This article originally appeared in Nintendo Gamer magazine.
In Super Mario Galaxy, Mario knew exactly where he was going. Space, the final frontier, and the only place there was physical room to accommodate the breadth of Nintendo's imagination. Look at the plumber gracing NGamer issue one and he's almost unrecognisable by today's standards: there's a look of steely determination in his eyes, the grit of a true platforming pioneer. What happened to that guy?
Now, off the back of New Super Mario Bros. 2 But the glint is gone. His eyes have the safe glaze of a cuddly Pixar protagonist. This is the Mario Nintendo splash all over merchandise; the Mario your granny likes; the Mario who lowered himself to share three games with his mortal enemy, Sonic the Hedgehog. The Mario from issue one? He'd puke his guts up if he had to spend one minute with Sega's obnoxious rodent.
Somewhere in eighty issues, something changed. Can we chalk it up to fatigue? Six new games in as many years is going to knacker any platforming hero, especially one who refuses to wear proper running shoes. Painful stuff: ankles like concertinas. Or is the number of games symptomatic of a bigger problem? Is Mario's prolific output evidence of a hero who doesn't know where he's going; and whose only choice is to try every direction at once?
The identity crisis began after Super Mario Galaxy; specifically, after Super Mario Galaxy failed to sell 30 million copies. It sold a respectable 10.68 million, only a third of what New Super Mario Bros has shifted to date. Nintendo is - like so many businesses - run on money, and it doesn't take Robert Peston to work out that ideas that make more money are going to be the ideas favoured going forwards. But what if that money-making idea is the opposite of what you've strived for?
Mario, the poster child for innovation, sells better when he repeats past victories...
This is the Mario dilemma in a nutshell: Mario, the poster child for uninhibited innovation, sells better when he repeats past victories. Ouch. Surely that's frustrating? While Nintendo would never publicly declare such failings, there's a detectable undercurrent of disappointment in Super Mario 3D Land's Iwata Asks interview. When Miyamoto jokingly implores fans of 2D Mario to give the 3D adventure a go, the following (laughs) is better read as (laughs through gritted teeth). That whole interview concerns an attempt to create an introduction to 3D platforming written in the language of a 2D game. Everything from the 2D iconography - the bricks, the flagpole, the little/big Mario health system - to the (largely) parallel-tracking camera, is designed to tempt old fans from the 2D shallows to the three-dimensional deep end. Hey, it's marginally subtler than the DVD that came with Super Mario Galaxy 2, 'How to play Mario if you're a mum with no 3D spatial awareness'.
As such, 2D Mario's future isn't hard to predict. New Super Mario Bros hit the jackpot and, if the success of the Wii sequel is anything to go by, will continue to do so. There's a reason it's this slightly unambitious side-scroller that launches alongside Wii U, and not a risky 3D outing. To their credit, Nintendo promise not to milk the 'New' series, with Iwata telling Kotaku in a recent interview "we only create one per platform."