When New Super Mario Bros. came out on DS, the excitement was palpable. After all, it was the first 2D Mario platformer in about 15 years, which seems amazing to consider nowadays.
Some of you may raise your eyebrows at that statement, and may argue that it's incorrect, but let's break it down. Super Mario World on SNES didn't get a true follow-up until the 'New' series started. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island was really a Yoshi game with Mario branding, and after that we had the 3D revolution started by Super Mario 64 and a whole lot of remakes, remasters and ports on the 2D side. The very reason the 'New' brand was likely conceived was to counteract the fact that it had been well over a decade since the last 2D Mario game, so customers old and new needed to get used to the idea of fresh Mario gaming that wasn't in three dimension.
The idea of Mario overload was preposterous back then, and the hype around the DS release was matched by sales. By the time New Super Mario Bros. Wii arrived, with improved visuals and local multiplayer, it took advantage of the system's prosperity to deliver huge success. Both titles have sold around 30 million units each, boosted by sizeable userbases - on DS Mario's adventure is the best-selling game on the system, and on Wii it's the fourth best-selling game (losing out to Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort and Mario Kart Wii).
In this current generation, it should be noted, sales have remained strong and near top-of-class, but with a little twist; whereas 2D Mario was King on Wii, for example (easily outselling Super Mario Galaxy) the story's been different on Wii U and 3DS, perhaps reflecting some minor apathy towards the New series. On 3DS, so far, Super Mario 3D Land has out-sold New Super Mario Bros. 2, while Super Mario 3D World is only a little behind New Super Mario Bros. U. When the Wii U launched there was undeniably some 2D Mario fatigue in the Nintendo community, at least in the vocal online parts of that gaming group. NSMB2 and NSMBU arrived close together, and a number said "meh, seen it before" when the Wii U's entry arrived last in the 'New' series. That was arguably harsh on the Wii U's launch title, but over the course of six years Nintendo had released four 'main' 2D Mario titles, and familiarity stripped away the buzz.
Super Mario Maker was a smart next move from Nintendo, and we wonder whether it's a precursor to the quiet retirement of the 'New' series. It tapped into trends that had established themselves in the broader gaming sphere - player power and creativity. In handing over the tools for making Mario levels, wrapped up in a charming and easy-to-understand user interface (UI), Nintendo let its enthused audience create the game for themselves. All playable modes, with the exception of special 'Event' courses, tapped into community created content. The results were mixed from a playing perspective, as most of us are mediocre (at best) level designers. Yet that's not the point - empowering the community was the key achievement.
It wouldn't be Nintendo, of course, if it hadn't knocked in a few own goals to undo a bit of the good work. Moderation was excessive, 'unpopular' stages were deleted with little notice, and the course browsing interface could have been better on day one. Updates and the 'Bookmark' website helped matters, though, and in general there was (and to an extent still is) an active community around level creation, with some even coming up with smart workarounds for limitations in the game, for example grouping bookmarks to create 'Worlds' and entire 'games'.
Now we have Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS around the corner, which has pros and cons - we outlined some of these in our preview and have a review on the way prior to its release. The big loss is online sharing, sucking away that community aspect that drove the Wii U title; you can play through and download randomised stages uploaded from the home console iteration, but that's it for online features. The key addition, though, is 'Super Mario Challenge', which helps to soften the blow.
Comprised of 100+ official stages, it incorporates the peculiarities and anarchy of Mario Maker into relatively well-structured and solidly designed levels. There are plenty of worlds, and each one is used to unlock creative tools and to learn about how they're used, but for veterans these levels are simply a wacky bunch of stages (including boss encounters, of sorts) to tackle. Each stage has two challenge medals to earn, and you have a set of lives to build-up or lose if you're struggling. With a more cohesive 'plot' - by Mario standards - and more linearity and variety in boss stages, for example, this mode could conceivably be a new 2D Mario game.
To be clear, it isn't. Levels are still designed to showcase certain game tools, and often take puzzle or mechanic-based approaches rather than the linear, carefully designed stages in the 'New' games. Yet the concept is interesting - after all, levels hop between the four templates and keep things fresh and occasionally off-kilter. It's like an anarchic Mario twist on the Sonic Generations concept, but with Nintendo's mascot ranging from 8-bit right through to HD lineage.
Could it be a tease of a new future for Mario and his 2D adventures? One where the 3D games are the tentpole, standalone experiences, and where 2D entries blend user participation with officially designed fun? Having played through Super Mario Challenge but also tried some random user stages in the 3DS game, there's a place for both, but Nintendo's official stages are far more enjoyable in terms of pure playability. Perhaps the best of both worlds is a logical step for Mario in two dimensions - a creativity 'platform' in the Mario Maker brand, with official packs and experiences included and added over time.
Nintendo's already shown its evolving approach to DLC, and games-as-platforms such as LEGO Dimensions show how new content can make an old game feel new well beyond its launch. A new Super Mario Maker could include an official template-blending 'game' as a mode, like an improved and more cohesive Super Mario Challenge. DLC can then add packs every 8-12 months, ideally at sensible prices - following the terrific value of the Mario Kart 8 DLC. There could be smaller themed sets of worlds, such as a pack based on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as one example; the Wii U title's amiibo support and Mystery Mushrooms opened up varied cross-brand tie-ins that Nintendo embraced.
An approach like this could help keep 2D Mario fresh, using creativity, cross-overs and budget prices to dodge apathy and overkill. It could be extremely low-cost from a development perspective, too - simply set some talented level designers to the task using the game's in-built tools, perhaps using a 'dev' version with a bit more freedom.
When you also factor in the imminent Super Mario Run, with its auto-running, style-driven approach and its own creative tools, its evident that Nintendo is looking at ways to keep the 2D brand active and engaging for a modern audience. It's not that the 'New' 2D entries were flops on 3DS and Wii U, far from it, but Nintendo will have seen the reduced impact, and broader trends in gaming, and started to consider whether new ideas are needed. Its true that Super Mario Maker is still playing catch up in sales (3.73 million compared to 5.45 million of NSMBU), but it arrived after the state of the Wii U's decline was already clear. It did, despite those lower numbers, attract notable attention online, including among streamers.
Whatever Nintendo does, it's unlikely to allow a gulf in time as dramatic as that between Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. There were unique circumstances, such as generational shifts in graphics, trends and perhaps a loss of focus on the brand. Successfully revitalised with the 'New' games, there's an opportunity to turn 2D Mario gaming into an exciting and interesting product again. Perhaps blending player control with touches of official quality can be the way to do just that.
It's just an idea, in any case. We just feel that a supercharged Super Mario Maker with innovative, clever official Worlds and 'games' built in could be an impossible-to-resist combination in the Switch era. It gives Nintendo and players creative freedom, and allows the big N to produce fun content at little cost, making a 'platform' of 2D Mario.
Or we'll get New Super Mario Bros. Switch. Time till tell.