Talking Point: Is Nintendo Over-Reliant on Super Mario?

Lots of plumbing to do

Back in 1985, no-one could have imagined that a plumber saving a princess from the clutches of an evil turtle king could become one of gaming’s defining moments. Since the release of the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES, Mario has become not only the face of Nintendo, but arguably the face of gaming as a whole. Shigeru Miyamoto’s creation allowed Nintendo to become the industry leader that it is today, and over the past few generations the Mario series has been ever present on Nintendo consoles.

The strength of the Mario IP cannot be underestimated: before the GameCube every Nintendo home console was led out by Mario, and as a result Super Mario games remained the best-selling title for the lifespan of the system. The success of the brand has led to numerous spin-off titles, with forays into everything from karting to football/soccer, ultimately meaning you are never far from a new Mario title being released.

But despite the continued exposure of the Mario franchise to the masses, the core “Super Mario” series has always remained the shining beacon in Nintendo’s arsenal. No matter what, every platform is guaranteed one Super Mario title, and with it comes a huge wave of anticipation and excitement. More recently, however, new titles have been announced with an unheard of frequency: we recently argued that this was actually a Super Mario renaissance, but it’s also potentially reaching a point of damaging this iconic franchise.

The release of Super Mario 64 in 1996 was a watershed moment as Shigeru Miyamoto and his team successfully transitioned Mario into 3D, an almost surreal feat at the time. This remained the flagship title of the N64 throughout its tenure as Nintendo’s lead platform, and was only superseded six years later by 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine. Much like Nintendo’s other core franchises, the Super Mario series has always had an extended timeframe between releases (outwith remakes such as those on the Game Boy Advance) which makes the arrival of new games big news, something that was proven by the rapturous applause that greeted Super Mario Galaxy at E3 2006.

That level of excitement is due in part to the previous success of the franchise, but it also arguably comes from the knowledge that Nintendo will provide a plentiful supply of unique and fresh ideas in the new game. This is a result of the franchise’s exclusivity, and up to the release of Super Mario Galaxy in 2007 Nintendo had stuck to a one-per-platform logic on each of its home consoles since the NES – arguably discounting Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island on Super NES, a Yoshi title given the Super Mario brand. This not only helped to keep the series fresh, but it also stopped the series suffering burn-out, because when it comes down to the mechanics, Mario games stick to a tried and tested philosophy of run and jump.

But more recently this has begun to change, and the change has perhaps coincided with a new generation of gamers arriving on Nintendo systems – the so-called ‘casual’ market. While long-time Nintendo fans may be familiar with mascots from Kirby to Resetti, families and parents who were taken in by the DS era perhaps only have a lasting affiliation with Mario, something which is due in part to his large exposure as Nintendo’s leading mascot over the years. With this in mind, Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros. on DS in 2006, harkening back to the NES and SNES days and appealing to anyone and everyone who's ever played a Mario game.

Since then we have entered an era of Mario dominance, and in the past six years we have seen five new Super Mario games released across all platforms – compare this to 1996-2002 when we saw just two. It seems that Nintendo has been quick to capitalise on a new influx of gamers, and with Mario a key selling point it was quick to act; the huge success of New Super Mario Bros is testament to this. Super Mario Galaxy was perhaps developed by Nintendo before the realisation of the mass appeal of its new platforms, but since then we have seen the company begin to rely on Mario to sell big over the holidays.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2 were fantastic, but both came off the back of two almost identical adventures – for the first time in its series history, Super Mario seemed to become derivative.

The release of New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2 in 2009 and 2010 respectively both pushed Wii sales higher over Christmas periods, and both were arguably skewed slightly towards a more family friendly audience, albeit retaining their trademark difficulty curve. There’s no denying that both games were fantastic, but both came off the back of two almost identical adventures – for the first time its series history, Super Mario seemed to become derivative.

Certainly one of the main complaints levelled at NSMB Wii was that it was simply an upgrade of the DS game for the Wii, and with Super Mario Galaxy 2 we saw many of the ideas from the original’s cutting room floor, often featuring the same power-ups and themes that Galaxy offered. We should be clear that these were in no way entirely derivative games, but both borrowed heavily from their predecessors, and with the exception of Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, this is something that has never been exhibited by the Super Mario series before.

Which brings us to the most recent release: Super Mario 3D Land. It was always curious that the 3DS didn't get a Mario announcement in the initial wave at E3 2010, with it instead being almost spontaneously announced at the relatively low key keynote speech at the Game Developer’s Conference 2011, shortly before the 3DS was released in the West.

Given that nothing was mentioned at E3 2010, we can perhaps assume that Super Mario 3D Land had a swift development process, especially seeing as it followed so quickly after Super Mario Galaxy 2; its proximity to the previous two titles does show, though it was handled by a different team at Nintendo EAD. NSMB Wii's propeller makes a slightly-adjusted appearance, and ideas from Super Mario Galaxy 2 such as Flipswitch Galaxy return in similar ways. The game even takes an old item in the form of the Tanooki tail and makes it the key item, something Super Mario Bros. 3 had already accomplished.

While references and nostalgia are fine, Super Mario 3D Land arguably used some ideas a bit too fully, giving some levels an impression of being copied from previous titles. That’s one perspective, and many will argue against that, but the series is now beginning to see some repetition, and Nintendo needs to be wary of this. While it’s certainly impressive that the series has not suffered this issue before, the more recent trend of Nintendo banking on big sales from Mario games has resulted in an unheard of level of exposure for the core Super Mario series; is there simply not enough time to craft entirely new ideas and revolutionary styles of level design under such pressure?

More worrying, perhaps, is that Nintendo appears to be becoming reliant on Super Mario titles to sell systems. Whereas in previous generations every franchise seemed to get a fair chance to shine, Nintendo now seems to announce Super Mario titles more frequently, leaving the other franchises to scrap it out amongst themselves. At E3 last year, Wii U was demoed with New Super Mario Bros Mii leading the charge, and for the 3DS Satoru Iwata has already announced that another 2D Super Mario title will be out this fiscal year. That means that if NSMB Mii is a Wii U launch title — a real possibility — that in the next 12 months we'll see another two core Super Mario games, making it five years in a row for the series. While Shigeru Miyamoto and his teams have a wealth of ideas, we would be surprised if even they can keep such consistently high standards of innovation we expect from Mario.

So what’s the answer? Clearly the Mario series sells, and it sells well. One of the charms of The Legend of Zelda series is that we only see it every two or three years, making the release of each new game an occasion. New Super Mario games aren’t an occasion any more: they’re becoming standard practice.

Nintendo’s other franchises have the potential to sell well, with Kid Icarus: Uprising being given a chance with significant marketing: if marketed effectively titles such as these could help their systems weather quiet sales periods. Another option is for Nintendo to take the route it did on the GameCube and Nintendo 64, and begin to focus more on selling Mario as a franchise away from the core Super Mario titles. Mario Kart is a hugely popular series in its own right and is performing this role in the current generation, and with Mario Tennis Open arriving shortly, it’s clear that the plumber has more appeal than just platforming games.

It seems strange to say it, but perhaps Mario needs a break from platforming. The Super Mario series is the key to getting the attention of the gaming world for any new Nintendo system, but it is a key that perhaps needs to be used more sparingly. We’re already seeing ideas being repeated, and with Wii U on the way, there's a real chance for the series to do something spectacular once again.