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I couldn’t do it.

After the third time this year attempting to review a first-party Mario title, I finally decided to throw in the towel. If the definition of insanity was doing the same thing multiple times and expecting different results, I wanted to stop before I crossed the line between Prince and Pauline Hanson.

If I thought all three of these games failed in different ways, or didn’t embody my growing emnity with Nintendo, I wouldn’t be writing this and would just admit that my willpower wasn’t the best. But the more I played these games, and the more I thought about Nintendo’s other recent efforts, their future line-up and how the Wii U is looking today, it painted a pretty consistent picture of Nintendo that worries me. And this is disregarding their financial situation entirely.

Nintendo has always had the stance of playing by their own rules and refusing to copy other companies’ successes, demonstrating this both implicitly and explicitly. It’s usually been other companies that have used Nintendo’s engineering to suit their desires, as evidenced by the DS and Wii‘s huge libraries that have, or at least have been purported to have, largely consisted of third-party shovelware.

The 3DS has just about managed to build up its schedule so as to hit its stride. But now, with the situation the Wii U is in, the word of the oldest member of the Big Three is being tested. With the exception of the indie populace, and a few scattershot companies giving their all to the Wii U like Platinum and Sega, Nintendo is fighting the next console war on their own, or at least in their own little bubble.

But this discussion is one you have heard many times before, and it’s always based around their finances. Looking upon the quality and development of the games, surely they would be shielded from whatever troubles the company is facing in the real world, right?

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If you were around the last time I talked about Nintendo, you will know that I thought New Super Mario Bros U was hackneyed, derivative and ultimately played second fiddle to Rayman Origins, which came out the year before. Differences in direction aside (and in hindsight, they are certainly numerous), it disappointed me that Nintendo wasn’t interested in taking notice of other efforts at their genre, instead opting to play it safe because they knew it would succeed regardless.

It disappointed me a lot at the time because I knew that Nintendo had, and still has, the capability to impress more. The year prior saw the arrival of Super Mario 3D Land, a platformer I adore and would still consider one of the best games on the 3DS. I knew, and know, that Nintendo can go above and beyond the dry, banal iterations that is increasingly ailing a lot of the more conventional franchises. That’s what makes them special, that’s what their fans love about them and this is exactly what I hoped they were talking about when they referred to playing to no one’s tune but their own.

The games I have been continually referring to are Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Mario and Luigi: Dream Team and New Super Luigi U. While I’m willing to give leeway to Dark Moon not only because I was personally caught up at the time, but also because Luigi’s Mansion’s pure tech demo prowess is a hard act to seriously follow, all three games suffered the same problem of feeling too safe. Banal. Boring. Dry. Dream Team was surprising even in this regard, because the framework presented (notably, the judicious use of quick-time in the combat) is getting stale not just in regards to other RPGs, but also in regards to itself. Four games in, with the premise of a dream world, dreams being regarded as the zeniths of reckless imagination, and the best Nintendo could make was a very conventional RPG with easy checklist puzzles and a unique engine aesthetic but ultimately trite art design? I couldn’t believe it.

It was especially egregious in the case of New Super Luigi U. While I was optimistic that the game would actually have a focus, the back of the box did the game’s first impressions no favours. It doesn’t say anything like “Brace yourself for an adventure the likes of which you have never known…with a character you should have known more but has been treated like a butt monkey for years.”, but rather lists off the new features of the game and gives the disclaimer that the retail version is the same as the downloadable version. It reads more like a software update than a brand new tale. The game itself, which has the exact same world map and exact same intro cinematic sans Mario, doesn’t help.

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Even the title font, which opts to cross out “Bros” with green paint instead of remove it entirely, highlights how redundant and iterative the “New” Super Mario Bros Series has become. I’m not so dense as to not realise the move is meant to be a joke, but it turns from light-heartedly amusing to darkly humorous when you realise how prophetic it actually is.

I also realise that the ambition, or lack thereof, put into a game is not representative of how fun it is to play on a base level, and LUigi, as I call it, doesn’t seek to be anything more than a map pack, but the lack of ambition betrays even that petty vision, as around half of the levels don’t follow the general focus of a smaller time limit, having you wait around for slow moving platforms. There isn’t enough evidence to convince me that they cared even on the level where it only really matters in a 2D side-scrolling Mario title, and it was the last straw.

I literally said to myself when I was playing this game, “I remember when Mario games used to be adventures”, and that’s the core of my growing disillusionment with Nintendo. Whatever creative fire was burning in their hearts only sees fit to exist every so often, and these new games, colourful as their aesthetics are, feel cold and distant.

I would never go so far as to suggest that the old Nintendo is dead, because, as evidenced, I think they’re alive when they want to be. But the occasions where that creative spark is evident are growing further and further between each other. It’s become so bad that I have refused to buy Pikmin 3, because I doubt that there will be a significant re-invention, or mere upgrade, to befit a franchise that hasn’t seen a new game in around nine years. Smash Bros is still on the cards (although I have my own fears about that), but I’m not on-board with any of their future titles. I still think ZombiU is the most forward-thinking and innovative exclusive on the console, and given Ubisoft’s past Nintendo console launch titles, that’s saying a lot.

If I had to single out one more franchise, it would be Mario Kart, which is wallowing in its own stagnation at this point. After the brilliant DS outing, which made several fundamental improvements, all additions to the franchise have been shallow, aesthetic or inconsequential. Actual problems that have continually plagued the series, like the sense of speed, the AI difficulty and the fairness of the blue shell, have stubbornly refused to be addressed.

This feeling of effortlessness isn’t something restricted to the past two years, but it’s becoming more evident as Nintendo distances itself from the rest of the gaming world. There were many fears when Nintendo didn’t have a press conference at this year’s E3, instead choosing to make a larger-than-usual Nintendo Direct, and third-party support for the Wii U is shrinking.

And those wouldn’t bother me if I thought Nintendo could pick up the slack on their own, but slacking is exactly what I think Nintendo is doing. I know that this is not why Nintendo’s financial situation has seen analysis, but that is what makes this situation so frustrating for me. They won’t improve on this area because they don’t “need” to. Flagging Wii U market or no, Mario is still one of the single biggest IPs around.

Nintendo were all about the games and their quality and imagination, standing out in a market growing more stern and po-faced. But in an era when even the straightest games feel like they’re incorporating some imaginative elements (Call of Duty‘s zombies, Bioshock Infinite‘s art direction, The Last of Us‘ bombast), it’s sickening to see the Mario series become the new template for sterile iteration syndrome; games made solely to be marketed and sold. It’s frustrating, and the things I’m frustrated about are things I always want to see succeed. Just ask Harmonix!

Nintendo might be playing by no one’s rules but their own, but that doesn’t mean they can’t challenge themselves.

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