Let's talk creativity and the NSMB series - is it possible to be classic, 100% accessible and truly innovative at the same time?
Back in 2004 Nintendo released the NES Classics series on the GameBoy Advance to surprising sales. The original Super Mario Bros. stood out as the highlight among these thirty games. It was released again the following year in a special edition and sold nearly another million copies.
A 20 year old game, was still massively popular. Cue lightbulb.
This moment of realisation came at a time when Nintendo was struggling for market share more than ever before, and was probably responsible for spawning two things; the virtual console on the Wii and the birth of New Super Mario Bros. That arrived first on the DS in 2006, then on the Wii in 2009, and we're seeing new entries on both the 3DS and the Wii U this year. Each of those games is, or will be, a multi-million seller.
Watching this new 2D series develop has been an interesting lesson in creativity VS tradition.
The NSMB series is advertised as "classic Mario" and when Nintendo says that they're not kidding around. Each game is visually crisp, the level design and controls are polished, they ape the original game like well-oiled machines, reprising a few elements from the later NES and SNES games and even adding a few new, unobtrusive ideas, but they stick doggedly to the simplest, most accessible form of Mario platforming. Despite the high quality these games are the definition of predictable. It's ironic that by setting out to satisfy the massive demand for "traditional" and "familiar" Mario gaming, Nintendo has ended up at odds with the spirit of the orginal 2D games, each of which had a magical X-factor that made them unique.
The original Super Mario Bros. games each introduced bold new ideas :
The NSMB series is much harder to distinguish between, and not just because they look similar:
NSMB is derivative, not innovative, but is that an insult or a necessity? Is Nintendo choosing financial reward over creativity, or are they just creating classic Mario for the most amount of people? It's a balancing act, for sure. One game per system isn't really overkill, and so long as we're getting our Galaxies and 3D Lands we're not really in a position to complain. Nintendo Tokyo have taken the mantle of the series, the responsibility of saying that Mario games should be visually surprising and inventive. NSMB is less ambitious...
Can you pitch a 'true' old fashionned Mario game that's also full of innovation? Something that will seem familiar to the people who stopped playing after the SNES and never scare them away?
I think Nintendo will have to try harder to do that from now on, and I have some ideas of my own, but I'm curious what you guys would do with the next game.
That said, people can have a tendency to reject the new and pine for the familiar, people don't know what they want until they see it, and all those clichés. Nintendo employees have a very tough job, something I try to not forget.
Indeed. A very, very wise thing to constantly have in the back of our minds as we play Monday-morning-game-designer. :)
Time and again I notice people plugging Mario Galaxy as "creative" but I just don't see it. The gravity gimmick was unique, no doubt, but it didn't really CHANGE things. FLUDD, flaws and all, really took things in different directions. Having to clean off goop, fill up containers, hover with limited time, manage resources, and even change how Mario moves based on the water he could put down, these things all really pushed the series. Was it perfect? No. Heavens no. Worst final boss of any game ever, for example. :P But that said, I still give it the highest marks for creativity. Gravity was cool, but it wasn't as series-changing as FLUDD. (To me, anyway. I certainly can see the other side of the argument, especially since more people liked Galaxy! :) ) With the gravity thing, you still had traditional Mario doing the exact same traditional Mario things, now with more upside-down.
@J.K. Riki Don't forget about all the motion control and pointer gimmicks in Galaxy. Rolling on the star balls, tethering to those blue gravity spots, blowing Mario around with the pointer... Sure, no single one of them was as central to the experience as FLUDD was to Sunshine, but taken as a whole, they were more prevalent than most players seem to remember.
I was going to mention Super Mario Galaxy in my post, but I felt like I'd be getting too wordy. I think that was the accomplishment of Galaxy, it had many creative ideas to make it fresh and fun, but it wasn't a huge overhaul so it still felt like a "Mario" game. The interesting thing about Super Mario Sunshine is that the idea wasn't originally conceived as a Mario title, the Mario elements were added in later. Even before I learned that about the game, it did feel a bit off as a Mario title. I s'pose this raises a whole other question though, one being "At what point should an idea become a new IP?" As well as even getting into what elements make a series a series. But I s'pose the simple answer there is that things become existing IP since they tend to sell better than new IPs.
It's also a good point that not all ideas are good ideas, and it can be tough to weed them out. Experimenting usually needs to be done to figure out what works and what doesn't, and I s'pose not everyone wants to go through those rough phases.
@Jargon Oh yeah, I meant to insert a comment about how I'm glad Splatoon has been selling well. Some of Nintendo's other newer IP haven't sold all that well though, such as Pikmin or Chibi-Robo. Super Mario Sunshine likely would have sold a lot less if it weren't a Mario game. Prince Fluff's Yarn would probably not do as well as Kirby Epic Yarn. And there's no way that Dragon King or whatever would have been the mega-hit that Smash Bros. has become, though that one probably isn't fair since part of the appeal of Smash Bros. is the character worlds colliding.
I s'pose it just needs to be the right genre and idea to succeed. Stuff like Pikmin and Chibi-Robo may not have the mass appeal that Splatoon does, for example.
To be fair, Pikmin sold plenty enough to get two sequels (and a rumored next one on the way). As for my sweet little Chibi, some ideas are just so great that they are lost to the masses. :P
Regarding your earlier comment about Sunshine not being Mario originally, maybe THAT is the solution. Set out to design "a fun new platformer game" and then plan to, eventually, turn it into a new Mario title. Maybe then we'd see more creativity than just Cat Suits (which can be fun, but it's no FLUDD).
All this talk makes me desperately want to go play Sunshine again. And Mario 64. And Banjo-Kazooie...
@J.K. Riki I'm not suggesting those IPs crashed and burned, just that they did not sell as well as more established IPs. Though, in the case of Pikmin, I think the main reason they continue it is because it's Miyamoto's baby.
Personally, I don't care what kind of IP wraps an idea. A fun game is a fun game is a fun game. If they have to use an established IP to sell a new idea, it doesn't bother me as long as it's fun.
Well aside from the Wii U Pikmin (which, to be fair, is probably do to system sales being poor) the others all were over million sellers. You certainly could be right about the baby thing. Maybe a combination of both? I doubt if Pikmin sold 200,000 copies Nintendo would sign on to two more, Miyamoto's baby or not.
I agree a fun game is a fun game. I think it's also nice to have a balance between old and new IPs. Some years it feels like that balance is off in favor of "Let's slap Zelda and Mario on anything we can."