrades they’ve basically made the same gear for over 20 years.
At its heart the original Mario was just a generic platformer with an interesting set of characters that appealed to the demographic of the time. Indeed it still targets the younger demographic with its relatively fast paced gameplay, bright colour palette and little to no dialogue between the characters. The first few iterations of the Mario IP didn’t vary much from this baseline with the only things being changed were a few game mechanics (such as the Cape, the introduction of Yoshi, etc) and the addition of a world map. The Nintendo64 however mixed things up significantly.
Before the introduction of the N64 the only attempt at 3D graphics that had been made on previous Nintendo consoles was the StarFox IP and StuntraceFX (there might be others, but these are the only 2 I can remember). They were extremely simple and used little to no texturing at all. Primarily this was because the Super Nintendo really wasn’t designed to do 3D graphics at all, and as such all the rendering had to be done in software. The N64 on the other hand was built from the ground up to handle 3D, and the controller showed this proudly with its 360 degrees of motion joystick slapped right in the center of it. It would then follow that their flagship character would be redesigned to suit.
And, to be honest, he was. Despite the fact that the core game mechanic was essentially unchanged (an extra dimension doesn’t stop a jump puzzle from being a jump puzzle) the addition of the 3rd dimension was the first big change that Mario had seen since his first release almost a decade before. Super Mario 64 demonstrated quite aptly that Nintendo was quite capable of revamping old IP to take advantage of the latest technology. Well it at least seemed that way at the time.
The next few releases of Mario began to show some extremely strange behaviour from Nintendo. It would seem that there’s a strong desire to milk the Mario IP for all its worth whilst still trying to maintain a level credibility amongst the gaming community as revolutionary game designers. The next Mario game, released on the Nintendo DS, could be written off as a victim of the platform it was designed for. Super Mario Galaxy broke new ground with the gravity mechanic that lead to some amazing emergent gameplay and would’ve made a good game without the Mario IP backing it. New Super Mario Bros. Wii has no excuse however, and is a straight up rehash of Super Mario World with prettier graphics and some new mini-games. I played it for a good hour the other day and swore that one of the levels we were on was a direct rip from one of the older games, the level just had more pixels.
What is Nintendo playing at here? I can understand that using a popular IP is a sure fire way to make a popular game but save for technology changes that have forced Nintendo’s hand (and, to their credit, they stepped up to the challenge) they are quite happy to make the same game several times over. Had I not seen the blatant rip off that was the New Super Mario Bros Wii this post would’ve had a completely different tune to it, hailing the triumphs of Nintendo to progress significantly with the times. However releasing something that is comparable to a 20 year old platformer seems cheap and uninspired. If the rumours are anything to go by they’re going to do the same with Super Mario Galaxy 2, with the new additions including Yoshi (surprise surprise).
Despite all this angst I can’t deny the success that the Mario franchise has had. Their initial demographic has grown up and out of the genre and yet are still drawn to the Mario series. Still Nintendo is the only company to get away with this sort of invention for so long, with any competitor who attempts the same shot down as trite and un-original. Perhaps I don’t give them enough credit, it’s quite possible they’ve done the numbers on completely reinventing the Mario IP and the best scenario is to do exactly what they’re doing. The money trail certaintly agrees with them.
I guess in this world of almost infinite choice when it comes to games Mario becomes an easy target to harp on about being un-original, but that ignores that they’ve been doing this for so long. Whilst I don’t currently own a Nintendo console it doesn’t stop me from wanting one, even if just for the brief moments where I might slip back for a quick level or two with my old friend the Italian plumber.
¹After finishing this article I realised that if I replace all the Mario references to their Link counterparts the story still makes sense. In reality I could’ve harped on about both of them for much longer but the point is basically the same 🙂