Super Mario Odyssey: Nintendo’s Nostalgia Economy
Super Mario Odyssey is out, the 10/10 reviews are filling Nintendo’s open guitar case, and there’s this mood of “best Mario game ever” wafting around the critical landscape. I’m not saying Odyssey isn’t the best ever – without playing it I would say it looks as crisp and enjoyable as Mario’s ever been – but that kind of statement deflates from overuse. Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild were all reviewed by major outlets as the “best Zelda game ever.”
Perhaps Nintendo really is on this unstoppable quality ascent, tempering each entry of their flagships into an innovative new high for its series. But I think there’s another explanation.
When you look at how hard Nintendo pushes the forced scarcity of the NES and SNES Classic consoles, I think you’re getting a practical glimpse of the essential policy behind the whole company. Their very existence depends on the careful management of their one true resource, which has always been their brand recognition, not even necessarily dependent on innovative gameplay.
In other words, Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t have to objectively be the best Mario game ever – it only has to be the latest game recognizable as an heir to the Mario lineage.
There are plenty of examples in Nintendo’s past: other “best Mario games ever” include Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Galaxy 2. Many of these games received the same 10/10 as Odyssey. But of course, the formula wears thin eventually – New Super Mario Bros. 2 didn’t float anybody’s gondola. When the releases get too obvious or too close together, people wake up and act like they won’t stand for playing the same old thing.
So the last piece of Nintendo’s marketing puzzle is that a new release can be essentially the same thing, but it has to be mulled over for a few years to increase demand for that thing, and then marketed as a bold new move for the company. Innovation is only allowed in the service of enabling nostalgia. I’ve heard Odyssey succeeds in this and I don’t doubt it.
But at time of writing, both Galaxy and Odyssey have a 97 on Metacritic, and almost all of Mario’s 3D releases include review snippets that mention the game as the heir to the Super Mario 64 crown, the “best Mario game ever.” I’m not saying Odyssey isn’t amazing, but it fits exactly within Nintendo’s pattern, a strategy that has less to do with creativity and more with clever business tactics.
Nintendo has been doing this since 1985. The market crash of the games industry in the West was due to many things. Partly it was because of the failure of home consoles to consistently translate arcade experiences to your living room. Partly it was because of the inherent design of those games – basically glorified gambling machines, offering micro-rewards for micro-payments – and how they clashed with the prospect of home gaming. And yes, partly it was because E.T. on Atari was really, really bad.
But when Nintendo filled our void, notice their specific use of terminology, which still colors the gaming industry today. They called their flagship console, not a gaming system, but an entertainment system. Their marketing strategy was to position themselves as the prophets of new technology. But there is no difference between an Atari 2600 and a NES in that way: both are machines that play games and do nothing else. The NES didn’t have a cassette deck. It didn’t have a built-in cable box. It was a game system, which Nintendo marketed as being more.
In fact, it was so iconic as the game system that Nintendo’s tailspin started as soon as other consoles appeared and diluted their brand. All game consoles started being called “Nintendos,” a problem that climaxed with the battle between the N64 and the PS1 (which really was an entertainment system), during which all of Nintendo’s third-party support realized that brand recognition was an antiquated battle. They fled to the shiny new upstart, leaving Nintendo with a choice that would direct the company’s entire future: die now, or monetize the first party like it’s never been monetized before.
At that time, Nintendo lost or severed their partnerships with SquareSoft, Capcom, Konami, Rare. Since then, Nintendo’s console lineups have followed a distinct pattern: a few heavy-hitting first-party releases and a ton of shovel-ware nonsense. There’s been no middle-ground on Nintendo consoles since the N64. You’re either playing The Wind Waker or Wheel of Fortune.
This isn’t an accident. When we have to wait seven years between Galaxy 2 and Odyssey, we’re being conditioned to feel withdrawal for a specific drug, one for which Nintendo is the only dealer. They’ve seceded from the Microsoft/ Sony console war, hunkering down into their home audience and setting their own premiums, reselling ancient ROMs or rereleasing consoles with the tiniest cosmetic upgrades to sucker in their faithful collectors. There’s a reason why you’ll never get Super Mario Odyssey for cheap. Even before it was a game, it was designed as a commodity tailored to a specific audience and engineered to illicit an exact response.
The game looks like a lot of fun, certainly fresher than Mario’s been in seven years. But just because I’ve played Super Mario Bros., doesn’t mean I’m impressed with a section of level in which I get to relive it. Imagine if the latest Halo game had a level with Halo: Combat Evolved graphics. Would people cheer, or break out in tearful reminiscence?
So my question in all of this, which verges dangerously close to cynicism, is why does Nintendo get a free pass?
It would be because the appearance of quality trumps everything else. So what if Rayman Origins is actually better than New Super Mario Bros. 2? So what if Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an incredible, expansive RPG that no one bought next to the unstoppable force of the mediocre Skyward Sword’s brand recognition? People knowing what something is, with a preconception of what to expect from it, is what will keep fueling Nintendo’s sales forever, with the minimum creativity required to update old stuff and never with the requirement to make new things. Super Mario Odyssey probably is the best Mario game ever. But why isn’t it a new game, one that doesn’t require recycling old ideas and making internal references to company history? It’s not something new because the brand is the real product. Quality is more like their hobby: they know from experience that we’ll buy the stuff anyway.
But it’s not all bad. At least we proved to Nintendo that they actually have to make games, that what they tried to do with the Wii U just won’t stand. That was the entrepreneurial low they tried to sell us as a test: the company logo, the fancy new hardware, and zero effort on the games, with no flagship new releases to be seen. The Switch is a return to form for no other reason than that we showed Nintendo our lower limit for what we’re willing to take from them. They don’t have to come up with new things. But they at least have to pander.