The Stagnation of Mario

Yesterday was this blog’s first year anniversary so hurray for us. As part of that, I thought that, since I started with Mario a year ago, I should write about Mario today. As such, we are going to be looking at a serious issue that has started plaguing Mario games of late: stagnation. Even the worst Mario games are still fun experiences. Unlike Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Nintendo has managed to keep the flagship mascot relevant after all of these years. However, there are starting to be issues. Nintendo has been playing it too safe with the plumber recently and a lack of innovation is starting to be felt. There is only so much refining you can do before you start to realize that you’ve done the same thing over and over again. Couple that with a level of competition that Nintendo hasn’t faced since the Nintendo/Sega rivalry, and Mario is in pretty rough shape. It is unfortunate that the character which practically invented both 2D and 3D platforming is now playing it so safe, allowing others to surpass him. Don’t get me wrong; Mario is still at the top of the pile when it comes to platforming, but there is a certain lack of spark in recent entries and that leaves this gamer somewhat worried as Nintendo moves onto the eighth generation of consoles.

Not Mario’s party face.

Now I have to explain exactly what I mean by Mario game. The Mario brand is immense, and could apply to countless games over countless genres including platforming, RPGs board games, sports, fighting and kart racing. As such I’m going to be focusing on three specific sections of Mario games. I’m going to be looking at 3D and 2D platformers as well as kart racing. I could explain why Mario Party has stagnated, but it was over the hill after the second instalment so I don’t really think that’s necessary. The ‘core’ Mario experience is from its 3D platformers as that is where the series has evolved. As such, this is where Mario still stands tall amongst it’s peers. The 2D platforming Mario was revived with the New Super Mario Bros. brand, which has a much more prolific release schedule than it’s 3D counterparts. Finally, the prestigious Mario Kart series has been the leader of the kart racing genre since the original Mario Kart invented it. The major problem lies with the 2D platformers, but I will be looking at minor concerns with the other two series as well.

Master of every genre.

2D Mario games are where the real problem lies with Mario. This is in part because Nintendo has been releasing far too many recently, but the bulk of the problem lies with the games themselves. To many gamers, Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros 3 are very by the book and ho hum games, which embody so many of the genre’s tropes. However, at the time of their release, they were deeply innovating games. Various power-ups and items seem so normal now, but Mario invented it, and Mario 3 pushed it to limits that the original game couldn’t even begin to consider. Even World, which largely built on concepts started on in 3 was incredibly innovative. At this juncture, Mario as a 2D platformer was at the absolute pinnacle of the industry. Mario didn’t need anything more than World for the SNES. Mario did more with one game than Sonic managed with four. As an ultimate evolution, Mario left the 2D plane with 64, ending its 2D run at the top of its game, and leaving many fans desperate for more.

That’s our Mario. Dancing before hitting the pinnacle.

Cue The New Super Mario Bros, released for the Nintendo DS. It was a throwback to Mario’s 2D platforming past, reminding us how fun it used to be, but without adding anything at all. It didn’t need to; it was simply a throwback. The next NSMB game was for the Wii and it added multiplayer to the mix, but, once again, nothing else worth mentioning. Tragically, the 3DS’ NSMB2 was the most bland game yet, with a coin gathering gimmick that actually wasn’t really part of the game. The most recent game NSMBU for the Wii U is, apparently, considerably better, as it adds elements such as challenges. The problem with these games is not that they’re competent platformers; they are, but with the fact that, that’s all they are. The NSMB series started as a throwback, which was fine, but without any real innovation, all it does is remind people about how much better Mario games used to be. It doesn’t help that they all stick to the exact same aesthetic and incredibly poor music. Even the most incremental of Mario platformers changed something (Maybe not the real Mario 2, but at least it had insane difficulty behind it). The biggest problem is that there has been a rebirth of the 2D platforming genre recently and NSMB is far from the top of the game. Even the challenges from NSMBU became commonplace long before the game’s release. At this point, the series needs to change significantly and embrace the spirit of change that made the original games so great or it needs to go away. When games like Rayman: Origins and Legends exist, The New Super Mario Bros. look very underwhelming.

If you’re too lazy to think of a unique fourth character two games in a row, you shouldn’t be making video games.

The 3D Mario platformers have fared much better, mainly because Nintendo isn’t obsessed with making cheap rehashes and actually focuses on quality at the expense of many releases. There have been four 3D Mario platformers since the main series evolved and each one of them with a single exception has brought a lot to the table. Like the original Mario, 64 practically invented the genre. Sunshine was a game full of really, really bad ideas, but it did try its best to be different, which has earned it a cult following. Galaxy brought in some great new, gravity inspired ideas and pushed the genre in great new ways. The only stagnant game of the list is Galaxy 2, but it can be mostly forgiven as it was a serious refinement from the ideas presented in the original. Truthfully, there isn’t much concern. While Galaxy 2 could be seen to set a bad precedent, Nintendo seems far more protective of the main series than the 2D version, and it is unlikely that they will settle for more of the same. It is possible, but unlikely given their track record at this point.

Need something new? Add Yoshi I guess.

Finally, a brief discussion about the Mario Kart series. Mario Kart 7, the incredibly poorly named 3DS game was the most recent release in the series and one of the best yet. Aside from the GBA and Wii versions of the series, each Mario Kart has been of the utmost quality, keeping it on top of the kart racing genre despite occasional competition. The problem lies with Mario Kart’s incredible fear of innovation. The Gamecube release of Double Dash brought a very different spin on the genre, a spin that the series has been trying to forget ever since. You see, as great as the last batch of Mario Karts have been, there has been very little in terms of change to the formula. Actually, there seems to be a conscious attempt to avoid it. This isn’t as much of a concern as with the 2D platforming, but a problem is coming. Eventually, the series is going to have to change or else it’s going to get surpassed by games that have much more to prove. If Mario wants to stay on top of the genre, he’s going to need to stop playing it so safe and actually get ahead of the curve instead of simply being ahead in production values.

Above: trying something new; it working, and Nintendo throwing it out like yesterday’s garbage.

Mario isn’t in trouble here. Even the worst game will sell really well and all of Mario’s games are at least at the level of competency that you would expect. The problem is when you realize how much of a downgrade this is when Mario used to be on the cutting edge of every genre he attempted. Whether it was Mario RPG, Super Mario Bros 3, Mario Kart 64, or Super Smash Bros, Mario stood at the top of everything. To an extent, that’s still true, but much of the charm has been drained out of the powerful franchise. Sure risks can lead to divisive games like Super Mario Sunshine, but it’s better to take a risk and fail than to rely on the status quo and die a slow death.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer


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