The USgamer staff has already weighed in with its impressions of Super Mario 3D World, but it's time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture when it comes to the iconic Nintendo mascot. Mario has always been a workhorse for Nintendo, but the company's output of platformers featuring the plumber has stepped up of late. Even if you ignore Mario Kart 8 and the rest of Mario's extracurricular activities, is Nintendo running into franchise fatigue with its ultimate evergreen series?
Mario has always been the Samuel L. Jackson of the video game set. The dude clearly likes to work, and while he's been involved in some absolutely brilliant productions, he hasn't hesitated to show his face in some dreadful clunkers as well. The thing is, I never get sick of Samuel L. But at this year's E3, for perhaps the first time in my life, I was sick of Mario. And I wasn't sick of Mario in the way I roll my eyes at Nintendo's generational updates to Mario golf, tennis, baseball, and soccer games. I was sick of the beating heart of the franchise: the platforming games.
This is new to me, because for the longest time, we didn't really have new Mario games. Between 1996's seminal Mario 64 and 2006's 2D revival New Super Mario Bros., there was only one new Mario platformer released, 2002's Super Mario Sunshine.
Are these Mario games really that different, that mind-blowingly unique and expertly crafted that we need a new one every six months?
Since then, we've had a pretty steady parade of Mario, but that's turned into a deathmarch of late as Nintendo's fortunes have been flagging and the company has begun leaning harder on the mustachioed face of the franchise. In a 24-month span, we're getting five Mario platformers: New Super Mario Bros. 2, New Super Mario Bros. U, New Super Luigi U, Super Mario 3D Land, and Super Mario 3D World. The New Super series is a continuation of the original 2D series of Mario games, while 3D Land and 3D World are more literal attempts to bring the original 2D series gameplay into the third dimension than we saw in the Mario 64/Super Mario Galaxy line of the franchise. And even though 3D World's treatment of multiplayer is new to that line, it borrows so heavily from New Super Mario Bros. that the previously parallel platforming series basically intersect. We are getting five games, all of which are ultimately aspiring to scratch the same nostalgic itch for the old days, and use many of the same tricks to do it.
Yes, there are changes in each. This one stars Luigi. That one has a cat suit and lets players choose characters like in Super Mario Bros. 2. But it's mostly the same hopping and bopping we've been doing for nearly 30 years. It's a classic formula, no doubt, but it has limits, and they are being pushed. The gaming press has spent years bemoaning the annualization of franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed, saying the series have grown stale and tired even though this one has branching storylines and robots, or that one has naval battles and a completely new setting. Are these Mario games really that different, that mind-blowingly unique and expertly crafted that we need a new one every six months?
Your points are taken, but I think you're glossing over the fact that the different splinters of the Mario universe really DO offer different experiences. New Super Mario Bros. is not at all the same as Super Mario 3D Land, which is not at all the same as Super Mario Galaxy. I think it's easy to let the similarity of themes and visuals obscure the fact that these three different versions of Mario each provide their own unique take on the franchise, just as Wario Land used to (and Super Princess Peach, for that matter).
Think of the elements of Mario as a sort of video game vocabulary. These games use common "words" -- characters, skills, power-ups, enemies, settings, collectables -- to create different expressions. Super Mario Galaxy is a dense, challenging novel for the hardcore enthusiast; New Super Mario Bros. is lightweight pulp reading than anyone can enjoy; and 3D Land strikes a middle ground. Like I said in our collective 3D World preview, each of these works presents shared concepts through a distinct lens, and the nature of the challenges differs from game to game. Even within these different groupings, you have variety -- New Super Mario Bros. 2 has very different goals and challenges than New Super Mario Bros. U.
Nintendo is approaching the series like Claude Monet with his haystacks and cathedrals: Similar at the root, yet endlessly distinct.
Really, the biggest flaw those two games suffered is being launched almost simultaneously, which was a huge mistake. I wouldn't complain if Mario releases came a bit less frequently. Unfortunately, the nature of the industry today doesn't really let franchises lay fallow for years at a stretch. The Mario games are similar on many levels, yet each one's distinct and they always burst with new ideas from level to level. When Nintendo runs out of fresh concepts for level themes and challenges, then I'll worry. But for now, they're approaching the series like Claude Monet with his haystacks and cathedrals: Similar at the root, yet endlessly distinct. Super Mario 3D World will arrive about two years after 3D Land, which is just enough time to let the two games breathe.
I have some issues with what Nintendo had to show at E3 this year, but Super Mario 3D World wasn't one of them. It's familiar, sure, but it doesn't feel like more of the same. In light of all the cookie-cutter first-person shooters at the show, I can stand a couple of Mario games in the space of 12 months -- because, really, who else is doing games like that these days?