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Could Nintendo have considered New Super Mario Bros. Wii to be a risky project?
Editorial by 
November 19, 2009, 07:46:16
I've been hearing a lot from the gaming press and gamers about how NSMBW is sure to surpass the sales of SMG, and perhaps even overtake the 360 SKU of Modern Warfare 2 this year. They talk about it as if its success was assured from the beginning, a foregone conclusion. And first day sales of 500,000 units sure seem to support this prediction.

The same gamers also often lament the fact that Nintendo skimped on presentation, played it safe, instead of giving NSMB Wii the full AAA treatment a Mario game deserves.

Some things are undeniable. Nintendo did skimp on presentation. There's no doubt the game doesn't look as good as it could have. There's no doubt the music could have been new, and orchestral instead of midi. There's no doubt they played it very, very safe.

However, this valid observation is often followed by an asinine explanation: laziness.

Right. Nintendo could have done a better job with the game, it's just no one there felt like it. That makes a whole lot of sense.

On a recent 1up podcast, a guest from Capcom explained that if they are releasing Super Street Fighter 4 on the retail market instead of making the update downloadable content, it's because those things have to be planned from the start, and the people at Capcom weren't sure at the project's onset that the game would be a sales success. With our hindsight and the knowledge that it sold millions, that sounds ridiculous, but the fact is, before SF4 came out, the market for fighting games wasn't exactly thriving. Capcom played it safe with a project it saw as risky.

The point of this tangent is obvious: the sidescroller market on consoles isn't exactly thriving either. I don't know exactly when Nintendo started working on NSMBW, but the fact is, since the beginning of this generation, few sidescrollers have been released with a lot of fanfare on the retail market. Little Big Planet, despite strong and commendable backing from Sony, has been considered somewhat of a flop (Media Molecule has no plan for a sequel), and Wario Land apparently sold 600,000 units worldwide (stronger sales than one perhaps expected, but according to the comments Jeff Kalles, former Associate Producer at Nintendo of America, made on a recent episode of NintendoWorldReport.com's podcast, anything less than a million units is seen as a failure at Nintendo). More recently, A Boy and His Blob flopped in America with fewer than 9,000 units sold in September.

No, the market for sidescroller isn't healthy. And I think we can safely assume that Nintendo is aware of this.

Therefore, isn't it more logical to conclude that if Nintendo "skimped" on presentation, if they didn't try implementing online early enough in the project, if this game isn't all it can be graphics-wise, it has less to do with "laziness", and more with a historically risk-averse company not taking chances with something that was NOT a surefire hit?

Even if it is a Mario game.

Even if on the DS, New Super Mario Bros has thrived. I think we're all aware the Wii and DS markets are significantly different.

Yes, perhaps Nintendo played it too safe. Thankfully, they didn't skimp on good game design or on fun. Let's just hope that with an eventual follow-up, Nintendo will have learned to have more confidence in the power of its mascot, and the genius behind it.

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Posted: 11/19/09, 07:46:16    
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You know, when Nintendo first announced this game I did wonder if it would be a big sales success, but when I started seeing the hype leading up to it all doubts were cast aside. It's not only going to be a huge success, I think it may indeed surpass 10 million sold worldwide when all is said and done.

I think it is clear they did play it safe, and I have a third possible suggestion that is neither laziness nor lack of faith in sales. MY (admittedly pulled from thin air) theory is that this game was kind of thought up "last minute" (6-9 months ago? A year maybe?) and rushed for a holiday release so Nintendo would not go two holidays in a row with nothing the "core" would care about. If you think about their lineup this year, what else could they have used as a holiday release? Wii Sports Resort was pretty much built to be a summer game, what with being on a resort. Punch-Out!!? ExciteBots? Eh. They kind of needed a Mario.

Posted by 
 on: 11/19/09, 08:11:23
Yeah, that's also likely. I kind of wanted to acknowledge this possibility in my editorial, but didn't want to muddy up my point.

I don't know if a year is enough, though. Surely they spent more time than that on it...?

I'm looking forward to the Iwata Asks interview.

Posted by 
 on: 11/19/09, 08:18:46
It's difficult to say really. Insomniac manages to get new Ratchet games out every year and those are full 3D games. If they re-used a lot of the DS code (which it is clear they DID for a lot of things, basic controls, yada yada) I think this game could be done in under a year.

Really though, trying to guess how long a game takes to make seems kind of pointless (which is why I said I pulled it from thin air), especially if you don't know how big the team was. I'm just throwing out gross speculation, based mostly on the fact that the game was only announced what... 5 months ago? and that it looks way too similar to the DS game to not be based off of the DS code to some extent...

Posted by 
 on: 11/19/09, 08:24:08
It might have been rushed for the holidays, but I do think that it was a guaranteed sales smash. The DS title sold tremendously. The DS isn't the Wii, but 2D Mario is bankable. Even Punch-Out! did pretty well on the nostalgia factor. The Mario nostalgia factor is exponentially higher. I saw sales predictions for Nintendo's upcoming slate of software, somewhere. I don't know if they were from Nintendo or a third-party. It would be nice if I could find them...

Also, I don't think the style of the game is due to laziness. I keep saying this, but I think the Wii game was intentionally done in the style of the DS game, because they wanted to capture that humongous, humongous audience. I mean, look at the fricking name! They even risked people thinking it was a port, just to associate more closely with the DS game.

Also, Nintendo seems to have settled on a clean, utilitarian 'look' for Mario across the board (perhaps to create consistency in a wide variety of titles). They seem pretty satisfied with making him look like an N64 manual character render. He hasn't really had a radical change in a while, unlike Link and Samus. They just keep moving him closer to that render.

Posted by 
 on: 11/19/09, 17:04:03
Apparently as far back as August Iwata expected 10 million in sales for the game.

And apparently Wario Land Shake it has sold 700k so far... not a chart topper, but I think based of of that Nintendo could at LEAST expect a couple million from a 2D Mario game.

So yeah, I'm going to stick with "it was rushed for the holidays" as to why the presentation values suffer a bit (it'd be very tough to argue that they are even on the level of Wario Land's or even certain previous 2D Mario games.) They were probably given a short deadline and a small budget and told to get it done, so they focused on what was most important and stuck with "passable" for the rest...

Posted by 
 on: 11/19/09, 19:02:43
They didn't play it safe because it's a 2D platformer, they just stuck with the visual style of NSMB on DS because that game was a chart-topper and people will instantly recognize the Wii version as more of the same. It is, essentially a sequel to the DS game. Furthermore, I don't expect huge presentation values from my 2D Mario. I never complained about this stuff with the DS version, nor the past 2D games. I go in expecting a purely fun and creative platforming experience with a decent challenge, and this is what I got with NSMB Wii and I couldn't be happier.

Posted by 
 on: 11/19/09, 20:08:25
Well, 2D Mario has actually always been pretty state-of-the-art, until this rendition (excluding Lost Levels).

Posted by 
 on: 11/19/09, 21:17:11
Hmm, but would a Wii Mario game REALLY need a visual connection to a popular DS Mario game? I doubt anyone wouldn't make the connection on their own, and an updated visual style probably would have pushed over some of the haters.

Of course, it is still going to sell like 10 billion copies. You almost have to wonder if someone at Nintendo (probably in a business suit) is thinking why not just get rid of our higher paid artists and hire all low end artists? I'm not entirely certain if Nintendo games need great graphics to sell, though it probably matters more for a Metroid or Zelda game, or even a Mario Galaxy, than a 2D platformer.

As far as state of the art, not much of anything 2D is given that production anymore. I don't expect state of the art, nor do I expect Miyamoto and his best designers to spend 2 or 3 years on a 2D platformer anymore. But I do kind of wish it had at least been given the attention to visuals that Wario Land got...

Posted by 
 on: 11/19/09, 21:32:42
Dammit, I still; have to get Muramasa too... so many games...

Oh, on topic.

I lean more towards the theory of cost vs. risk on this one, because nothing is really guaranteed... particularly with 2D platformers. They're going to make out like bandits on this one though; just from the word of mouth when I went to reserve my copy and leading up to it, the buzz was high. Aside from online, I've heard nothing but great things about it. I'll know for sure once my group of gaming friends gets together this Saturday and we play it.

Posted by 
 on: 11/20/09, 06:58:45
Giving the graphics the same production value would have skyrocketed the cost.

But it's also going to sell approximately hmm... I'm going to say 20-30 times as much as Wario Land did. I don't think the dev costs are a huge issue.

Honestly, I think Nintendo just needed a holiday release and had to get it out the door. And really, I'd have preferred a more interesting style, but IF I'm correct I think they made the right move. I wouldn't want to wait months just to get prettier graphics on a game like this. Zelda or Galaxy, maybe.

Posted by 
 on: 11/20/09, 07:44:38
I'm going to take a heretical viewpoint and say that I feel Wario Land is actually somewhat overanimated, to the point where the controls lose responsiveness and 'snap'. It's beautiful, but it lacks the arcade impact of Mario.

As beautiful as Muramasa is, it DOESN'T have that problem, because of the more modest, briefer animation cycles.

Just throwing that out there.

Posted by 
 on: 11/20/09, 18:01:03
I don't think it would cost 20-30 times as much at all though. I admit I'm a bit unclear on how budgets actually work out in the long run, but I can't imagine moving to hand-drawn would multiply a budget by THAT much... if so, there is no way smaller developers would ever make hand-drawn games.

Anyhow, the visuals of New Super Mario Brothers are certainly workable, so it doesn't really matter. But I'd bet they could have come up with a more interesting style that still functions well had they really put the full force of Nintendo's artists behind the game. If not hand-drawn, then 3D, but more INTERESTING 3D.

Posted by 
 on: 11/20/09, 19:32:18
Here's another take: maybe the "lower" production costs were used to maximize profits. They knew the game would sell a ridiculous amount, so they purposefully spent little cash on presentation, thus more or less insuring a massive return.

Besides that, the whole idea behind the "NEW" Super Mario games is that they are a throwback to the games from the NES era. The game didn't need or really warrant high production values - and Nintendo knew that. I still wish the music wasn't MIDI, but... eh. Still sounds fine.

Posted by 
 on: 11/24/09, 13:53:44
But if they just wanted to maximize profits, why would they bother with Super Mario Galaxy ?

That's an interesting question and frankly I often apply it to publishers across the board. Like, as much as I bash EA for their recent "we're taking our top franchises and canning everything else" approach, I often wonder why more developers don't do it. But moreso for Nintendo, I often wonder why they bother with any "big budget" games (Galaxy, Prime, Zelda) when they can do smaller budget games to massive success.

I think, what it comes down to is, despite people freaking out about Nintendo totally abandoning the "core" gamer and making all uber casual games, they just can't do it. You need a wide variety of all kinds of software to keep yourself selling healthy amounts of consoles, and Super Mario Galaxy selling 8 million copies is still a huge, huge success that brings in many Wii gamers and gives the Wii a "must have" title that the entire industry is willing to pimp, despite the fact that New Super Mario Brothers will sell more and (presumably) cost a lot less to make (and also, from early reports, is selling consoles in a big way). And though Wii Music may have picked up a few million sales without much dev costs, did it really sell consoles? Can Nintendo release a new Wii Sports every year and keep people buying it? Nintendo could probably rehash New Super Mario Brothers over and over, but I'm not sure how many of their other small budget, big sales games they could really keep selling if they kept rehashing, especially since if they simply stopped the big, epic games like Zelda, Mario, and Metroid they would lose a LOT of fans. Actually despite all of the talk of all of these uber casual games, Nintendo seems to be only about 50/50 turning them into big (let's say, 5+ million copies) successes on the Wii. I think there is a lot of trickle down at work, there is a certain type of gamer you get to buy a console with software like Super Mario Galaxy, etc. but then they also buy Wii Sports Resort...

And another concern would be, how do you attract top developers in the industry if you're not making games developers can get passionate about? Nintendo's overall output would probably suffer eventually if they dropped all of their higher end games, because those are the type of games a lot of the best developers seem to want to work on. Personally, if I were a developer, I'd much rather work on a Mario, Metroid, or Zelda than a Wii Sports or Wii Music. Though you have the "bridge" games like Mario Kart and New Super Mario Brothers that can still be pretty exciting from a developer perspective. I dunno.

"it looks so... simple. something that could be done in a few minutes. Zero's never going to believe me if I tell him how much time I spent on it."

Oh, I will. I spent a LOT of time on the current look and it is ass ugly. I realize that quality takes time.

Posted by 
 on: 11/24/09, 21:52:00
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