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Nintendo's Reliability vs Creativity

From looking at Sega last week, today's post focuses on Nintendo and what many longtime Nintendo fans feel are cracks in the house that Mario built.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

October 5, 2012

6 Min Read

From looking at Sega last week, today's post focuses on Nintendo and what many longtime Nintendo fans feel are cracks in the house that Mario built.

 A few weeks ago on The Escapist, the Jimquisition  (warning: video is for mature audiences and not work safe) took a look at Mario and Nintendo and broke down one of the biggest criticisms behind Nintendo: That while Nintendo makes good games, they don't make as many creatively different games as before.

The video focused specifically on the Mario franchise and the sameness that has become a part of it. Now, sameness does not equal bad. No one can say that mechanically, any of the Mario platformer games are poorly designed, as Nintendo has spent years refining said mechanics. But, when we examine where Nintendo’s genres have grown, that’s one area where they have faltered on.

The Retread:

Nintendo has been retelling the same Mario story for over two decades. Granted the situation and setting may be mixed up here and there, but largely we all know that Mario is going to fight Bowser to save Peach at some point in the game.

Before, Nintendo got away with this by adding the most changes into the gameplay and world itself. Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World are very different games mechanically and took place in different environments. With the jump to 3d, each Mario game had a wildly different setting which the player could differentiate between Mario 64, Sunshine and Mario Galaxy.

Lately however, Mario has become even more formulaic: With Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 literally having the same exact story with only a few cosmetic changes. Instead of creating new mechanics, they're just reintroducing more classic mechanics and elements into today's titles. Such as the tanooki suit in Super Mario 3D Land and the Koopaling battles, or Yoshi in Super Mario Galaxy 2.

                                                 Super Mario Sunshine

Ironically, Super Mario Sunshine which was the most varied in terms of mechanics and setting is considered by fans to be the worse of the 3d Mario games. Many hardcore Nintendo fans have expectations of what they want to see from the company. And when Nintendo does try something new, they have to push against a raging current to get it accepted.

If everyone remembers, there was a lot of disappointment when Luigi's Mansion was announced as the GameCube’s launch title. And how can we forget the outrage from fans over Windwaker's cel shaded graphics style.

Creatively Stuck

The problem with Nintendo is that their biggest strength has become their weakness and jail cell: brand recognition. Nintendo out of all the game companies easily has the strongest and most recognizable brands on the console market. However, because these brands are so strong, it prevents Nintendo from taking any risks that may hurt them.

The chance of us seeing a T or M rated Mario game is slim to none. The same could be said of having an action-adventure game set in the F-Zero universe. Nintendo has developed their brands by combining game mechanics with the brand itself, which is great for the brand but not good for creativity. When Nintendo announces a new game set in a specific game universe, we automatically know what gameplay to expect: Real Time Strategy esque in Pikmin, Racing in F-Zero and Action Adventure in Zelda for example.

                                                Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat

Any deviation from that plan has Nintendo's hardcore fans fuming, as they see it as Nintendo hurting their favorite brands. The unintentionally funny part about this is that this is the completely opposite problem with Sega and Sonic as a brand.

In the past, Sega has thrown everything they can against the wall with Sonic to see what would stick: Gun-play, racing, RPG, Puzzle, Fishing etc. I honestly don't know what the world setting that the Sonic games take place in anymore, as the brand has been diluted so many times.

The only exception that Nintendo had was the Mario brand, which in the 90s went through several different game styles: Racing, Party games, Sports and RPG to name a few. But now, where these different styles were unique games, have become formulaic over the years.

Without realizing it, Nintendo has become iterative like EA with Madden or Activision with the Call of Duty brand. Their fan base has become largely centered on casual fans new to games with the Wii, and the hardcore Nintendo fans that snatch up any new Nintendo game. Neither group wants to see any major deviations from the norm, and considering Nintendo's precarious position in the console wars, they can't do much to start any waves.

With that said I used to consider myself part of the hardcore fans, who buy anything Nintendo. But even I find myself growing tired of the sameness. I still enjoy Nintendo's games, especially the rare times that they do attempt something new like with Luigi's Mansion, Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat or Pikmin. But, I haven't bought a first party Nintendo title on day one since Super Mario Galaxy.

In an almost Twilight Zone level of irony, the games I've enjoyed the most, recently from Nintendo's platforms, have been the third party titles. Normally, this has been where Nintendo platforms have been considered weakest in the past. Games like Xenoblade Chronicles, The World Ends With You and Rayman Origins that took the genre and went in a different direction.

                                                  Luigi's Mansion

With the upcoming release of the Wii U, Nintendo is in a tricky position. The uniqueness of the Wii's design is no longer the hot topic, with both Sony and Microsoft having respective motion control devices. Nintendo was criticized by fans for not creating anything new and different for the Wii by catering to their new casual audience. With the Wii-U's new controller design, Nintendo has a difficult decision to make.

Now they have to decide not only if they want to try and retain their casual fan-base with familiar brands, but if they want to create something new that may upset their hardcore fans. Personally, I want to see more Nintendo experiments: either new genres and brands, or just a shakeup of an existing brand. This may be sacrilegious, but I'm really curious to see how Nintendo would handle an M rated Mario game. Time will tell if the Wii was just a one hit wonder, or if Nintendo can keep the momentum with the Wii-U.

Josh Bycer

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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