February 7, 2013
Mario Gets All the Love, But Is That Good For Nintendo?
Those who remember the “golden age” of video games might want to sit down. The original Mario Bros. arcade game is 30 years old in 2013. Mario actually debuted in 1981 in Donkey Kong, but it was 1983’s Mario Bros. that game developer Shigeru Miyamoto first introduced Mario’s fraternal twin brother Luigi.
This week, DePaul University, in “celebrating” the anniversary of Mario Bros., noted that Luigi remains very much a second banana to Mario, and is even lower on the food chain than Robin is to Batman!
“Robin, at least was his own character,” said Jose Zagal, an assistant professor of game development and interactive media at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media and author of The Videogame Ethics Reader.
Since the introduction of Luigi, he’s mostly been a sidekick, and in the years that followed only had one game that was truly his own, the 2001 titled “Luigi’s Mansion,” where the erstwhile plumber suddenly becomes a “ghost buster.”
“Though they have been around almost the same amount of time, and though Luigi is probably just as well-known as Mario around the world, he has been relegated to permanent underdog status,” Zagal added.
Zagal, no doubt, is poking fun at all of this, yet Nintendo’s latest video game system, the Wii U, hasn’t exactly been a blockbuster hit. Neither Mario nor Luigi seem poised to save the day either.
Looking deeper at this problem, could it be that the characters are showing their age?
After all, the brothers are seemingly middle aged in the game series as well as in the largely forgotten 1993 movie Super Mario Bros., where then 50-year old Bob Hoskins played Mario! Perhaps just as shocking that the video game series is 30 years old this year is the fact that this movie is now 20 years old! That’s not much of a problem, other than the fact that many of the earliest Mario fans are now quite possibly older than the character’s apparent age.
This is just another example of how Nintendo might be too tied to its signature core characters.
The company had practically singlehandedly revived the video game industry in 1985 when it introduced its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). At that point it had been game over for Atari, Intellivision and other early systems. No retailers wanted to take a chance on video games, but Nintendo changed all that.
It scored followed up hits with the Super NES, and in 1995 the Nintendo 64 was among the most sought after holiday gifts, along with Tickle Me Elmo. Nintendo battled Sega, which exited the hardware market in 2000, but created its own biggest nemesis when it backed out of a deal with Sony to produce a CD-ROM drive for the S-NES. Nintendo opted not to go forward with the partnership and instead Sony released the PlayStation.
Through the years Nintendo remained tied to its characters, including Zelda’s Link, Mario, Donkey Kong and the rest. But then Nintendo changed its focus a bit when it released the Wii in 2006. Instead of being tied to signature characters like Mario, Nintendo appealed to the masses.
And it scored a huge hit.
In 2008 the company reaffirmed its commitment to the thriving casual game market at its press conference at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo and a funny thing happened. The gaming media didn’t get overly excited and a year later Nintendo instead turned its focus back on its all-stars. Nintendo’s executives and Miyamoto may have gotten the cheers they wanted, but was it the right move?
Last November the company introduced the Wii U and it had Mario, but what it hasn’t had are the buzz, or even the early sales, that the Wii had. So perhaps it is time for Mario and Luigi to take a break. The characters may still draw in fans, but the masses clearly don’t need the plumbers.