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Welcome home, Mario; we’ve missed you!
Posted on Monday, May 13 2013 @ 14:15:38 Eastern

This member blog post was promoted to the GameRevolution homepage.
[Editor's Note: As Nick Olsen is a writer for Theory of Gaming, this won't be counted in the monthly Vox Pop prize. However, it is very much a worthy read.]

By Nick Olsen

Co-founder, Theory of Gaming


In 1985 Nintendo started a revolution when it introduced the world to Super Mario Bros. While Mario had appeared in a handful of games prior to receiving a “Super” new franchise with his brother, Luigi, (Donkey Kong, Mario Bros.), it wasn’t until he first hopped on a Goomba that the world fell in love with the 8-bit Italian Plumber. Super Mario Bros., a two-dimensional (2D) platforming game, brought the world along on a journey rife with pitfalls and challenges which Mario (and Luigi) needed to overcome to save the Mushroom Kingdom’s venerable Princess Toadstool (her name is eventually changed to Princess Peach) from the evil clutches of Bowser, evil sorcerer and king of the Koopas.


A simple game at heart, audiences became enraptured with the characters and the mushroom-filled world, going on to sell more than 40 million copies and being named IGN’s top video game of all time. The game spawned numerous sequels and defined the 2D platforming genre. So why, after 10 years of successful sequels, did Nintendo abandon the 2D platforming style? And why did it wait another 15 years to revive it for the Super Mario franchise?


Building to a challenge: evolution precedes revolution

Establishing essential gameplay mechanics (jumping, running, etc.) through level design before introducing greater challenges conquered through the use of those mechanics is a hallmark of great game design. For example, level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. teaches players that jumping on a Goomba’s head vanquishes the enemy and establishes the idea that Mario has this tool at his disposal for defeating his foes. Similarly, players learn that when Mario eats mushrooms or flowers he receives new character abilities which augment his normal abilities. Players can overcome challenges without these extra abilities but they add useful tools to Mario’s bag of tricks. (For an example, view: http://youtu.be/PsC0zIhWNww)


By establishing the core gameplay mechanics early, the developers can then evolve these techniques throughout the game to provide players the tools they need to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. Imagine if the developers had dropped players into end-game level challenges without this evolution; players would have been instantly overmatched and frustrated by seemingly insurmountable challenges.


The Super Mario franchise seems to follow an analogous path with sequels receiving incremental and evolutionary gameplay upgrades which build on the gamer’s base knowledge established in previous Super Mario Bros. games. The United States release of Super Mario Bros. 2 evolved the look of the game graphically, placed an emphasis on Mario’s ability to pick up and throw environmental objects, substituted pipes for vases, and introduced more playable characters including Princess Toadstool and Toad. By the time the series had reached Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario could now fly (Super leaf), swim faster (Frog suit) and turn to stone (Tanooki suit), among other new special abilities.


Packaged with the launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment system (SNES), Super Mario World, the fourth installment in the Super Mario franchise, continued both the 2D platforming game tradition of the earlier titles as well as the gameplay evolution. Backed by twice the processing power (16-bit) of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Mario finally leaves the Mushroom Kingdom on his quest to save Dinosaur Land (and of course Princess Toadstool), and we’re introduced to the now famous green dinosaur Yoshi. The game once again features new and advanced abilities, incremental upgrades from Mario’s previous adventure. (For an example, view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFWVU74KEBE)


When Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island debuted in 1995 for the SNES it served as a prequel to the previous four games in the franchise. Little did consumers know, that despite remaining a 2D platforming game, we had reached the end of the Mario evolution and were on the verge of a Mario revolution.


Thank you, Mario! But our princess is in another castle!

In 1996 Nintendo introduced their newest gaming system, the Nintendo 64 (N64); designed to compete with other fifth-generation consoles (such as Sony’s PlayStation) it amplified the processing power of its predecessor the SNES. Just like the SNES before it, the N64 launched with a new Mario title: Super Mario 64. But unlike Super Mario World, Super Mario 64 was a drastic departure from the Mario cannon with the gameplay changing to a three-dimensional (3D) platforming style with a focus on open-world exploration rather than linear problem-solving.


Much as the original Super Mario Bros.’ game design was a function of the NES hardware capabilities, so too was Super Mario 64 an exploration of the new hardware capabilities of the N64. According to IGN, Super Mario creator and director Shigeru Miyamoto had attempted to create a 3D Super Mario game years before, but the hardware capabilities had prevented him from successfully doing so. With the N64, Miyamoto was finally able to realize his dream. (For an example, view http://youtu.be/JOFyuhIkvT4.)


What perhaps nobody realized at the time was that just two years after the launch of Super Mario World 2, the 2D platforming Mario which had defined a genre had officially been put on hiatus and would remain so for another 13 years. Mario and his pals would continue to be omnipresent in games produced for both the N64 and future Nintendo consoles, the GameCube and the Wii, appearing in sports (Mario Golf, Tennis, Baseball, etc.) fighting games (Super Smash Bros.), party games (Mario Party), and role-playing games (RPGs) (Paper Mario), among others. Yet despite appearing in more than 75 titles since his inception, and becoming one of the most beloved video game characters of all time, Nintendo had shelved the game style which gave rise to a generations most recognizable hero.


As the leader goes, so go the people

When Mario left the world of 2D platforming he took the industry with him. A quick search on GameSpot reveals that Nintendo published only three 2D platforming titles for the N64 (none of which Mario appeared in) and two for the GameCube. Oddly, the PlayStation had more 2D platforming titles than both Nintendo systems combined, but even these would taper off to a minimum by the time the PlayStation 2 arrived. While not officially dead, the genre was on life support at best.


Much as Miyamoto needed the increased hardware performance of the N64 to accomplish 3D rendering for Super Mario 64, other game developers quickly became enamored with exploring the increased capabilities of each new generation of gaming systems. Traditional 2D stalwarts such as Square, the developers and publishers of the Final Fantasy series published a 3D polygonal installment with Final Fantasy VII, and even Capcom explored the 3D possibilities with Mega Man Legends.


This emphasis on 3D gaming would lead to an industry push to create more realistic-looking games. Eventually, game announcements would focus more and more on the environmental renderings than the actual game play mechanics. While developers continued their push towards realism a void existed in the gaming industry for players who enjoyed the 2D platform gaming experience; for those who grew up with Mario battling Bowser to free Princess Toadstool from his grasp.


Indie developers pick up the slack

Observing the industry shift and resulting absence (and perhaps sensing an opportunity), independent video game developers published a string of well-received 2D platformers. In 2004 Daisuke Amya brought the gaming community Cave Story, a self-published, freeware release and homage to the classic 2D platforming games he grew up playing. The game reached such levels of popularity that a number of major gaming platforms eventually ported the game to their systems.


In 2006, during its development, another 2D platformer named Braid would take home the “Independent Games Festival award,” and soon after its official release in 2008 would receive multiple more honors and awards including “Xbox Live Arcade Game of the Year.” Braid Developer Jonathan Blow used Super Mario Bros. game design elements while also flipping some of the standard Super Mario Bros. mechanics on their head. As Stephen Totilo wrote about Braid in 2007, “...a radical twist to ‘Super Mario Bros.’”


Developed during a similar timeframe (and eventually released in  2010), Limbo offered a darker take on the 2D platformer with the protagonist waking on the “edges of hell” and viewed as only a shadow as he searches each level for his missing sister. Limbo received high reviews from both consumers and game reviewers (Metaacritic score: 8.4 and 90 respectively).


After nearly two years of development, Super Meat Boy rounded out the indie 2D platformer game trifecta of 2010. Of all the indie 2D platformer games, the core gameplay mechanics, level design and controls most resemble those of Super Mario Bros. The game received multiple awards upon its release including the “Best Downloadable Game” award from both GameSpot and GameTrailers. As of January 2012 the game has sold more than 1 million copies.


The success of the indie game movement reaffirmed that video game players still enjoyed playing quality 2D platformer games, even if most major development studios had shifted their attention elsewhere. Further confirmation that 2D platformer games could still compete in a 3D market actually came from Nintendo a year earlier when the prodigal son returned to his roots.


There’s no place like home

When Super Mario World 2 debuted, few could have predicted that 15 years would pass before another major console 2D platformer Super Mario game would come to pass (though Nintendo released 2D platformer Super Mario games on its hand-held devices). After years of experimentation with new forms of Super Mario games, Nintendo brought the mustachioed plumber back to his roots with the release of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The game was an immediate success with game players (as of March 2012 the game had sold more than 26 million copies) as well as reviewers (Metacritic score: 8.3 and 84 respectively). (For an example, view: http://youtu.be/DG07LxRJqOA.)


In an interview with Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo, Miyamoto explained his motivations for returning Mario to the Mushroom Kingdom in 2D:


But as you'd expect, looking at it from the perspective of those who were in step with technological developments, one could ask: ‘Why are you making a 2D side-scrolling game now?’ And then the counter-argument would be: ‘We can use 3D polygon graphics, but by making a side-scrolling game, won't we be appealing to a larger number of people?’ So we decided to make a Mario that made a fresh start by returning to its core principles. That's why we put ‘New’ in the title.”


The need to add “New” to a title returning to its original game design speaks volumes about how far Super Mario games had drifted from their roots, but to the generation of game players introduced to Super Mario after 1995, a 2D platformer would indeed be a new experience.


Miyamoto’s assessment that a 2D platformer Super Mario game would appeal to a wider audience appears prescient in retrospect; in 45 days the game amassed sales of 4.2 million copies worldwide surpassing the sales totals of the well-regarded 3D platformer Super Mario Galaxy, released two years earlier.   


Nintendo appears set to develop Super Mario games in varying styles moving forward having already published Super Mario Galaxy 2 (3D platformer), and the New Super Mario Wii successor New Super Mario Bros. U (2D platformer  and Wii U launch title) and there’s certainly room for more than one style of Super Mario game in today’s world. Game sales totals and reviews both show that the public still craves not just 2D platformer games, but Super Mario 2D platformer games in particular.


Continued Innovations

Continued innovation created the foundation for the early success of the Super Mario Bros. franchise with each new Super Mario game adding a new layer of challenge and mechanics which video game players embraced. Rather than relying solely on tried and true level design and abilities for Mario, Nintendo continued their early pattern of innovation when reviving the Super Mario 2D platformer. Some of Mario’s newest tricks and gadgets included the propeller mushroom giving Mario the ability to fly vertically, four player co-op, and unlockable “super skills videos” which show gamers how the best Super Mario players in world beat each level in the game. (For an example, view: http://youtu.be/OsZCxsIrVP0.)


With legendary video game developers like Miyamoto re-focusing their efforts on 2D platformer games, the innovation possibilities appear endless. The 2D platformer revival has provided a number of great games with the New Super Mario Bros. franchise leading the way just as the original Super Mario Bros. did in the '80s and '90s. Hopefully, this time Nintendo stays the course and continues to simultaneously develop and publish Super Mario Bros. 2D platformers while exploring the myriad of other Mario game styles rather than at the expense of them.


The opinions expressed here does not necessarily reflect the views of Game Revolution, but we believe it's worthy of being featured on our site. This article has been lightly edited for grammar. Nick Olsen has included images and links himself. It has been submitted for our monthly Vox Pop competition. You can find more Vox Pop articles here. ~Ed. Nick
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