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Nintendo's Reliability vs Creativity
by Josh Bycer on 10/05/12 01:35:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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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Cordero W
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"This may be sacrilegious, but I'm really curious to see how Nintendo would handle an M rated Mario game."

No. Because that isn't game design. That's just a setting want. A palette swap.

Josh Bycer
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Exactly, I want to see something different. A science fiction Zelda world, an open world Donkey Kong game, anything to shake up the norms of Nintendo's design.

Going back to F-Zero with all the different characters and environments Nintendo built into the series. Why haven't we seen an action game staring Captain Falcon? They had a good idea with the story mode from the last F-Zero game, but haven't capitalized on expanding the brand.

Bryson Whiteman
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You change the theme and setting, it's not the same theme anymore. Science fiction Zelda? They already made that in the 80's, it's called Metroid.

Toby Grierson
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I think at best that'd be like those ridiculous Sonic games that take themselves way too seriously. How's the Sonic franchise doing?

The brand only has value if it actually means something. Brands are far from invincible and the pile of dead brands is bigger than the pile of dead ninjas in Chuck Norris's front yard. M-rated Mario is not going to come out well.

If you want to see something different... Try looking at something different. Mario is Mario, and there's a lot more to the world than Mario. Nintendo has many teams and a hell of a lot of money and are more than capable of making anything they want without dangerously pretending that it's Mario.

Limitless creative freedom and a hyper-conservative obsession with always using the same characters for _everything_ just don't mix. But Nintendo is big, and humanity is big; we can do many things at once. Let Mario be Mario and go explore the wonderful worlds of games, art and maybe even fan fiction.

John Flush
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The repetitive nature of the brand is the selling point though. When you buy a Mario game you know why you are getting it. I think New Super Mario sold a ton because it is aimed at those of us that know exactly why we love the game, and also does the same thing for the generation that we want to share our memories with - our kids. It is tired? Yes. Would I really ever play a mario game on my own accord anymore - not likely. They mix it up with a little bit of creativity (multiplayer at the same time) - and that is all it needs to sell again to more than the next rising gen of video game players.

Josh Bycer
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I think you hit the nail on the head. Why fix what isn't broken? What's frustrating to me is that Nintendo has shown in the past that they can innovate with their brand characters: Wind-Waker, Metroid Prime, Paper Mario, DK Jungle Beat and the list goes on.

But when it comes down to it, their tried and true game designs and brands are the big sellers for their audience. I know that I loved Kirby's Canvas Curse for its originally, but it didn't do well enough to warrant a sequel. And of course I can't say that sentence and not bring up Mother 3, which fans have been begging Nintendo to bring over for years. But low sales of Earthbound convinced them not to port it over.