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Does Nintendo Need Mario?

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If we created a graph to chart the evolution of videogame characters I imagine it would look similar to every other organic species in the world. In the beginning The Developers created Space Invaders and they saw that it was good. The simple, twitching single cell characters inched across the screen in an attempt to consume and destroy. After some years The Developers needed more progressive personas that could function in ways that suited the advancing technology. The characters they developed grew arms and legs and began to look almost human. They could run, jump and swing a crude sword at enemies and, for a while at least, this was enough for us.

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The dawn of this millennium came as a turning point. Processing and 3D rendering were beginning to give The Developers the power to create fully functional characters with human features and a range of emotions. The Developers had done it. They looked back over their 40 year history and congratulated themselves on their accomplishment. But one of The Developers had noticed something a little odd – a blip on the timeline, a ghost in the machine, a glitch in the matrix, a freak of evolution.

That glitch was called Super Mario and they saw that he also was good.

When Nintendo announce a new console it is always led by innovation. The Wii and the 3DS were huge, scary unknown quantities but investors were comforted by the fact that their favorite mascot would show up at some point and blast away any compatibility issues they may have harbored. It’s a good thing he turned up too; Nintendo’s third party development struggle to manage the complexities set out by the hardware and, save a few notable exceptions, Nintendo’s consoles rely upon in-house software.

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It’s not always a bad thing to rely on one’s mascot; heaven knows Mario has been in some astounding titles throughout the years. Having cornered the 2D platform market with Super Mario World the chubby Italian broke new ground in Super Mario 3D, a game commonly sighted as leading the revolution in 3D design. Even when he’s not in his own game he features in most major Nintendo spin-offs: in truth, it’s hard to get away from him, which leads me to think – what would Nintendo be without Super Mario?

Mario has a tendency to validate Nintendo consoles, his games sell exceptionally well and their announcement is always greeted with fanfares and a collective sigh of relief. When you take Mario away, would Nintendo have enough left in the character tank to keep going?

One aspect the little chappy has managed to do is unite the hardcore and casual, something that must be seen as the golden chalice of the gaming world. Mario Galaxy is a perfect example of this; its compulsive gameplay and progressive level design eases the uninitiated in while maintaining the challenge for the veteran mushroom muncher. It’s fairly difficult not to like Mario Galaxy, but how much of that was down to the actual character? Very little I’d say.

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While Nintendo seems to have an abundance of creativity when it comes to game design I think it would be fair to say they have become awfully lazy with the creation of new characters and IP in general. How many great characters have you seen materialize from the Nintendo stable in the past 10 years? I imagine hundreds of forgettable Pokemon have come and gone in that time, but not too many scene stealing leads.

Is it fair to attack Nintendo for this approach to character design? The company has chosen a more family friendly brand as opposed to Sony and Microsoft’s more hardcore approach. This will naturally lead to more cutesy and basic character creations as opposed to some of the twisted, murdering psychopaths we’ve seen in recent years. The real question is, how long can this continue for? Innovation is the key to Nintendo’s success and for the Wii U to be successful Nintendo will have to re-think its character design strategy lest they push potential gamers away with there lack of vision.

But then again, does it all really matter? As I have previously said the recent Mario games have been, by all accounts, exceptional in both presentation and design. If the games are good, then do they need to worry about what may happen to their deformed mascot? Sega has been faced with similar problems with Sonic the Hedgehog. As it became clear that a transfer to 3D would not be as smooth for our spiny friend the company failed to adapt to the changing market and lost out in the hardware war. If things don’t go the way Nintendo plans will they be able to adapt quickly enough? Could they exist without Mario?

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Nintendo will always be testing the market with new and exciting concepts. I, like practically everyone I know, have had a great time with Mario in the past and I hope he continues long into the future. Because of this I urge Nintendo to find a new poster boy (or girl) for the new era of hardware design they have planned. Mario will eventually fly too close to the sun and fall out of favor with gamers. Nintendo won’t have this market cornered forever, I just hope they have a plan B that is well calculated when the time comes.

As the old saying goes – don’t count your Yoshis until they hatch.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2011. Get in touch on Twitter @RichJimMurph.

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