BeiN True to Yourself: How Nintendo Wins

I’ve been meaning to write an article like this for a while now, and with E3 having just happened, I think I can finally get started now.  As my past articles may give some ultra-subtle foreshadowing of, I am quite happy with how the Switch has been received so far.  After at least four years of almost unrelenting negativity towards Nintendo’s console division, someone finally flipped a switch and turned the light back on.  The Switch has recreated the phenomenon of the original Wii’s launch, an even more impressive feat considering it launched in March instead of November.  With Nintendo seeming to have finally fulfilled their longstanding goal of a launch year without droughts and an incredible E3 that featured a healthy mix of 2017, early 2018, and far away but ultra-exciting games, Switch’s future looks very bright.  So with Nintendo’s four most recent consoles alternating between explosive success and market failure (no, you having nostalgia for GameCube doesn’t mean it sold well, it was closer to Wii U in sales than it was to Nintendo 64, and that didn’t even win its generation), is there any way to make sense of this pattern?

Well, let’s look at the goal behind the four consoles in the most general terms.  The GameCube and Wii U had a focus on attaining something that Nintendo’s competition had in the previous generation that they lacked (disc based software and HD graphics, respectively) and bringing Nintendo back to getting the biggest third-party games and controlling the traditional gaming demographic again.  Both systems also suffered from something of an identity crisis, having drawbacks that stopped them from achieving true parity with their competitors (GCN’s smaller disc space and Wii U’s limited power compared to competing systems) and having stylistic features that conflicted with the goal of winning over the competitor’s fanbase (GameCube’s general “kiddy” image, Wii U’s tablet inspired controller).  After showing a lot of promise at launch, both systems quickly fell behind in market share and third-party support, becoming solid but niche systems you bought for Nintendo’s games.

 

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And look how well pandering to EA worked out.

 

Now let’s look at Wii and Switch.  They actually don’t seem to have fixed the problems I mentioned above, you could even argue they got worse.  Was Wii any less “kiddy” than GameCube?  Is Switch a powerhouse that obliterates or at least matches PlayStation 4 and would be giving PS5 a run for its money if the generations hadn’t gotten completely de-synced?  Did/will either one get all the AAA third party multi-plats that PlayStation/Xbox/PC share?  The answer to all those questions is no.  So why did things work out for these systems, but not their predecessors?

Because Nintendo didn’t half-try to be something they weren’t, they embraced what made them different and turned those weaknesses into strengths.  They flipped things around and succeeded at things their competitors weren’t even trying.  The Wii may have been at least as “kiddy” as GameCube, but it appealed to middle aged parents and senior citizens just as easily, it genuinely was for all ages.  The Switch may be only marginally more powerful than Wii U, but take it out of its dock and it’s a technological marvel as a portable system.  Nintendo solved their problems in ways that their competitors never would have attempted, and unlike trying to copy the other systems, this approach has been rewarded.

 

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Mocking its name just made it stronger.

 

Of course, that doesn’t mean GameCube and Wii U didn’t contribute anything to Nintendo’s future.  Remember GameCube’s bizarre controller layout and various gimmick controllers (bongos, the Game Boy Advance)?  I’m sure you remember Wii U’s attempt to get people excited to play games on the controller’s screen.  Neither of these features caught on, but Wii and Switch managed to evolve these ideas into a functional, wildly popular form.  The Wii had a new way of controlling games that got a huge amount of mainstream attention, and it being included with every system allowed it to thrive.  Wii U’s ability to stream games to its controller at a limited range turned into Switch being a true hybrid that allows you to take complete console games anywhere you want.  Instead of giving up on these ideas, Nintendo believed in them and turned them into something hugely successful.

 

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Its heart was in the right place, it just needed a few tweaks.

 

Now this section is a bit of a leftover from one of the earlier incarnations of this article, but since I’ve compared Wii and Switch so much, I think it’s worth addressing.  Some may ask if we really want Switch to turn into another Wii.  Was its success actually good for gamers?

Yes, it absolutely was!

It’s time to get over the delusion that Wii was nothing but Nintendo lazily making mini-game compilations and third parties badly copying the aforementioned mini-game compilations.  Yes, the Wii ___ series and shovelware that all market leaders attract existed, but you could and can ignore them, and there is a diamond mine hidden under them.  Nintendo made some of their best games on the Wii, and I don’t just mean the Super Mario Galaxies and Xenoblade.  Punch-Out, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, Wario Land Shake-It, Metroid Prime 3, Sin and Punishment 2, Pandora’s Tower, games you should give a genuine chance like New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo absolutely did not just focus on gimmicky mini-game compilations during the Wii’s lifespan.

But the lack of attention those games get is nothing compared to the third-party hidden gems on Wii.  Zack and Wiki, Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands, Muramasa, Madworld, No More Heroes 2, Dead Space Extraction, A Boy and His Blob, Rabbids Go Home, Sonic Colors, Epic Mickey, Lost in Shadow, Red Steel 2, Trauma Team, House of the Dead Overkill, Goldeneye 007, Medal of Honor Heroes 2, Boom Blox Bash Party, Rodea: The Sky Soldier, there are so many third party Wii games that may not have been super hyped AAA budget games but were the type of quality mid-ware that people thought died in the seventh generation.  Switch turning out like Wii would indeed be a good thing, and fortunately, there are already signs of its portable ability bringing back some of those mid-ware style games.

 

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Have you played this game? Do you know what it is? This is Trauma Team, just one of the many underappreciated Wii games.

 

So in conclusion, I think the moral here is pretty obvious.  Nintendo systems with one syllable names do better, end of story.  In seriousness, I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo does a lot better when they focus on their strengths instead of trying to attain the strengths of others.  Directly competing on their competitor’s turf doesn’t work, and with the console generations being out of sync between companies now it is barely measurable (I defy you to find a way to compare Switch and PS4’s success that doesn’t require waiting 5+ years to judge).  While it would be nice for Nintendo to achieve the third-party dominance they had with the NES and SNES, I don’t think it’s practical right now and both Nintendo and their fans will have a better time if they focus on what worked for Wii and Switch instead of trying to bring SNES back with one fell swoop.  Wait a second, if you pronounce them “Ness” and “Sness”, those systems are also one syllable… that IS the key!

The Elements of Gameplay

In my previous article, I dissected the meaning behind several essentially identical terms used to judge games, terms that I hate.  I condensed them under the label of “soul,” and argued that if a game actually had a soul, it would be its gameplay.  I realized that just labeling the real important part of a game as gameplay could sound kind of like the copout I accused the term soul of being.  What exactly is gameplay, anyway?  Well, I’ve actually given that quite a bit of thought, and pinpointed five clearly defined (if often subjective in terms of quality) parts of a game that combine to form that seemingly sacred concept of gameplay.  I’ll be going over each one, so let’s start putting together this Megazord known as gameplay!

Control

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Let’s start with something simple, but vital to every game, arguably the primary thing that defines something as a video game.  Control is one of those things where it being good means you never think about it.  You’re not thinking about the controls when you’re steering an airborne Mario past obstacles or circle strafing demons as Doomguy, but if those games had bad controls you sure as hell would be.  Control is the link between the game and the player, good control adds more to immersion than all the graphical touches and flavor text in the world.  Bad control, on the other hand, will haunt a game no matter how much it excels at the other elements of gameplay.  Control sets the tone for a game: some of the other elements have to be designed entirely around the controls.  One game’s perfect control could ruin a different game, and that could easily go both ways.  Control is the vehicle that the other elements of gameplay ride in, and if it crashes, the entire game goes up in smoke.

Content

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You’re playing a modern retail game that does everything perfectly.  You’re completely absorbed by the gameplay, the first two hours made you fall in love and you can’t wait to see what’s next… CREDITS!?  I think we’ve all felt the painful sucker punch of an unexpected credits sequence.  No matter how a good a game is, er, was, if your $60 purchase ends after two hours it’s probably going to lower your opinion of the experience.  Content is probably the most objective element of gameplay: the amount of levels, missions, secrets, etc. in a game can’t be changed by someone’s opinion.  The objective nature of both what content is and how much an individual game has makes this a simple but important factor when it comes to gameplay.  While content doesn’t really affect the core gameplay experience directly, the truth is quantity does matter to some extent, and I think how long you get to enjoy a game is pretty important.  I mean, what are you going to do after you finish a game, just start it over again?  Wait, maybe you will…

Replay

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I debated on whether to combine this element with the above.  It was tricky because while content and replay serve a nearly identical function, the abundance of one often leads to the lack of the other.  These two elements are the only ones on the list that can almost totally replace each other.  Replay value is the other side of content’s coin.  Content is how much you get out of a game before the credits roll, replay value is whether you want to go back and play the game again after that happens.  The line can blur at times, what does going back to earlier levels for a better rank, with the option to do it before or after you beat the game, count as?  What about looking for secrets needed to unlock the real final level/ending after you saw the first ending?  How the hell do you define when a multiplayer game is being replayed?  Replay can also have a purer form, however.  A truly great game will be fun to play again and again even if you’ve seen everything in it.  If you feel compelled to go back to a completed game again and again over the years, it has truly achieved great replay value.  Replay value is what makes a game immortal, how can it not be part of a game’s soul?

Challenge

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If Content and Replay can make up for each other, Challenge completely inverts that and must fight with itself to reach the correct balance.  A game being too easy makes it boring and pointless.  A game being too hard makes it frustrating and stressful.  To have great gameplay, a game has to use the spice known as difficulty and the sweetener known as mercy in just the right amounts, creating just the right amount of Challenge.  Checkpoints should be placed thoughtfully, difficulty spikes and breathers have to show up at the right times, puzzles have to take effort to solve without throwing the player into a pit of despair that only looking up the solution can rescue them from.  The game must somehow appeal to players of different skill and experience levels in the same package.  A game’s difficulty level may not be the most subjective quality about it, but whether it’s the RIGHT difficulty level is going to cause fistfights.  This is where Challenge versus cheapness comes into play, and games should make sure they only rely on challenge, no matter how many people online define cheapness as “any challenge above my personal skill level.”  If you thread the needle just right, however, you’ll contribute something to gameplay that adds a dimension to the experience which other artistic mediums can’t compare with.

Design

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And now we arrive at what I personally consider to be the most important part of gameplay.  I was originally going to call this element Level Design, but in addition to preferring that every element was one word, there are a few genres where that name wouldn’t fit.  Level design is mostly a cosmetic feature in genres like fighting games or Tetris-style puzzle games, after all.  In the end, there are a lot of terms you could use for this element depending on the genre.  Level design, fighting engine, competitive balance, course layout, it goes on.  At its core, this element is a game’s unique and personal layout, the thing that makes an individual game that specific individual game.  You could mess with the other elements in a game and it would be a variant or fragment of the same game, but Design makes it a new game. All of the other elements are intimately connected with design in every aspect.  The most subjective element when it comes to quality by far, Design is truly the core of the soul, the thing that defines the individual.  Whether it’s designing the level, placing enemies, balancing combat, thinking up puzzles, or deciding how far to go with realism, Design is the most important part of gameplay and by extension the most important part of game.

By Your Powers Combined

So there we have it, the five parts of a game that I believe make up that ideal known as gameplay.  Whether you want to think in terms of Power Rangers/Captain Planet/Avatar/My Little Pony or whatever, they have been assembled and Gameplay, the soul of a game, has been formed.  So, if you ever want to argue with someone bashing your favorite game for lacking “soul,” you can use gameplay as a counterargument, and you can use these elements to define gameplay.  Maybe I’ll write something about the anti-elements at some point, but for now I’ve said all I want to.  See you next time, and remember that gameplay puts the soul in console, wait, gameplay is the only consoulation for… no, don’t be con-souled about the soul of… never mind, just go.

 

A Tough Act to Follow

Over the years, there were tons of video games that are universally liked by critics and gamers alike, and there were sequels that had much more praise than their predecessors. However, even among the most critically acclaimed game series there are games that other entries can’t come close to. What I’ve decided to do was to make a list and narrow down specific games that meet this criteria. There were ten different choices I have made for this list, and with that, I present to you the ten games that are a Tough Act to Follow.

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior – Arcade (1991)

The original Street Fighter hit the arcades in 1987 with lukewarm responses, but when Street Fighter II was released in 1991, the game became an instant hit. It was so popular that Capcom made an updated version of it a year later, followed by three more subsequent updates ending with Super Street Fighter II Turbo. People were getting tired of the updates, as they were waiting for Street Fighter III. A new game was announced in 1995, but it wasn’t Street Fighter III; it was Street Fighter Alpha. While the game was popular, as were Street Fighter Alpha 2 and 3, they never reached the same success as Street Fighter II. When Street Fighter III was released, it did not catch on due to the lack of classic characters save for Ryu, Ken, Akuma, and Chun-Li (granted, Chun-Li only appeared in Third Strike, while Akuma did not appear in New Generation). While Street Fighter IV (and its subsequent updates) was successful, the original game was criticized for balance issues (mainly with Sagat being overpowered, which was proven to be unfair). Still, its popularity couldn’t match the same type of popularity that Street Fighter II had.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles – Genesis (1994)

After two successful games in the series, Sonic the Hedgehog became a pop culture phenomenon in the early 1990’s. To capitalize on the success, Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog 3 on what was dubbed as “Hedgehog Day”, which happened on Groundhog Day of 1994. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 introduced a save feature, a new character, new ways to get into special stages, bonus stages through checkpoint lamp posts, and new power ups. There are greater distinction of levels per zone (including the music), as well as differentiation of characters in regards to their skill (such as Tails being able to fly or swim). While Sonic 1 and 2 had in game cutscenes, it was fleshed out more in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles to show what’s going to happen next. The game’s reception was a lot more critically acclaimed in comparison to its predecessors in spite of the fact that Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles were released separately within a span of eight months.

Super Metroid – SNES (1994)

The original Metroid introduced exploration in a side-scrolling adventure game in a non-linear world. Metroid II introduced save points, which eliminated the need for passwords. Both of those games were popular in their own rights, and were both well received; granted, Metroid II wasn’t as well received as the first one, but was still popular enough. When Super Metroid was released, it introduced many new elements to the series, such as a map, more expansive areas, eight-way directional shooting, and new weapon and item upgrades. It is exponentially better than the original Metroid, and has done a lot more than what the original Metroid has offered. There have been many other Metroid games that came afterwards, but none of them have reached the same critical acclaim that Super Metroid had, although Metroid Prime came close to it. Since Super Metroid is held to a high standard, every Metroid game that came after it would always be judged in comparison.

Super Mario 64 – N64 (1996)/Super Mario Galaxy 2 – Wii (2010)

After many years of 2D Mario platformers, with the last ones being Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island on Super Nintendo, and Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins for Game Boy, the next step was to bring Mario into a new world: The Third Dimension. The goal was to bring Mario into a 3D World where he can explore new areas like never before, and Super Mario 64 accomplished that. While the Nintendo 64 was not as successful as the Sony Playstation, Super Mario 64 was very popular, and to this day, is still highly regarded as one of, if not, the best platformers of all time. Super Mario Sunshine tried to capitalize on it with more expansive worlds, and a new mechanic, the F.L.U.D.D., specifically made for this game. Unfortunately, it didn’t reach the same critical and commercial success that Super Mario 64 had.

Super Mario Galaxy changed things up, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 takes it into another level. The gameplay is similar to the original Super Mario Galaxy, where it has a new physics engine, which allows each and every celestial object to have its own gravitational force, which lets players circumnavigate rounded or irregular planetoids, walking upside down, or sideways, for a matter of giving the game a feel of going through galaxies. There are new unique stages with excellent level design, as well as a new Hub World, the Starship Mario. You collect 120 Power Stars, 120 Green Stars, and 2 special Power Stars, bringing it up to a total of 242 Stars. The game received critical praise that matches Super Mario Galaxy, with many of the critics citing that this game is better than the original. There have been debates on the Galaxy games (specifically Galaxy 2) and 64 as to which is the best in the 3D Mario series, and with Super Mario 3D World out now, only time will tell if it will match or surpass the praise of these games.

Final Fantasy VII – PS1 (1997)

While past Final Fantasy games were popular amongst dedicated gamers, Final Fantasy VII was the first Japanese RPG to have a mainstream presence in the western market. The gameplay hasn’t changed much from the previous Final Fantasy games, but it was the first game in the series in 3D. The pre-rendered backgrounds and the breathtaking FMV cutscenes wowed people to the point that an entire market opened up to JRPG’s. Final Fantasy VII for many gamers was an introduction to Japanese RPG’s, and the story was a lot more complex than what gamers had seen, and was a one of the first console based games to have more openly adult themes in western markets.

Final Fantasy VII was well received, and sold really well, and it cemented Sony’s dominance in the fifth generation console wars. While some later Final Fantasy games, such as IX, and in between X and XII, had dedicated fanbases, none of them matched the mainstream impact that VII had. To this day, people still demand a remake of Final Fantasy VII, but all Final Fantasy VII fans received were spinoff games and a movie.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – PS1 (1997)

Castlevania has always been a popular series ever since it made its debut on the NES back in 1987. While it had a lot of hits with games such as Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and even the Japanese TurboGrafx-CD game Rondo of Blood, it wasn’t until the series made the jump on the Playstation with Symphony of the Night. This game was a complete departure from other Castlevania games, and adopted a Metroid-esque style with RPG elements, allowing you to explore Dracula’s Castle in its entirety. The popularity of this game led to more games in the series, as well as other games to adopt this style, dubbed as “Metroidvania” due to their similarities with Super Metroid with the map and structure with the game. There have been other Castlevania sequels to come out after this game, and while some of them couldn’t match the popuarity, others just fell flat. No matter what Castlevania game comes out, people will always make the claim that Symphony of the Night is the best game in the series.

Resident Evil 2 – PS1 (1998)/Resident Evil 4 – GCN (2005)

While Resident Evil 1 and 3 have their respective fanbases, Resident Evil 2 was the most popular game of the original trilogy. The controls were refined, the ammo wasn’t as limited, and when you draw your gun, you face towards the nearest enemy. It made better use of having two playable characters, giving the game continuity between the character’s stories, and having rewards for beating the game with the second character. This game was well received, with fans wanting a remake of this game.

By the time Resident Evil 4 had been released, the initial Resident Evil Formula was considered stale due to the awkward fixed camera and controls, as well as it being a newer generation at the time, so it felt much like an early 3D game. Therefore, Capcom capped Shinji Mikami to reimagine the Survival Horror genre. While many prototypes became other Capcom games, the final product was significantly different from the Resident Evil of old. The game now resembles a Third-Person Shooter, but still stayed true to the series’ Survival Horror roots. You don’t have to find a specific item to save anymore, which removes the limitation of saving. It got really good critical reception, it received good reviews on release and has won Game of the Year on multiple publications. This game is also a fan favorite, with fans claiming that it was arguably the best game in the series. After Resident Evil 4, fans argued that the games in the mainline series focused more on action gameplay, as a detriment to the series. Other games in the series that had the Survival Horror gameplay either didn’t succeed financially, or did not give the Survival Horror experience that longtime fans had hoped for.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – N64 (1998)

Like Super Mario 64, Nintendo wanted to bring The Legend of Zelda to a new world. They did so by changing the top-down overworld seen in past Zelda games into a more dynamic 3D environment. It is the first Zelda game in the series to introduce free-roaming, context-sensitive actions, and Z-targeting. There is a method where you can change the setting to seven years in the future, where Link becomes an adult, and must rescue the rest of the seven sages. While the Ocarina has appeared in past Zelda games, Ocarina of Time lets you learn twelve different melodies for solving puzzles and teleporting to locations you already visited within the game.

When Ocarina of Time was released, the critical acclaim was exceptional, and even to this day, it’s always at least in a close struggle for the highest game in Gamerankings and Metacritic. It is not only claimed by fans and critics to be the best Zelda game of all time, it is also claimed to be the best game of all time. There have been other games in the series that rivaled the popularity, but Ocarina of Time is the last Legend of Zelda you can praise without the fanbase attacking you. It was even remade in 2011 for the Nintendo 3DS, which many people enjoyed just as much as the original, if not, more.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – GCN (2004)

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is much like its predecessor, only better in every way. Timed moves and the Partner system were improved: with the partners now having their own Heart Points, as well as having more abilities. The battles are staged and audience participation can have an impact on the battle, and as you level up, it increases the audience size. Save for Game Informer’s infamous 6.75 score, the game was well received, and it sold well for a Gamecube game. The reason that many Paper Mario fans don’t like Super Paper Mario or Sticker Star is because it deviates too much from the formula that The Thousand Year Door perfected. Beta footage of Sticker Star implied that it was going to be a direct sequel, but as development time went on, it changed to a completely different game.

Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening – PS2 (2005)

While Devil May Cry was a genre trendsetter, Devil May Cry 3 felt more like a modern action game. It fixed the problem Devil May Cry 2 had, which was that the game was a lot easier. It added different styles for Dante to use that dramatically changed the gameplay. After gamers grew attached to Dante’s cocky and aggressive attitude in Devil May Cry, his emotionless performance in Devil May Cry 2 disappointed many. Devil May Cry 3 completely reverses this with Dante being even cockier, and the game had more over the top cheese than ever. After the negative reception of Devil May Cry 2, Devil May Cry 3 redeemed the series for many gamers and reviewers. Devil May Cry 4’s reception was lukewarm from fans and reviewers, and DmC had a massive fan backlash.

Honorable Mentions:

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest – SNES (1995)
It gave the series its own identity after the original borrowed elements heavily from Super Mario World. The level design really hit its stride with its cleverly hidden secrets. The game is held at a high regard where arguably not even the other games in the series would match its popularity.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 – Arcade (1995)
While Mortal Kombat 2 may arguably be better, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 was ultimately considered to be the last great Mortal Kombat game in the series until Mortal Kombat 9.

Mega Man 2 – NES (1989)
Mega Man 2 was initially well received and even considered to be the best in the series. Even Keiji Inafune considers this game to be his favorite Mega Man game that he has worked on.

And there you have it, ten different games that set the standards of the video game industry, with sequels unable to match the sales success or popularity. These games will always be looked upon as some of the best games of all time, and it shows when you look at retrospectives and top 10 lists. Many fans argue about what happened with these respective series after the specific game gets high praise, and many argue about which game is really better in their series. Regardless, there will always be games that are a Tough Act to Follow.

New Appreciation for Mario

Soulless. Lazy. Rehashed. Uninspired. These are just some of the words that describe the reasons people have for hating the New Super Mario Bros. series. Half of it, at least, is underrated and does not get the love it deserves. Yes, I know they’re some of the best selling games of all time, this is about their reception in the gaming community. Before I go into detail about the two I want to defend, let’s have an overview of the entire series.

New Super Mario Bros. was announced at DS’s public unveiling during E3 2004. Very little was known about it at the time, but there was one gigantic thing it had going for it: it was the first new traditional 2D Mario in well over a decade. When the game was released in 2006 it got great reviews and spectacular sales, but it didn’t take long for people to start complaining that it wasn’t as good as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. There are valid reasons for believing that (low difficulty, poorly executed use of power-ups to find secret areas), but the predominant ones were superficial or unfair. The game’s graphical style lacked “soul”, it was too similar to a game we hadn’t seen anything like in 15 years. This led to a considerable backlash against the game, and despite how well it sold we wouldn’t hear another peep from the series for three years.

At E3 2009, Nintendo defied all expectations and announced the next game in the New series for Wii instead of DS. Called simply New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the game was overshadowed by Super Mario Galaxy 2 being announced at the same conference. While there’s no circumstance where you can say it was unfair for Super Mario Galaxy 2 to overshadow something, NSMBW still got relatively little attention for Nintendo’s big holiday game that would go on to sell tens of millions. Most focus is given to the co-operative four player mode it introduced, which is really a great disservice to the game, but I’ll go into more detail on that later.

At E3 2011 Nintendo showed a tech demo for their new Wii U console called New Super Mario Bros. Mii. Despite claims that it was a tech demo and not a real game, it was obvious from the detail in the HUD and amount of levels shown that it was going to be a full game at some point. Before the real game was shown, however, Nintendo announced New Super Mario Bros. 2 for 3DS. This is when people really started to turn on the series, furious at it for merely existing before we knew any details about it. New Super Mario Bros. Mii was renamed New Super Mario Bros. U at E3 2012 and confirmed as a launch game for the Wii U, while NSMB2 would launch in August. Despite the fact that it is not uncommon for a series to have a portable and console game released in the same timeframe (Metroid, Castlevania, Call of Duty, Resident Evil, and God of War are some examples) and that the NSMB series was averaging a new game every two years since its inception, people were absolutely enraged by this “milking” of the series. Neither game was given a fair chance by the gaming community, and one of them absolutely deserved one.

You’ve probably guessed which of the two games I feel are so underrated. They are the console ones, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U. There is a pretty clear explanation for why the quality in half the series is so much higher than the other: the original New Super Mario Bros. was made by an inexperienced team and Nintendo as a whole was out of practice at making 2D Marios. The team reached their stride with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. New Super Mario Bros. 2 was made by a new rookie team while the established one made New Super Mario Bros. U. This shows in pretty much every aspect, with the console games being much more challenging, creative in level design, and willing to try new ideas.

Let’s start with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. As I said earlier, people often associate it with the ability to play the entire game in four player co-op, which spread to other 2D platformers. This undersells what makes the game great, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is at its best in single player. The level design is on par with Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, NSMBW deserves to be seen as an all-time platforming classic. The game’s best new feature wasn’t co-op, it was the Super Guide. Yes, I know that sounds insane, but give me a second. For years before NSMBW was released, the biggest complaint with Nintendo’s games was that they were too easy. So the last thing we needed was a mode where the game would literally play a level for you, right? Wrong. Super Guide allowed the designers to make the levels challenging without frustrating newer or more casual players. Ever since its introduction, the “ease disease” that afflicted Nintendo has been eradicated. New Super Mario Bros. Wii was free to deliver an experience on par with the best Mario games of old, and if you give it a chance where you’re really concentrating (instead of messing around with four players and relying on the abundant lives and instant respawns to get you through) on it you’ll see its true quality.

Now let’s look at New Super Mario Bros. U. Much of my praise for it is similar to what I said for New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The level design is even better, and the many Super Mario World references (most notably the interconnected world map) are greatly appreciated after Super Mario Bros. 3’s themes dominating the New series for so long. Being as good as NSMBW would be enough for it to earn far more praise than it has been given, but there is something else in the game that adds at least as much as the main story, and makes it easily my favorite 2D platformer of all time. This feature is Challenge Mode. Challenge modes aren’t unheard of in platformers, but it is NSMBU’s flawless execution of the concept that makes it so much better. The challenges are fine tuned to perfection, achieving a brutal difficulty that far surpasses The Lost Levels while never feeling unfair. Things you didn’t even notice when playing levels normally turn out to be perfectly implemented for a challenge all along. For example, one level has coins flying at you throughout it, in normal gameplay it barely means anything. But when you have to beat that level without collecting a coin, you realize the coins were meticulously spaced so that they were all avoidable, but only with precise platforming and timing. The gold medal times for the time trial levels are calculated to an amazing degree, it was very rare for me not to be within a second of them when I succeeded. Nothing has tested my platforming skill to such an extent in over a decade, and anyone who feels the series has gotten too easy absolutely has to play NSMBU’s challenge mode.

Okay, I’ve raved about the games, but I’m not going to just pretend the criticism of them doesn’t exist. Let’s go over a few complaints. The most common one is that they are “rehashes.” Yes, the variety of settings has pretty much stayed the same throughout the series, but do you really play 2D platformers for the backgrounds? NSMBW and NSMBU both made significant advances in gameplay. New Super Mario Bros. Wii added the co-op function that, while given more attention than I feel it deserves, was definitely something new that had an impact on the genre. It also made the use of powerups more focused, instead of New Super Mario Bros.’ annoying “Here’s a star coin you need a rare powerup not in this level to get” tactic NSMBW designed levels around a single powerup that was the only one found in that level. It also introduced the Super Guide, giving quite a bit more freedom to the level design to challenge players. New Super Mario Bros. U added Challenge Mode, which despite its appearance of being a minor bonus is actually a huge step forward for the series. The other biggest complaint is that the series feels lazy and soulless. Making great levels is never easy, regardless of how different the backgrounds are, no game with level design like the console NSMBs can be lazy. Soulless is a meaningless term when applied to gaming, it almost always refers to superficial features like art style. A game’s soul is its gameplay, and the console NSMBs have plenty of it.

2D platformers don’t make for good trailers. Showing a few seconds of a level can’t convey the important parts of level design, and isn’t going to be very flashy from a visual perspective. I understand that all of the NSMB games may look the same on the surface, but if you look deeper and give them a chance you can find two of the greatest platformers of all time in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U. Think of all the good times Mario has given you, and give his New games a chance. You’ll be the one to benefit in the end.

Jumping From the Ashes: The Rebirth of Platformers

When we last left platformers at the close of the sixth generation and dawn of the seventh, things were not looking good. The transition to 3D that had seemed so promising with Super Mario 64 had caused initially hidden but quickly expanding problems for the genre, and the gaming market had shifted in a direction that was not very hospitable for platformers. Sonic had become a joke and Mario was for all intents and purposes missing from the genre. Ratchet and Clank could barely be considered a platformer anymore, and no other series from the last generation seemed to be making the leap. Was all hope lost?

It certainly seemed so at the beginning of the generation. While there was some hope with New Super Mario Bros. finally bringing back 2D Mario and its exceptional sales, this didn’t have the same impact as a console game would have, and Mario’s return could be more of a sign of Nintendo’s health than the platforming genre. Besides, a 2D game obviously couldn’t solve how to make platformers work in 3D.

As for what was happening to 3D platformers… it wasn’t pretty. The seventh generation’s large emphasis on cinematics led to what could be called auto-platforming: a jumping system where the player has very limited control over jumps and depends on set pieces to guide their character through acrobatic feats that look cool but take little interaction besides pressing the right direction now and then. This completely removes the point of platforming, platformers are about mastering a game’s jumping system and learning the patterns and layout of the environment so you can navigate it. Auto-platforming removes both of these features, since the jumping tends to be incredibly simplistic and the environments have been reduced to a prop that enables your platforming instead of testing it. There is no freedom in how you navigate the environment, platforming has been reduced to a quick time event. Games like the 3D Prince of Persias, Uncharted, and Assassin’s Creed are examples of games that contain auto-platforming, and for a short but painful time period it seemed that this was the closest we would get to 3D platformers in the seventh generation.

So things were at their darkest for platformers, who could save them? Well, it’s actually pretty obvious. Mario, who had both defined platformers and unknowingly set them on the path to destruction, had another 3D platformer coming out in 2007. I’ve tried my best to stay objective throughout these articles, but I’m going to have to let some emotion into this part. Super Mario Galaxy was miraculous. It was as if the decline of platformers had never happened, we had a game that kept the linear essence of the genre and used 3D to enhance the core gameplay and level design instead of replacing it with exploration. To make things even more miraculous, the gaming media and community seemed to recognize this. While few were brave enough to openly acknowledge that linearity could be a good thing, Super Mario Galaxy was incredibly popular and considered an instant classic in a way no platformer since Super Mario 64 had been. With such an amazing game to lead platformers in the seventh generation, the genre’s troubles were surely over, right?

Well, not exactly. Super Mario Galaxy may have been universally loved, but did that guarantee that other platformers would follow its example and that they would also be popular? In 2008, it didn’t seem that way. Despite Super Mario Galaxy the previous year, 2008 was arguably the darkest looking year for the future of the genre. Wario Land Shake-It was a good game that was completely ignored for being 2D, Sonic Unleashed gave up on platforming to focus on action/racing style gameplay and was still mediocre at best, and Little Big Planet focused on customization to the detriment of its core gameplay. Mario, the exception to the genre’s woes, was nowhere in sight and may have again gone into hibernation for most of a generation. Had all been lost?

It turns out all we needed was a little patience. Games aren’t made overnight, and this was truer than ever before with the seventh generation’s rising development time cycles. Platformers weren’t dead in 2008, they were charging. After more than a decade of turmoil, 2009 was the start of the platformer renaissance. If I had to pinpoint a precise moment where it started, it wouldn’t be with a game release, but with an announcement. At E3 2009, Mario shattered his one platformer (if that) per system curse with the announcements of New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2.

These announcements weren’t just good news for the Mario series, both games symbolized a wonderful development in the genre. Super Mario Galaxy 2 showed that the original Super Mario Galaxy was not a one time swan song for the genre, it was the new beginning it deserved to be. This would be demonstrated as games like Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time, Sly Cooper Thieves in Time, and Rabbids Go Home returned their series to a platforming focus. Arguably best of all, Sonic Colors systematically broke every step in the dreaded Sonic cycle and finally returned the series to platforming greatness. 3D platformers had changed again, and this time for the better. The damage done at the start of the 3D era had finally been healed.

But that wasn’t the only thing that caused the platformer revival. While the 3D platformer finally reached a good place in its troubled evolution, the 2D platformer made an astonishing comeback on consoles. Despite the dismissal Wario Land Shake-It was met with, New Super Mario Bros. Wii became one of the best selling console games of all time and companies took notice. Donkey Kong Country Returns, Rayman Origins, Kirby’s Epic Yarn/Return to Dreamland, and of course New Super Mario Bros. U continued the multiplayer console 2D platformer revival. If anything, 2D platformers are more prominent than 3D ones now, which no one would have ever predicted in the fifth and sixth gens.

So here we are at the dawn of the eighth generation. How do things look for platformers? While we don’t have the sheer quantity from the third and fourth generation golden age and probably won’t any time soon, 2013 seems to continue at the post-revival pace with Sly Cooper Thieves in Time, Rayman Legends, Yarn Yoshi, and a new 3D Mario all released or scheduled for this year. Mario aside, platformers aren’t the market dominator they used to be, but they’re selling well enough to keep a steady stream of them coming. There’s still a ways to go before platformers fully regain their 16-bit era glory, but things look far brighter for the genre than at any other time since then.