Recently I attended Gameconnect Asia-Pacific in Melbourne, a sort of conference and networking opportunity for the Australian games industry. I was part of a panel of game critics discussing why videogames are shit, so basically money for old rope.
Anyway, the discussion turned inevitably to Mario and to New Super Mario Bros Wii. One of the other panelists, Bajo from ABC TV's Good Game series, brought up how he knows people who will buy and play every new Mario game regardless of perceived quality simply because "it's Mario." I responded - in retrospect, a little too hastily - with "yeah, it's like talking to people who believe in God."
The line got a rather nervous laugh, but I stand by the point. Mario to God isn't as huge a leap of logic as you might think. As the movie Fight Club once said, our fathers are our original models for God. Take that principle to a generation of latchkey kids raised by TV and gaming, the original model of God transfers over to escapism. Nintendo becomes our heavenly host. Mario becomes Messiah. Sonic becomes our Judas.
This isn't helped at all by the internet, where a large percentage of discourse consists of elevated versions of playground arguments over whether He-Man was better than Thundercats. International circle-jerk community forums and the ability to download virtually any artifact of modern culture have granted nostalgia an unearned degree of legitimacy. Then we get things like the Transformers movie, and the human race continues to suffer a general decline into apocalyptic horror.
"Given your previously expressed contempt of Nintendo basically doing the same thing over and over, reusing the same characters, and favoring appeals to nostalgia over innovation, what would you do with Mario?"
-Michael B., from email
You know, Nintendo didn't always do the same thing over and over. They've always had a tendency to labor their franchises, but at least for a while they made an effort to move forward with each one. Mario 3 - map screens, raccoon tails and minigames. Super Mario World - Yoshi and secret levels. Yoshi's Island - babysitting, unique painted art style and serious Mode 7 abuse. Mario 64 - first move into full 3D, for better or worse. Mario Sunshine - squirt guns and fruit. Mario Galaxy - superlative 3D platforming with gravity mechanics, and there the series found itself up against a big fucking wall.
I remember saying in my Mario Galaxy review, there's nowhere to go once you've gone into space. Space is a big thing and anything you try after space is just going to be not moving forward but shuffling sideways, if not outright stepping backwards. And it seems Nintendo agreed, and have decided not to let it bother them.
We're living in a rather introspective time for gaming, with the aforementioned trend for nostalgia and both retro and retro-style games available on handhelds or for download onto consoles, and this has brought us to things like New Super Mario Bros Wii, which is a fairly large and bold step backwards. What is the purpose for its existence?