Out of all genres Nintendo often tackles with their numerous franchises, none are as well-served as platformers. A lot of it has to do with the fact the company entered the gaming market at a time when titles of that kind dominated the landscape. As the industry turned from jumping to shooting, the nature of the Big N’s titles became even more unique; organically highlighted in the grey-and-black palette that rules the world.
Platformers can acquire drastically different quirks depending on the perspective through which we experience them. On a 2-D plane, they tend to be neatly broken down into dozens of levels that are thematically organized in a world; focusing on jumping and performing other tricky maneuvers to clear obstacles. However, when a third dimension is added, they become more meticulous and explorative affairs on which characters try to locate important items.
Initially, when 3-D was made available by hardware advances, Nintendo – naturally – decided to take advantage of those newly unlocked possibilities. The first result was, of course, Super Mario 64. Although it would be later greatly topped by Rare’s masterful efforts of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, Mario’s first 3-D outing set the standards for how platformers would behave on a 3-D environment and wrote the basic script of the gameplay focused on walking around a huge environment and finding points of interest.
Super Mario Sunshine, released on the following generation on the Gamecube, kept the ball rolling on that front. The game’s enormous tropical locations indicated that the plumber was comfortable on his brand new role. It seemed like the glorious linearity that made the gameplay of sidescrolling Mario so streamlined and remarkable was a thing of the past. An outdated memoir of an era on which things were simpler and games had an extremely short learning curve. Then, the Wii came around.
Last generation marked a point in which not only Nintendo, but Sony and Microsoft as well, discovered that there was a whole lot to be gained from the sheer simplicity that had been left behind when the industry began betting on 3-D worlds. Linearity, they would find out, was by no means a bad consequence of lacking hardware power. It was, truly, a valuable and still viable gameplay option that had two core benefits: it did away with the occasionally monotonous walking around that came packed with huge worlds (removing most of the filler and leaving a lot of killer), and making titles appealing to a crowd that was not used to playing games.
The major breakthrough came with Super Mario Galaxy, a game that mixed the enormous worlds created by powerful hardware with delightful linearity. It blatantly revealed that wide environments did not necessarily have to be focused on exploration, and it reopened a door that had been locked more than a decade before its 2007 launch. The company was so thrilled by that discovery – as was the gaming world as it was evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive critical and fan reaction the game received – that it got lost inside the room like a kid that discovers a place packed with old awesome toys.
As a consequence of that discovery, and also boosted by the impressive success of the New Super Mario Bros series, platformers were launched to the forefront of the industry once more. Kirby, Wario, Rayman and Donkey Kong starred on major sidescrollers released on home consoles, while new franchises like Super Meat Boy and 2004’s Cave Story got a lot of deserved attention. Sidescrollers were back in full force, and the gaming world was much better for it.
Mario himself, the character that seems to be at the center of numerous gaming trends, turned away from exploratory gameplay completely. The masterpiece of Super Mario Galaxy 2 – Nintendo’s finest game ever – abandoned the occasional fully-explorable worlds of its prequel and fully embraced linearity. Super Mario 3D World, the first Wii U game of the main Mario series, further went down that same path, as it presented stages that were the perfect translation of Super Mario World-like levels to a 3-D realm. Huge yet linear courses, like the ones that dominated Super Mario Galaxy, were nowhere to be found and the results were stellar.
Although that trend has brought us results that are either equal or superior in terms of quality when compared to the early package of wide-open platformers, the fact remains that as of right now Nintendo has no franchise that covers that brand of games. In fact, it can be argued that the last fully original game of that kind developed by the company was Super Mario Sunshine, which came out a staggering thirteen years ago.
Kirby and Wario have little experience in that kind of gameplay, and some might say the core mechanics of their titles are not a good fit for larger worlds and the 3-D perspective. That leaves both Mario and Donkey Kong as the likely candidates to bring the explorative gameplay back to the spotlight, as Mario has already gone there in both Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, while Donkey Kong has done the same on the Rare-produced collect-a-thon Donkey Kong 64. A game that, though criticized for its overwhelming amount of items and focus on collection, was impressively large and mostly very fun, featuring some extremely praiseworthy worlds and segments.
Although a bigger and wider platformer would certainly represent a loss in accessibility – given how numerous casual gamers are reluctant or fearful of going into software of the sort – it would be a decision that would do good to both franchises. The benefits of such a change would be more effective to Mario, as the character has just starred in a stellar sequence of three linear 3-D titles, and the shift would certainly come as a pleasant surprise to many. Donkey Kong, meanwhile, is in the middle of a rebirth run powered by the talents of Retro Studios, and it is likely Nintendo will want to complete a trilogy of games before moving on to new grounds with character.
More than a need or a wish, having another major Nintendo platformer focus on huge worlds and exploration would shake things a little bit and get the attention of both gamers and critics. Will any of the characters step up to the challenge? Will a brand new franchise be created to fill that empty space? Time will tell.