The Game Remains The Same: Mario’s 2D Comfort Zone

Pictured: Some dude who just blew $400.

Pictured: Some dude who just blew $400.

How many ways can you play a Mario game?

That’s a question that Nintendo has been asking for over a decade. For them, innovation is a matter of changing how games are played, rather than changing the game itself. Both the Wii and DS altered the way players interact with games. Now, they’re hoping to shake the industry up once again with their new console, the Wii U.

“This is how you’ll play next,” proclaims the console’s first TV spot, proudly heralding in the system’s gamepad like first time parents who believe that their newborn is the first in a new race of superhumans. Yes, this new two screen experience surely does have the potential to change the way we game. The gamepad controller is an impressive piece of hardware; a sharp, responsive tablet. So, in their first big moment to shine, how does Nintendo specifically choose to showcase this divine console? With a Mario game, naturally. The footage shows a group of players merrily jumping through the Mushroom Kingdom, but the one with the gamepad suddenly does the unimaginable; “Place a block and give everyone a boost.”

That’s right; the Wii U allows you to leap tall buildings in a single tap.

New Super Mario Bros. U is hardly an exciting launch title. It’s another game in Nintendo’s increasingly obnoxious line of new-age 2D side-scrollers, capitalizing on gamers’ nostalgia for the SNES. Don’t get me wrong; the New Super Mario Bros. series is fun. They’re solid platformers which successfully recreate the experience of old school Mario games. But it’s hard to jump for joy when you’re expected to pay $60 for a title that slightly expands on the 1990’s with simple touch commands and HD graphics (the latter of which is embarrassingly considered new for Nintendo).

Nintendo’s “This is how you’ll play next…” slogan is only half complete. What they mean to say is, “This is how you’ll play the same game next.” It’s all about perception. Nintendo believes that changing the way you look at a game is the same thing as changing a game. Thus, they can continue to repackage the same disc so long as they can find a new way for gamers to make Mario jump.

Compare that approach to another developer’s, the significantly smaller Polytron. Like Nintendo, Polytron is also interested in changing a gamer’s perception. Just a few months ago, they released their own 2D platformer, Fez. The concept isn’t all that different from Mario’s; you jump from surface to surface collecting shiny things. But Polytron puts a new spin on an old idea. Literally. With the tap of a button, players can shift the world 90 degrees, turning a familiar 2D landscape into a 4-sided puzzle. It’s a brain-bending experience that takes run-of-the-mill jump-and-collect gameplay and adds another dimension to it (again, literally).

Fez: 3 more sides, $50 less expensive.

Fez: 3 more sides, $50 less expensive.

For independent developers like Polytron, departing from the ordinary is vital to survival.   If you don’t have a huge, mustachioed brand to ensure your success, you need something more interesting to make your title stand out against millions of other indie games. And that can be tough with a limited budget. But many developers have found a workaround in revisiting old-school gaming. What separates companies like Polytron from Nintendo, however, is that they often realize that these types of games can still be expanded on. Big game studios stopped making these games because technology improved over time, not because there was nowhere left to go with 2D. Fez is a perfect example of that, changing gamers’ perception to create a fresh and engaging experience from a basic template.

To Nintendo’s credit, they’ve tried their hand at this on a few occasions. Super Paper Mario featured it’s own perspective shifting, and Super Mario Galaxy brilliantly played with gamer’s perception by toying with gravity. Both games were rewarded with incredibly positive reviews, the latter of which is one of the best reviewed games of all time. Unfortunately, high marks don’t matter much if they don’t result in big sales. While Galaxy sold approximately 10.4 million, the less ambitious New Super Mario Bros Wii doubled that with over 25 million in sales, putting it only behind the first Super Mario Bros. (40.23 million, though it came bundled with the NES) and 2006‘s New Super Mario Bros for Nintendo DS (28.74 million).

3D Mario's life is agony.

3D Mario’s life is agony.

Such staggering figures appear to have hit a switch in Nintendo’s head, resulting in a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. The original Mario formula is tight and Nintendo’s much coveted casual market still loves it, so why should the game giant adapt a Polytron-esque philosophy? It’s a frustrating conundrum that has trapped Mario in a comfort zone. I have no doubt that Nintendo could utilize the Wii U’s impressive technology to create a truly “new” Mario experience with the potential to change platforming for the better. Sadly, it’s more likely that the gamepad will go the way of the Wiimote, becoming a glorified A-button.

There’s always hope, of course. In Fez, the protagonist lives a world where everyone sees things as one way; flat. Upon receiving his space-shifting powers (via a spiffy red fez), the little guy realizes that there’s more to his surroundings than anyone ever imagined. While Nintendo is unlikely to receive a magic hat from the heavens, perhaps games like Fez could open their eyes, revealing a new side to the Mushroom Kingdom. A shift in ‘what’ we play as opposed to ‘how’ we play might just be the best power-up for Mario.

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