A man owns an axe. He uses it to chop wood for years. When his son grows up he gives the axe to him. The son also uses the axe to chop wood for years. However, one day the handle breaks and needs to be replaced—the son does this. When the son’s son grows up, he gives the axe to him just like his father before him. The young man uses the axe to chop wood just like his father. However, one day the axe head chips and needs to be replaced—the son does this. Is this still his grandfather’s axe? I’ve heard this a few different ways from a few different places but the question is always the same: Is it the same axe considering every component is new and/or different? When it comes to the subject of games, we have a variety of intellectual properties (IP’s) implemented by their owners every year. Just like an axe, each IP has its own components that make it unique—however much more than just two.
The 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong starred the hero Jumpman who later earned his own series of games and a real name. Super Mario Bros. was released in 1985, more than thirty years ago and created Jumpman’s series of games. It had a very distinct look and feel and followed a recognizable pattern for several games. You play as Mario (or Luigi if you are player 2) and you jump through levels collecting coins as quickly as possible with the ultimate goal of saving Princess Peach. You kill enemies by jumping on their heads but if you touch them anywhere else or are hit by something else, you die. When you die, you start the level over unless you are out of lives then you start over from the very beginning. Mario uses a variety of power-ups found throughout the levels: mushrooms to make himself bigger and allow him to survive one hit, a special green mushroom that gives an extra life, a flower that allows Mario to shoot fireballs, and a star that makes him invulnerable for a short time.
Super Mario Bros. 2 changed a lot about the game. It added Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach as playable characters that are chosen at the beginning each level with their own strengths. Breaking boxes was changed to picking up grass and the fire flower was removed. The player can no longer defeat enemies by jumping on them but could defeat them by throwing objects at them. The player could also ride the enemies and pick them up. The player also has the ability to survive more than one hit without extra power-ups. Warp points were changed to doors made from potions pulled out of the ground instead of pipes. The enemies and final boss were also completely different. These drastic changes occurred because Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels was actually Super Mario Bros. 2, however the game was considered too difficult for western audiences. Super Mario Bros. 2 was in fact a game called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic and featured a completely different story and set of protagonists. Since Nintendo wanted a more accessible Super Mario Bros. 2, they changed the characters from Doki Doki Panic and some items to be more Mario-like.
Super Mario Bros. 3 returned to the block-breaking and goomba-stomping of its roots. It also added new power-ups like the famous super leaf that gives Mario the Tanooki Suit. It also added the overworld map that became popular allowing the player to choose stages and to enter houses to get items. These concepts would keep the game going down a similar path through the Super Mario Land and Super Mario World games.
Super Mario 64, which was released in 1996 and is technically the ninth Super Mario game, introduces a whole new dimension to Super Mario. The Nintendo 64 game console added a more realistic 3D to games and Mario was one of the first to try it out. Using the overworld map concept that became so integral to Mario games, Mario 64 uses a castle as a hub and jumping through paintings to get to the different themed levels. Mario 64 introduced the concept of earning Power Stars by beating a level a certain way and then unlocking levels by getting enough stars. The missions that unlock stars encourage the player to explore the level and find hidden secrets. Harder levels are typically unlocked without needing each star from previous levels, this allows the player to progress through the game at their own pace which mirrors the new freedom 3D brought.
Nintendo is the one company of the big three that most pushes its main IP’s. Mario 64 could have been a completely different game with just changing the setting and enemies. Super Mario Bros. 2 has proven the opposite can be true. Since Mario had never been 3D before, no one would expect it to have been a Mario game. It still could have been revolutionary and a game for the history books, but would it have been? Is the simple fact that it was Mario the extra boost that made it so good? If not, why then was it Mario?
If we don’t include the Mario spin-offs like Mario Kart or the obscure titles that included Mario as a character (as both are not part of the Super Mario series), Super Mario was nothing but remakes until 2002 with Super Mario Sunshine for the Nintendo GameCube. Using a very similar concept as Super Mario 64, Mario is in a hub world and travels to levels that are unlocked by earning enough “Shines”. The biggest difference is that Mario Sunshine has an engaging hub world, an interesting villain, and a compelling story compared to Mario 64. Mario Sunshine also introduced FLUDD, Mario’s talking and water-spewing backpack. FLUDD was essential to the game because cleaning up sludge and grime is the primary motif. FLUDD also provides Mario with some cool new abilities, like hovering, super speed, and a rocket-powered jump.
After Super Mario Sunshine is Super Mario Galaxy. No longer is Mario tethered by the surly bonds of earth. Besides the gimmick of outer space and spherical platforms, it’s closer to Mario 64 than Mario Sunshine was. This includes a conventional hub, a boring villain, and a trite story. However, Mario Galaxy’s interesting and engaging gameplay made up for it so well that it is one of the most popular 3D Super Mario games. It was so popular, it earned itself a true sequel, something no other 3D Mario game had done.
There are eight other Super Mario games that have been released around or after the time of Super Mario Galaxy (If you include Super Mario Maker and Super Mario Run). Each has added its own power-ups and new concepts. The next in line is Super Mario Odyssey. We don’t know much about it, but it looks to add its own unique elements, including stages based on real-life. So here we return to the question: is it the same Super Mario our fathers’ have played? It’s called Mario, but it looks and plays nothing like it. Almost every element has changed, nevertheless we are more than willing to call it a Mario game. One answer is that it didn’t change overnight; Super Mario has evolved. If we never had Mario 64, Mario Sunshine would have been an even more drastic change. The same is true for Mario Galaxy into Mario Odyssey. Furthermore, the same could be said for every famous IP that had a significant update to its style or gameplay.
Nintendo loves its flagship characters so when a game is revolutionary, they prefer it to be a time-tested IP. However, this strategy of taking an IP and making a brand new kind of game can backfire and alienate longtime fans. You must also consider who the “longtime” fans are. Is it the ones who started with the very first few Super Mario Bros.? Imagine someone’s first experience was with Super Mario Bros. 2 and then they play Super Mario 3. Shy-guy throwing and turnip-picking are missing and goomba-stomping and block-breaking are the new mechanics instead of the other way around. So then consider someone’s first Mario was Mario 64—the original Super Mario Bros. might seem terrible in comparison. Perhaps we need a new phrase, “mediumtime” fans.
The “mediumtime” fans are the players whose introduction to these time-tested IP’s are the revolutionary games that broke the rules. If your first Mario Kart was Mario Kart: Double Dash, then where are the copilots in Mario Kart Wii? If your first Super Mario was Mario Sunshine, then where is FLUDD in Super Mario Galaxy? When analyzing any sequel we will always look at it through the lens of its predecessors, but only up to our first since the ones before will seem inferior. If these later instalments are missing aspects we loved then we might see the game as less favorable. I guarantee there were players who loved the side-scrolling platformer Super Mario Bros. and hated the 3D world of Mario 64. The same can be true if a game has aspects we loved, we will see it as more favorable. If someone’s first Zelda game was Ocarina of Time then using the same songs and items in Majora’s Mask was a great experience. However, the same player would be disappointed to find that Twilight Princess removed those qualities.
So why mention the three generations from the beginning? Well, that’s how we should look at our games and their IP’s. The original fan, the grandfather, gives Mario to his son. This son is the longtime fan, he experiences the changes the grandfather didn’t. Finally, the grandson gets Mario, he is the mediumtime fan. He experiences the Mario that exists after the changes through the grandfather and father. Any other changes will seem simple to him, but the grandfather would look at Mario now and not recognize it.
It is, of course, silly to invent phrases like “mediumtime” to describe fans. Where does it end? Short-time? Long-medium-time? Medium-short-time? Elevenses? By the same logic, it’s also silly to use the phrase “longtime”. I consider myself a longtime fan of Zelda because my first was Ocarina of Time (1998), which means I’ve played Zelda games for over two thirds my life. However, time-wise, that isn’t close to the original Zelda which was made in 1986. With this in mind, I’ll never enjoy the original Legend of Zelda the way someone would who played it first. The gameplay is roughly the same as the top-down Zelda titles that I’ve enjoyed, but it offers no direction and misses key components of modern games like saving your progress. It would be considered a terrible game if it were made today. Even if I could enjoy the game without modern gaming conventions, I would judge it based on my favorite Zelda titles and it would fall short. We would be better served to simply say “My first Zelda was Ocarina of Time.”
So why does Nintendo refuse to make original IP’s for new and innovative concepts? The (not-so-) secret answer is that it’s safer. The fans will buy a title just because it is in a series. This allows Nintendo to explore and grow without fear of losing sales. The true irony is that people critique Nintendo often saying that they never do anything original because they keep reusing the same IP’s. However, they are also considered the most innovative company, having pioneered motion technology with the Wii, touch screens with the DS, and not to mention the innovations with the 3DS and the Nintendo Switch. They actually are just as innovative with their games. Nintendo owns some of the most influential games of their generation, including Mario 64 and Zelda Ocarina of Time.
It is up to Nintendo when to reuse an IP or when to introduce something brand new. As a Zelda Ocarina of Time fan, I’d prefer it if newer Zelda titles were more like it. However, I can understand why they aren’t. If Nintendo just kept re-releasing Ocarina of Time, it wouldn’t do well except for a very niche audience. Understanding why decisions are made is the first step accepting changes and being able to predict them in the future. In the end, Nintendo still makes fun games and that is all that truly matters to the players.