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.
I think it all comes down to presentation. The game needs to be completely overhauled from visuals, to sound, to even stuff like the world map. I haven't played NSMB2 so I could be wrong on this but I don't thing the shortcomings are going to be gameplay related. Unfortunately, as long as the games keep selling as well as they do I don't think we will see much of a change on this front. You don't want to scare the casuals off with big sudden changes in appearance.
Presentation is definitely a big part of it, but I'd like some big ideas that hit the core of the gameplay too. The suits in Super Mario 3 were big, and Yoshi in Super Mario World was big. And if you look at the 3D Mario games, FLUDD was big (even if you hate him) and the gravity mechanics in Galaxy were huge. Perhaps Galaxy 2 didn't add much to the mix, but it was kind of known that it was an expanded Galaxy 1.5, and it still brought Yoshi into 3D in an actual fun way (unlike Sunshine...) Maybe 3D Land didn't have much new but the whole 3D game played like a 2D game was a brand new way to play Mario.
I know this is kind of dangerous territory and can easily backfire, but... why just Yoshi? Why not introduce something new to ride on? Heck, Super Mario 2 had you flying on a magic carpet and Super Mario Land had you flying in a spaceship...
And maybe get more creative with the level concepts. I kind of already knew what to expect with NSMB 2... grass, desert, water, ice, sky, fire, etc. I think the Galaxy games did a way better job of this than the NSMB games do.
Remember when Ghost Houses were a new thing? They changed the way you played a bit, creating a sort of mystery within the stage of where to go and how to get there and often having multiple paths / exits and such. It felt fresh, at the time. We don't get much of anything truly new in the 2D games anymore, on a conceptual level.
With all of this said I'm enjoying NSMB 2 more than I expected. It's very polished, if predictable.
I agree with Zero in that the scenery needs to be refreshed. Come on, the Mushroom Kingdom isn't a real place, Nintendo could and should do more daring things with it. We don't even get stuff like the "giant world" in Mario 3 anymore.
Supposedly the various worlds in Mario 3 were inspired by a trip the team made to Disneyland. Well, do another field trip, Nintendo. The Mushroom Kingdom is now way too defined a place. The various Mario teams only seem to look at past Mario games for inspiration. It's time they looked outside.
I'm not sure if this would exactly be the most creative route to take but I know that with NSMB2, I was hoping it would be a revisit to Subcon... and it wasn't. Why not bring it back while keeping some of the old elements intact? Have Wart come out of Mario's nightmares and bring all of Subcon with him to invade Mushroom Kingdom. Wart and Bowser could team up and have all of Mushroom Kingdom be warped into a nightmare if you will. Features some of the old and fresh new ideas of course.
NSMB2 being an hommage to what we know as SMB2 was never gonna happen. Not only do the Japanese in general not think of that game as SMB2, but the guy in charge of the Mario series right now never worked on Doki Doki Panic. He doesn't share the good memories of it that Miyamoto might have.
I agree about the points of presentation and predictability.
Doing something as rudimentary as changing the level themes could go a long, long way. I actually kind of groaned when I beat World 1 in NSMB2 and was introduced to yet ANOTHER desert world. There's really no reason why we can't have a new set of themed stages. Off the top of my head...toys, dreams, sky palaces, graveyards, factories, theme park, circus, undersea cities, a monster's belly, outer space? This is the Mushroom Kingdom, after all, a colorful and magical place, and many of those themes have been used in past Mario games anyway. I'd rather see that kind of stuff than more boring water stages.
So we got new settings. What else? Change the art style to full-on, beautiful 2D sprites--or failing that, highly-detailed Rayman Legends-type models with crazy good animation. Mario's world should feel magical and inviting, not sterile like a plastic toy. I've been replaying SM3DL lately and the attention to detail is so far beyond the NSMB series, it's crazy. Wonderfully detailed backgrounds that give the stages a sense of scope and creativity, small touches like the 1-ups looking extra bulbous and bouncy, the bros. looking up at ? blocks and hidden blocks...little flourishes like this go a long, long way. Crank up the whimsy and make the series look more like Galaxy and less like Mario Party.
GIVE IT A NEW SOUNDTRACK. If they have to reuse themes, at least pick them from the series' best soundtracks. No one cares about the boring NSMB desert song or the forgettable water one. 3D Land borrowed SMG's Boo theme and it was a nostalgic treat as opposed to making players roll their eyes.
Better bosses all-around. NSMBW got on the right track, but I'd love to see the Koopalings really bring out something more spectacular than their wands. Give Lemmy a full-on big top circus battle, with him balancing on a ball on a tightrope, juggling flaming pins and a horde of elephants and lions at his disposal. Have Ludwig playing an enormous, Boo-spewing organ (complete with a fugue) during his fight! Iggy in NSMBW was a step in the right direction, but...bigger! Better! Harder! (that's what sh-*brick*)
Give us a world worth exploring. The world map of SMW was the best in the series and I have no idea why they haven't done that again. It gives a great atmosphere to the kingdom as well as a sense of location.
Finally, on a more gameplay-related note, Mario should have some sort of new mechanic that leads to new types of level designs. SMB3 had the Raccoon Tail and the suits, and World had Yoshi and the more exploratory level elements. These were fairly significant additions that only added to the core gameplay of the Mario series and didn't alienate players.
And that's about it. The level designs are still strong and those would remain strong. There just needs to be far more effort put into these games' general presentation and feeling of "newness," because the same old models, enemies, world themes, music, and to a lesser extent bosses aren't doing these games any favors.
If they did all this, I'd suggest losing the "New" label entirely to appeal to gamers like me who've been frustrated with the stagnancy of the sub-series. Call it Super Mario Bros. Returns or something, something to distinguish it as a new, improved sidescroller.
Oh I know, I read about that. But dammit, I still want it to happen someday But NSMB2 is more of the same. Can't they look at even older games and be like "Hey, I can do more of the same from Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA)!"
EDIT: I mean that as looking to older games for inspiration. Who cares if they haven't worked on it? Can't they just sit through and play it?
One thing I've always struggled with in the "new" Mario games is that they don't seem to take advantage of newer technologies and effects. I don't mean that the game should look hyper realistic, but I feel like the games should take advantage of the fact that they're on powerful systems. DKCR did this to great effect. Diddy and DK get launched in and out of the background. Pillars and other objects fall from the background and into their path (which was also done in Yoshi's Island). These games do not simply feel like they're collections of tilesets, but they feel like organic little obstacle courses whose rules are more subtle. Maybe I need to play some more games, but honestly, I feel like Yoshi's Island and DKCR are two of the only games that really try to push the 2D platformer forward in that regard. While yes, you'll have games like Mutant Mudds that have you going through different planes of depth, I feel like DKCR blends THAT idea with OTHER ideas so well, that at times it stops feeling like a game and starts feeling like an experience.
I think it's also worth mentioning that Super Mario World did introduce more than simply switches and Yoshi. The game was structurally much more advanced than both SMB1 and even SMB3. Some levels had multiple exits that allowed you to access certain parts of the map that you couldn't access before. The whole Star World wasn't just a group of bonus levels at the end of the game, but rather a hub for all the major warp points in the game. Warping wasn't just a game mechanic...it was a place. Super Mario World, more than any other Mario game before or since, did a great job of putting the players in a "world," rather than a collection of obstacles to overcome.
Some might say that a world map and navigation gets in the way of the action (which I may agree with in the 3D games to an extent), but I think it does much, much more. It gives the player context. "Where am I? What am I doing?" It helps them feel like they're making progress. "Look at how far on the map I've traveled." It worked well in SMB3, but SMW took it one step further by having one BIG map rather than 8 separate maps. I don't think people really think about how much of an impact that has on the player. In Super Mario World, your goal is to get to each of those castles on the world map, and you know exactly how far in the game you are. Sometimes, you might not be able to see a castle on the world map. Where could it be? Oh, it's in this cave area, or in this forest area. And what is going to happen once you conquer all of these castles? Where else is there to go? Little surprises like that really color a player's experience. And that, more than anything, is what I feel the New Super Mario Bros. games are missing - surprises. I think there's a reason that I like NSMBW's final boss more than any other part of the game, because it's the only part of the game that really played with my expectations.
If I were to pitch the next Mario game, I would take the ideas in Super Mario World and take them even further. If Super Mario Bros. 3 had 8 isolated world maps, and Super Mario World had 1 world map (even if it sometimes had you going into a cave or a forest), I would take that a step further by making that 'map' even more seamless (without taking away how important that map is for the gamer).
I've said it before, but in my ideal Mario game, a level doesn't really end in the traditional sense. There could be a flagpole or a gate at the end of the level, but the player would not get kicked out to a menu or level select. They'd just keep running and the game would seamlessly transform into the next level. A plain would gradually change into a forest. Think about how the game Limbo handles the separation between levels. In essence, there really is none. And it greatly enhances the pacing of the experience. When you're constantly making progress, the game could be hard to put down.
The player would essentially be seeing Mario's world from his perspective. Think about the first level in the upcoming NSMBU. You see a castle both on the world map and in the background of 1-1. As you progress through the game, ideally, that castle would become bigger and bigger in the background. Landmarks in the world map would always be visible in the background. Are you in a sky level? Perhaps you see landmark mountains in the distance. "Oh, look at that mountain that looks like Mt. Rushmore. That gives me an idea of what is to come."
Whenever a background element or environment decision is made in the game, it should all be geared towards making sure that the player has context as to where they are in the world (which in turn, helps make that world feel alive). You're not in a fire level simply because "this is the fire world." You're in a fire level because a large volcano separates you from the next castle.
Players, if they so choose, could back out to a map and check out levels they've missed (and the game could encourage you to do so via signposts or things of that nature). Just hit the select button, and the camera zooms out to show a World Map that greatly resembles navigation in Super Mario World. That water level you just played? It's the little dot behind Mario in the lake on the map. See some areas on the map that look odd or conspicuous? Move Mario on the map to an older level and look for secret exits. Whenever you zoom in and out, the camera could do some nifty zooming effect to create the illusion that you aren't loading levels, but simply zooming a camera to show both a macro and micro view of Mario's world.
Edit: Here's an idea - upon completion of every level, rather than a flagpole or a gate or something...maybe Mario reaches a cannon. This cannon fires him high into the air where he can earn some sort of bonus, not unlike in a Kirby game. However, when he fires himself up really high, you see the whole world from a 'map' perspective. Mario then falls back down to the world, and continues onward. This could all happen quickly enough so that the next level could load, the player gets a glimpse of where they are in the world, and Mario seemingly lands exactly where he left off. You continue on your way as though the two levels (the one you just beat, and the one you're going to) just kind of blend together.
That's just an idea. I'd just be happy with anything in the game that helps push the idea that you're in a little world, rather than a collection of levels on a map or menu. Maybe Mario shoots fireworks into the sky and you have to make them blow up in a certain way to earn coins or lives. Maybe there's just a GIANT flagpole to signify that a level has been beaten (so when you zoom out to the map, these flags mark the levels you've been to).
I think the original New Super Mario Bros. was designed to be an homage to the original Super Mario Bros. games with some new ideas. Don't forget about the Blue Koopa Shell power-up!
If it were up to me, based on recent games, I would make it similar to Super Mario 3D Land with some Super Mario Galaxy (both games) sprinkled in. At its core, an old-school platformer, but has some 3D puzzles and sequences thrown in for good measure. Flying would return (which is one thing I missed in SM3DL) and I'd want to keep the power-ups simple...but at the same time, the power-up suits are such a great homage to Super Bros. 3.
Also, more secrets, and hide them better. They were too close to the old Mario formula at times in New Super Mario Bros. 2.
I dunno, really I'd just make a sequel to Super Mario 3D Land...maybe call it New Super Mario 3D Land?
I remember about NSMB's simplicity being excused/acceptable(?) due to the game essentially being a throwback to the simpler times of Super Mario Bros. 1. But since NSMBW and NSMB2, it doesn't really feel like those games are homages to earlier games like NSMB--rather, they're simply straight-up follow-ups to NSMB1. Why couldn't Wii be more like 3 (Tanooki, Giant Land, music remixes), and 2 be more like World (Yoshi, huge interconnected map, ! blocks)? I understand that both games have a couple elements from past titles, like the Koopalings, but they were still too simple without the first game's semi-valid excuse of being a SMB throwback.
Oh I wasn't excusing Wii and 2, but giving the original more of a pass. I love your ideas, particularly about the boss fights. I mean, the whole "step on their heads three times" and "step on the switch behind Bowser" thing is getting extremely old.
Great thoughtful replies and ideas! This is fun reading.
One thing that seems to be a consensus is that the level themes, music and visual style could be played around with a -whole- lot more without alienating the less adventurous Mario fans. I would agree, so long as there's at least one or two familiar Mushroom Kingdom, underground, underwater and castle levels, or clever variations on them, then the rest of the content could (and really now should!) be a lot more varied. Hopefully the Wii U version will surprise us...
The most challenging thing is to innovative the gameplay though. To introduce new enemies, new bosses and genuinely new power ups and enviromental features while still fitting into a "classic 2D Mario" mould. Maybe part of the problem is that the teams making the games don't have a designer-Miyamoto creating these ideas, they just have a producer-Miyamoto shooting down their new ideas and that leads to some very safe decision making. After four similar games, I believe Nintendo will have to take more chances and give the traditional fans more credit, and shake things up.
Someday I'd like to see a Mario game that turns the tables and has enemies using power-ups while Mario is stripped back to basics most of the time and has to rely on his jumping / stomping / kicking / throwing moves in a more adaptable world ruled with physics. And a greater sense of fun and charm, something with the unpredictability of SMW.
@PogueSquadron & TriforceBun, I definitely agree about the way SMW advanced the feel of the world and the branching map. NSMB games should use that as the gold standard. I'd say the Wii version is closer to it than either of the portable versions but they could all go a lot further in creating the feel of a real but imaginative place.
The Mario and Luigi handheld series have done a great job with being creative with the scenery and I would absolutely green light Alpha Dream making a console Mario and Luigi. They're very creative with the stories, pretty damn funny, and come up with some crazy places to go. I wouldn't mind seeing Bowser or Fawful having some sort of Dream/Nightmare machine and certain worlds are actually Mario battling through his dreams and nightmares so it could totally give them an excuse to bring back all of the characters in Mario 2.
Another idea is for the fans to push for a Super Mario RPG sequel.
As far as standard Mario games they could obviously give us a different villain for once. With how they've expanded Wario in Wario Land and Wario World, can you imagine Mario and Wario battling in each world fortress with Wario having a different power-up each time? If you play co-op you'd have to fight Waluigi AND Wario, which would expand replay value. Or bring back Mr. L MAN did I love that story line. Dimentio was a pretty cool villain too
Mini game where person with tablet is the villain for the world and he creates the obstacles for whoever is playing as Mario