When the Same is Different

mkBoth the Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. franchises – two of the most financially and critically successful series of all time – looked very different in their respective original shapes. Those lines of games, known for infusing established genres with scenarios and characters made iconic through some of Nintendo’s greatest products, shared – during their embryonic states – the characteristic of featuring completely unknown personages and settings.

In hindsight, it is absolutely impossible to conceive that there was a point in time when the wacky go-kart and fighting sagas existed without insane stages bursting with nods to classic games, an armada of fate-changing items, and stars that – more than famous – are symbols whose many efforts helped define gaming as we know it. We unconsciously think of them as having been born as Nintendo-themed ventures into the racing and fighting niches, but the engineering was actually the other way around: first came the naked concepts, and only then was the Nintendo charm added.

Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. would eventually gain their current themes in different ways. The former was almost accidental: occurring when developers – while executing a test – decided to place Mario on a kart, an action that immediately fostered endless ideas of a Mushroom Kingdom racing game. The latter, meanwhile, was an intentional choice made by Sakurai – the game’s creator – who feared his new fighting game, despite its inventive mechanics, would do poorly in commercial terms.

smashIt is hard to predict the fate those two projects would have had if they had not received such blessing, but Sakurai’s fear regarding his brainchild would probably turn out to be correct: they would not have been nearly as successful. Regardless of the differences in how each game eventually got their visual cues (and, most importantly, their very souls), the fact their once generic coat of paint was eventually replaced by an extremely recognizable layer speaks volumes about Nintendo’s strategy in the use of their world-known franchises.

The company is sometimes accused of going overboard in the exploit of its immense array of weapons, and some even go as far as claiming it has been quite a while since the Big N last sent a group of brand new creatures out into the world. However, such a line of thought happens to sail right past Nintendo’s biggest and most impossible-to-replicate gift: the uncanny ability their developers possess of, such as exposed by the examples of Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, smoothly transport some of their most familiar faces into environments that greatly differ from their game of origin.

It is a skill of very precious value that works in two different ways. Firstly, it turns sometimes unusual formulas that might have had trouble succeeding on their own into products that are extremely appealing and very easy to market. Secondly, it empowers the company’s most important franchises with great degrees of longevity; after all, the fact that the very same universe can be represented in so many unique ways works as a fountain of youth of endless depth.

Numerous are the games that could have easily been the starting point for a brand new franchise, but that, instead – to the delight of many fans – received a well-known facade later on, naturally instilling those works with an irresistible allure.

lmLuigi’s Mansion, for example, is as far from the green plumber’s native grounds as possible. There is no jumping, no stage-to-stage progression, and almost no foes commonly found on the Mushroom Kingdom. Luigi is, alternatively, tasked with investigating a dark and haunted enclosed territory, and using a flashlight and vacuum cleaner combo to bust ghosts. It is a structure that could have been used as the bones to either a serious thriller or a goofy new intellectual property featuring a clumsy ghost hunter, but that ended up being graced by Luigi’s quirkiness.

Inside the very same Mario universe, it is possible to find a pair of titles that also falls far from the nest of the iconic platforming tree. The Paper Mario, and Mario and Luigi lines share the same silly humor, but both their role-playing mechanics and exploration styles are diverging. In battles, while Paper Mario puts a heavy emphasis on the plumber’s cast of unique partners, the Mario and Luigi games are fueled by the interaction between the brothers, which produces attacks of devastating effects. Outside the turn-based goodness, a similar difference is felt, as the former presents puzzles to be solved by the abilities of Mario’s party whereas the latter challenges Mario and Luigi to work together.

mlThose games also serve as great examples of how showing the same universe through different perspectives can end up generating efforts that are so distant from the source material they feel like completely independent franchises. Paper Mario, and Mario and Luigi could have easily been painted with original characters and a new universe; their critically successful fate would not have shifted. However, by presenting the Mushroom Kingdom in a manner that is far deeper than the approach taken on the Mario platformers, these series gain a thick layer of lovely charm and marketability.

Mario’s greedy rival, Wario, has also gone through a metamorphosis of the same kind. His core series is a platforming saga of immense qualities, but when not busy on the exotic journeys of Wario Land, he runs the micro-game producing technology giant WarioWare firm. The originality of the game’s structure, a marathon of fast challenges; and the nature of its five-second activities, which range from trashy to absurd, could have carried the title by themselves regardless of its setting. Yet, the addition of Wario, and the idea that he had decided to earn money not by going on dangerous adventures, but by making games, made WarioWare instantly recognizable to the general public.

Another platforming hero that has starred in experiments that were unlike anything he had ever done before; so disparate – in fact – that they could have been new franchises, is Kirby. Differently from Mario and Wario, though, the pink puffball did not even have to leave his home genre. The character’s calling card has always been his ability to copy the powers of his enemies and use those skills at will to great destructive effects. Two of his most well-received efforts in recent years, however, lacked that very trick, which was the equivalent of making a Mario platformer where he cannot jump.

rainbow_curseThrough evil magic, Kirby is stripped of his greatest trait on Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby Canvas Curse, and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. On the former, trapped inside a world of cloth, he uses a whip made of fiber to down his foes; and on the latter duo, he becomes a limbless pink ball, forcing the hero to rely on the player’s guiding hand in order to fulfill his quest.

While it is known that, for Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, the concept came before the coat of paint, the same cannot be said for sure about Luigi’s Mansion, Paper Mario, Mario and Luigi, WarioWare, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby Canvas Curse, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, and many other Nintendo games where famous franchises are taken out of their habitat.

Nevertheless, regardless of the process, those are titles that show Nintendo’s failure to deliver a stream of new franchises is, to say the least, very deceiving. The company is constantly pulling off concepts of great originality, but often employing them as creative means to present their well-known characters in never-seen-before ways.

warioIt is a strategy that aids in the longevity of their already long-running characters and guarantees that inventive ideas, which rightfully deserve a great deal of applause, will get their due reward. It is a luxury the Big N has earned after accumulating so many remarkable personages and worlds, and one that is used to the delight of fans and the company’s vaults alike.

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About Matt

A Brazilian gamer with a great love for playing Nintendo games, and a hobby of writing about his gaming experiences and thoughts. Even though that is what I mainly do for fun, I also love listening to music (especially rock) and watching movies (especially animations), so also expect a few posts on those matters.
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6 Responses to When the Same is Different

  1. Mike_Scorpio says:

    This is a really good article, and though, yes, Nintendo hasn’t had a “New” character besides Rosalina and even she was introduced a good few years ago and is of yet to have her own game. The others are tried and tested and are well accepted the world over and due to the family friendliness of Nintendo, Mario is well loved everywhere. In one lifetime, a man can wear many hats. I for example am a waiter now but have been a diving instructor, a deckhand, Builder’s Laborer, electrician and translator to name a few. So there is no reason why Mario and Co can’t do the same. You have a keen eye for detail my friend and your article is well written and I enjoyed it very much so. Good luck to you on your future endeavours

    • Matt says:

      Thanks a lot! I am glad you liked it!

      You are absolutely right when you say that in one lifetime, a man can wear many hats! That’s exactly the spirit!

  2. Great originality, same face. Often with that same face is a similar premise, their best work is using Mario or otherwise but then remove him from his elements. Thousand Year Door? Completely new area outside most of the stage tropes? Superstar Saga? We leave the Mushroom Kingdom within mere minutes, both great games.

    Hmm, reading this gives me a few nudges to write down my own thoughts I’d been putting off, good read!

    • Matt says:

      Thanks! I am looking forward to whatever it is you are going to write!

      Thousand Year Door and Superstar Saga easily rank among my favorite Mario games ever.

  3. Red Metal says:

    Although Nintendo hasn’t been cultivating new IPs too much lately, I’d say that their creativity shines through. Even amongst the Zelda series, of which the installments have had similar gameplay, there’s a lot of variety in those games – each entry has its own distinct identity. If nothing else, I’d say I’m more forgiving of token sequels from Nintendo because they’re still unique enough that the experiences are difficult to replicate by other companies.

    As a counterexample, I’m harsher on Uncharted 3 because there are so many third-person shooters out there, only the pinnacle of that series has a chance of standing out. Even The Last of Us, which was a new IP, has less innovation than some token sequels by Nintendo. When one gets past the pathos overload that constitutes its plot (in my mind, I’ll always see it as a failed attempt at being Dragon Quest V), it’s a pretty bland third-person shooter that actually feels like a step down from Uncharted 3. Consequently, there’s little to recommend playing either game over Uncharted 2, which remains Naughty Dog’s best third-person shooter.

    • Matt says:

      Exactly! I can’t say much about the Uncharted games and The Last of Us given I have not played either. As you have mentioned, though, each of the Zelda games does have its own feel even if the gameplay is similar.

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