Look, I don't care how beloved or iconic something is, if you keep shoving it in our faces it's bound to get old and stale at some point. Just like anything, you can only really ingest something in moderation for an extended period of time, the same thing over and over becomes predictable and uninteresting. Our beloved friend, the Star Wars series, is at terminal risk of succumbing to this fate. Come on Disney, how do you think a new Star Wars movie EVERY YEAR until "we don't feel like it" would end well (other than the billions of dollars in gross revenue, and not to mention the lucrative opportunity to license and merchandise everything from here until eternity)? I've talked about this at length before in some of my other articles so I won't stray away too far here from my main point.
Whether it's an entire franchise, like the aforementioned Star Wars, or a single mascot IP, like say, ohhh I don't know, Sonic the Hedgehog (who if you need a bit of context as to why he's a failing IP, just give any review of Sonic '06 a look), if you keep selling the same product year in and out expecting your audience to be just as captivated and excited as they were when they first became attached, you're going to run into a bit of trouble. You know real talk, this intro paragraph is a little flimsy for my taste. I don't want to talk down too many franchises, you never know who is attached to what. And while I'm not necessarily here to please anyone, there isn't a particular franchise that has offended me more so than any other franchise that has fallen victim to the same MOTHER FUCKING TOY STORY THAT'S IT. GOD I was stuck trying think of one, I knew it was in there. Yeah Toy Story is a great example of the shit I'm talking about, and if you're sitting there in your Herman Miller Aeron Chair thinking to yourself, "well Nick I actually liked all the Toy Story movies, and think there's nothing wrong with the franchise at all" then I shall refer you to this video and ask if you still feel the same way. And if you still don't, well shit, why they doing Toy Story 4 huh? HUH??? Yeah, that's what I thought, I'm not very nice what are you going to do about it >:P?
Anyways, already deflected two tangents, I'm off to a great start here. I'll get your attention back though. You like video games? You know those guys at Nintendo? Pokemon and Gameboy people! Yeah, they have been killing the video game industry since it officially became one. In a world where big names come and go as quickly as they emerged in the public eye, Nintendo has reminded damn near the only consistent video game entity for the past 30 or so years (and yeah I know they've been around since the 1800s, but that was for different stuff like playing cards haha crazy). I could go into so much detail (and believe me one day I will) about how they've played the industry so smart by sticking to their guns and making not just good, but masterful and transcendent video games through precise and thorough design. But I wanna take a step back and talk about something a bit more observable and digestible as an introduction to me talking about Nintendo as a whole. Going back to my original statements earlier, Nintendo actually does appear to fall victim when it comes to shoving an icon in our faces. That's right, the ambiguously racist red plumber himself, Mario. But here's the difference: Mario in 2017 is just as fresh and exciting as he was when he was first introduced as Jumpman in original Donkey Kong arcade game from 1981.
Now really think about that, don't just take my word for it. Think back to when you first heard about Mario and what you hear about Mario today, and think about how he hasn't gotten stale, tired and old yet. Weird right? Why is that? Well, all you have to do is look at the main line of Mario games since the first Super Mario Bros. To put it briefly, Mario represents the evolution of platforming mastery though it's inception. Platforming for the longest time was closest associated with the overall impression of video games before games like Minecraft and FPS's like Call of Duty and Overwatch took over in popularity. Mario is the relative representative for the evolution of the platformer, and in turn, video games in general. And I want to break it down game by game to show you kind of what I mean. But first, I wanna talk a little about Mario in general.
Mario is a very unique character, in that you don't really know what the hell to make of him. Red Italian plumber who eats mushrooms to grow bigger (and yes they did draw inspiration from the hallucinogens in case you were wondering) and save a non-Italian princess from a giant turtle monster. It's so out there that you almost just accept it at face value, hell most people did back in '85. But I think one of the most important distinctions Mario has is that he doesn't talk. Yes he has his one liners (voiced by the legendary Charles Martinet), and he'll make noises and chuckles as he jumps, but you'll never catch my mans uttering more than a few words ever. To me, the lack of talking allows you as the player to relate and immerse yourself into the character you're controlling. He doesn't have distinct personality features other than he's resolute to save the day. No political preferences, no predominant moods, no annoying traits or qualities. This makes him such a malleable character that you can stretch out over the years without becoming stale, and place into almost any scenario (and believe me Nintendo tries every scenario). This to me is all key in the Red Plumber's staying power. His brother Luigi both the other hand, has a pretty defined personality in comparison, and though he gets his love every now and then, there is a reason why Mario stay in first place, you know? Anyways, let's take a look at Mario's games thourghout the years:
Super Mario Bros. (NES 1985) - The first true Mario platformer. Since it was a launch title of the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), Nintendo's first consumer home console, Super Mario Bros. became the de facto video game. Many NES's were packaged with either this game or Tetris out the box, so many people's first video game experience, in general, was Mario himself. Mario became associated and synonymous with video games. A classic to say the least. It had tight controls, an observable objective, changing worlds with varied levels of difficulty and terrain, memorable and diverse enemies, and of course, the iconic music. This helped shape people's minds and impressions of what to expect from a video game with the same mechanics as this game (which was a 2D side-scrolling platformer). Not to mention it was chalk full of secrets that kept the replayability factor very high.
Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES 1988) - WE DON'T COUNT THIS ONE ALRIGHT?? It wasn't even made by the guys who make Mario so it's k let's move on.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES 1988) - This one took everything that made the first game great and just made it better. Upgrades in the visuals, increases on the number of levels, new power-ups that involved new methods of play like flying, the first Mario overworld (one day I'll talk about how fucking important overworlds are), themed worlds, new varied bosses, recurring enemies integrated with newer and original-er ones, and how about some more iconic music. Everything about this game was a noticeable upgrade from the first in every aspect. How can they possibly top themselves from here?
Super Mario World (SNES 1990) - How can they top themselves from Mario 3 you ask seconds ago? Well, how about by making possible my all time favorite video game? Yes, Super Mario World is my favorite Mario game ever. I grew up on its Gameboy port, and I have such fond and vivid memories of trying to beat these super colorful yet super challenging levels. This game upped the ante even more. It was made on the SNES wich meant an upgrade from 8-bit to 16-bit graphics baby, the sky was the limit (not to mention the processing power but like, colors!). I can almost copy and paste what I said about Mario 3 on to here because it essentially does that but I'll elaborate even further. There's something about this Mario world that you're in that feels soooo immersive. The word's levels are segmented into different areas such as woods, caves, and deserts. The woods levels feel woodsy and more closed off from the normal open levels, the cave levels feel dark and chilling, the ghost houses make you feel like you're in a haunted ass house with some ghost trickery afoot, which you certainly are. Though they all have distinct feels, they are all thematically tied together. You are in this world with Mario, and you enjoy ever single minute of it. One other thing I'd like to point out is the controls here, yet again, are tight as hell. I want to link this video on how the camera, something you don't think about ever in a 2D side scroller, changes as you play. It's pretty mind blowing the level of attention put into it.
(I'm skipping the game boy games sorry fanboy)
Super Mario 64 (N64 1996) - New console from Nintendo naturally meant a new Mario game. But wait this console was in 64-bit, meaning that you got to upgrade to a whole new linear plane (I think, Calc was 4 years ago for me *sighs*), that's right, 3D baby! This game, while still somehow being a launch title and having no other 3D platformer to reference and build upon, showed the world how you make a 3D platformer. And that is to me, to put it simply, a confined and explorable world with clear and semi-linear objectives, and just enough personal space given to you as the player. The way the worlds were set up were big enough for you to explore, with observable areas you could reach, but perhaps access in only in the later part of that world. Instead of creating a new level where your goal was to reach the finish line from the start, you instead had to collect stars (the unit of progression in all 3D Mario games) either laid out explicitly in the level you selected, or by completing side missions like collecting all coins or sometimes special NPC (non-playable characters) quests(?). There were even secret stars hidden throughout the levels. While how you earned stars changed every time, areas you played in stay the same for each objective. Meaning you were able to become familiar with a given world naturally while still progressing in the game, making more difficult sections feel more earned and a greater challenge. Nintendo outdid themselves with this iteration and is considered the favorite amongst many Mario fans.
Super Mario Sunshine (GameCube 2002) - My favorite 3D Mario game. I'll keep this one short because there is a point to all of these breakdowns that I want to get to. Think of what Mario World did after Mario 3, Sunshine did after Mario 64. The world of Delfino Island is so goddamn immersive. I swear to you half of my obsession with the beach, and if you know me personally it's pretty big, comes from this game. When I play Smash Bros. I almost exclusively select the Delfino Plaza Map just so I can feel like I'm in this game's world. It's consistent, just like Mario World, nothing about the world feels disjointed. It's got the same elements from 64, but now you have F.L.O.O.D. tool which adds an extra layer of depth to your gameplay. Just a really good time!
Mario Galaxy 1 & 2 (Wii 2008, 2010) - I tied these two games together because in my opinion 2 is just a continuation and slight improvement on 1. These games expanded outside the universe, cleverly using the space and planet theme as an excuse to go to crazy diverse and different worlds. It works so well and the game is so gorgeous. The motion controls and the gravity aspects of the gameplay are what's worth noting here. Different objects have different levels of gravity and it kind of felt like you were really platforming on space objects. It feels and controls like a Mario game, but there's no mistaking when you're playing Mario Galaxy.
You can see now why Mario hasn't gotten stale right? It's not about Mario himself, no. It's about the adventures he takes on and the subsequent boundaries he (Nintendo) pushes. Mario is our reference point to how much Nintendo has just upped the ante year after year with their impeccable game design. He is our reminder that video games can be made endlessly with the same IP if you execute properly and keep changing up the formula in an appropriate way; Keeping it just familiar enough for you to invest in the first place, but new and innovative enough to make you surprised and excited about playing a Mario game. He truly represents how good games have become better throughout the years.
Now you may be noticing I left out a few Mario Games in there, and I'm not talking about the spin-offs like Mario Kart. Yes, I left out the New Super Mario Bros. games. Not because they're bad, no they're good games objectively. They serve to hit my main point home. They were the first games to really pimp out the Mario IP. They took all the elements fans saw as iconic and made it into a high def reskin of Mario 1. Now that's not a bad thing to do once, and maybe, MAYBE, twice. But there are 4 (and a half*), new super Mario bros games. They are really just retreads of the previous iterations with slight improvements in level variety, the most coming out of New Super Mario Bros U. It wasn't enough to distract from the fact that they weren't changing anything, adding new music, creating new enemies, making super interesting powerups, or adding new depth to the controls. They just seemed complacent in the fact that it was Mario, and designed Mario tight. But as you can see from the breakdown of all the games, each iteration in the series really raised the bar from the previous game. They each had a distinct and unique personality and feel that you were easily able to distinguish just by saying the title alone. It seemed like Nintendo was beginning to finally settle on the Mario license (I mean this version of Mario aesthetically and spiritually is the one that is portrayed in Nintendo advertisements the most).
* That half part I was talking about in the 4 and a half New Super Mario Bros. was Mario 3D World for the Wii U. This one is tough, because it's a really good game and a lot of fun, but it felt like they took Mario Galaxy and stripped it down to just a basic Mario game, with nothing extra distinct like a world surrounding it, or a new innovation in gameplay. It's still fun as hell so.... half haha.
All hope seemed a little lost there in the Mushroom Kingdom, for me at least. I thought Nintendo had hit its breaking point and really settled on who they wanted Mario to be as their flagship IP. But then the Nintendo Switch was announced. And then all these crazy launch titles start having their trailers released. They announced a new Mario game, and holy shit guys I think we're in for a good one: Mario Oddesy. I kind of want to see if this at all proves my theory or not before the game is out. If you look at any of the gameplay and trailers, you'll see that this looks like a weird ass Mario game. He's in New York with humans, a weird Mexican area, he's taking the bodies T-Rex's and frogs via an anthropomorphic hat, there's like a wedding or something, shit is weird. But it looks different. It looks like a new and refreshing approach to the formula. This is the first Mario game that looks like you won't enter specific levels and you just sort of find your stars (or in this game moons) by just generally exploring the world, an open world Mario game if you will. That's bold, and I like it. You can also tell from my testimonies of the Mario games, that I really value the ones with immersive and consistent worlds. While this won't have a main singular world like Sunshine or Mario World, the main focus of this game seems to be exploration and world immersion, so I'm super optimistic for what this game has to offer.
Bonus points for anyone who can correctly guess how many times I said "Mario" in this post. What else can I say other than if you keep it interesting, you can have any IP stay relevant forever? Micky Mouse sticks around, but think about how many Micky Mouse movies or shows Disney has put out since 1922. He mainly serves as the mascot to represent Disney, not something they can ride into the ground over and over with movies like I dunno TOY STORY. Sorry. And maybe Mario's case can only be exclusive to video games, as a film or show has no freedom for the consumer to have a say on what happens. But I do believe if you take the essence fo the Mario approach and apply it to any respective field or industry, you will at least be met with at the very least some of the same success (has to be authentic tho). As for our Italian friend, it appears Nintendo is still trying to push his relevancy to future generations the right way, and I only hope and pray we speak about Mario Odessy in the same light as the other games broken down. Nintendo stay killing it my guys, I hope that Mario theme park is lit as hell. Alright now, can someone loan me their Switch?