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[Comments] (5) : Damn airplane germs. Instead of doing anything useful I'm going to write about video games.

Atticus and Samuel love video games. They mainly love the feedback loop: they seem just as happy with a cheap toy from a cereal box as with a DS or GameCube. (However at any given time they must be using consoles with similar capabilities, or strife ensues.) Alyson and I played some Mario Kart Double Dash with them. They also like a game for the DS with the promising title of "Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2" (however they are not terribly good at that game, so I secretly unlocked some of the mini-games for them).

I have been out of the gaming console loop for about 15 years, and playing these games with the kids really drove home to me that Mario has become a frozen brand. There are about fifty Mario-branded games but the vast majority are not what I'd consider "Mario games", ie. platformers. MvDK2 looks just like (say) Super Mario World, but it's a puzzle game with no more action element than Lemmings. Mario Kart has the trappings of the Mario universe, but it's a racing game like every other branded racing game. Mario is now a figurehead, like Mickey Mouse, except Mickey's figurehead role has made him milquetoast and neotenous, whereas MvDK2 and MKDD actually succeed as games.

When I was a kid--no, this is going somewhere--there was one Mario game and rumors of a second. (Even this is complicating the issue because there were non-platform Mario games in arcades, but we didn't think about those.) At this point the universe could go one of two ways. Nintendo could release in the US the "Super Mario Bros. 2" they released in Japan, or they could change the sprites on a totally unrelated platformer and call it "Super Mario Bros. 2". The Japanese SMB2 is a good game, but it's a straightforward level hack of SMB1. Option 1 would lead to a world in which one Mario platformer was pretty much like the last. Option 2 would lead to a Cambrian explosion of totally new gameplay elements like picking things up and throwing them, and entirely out-of-left-field characters (like Birdo, now apparently Yoshi's transvestite boyfriend).

We got the second, and in my middle school the result was pandemonium--some sort of pre-release hype grapevine I don't remember, followed by desperate borrowing of cartridges from the kids whose parents had bought them. Nowadays it's fashionable to treat SMB2 as the odd man out it objectively is, but at the time it was a huge deal, and part of the huge deal was that 2 was radically different from 1. Then the same thing happened with 3, which was radically different from 2, in the same direction but not the same as 1.

I'm losing control of the narrative and I'm about to go off on a little fanboy tangent, but my larger point is that up to, say, Super Mario World, every Mario game was the same kind of game but added major characters and/or gameplay mechanisms. With SMW and Yoshi, the Mario brand froze and you wouldn't add more characters any more than you'd add more characters to the Disney lineup. The idea of new core mechanics (turtle shells, boxes containing power-ups, picking up and throwing things, etc.) stopped being meaningful because any sort of game could be given the Mario brand. And without new core mechanics that can be deployed in multiple games, the brand is frozen.

Here are the major changes I've noticed in the Mario universe since I stopped playing console games in the early 1990s: 1. Donkey Kong came back, started wearing a tie, and had a bunch of kids, Bowser-style (who's the mother?). 2. Pauline also returned after a long absence, probably causing some angst on Princess Toadstool's part. 3. Some kind of parallel-universe Mario named Wario showed up. There are also baby versions of Mario and Luigi (neoteny!), but I'm not counting that since obviously M&L were babies at some point. Even if you count them, all this stuff is revamps and standard twists on stuff that was canon already, like the fourth season of Enterprise, or if Disney tried to bring back Clarabelle the cow. The Cambrian explosion is over.

(Wow, I managed to push the fanboy tangent off past my main point. Here it is: it took a while for the SMB2 changes to be integrated into the Mario universe. The only part of SMB2 in SMB3 is the Bomb-ombs, and nothing further is in SMW except the cacti and a couple Ninjis in the last level. But by the time of Double Dash and MvDK2, the weird masked SMB2 enemies are everywhere.)

Since you've read all this way, you'll probably enjoy this collection of videos of hacked SMW worlds in which Mario triumphs by doing nothing. And if you like that, you'll like level 3-2 of Air, and some of the user-defined levels of N. Anything else?

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Posted by Adam P. at Tue Sep 04 2007 23:21

I don't know if you're excluding the 3D Mario platformers as a matter of principle or something, but both Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine introduced a number of new mechanics - mostly movement based, like wall jumping and butt-stomps - which have been folded into later games, notably New Super Mario Bros. (which is a more straightforward 2D platformer along the lines of the original Super Mario Bros.). Super Mario Galaxy looks like it's going to introduce some really cool new mechanics as well (bee suit!). So Mario might not be as dead as you think.

Posted by Leonard at Wed Sep 05 2007 08:04

Thanks, Adam, I knew you would come through with an analysis of later games.

How about this. The brand is frozen in that existing characters are being revamped in preference to new characters added. But the mechanics have split off into lineages. So platformers build on the mechanics of platformers, and (testable hypothesis) the Kart games build on the mechanics of previous Kart games. But (testable hypothesis #2) the shared mechanics are the things established at the SMW-era split. You won't have butt-stomps or wall-jumping in Kart or puzzle games. And only the oldest core mechanics (turtle shells, question blocks) are part of the frozen brand.

Posted by Leonard at Wed Sep 05 2007 08:06

PS: There are like 4 games where I say "I want to get a Wii just to play that game", and SMG is one.

Posted by mikepop at Wed Sep 05 2007 09:08

You'll also want to check out Super Paper Mario on the Wii. It introduces the gameplay concept/characters of "Pixls" and some new villain characters.

I don't know how their character development department gets away with such lame naming though (the old wizard with white beard named "Merlon" for example).

Posted by Leonard at Wed Sep 05 2007 09:18

Pixls? Has Mario gone Web 2.0?

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