By now you’ve probably seen the info and stuff for New Super Mario Bros. 2. This is the first time I’ve seen an announcement for a new 2D Super Mario Bros. and felt completely tepid towards it. It’s completely phoned in again. It’s pointless to even get angry about, because that would imply some sort of surprise. In other words, disinterest.
I’ve realized that Super Mario Bros. has become Nintendo’s own soap opera. Most people think of the soap opera as a crappy product, and while that’s true it’s not necessarily a bad thing. A soap opera doesn’t try to be art. It just tries to keep the viewer watching. Otherwise they are created with the least amount of cost. The way they’re shot, the sets they use, the actors they get, are all done for cheapness and efficiency. They just need to tell a dramatic but uncomplicated story, and then end on an unresolved problem. So called artists might mock them, but they have a purpose and serve an audience well.
At the same time, soap operas got lambasted for repeatedly using the same kinds of plot lines and conflicts over and over. Look at the show Soap, or the movie Delirious. They parodied soap operas well because these recurring themes became a joke. Remember what a joke “brain tumors” were? They were often used in an ongoing story to create drama and/or get rid of a character. Brain tumors became a slander against soap operas.
Likewise, Super Mario Bros. is something created for efficiency (at least it is today). It focuses on the same basic principles, which are proven to work, and the games are pretty fun. You don’t need to come in with tons of money and artistic endeavor to make a fun, popular game. But at the same time, all of the content gets continually reused, and it’s becoming a joke. The same worlds, same power ups, the same enemies. Nothing is new, and this is what’s turning me away.
In other words, the content of Super Mario Bros. is becoming the series brain tumor.
I believe you are aiming at the same criticism I made with the other two NSMB games: the lack of content. Content is not just a ‘value’ measured in an economical sense. Content is the Wonderland where the rabbit hole leads.
As someone present (and adult) at every 2d Mario release, there is something that drove spectacular interest into the series that no one (especially not Nintendo) have identified. Or, perhaps, they have identified it but refuse to believe it because of what it implies for the future of escapist video games.
Super Mario Brothers games sold because of Mushroom Land, not because of Mario. Mario was already present in the Donkey Kong games as well as Mario Brothers.
While Mario Brothers sold well, it didn’t sell anywhere near like Super Mario Brothers. So what is the difference between Mario Brothers and Super Mario Brothers? They both have Mario, Luigi, koopa troopas, jumping, shell kicking, and all that.
The major difference is that Mario Brothers takes place in a sewer with a black screen as background. Super Mario Brothers takes place in a scrolling landscape with a blue sky as background. Super Mario Brothers also goes underground, into the sky, underwater, or in gigantic castles. The variety is amazing.
Super Mario Brothers felt like a world. It is the reason why Nintendo could market the ‘World of Nintendo’. Atari could never do that. (Remember, even Zelda felt like a world.)
In the Nintendo Power magazine where Miyamoto has an interview (one of his first appearances), he describes the thinking behind Super Mario Brothers 3. He said that Super Mario Brothers 3 intends to explore the eight mushroom worlds introduced in Super Mario Brothers. Each world has a map with areas like bridges, rivers, and their own king (always transformed into an animal).
Is it any wonder that Miyamoto chose Super Mario World to replace the name of Super Mario Brothers 4? What is Super Mario World but a very in-depth look at Dinosaur Land with its butter bridges, vanilla dome, and phantom forest?
When you play a new 2d Mario game, you expect an expansion of Mushroom World somehow. 3d Mario offers none of this with the exception of Peach’s Castle in Mario 64. Super Mario Sunshine wasn’t even in Mushroom Land and look how that turned out!
NSMB was a disappointment because it offered nothing new about Mushroom Land. This wasn’t such an issue then because it was nearly 20 years since the last 2d Mario. There are generations who have never grown up with a 2d Mario so all this would seem new to them. But following NSMB, I warned, Nintendo would have to introduce some expansion to Mushroom World.
If Nintendo did this before (with Miyamoto even citing it), why not do it now? Why would Nintendo refuse to do this? After Super Mario World and the introduction of Yoshi, what has been added to the Mario Universe? Absolutely nothing. Nothing that is interesting. Nothing on the scale of a Yoshi or a Tanooki Suit.
If you are a longtime observer of Nintendo (like myself), you will have noticed a trend in the developer interviews. Nintendo developers intentionally differentiate themselves from the West and then proclaim their way is superior because it is different.
Western developers (such as Blizzard) go at content by creating concept art and a ‘universe’ before game assets are made. While a game like Warcraft was not imagined to be a MMORPG when Warcraft 1 was made, a type of ‘world’ or mythos of Warcraft was the true aim from the beginning (with even a ‘welcome to the world of warcraft’ in the closing line of Warcraft 1′s intro). Origin, the company who invented the RPG and MMORPG, had as its company motto as ‘We create worlds.’ These companies come up with really cool ideas and concept art first before crafting the gameplay (and ultimately the gameplay will take priority).
An example is Starcraft. Starcraft 1′s developement originally began with the artists doodling cool unit images. When the team would say, “Yeah, that looks really cool!” and they get excited about it, only then would it be used. In Starcraft 2, an example of this process would be the Thor. The art and concept of the Thor came first but the gameplay of the Thor kept wildly changing. (Or take Mists of Pandaria which is a ‘continent’ based off a few wild drawings that a Blizzard artist made in his spare time for fun.)
Nintendo has intentionally differentiated itself from this approach. They thump their chest proudly and say, “Unlike other companies, we start with the gameplay concept first…”
The result is why Nintendo games feel ‘gimmicky’ after the 1990s. They keep making games around new ‘gameplay concepts’ while reusing as many art and sound assets as possible. Normally, this wouldn’t such an issue but since the mission isn’t to expand or create a world, the gamer is left with the feeling that he has played the game before.
The definition of a Nintendo game today is playing the old game in a new way. Hence, in Mario Kart 7 there is hang-gliding. Or in NSMB Wii, there is 4 player multiplayer. Or in Super Mario Galaxy, there is a 3d jumping and orbit gameplay. It is this reason alone that has crashed Nintendo’s market to children because children can be the only demographic that cannot play the old game in a new way… (all games are new to children). And in the height of Wii and DS sales success, the games Nintendo was selling to adults were games like Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Brain Age… none of which were based on the escapist experience. None offered a ‘fictional world’ like, say, Zelda or Metroid does.
And what’s ironic is that Miyamoto and all will lecture us about how ‘innovative’ they are while deriding people like us (who like 2d Mario) as throwbacks or who only like old stuff. Yet, where is the new content? Why hasn’t anything interesting been added to Mushroom World since Super Mario World?
I would go so far to say this is an ideological issue (in game development terms). Nintendo doesn’t see itself in a context of making fun games for people but in a context of a game design ideology. “We are an integrated hardware and software company…” “We always start with the gameplay concept first…”
And this is why playing games stopped being fun. It is like video games have become nothing more than game developers trying to make a ‘statement’ about the ‘nature of game design’ instead of making something fun to play.
Above: Once upon a time, Miyamoto based his games around the ‘world’ concept. Here is concept art of Yoshi drawn back when the original Super Mario Brothers was made. The content was the engine that pulled the gameplay and game experience forward. As the original Super Mario Brothers developers describe it, Miyamoto was creating holes in the ground in which it was their job to fill [with programming, sound, etc.].