Bottom Line: Nintendo indecisively throws its hat in the ring,
then realizes it has to box its own shadow for supremacy.
The Lonely Contender
In an age when Mario has no meaningful opponents remaining, Nintendo has lost its competitive sharpness. Back in the old days when platformers led the cutting edge of console gaming it was obvious that Nintendo liked to fight fire with flower power — in other words, they used their bright and accessible style to seem friendly while still doing everything they could to be the biggest, the best, and most innovative. They were so consistently tight and impressive that most kids took them for granted. Like many who grew up in the 1990s, Mario was never my favorite franchise or even a big attraction; I didn’t ask for Mario for Christmas or buy them with my spending cash, I just accepted that they were the “bar” everyone else had to jump over or provide alternatives to. The main thing I remember people loving about them was the way the music, the tone, and the sense of challenge combined to define what “normal fun” felt like. And damn, in hindsight I can see how big an accomplishment that was to keep up for decades in a row. Unlike most industries, it wasn’t just marketing and brand recognition: they earned their hegemony.
It goes without saying that the 3D paradigm shift changed the gaming landscape, literally. And while Mario 64 managed to catch the attention of the world for a while, it would be Grand Theft Auto III that redefined what innovation in this new world looked like. We’ve been following that path ever since. We know by now that Nintendo and almost every other Japanese company felt blindsided and lost in this era, and it has taken until recently (with the indie/retro market) for them to get their legs back and realize they’re still loved, just not dominant. The degeneracy of Western gaming into loot box gambling, achievement hunting, and business strategy antics has shown that, if nothing else, we need Japan to give us honest products. I’d be remiss if I didn’t share the observation made by one Japanese video game developer (I can’t find the Tweet currently) who said that there’s a major lack of “mid-size” games in the West, and that Japanese developers have accidentally been serving this market while attempting to make their own AAA blockbuster titles and falling short in the process. You could say the same thing about their business model, which has accidentally been serving the “just the game, please” market that seems to be lacking in the Western ecosystem of always-online, free-to-play, pay-to-win, and social gaming tripe.
Now factor in the end of the “multimedia living room centerpiece” concept thanks to the pervasiveness of smartphones and laptops and you have a perfect environment for Nintendo to stage their Switch comeback and remind us — with Mario, no less — why the best way forward is sometimes a callback. The Switch is a straightforward gaming handheld that works on your TV, devoid of an internet browser, a YouTube or Netflix app, or any of the other multimedia components that Sony pushed during their reign. And guess what? Nobody minds. We have smartphones, smart TVs, and computers for those things. When we want to play games we are just fine having a simpler dedicated platform.
What I’m saying is, it’s now Nintendo’s time to shine again. They’re free to kick off a new generation of consoles with a slew of first party titles while PlayStation and Xbox strangle each other to death with 4K half-steps and VR hallucinations. So… how did they utilize this golden opportunity?
As I discussed in my metacommentary theory video on Odyssey, I figured that Nintendo was trying to re-introduce Mario as a worldwide mascot by aggressively making partnerships with other companies, brands, and merchandising. It seems Nintendo has a new philosophy on success: reach out to the world, and they will shake your hand. They don’t want to be insular and smug anymore. Pretending to be the leader of the pack is no longer viable, and neither is sitting on the side quietly enjoying profits. They want to take on the role of a cheerful mainstream ambassador, inviting the world to come to their home; literally, in the case of Nintendo’s major role in the 2020 Olympics.
Having played Super Mario Odyssey thoroughly, I no longer find this interpretation to be good enough. Rather, it seems like a clever marketing ploy to hide a less grandiose reality. Before sharing my new theory, let me remind you that I’ve praised Odyssey quite a bit, and there’s no taking that back. I agree with everyone else who has expressed their joy at the return to true 3D platforming.
Here’s the new theory: that Super Mario Odyssey is a hastily developed patchwork of literal tech demos and graphical showcases sewn together halfway through development when they couldn’t agree on a single direction to take. The hat possession mechanic, the flying ship powered by Moons, the globetrotting adventure that takes you to different “kingdoms”: all of this was introduced as glue holding together an otherwise disjointed experience.
Forget the official story about the lead designer traveling to Mexico and getting inspired by the fact that they had their own local currency. Japanese creators (and their whole country’s approach to public relations) are notorious for lying about their motivations and painting a pleasant public picture using eccentric quirks and quaint stories. Investigations into the truth always reveal bitter feuds, secret agonies, and the same scramble you find anywhere else in the world. The reality that Nintendo found themselves in is obvious: they had a tight release schedule dictated by the president of the company, Tatsumi Kimishima, who wanted a major Zelda and Mario installment to be released in the opening year of the Switch, and they had no time to start from scratch. So, they improvised. Like any company developing for a platform in which they don’t have the exact specs ahead of time, their engineers and designers were testing different graphic styles — some of which were for totally unrelated potential projects, or purely demonstration purposes. This is how companies find out what a system can handle. That’s normal. The executives probably asked for ten or so different test visions for how the new Mario could look, and then realized none of them would be enough to satisfy an entire game length. This means radically clashing art styles, performance rates, and even basic texture qualities from one location to the next, with no incorporation of bosses and large-scale gimmicks into the world itself.
This kind of inconsistency isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does build up over time. Super Mario 64 was no doubt developed under similar pressures, which is why they resorted to a hub world to connect everything together, but in that game there was more than enough breakthrough gameplay ideas to dispel any doubts about its visionary strength. In Odyssey you fight the same four bosses over and over, but not even in different arenas, which is suspicious from a design point of view. There is a very clear formula to the game, but that formula is fundamentally stagnant after a while. Your hope is that the next kingdom will spice things up, but just stop and think about how weird that is: it’s something you never want to have said about a mainline Mario title. These games are supposed to abound with surprises, barely allowing you to catch up with what they’ve just introduced before throwing you into a new scenario. It’s fine to repeat certain challenge types, motifs, NPCs, enemies, or whatever… but the flow of the game itself is supposed to keep pushing to new heights.
Next we’ll discuss the real soul of the game, and the extent to which Nintendo recaptured the legendary spirit of its predecessors…