On Nintendo’s Nostalgia-Based Model: Part II

A deep analysis on both the pros and cons of Nintendo’s design model. Set against my own replays of the first two Paper Mario games. Part Two

It’s not a newly made point: Nintendo’s modern-day game design model is based off of nostalgia.

The model itself not necessarily new nor revolutionary either.  And as I aforementioned stated, based on my own experience in replaying the Paper Marios in the macro, I fell right into the umbrella of why Nintendo has been doing what they have been doing with their re-releases and “similar but different” nostalgia games.

But just the same, I also recognized evidence that this model works in the micro as well.

Getting into the bulkiest parts of this analysis

Chapter Three: Old Games with a New Lens

Paper Mario (left) and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (right)

I did get something new out of these replay experiences, both in terms of gameplay feel and realizing new things about their respective stories, theming, and connective tissue.

Now, having gone to school and studied game design, by analytical brain is running far more hotwired in recognizing some of the reasoning behind the game’s choices.  And additionally, having seen the world evolve to place more fraught with sociopolitical tension, I now am much more keen to notice subtle hints of it in all of my narratives, and these were the biggest micro-areas where I noticed new things about my proverbially “favorite” games.

In the case of the original Paper Mario (PM64), in the case of having sociopolitical tension, there is… well… none… which is not a surprise to me.

I remarked in my first post that PM64 sets up its stakes early, but then, beyond the prologue, is a self-contained story that then just has Mario going through the different chapters, Peach helping in the interludes, and restoring the world chapter-by-chapter, until it gets to the endgame.

In replaying it, I realized that this isn’t exactly true because the game can actually be distinctly divided into two halves.

In the first half, across the prologue and first four chapters, there is a steady build-up as we learn about the characters of Mario, Peach, and Bowser particularly, but also with regards to the threat level.  The prologue immediately sets up the game’s magic system with the story of the Star Spirits and the Star Rod, before then immediately jumping to the present and showing us a legitimately well-done “fallen hero” arc, before then finally setting up the stakes of what Mario needs to do.

Chapter 1 then acts not just in terms of self-contained gameplay, but in terms of pitting Mario against adversaries with the most personality (and whom attempt to get in your way the most number of times).  Chapter 1 gives a real face to the type of adversaries guarding the Star Spirits, and makes you invested in defeating them.  Afterward, Chapter 2 has the grandest sense of adventure and is used to introduce us to the true expansion of its world building (it is indeed when the world, Toad Town included, opens up).  Chapter 3 almost then acts as a culmination, in that it is set-up to have Mario’s greatest adversary.  Tubba Blubba is “invincible,” the plot is more intricate, the denizens of this world have true “shades of grey” agency, but then you win.  So where do you go from here?

The narrative then cleverly plays a trick on you, in asking Peach in the subsequent interlude what Mario hates most.  In a gameplay sense, you can answer these questions as a gag, pick items, and then have Kammy Koopa place these items in the next world because now Bowser is becoming more and more desperate to stop Mario.  But like the Green Goblin in Spider-Man says, to really hurt the hero, “you attack the heart.”  And Bowser actually does this, in a way, as Shy Guys then directly start attacking Toad Town for Chapter 4.

From a narrative perspective, this can be described as the moment when the villain fully goes on the offensive to snuff the hero out for good because he’s had it taking losses.  You feel this in the gameplay, too, with your hub world now under siege and unable to entertain your usual routine in-between chapters.  So, even though the “what does Mario hate most” is played as a gag from a literal sense, the story then actually plays it seriously with Bowser’s answer to “what would Mario hate the most” actually being “then let’s attack his friends.”

This then culminates itself in your victory in Shy Guy’s Toy Box, the most complicated Peach interlude at the time in baking the cake, and then a positive narrative feedback moment with Twink meeting a Star Spirit for the first time and you feeling this fulfillment.  From here on, however, the narrative truly pauses.

Bowser recedes into the background, there is less set-up about your next adventures, and THESE chapters (Chapters 5 and 6) are fully self-contained, one an adventure and one a world restoration with callbacks first to Kolorado and then to the flower garden, respectively.  But then, we find out the reason why Bowser retreated.

After Chapter 6, Peach’s truly most extensive sneak interlude reveals that Kammy Koopa is… building something, and she wouldn’t do anything if not for Bowser.  As we later find out, she is hard at work constructing the platform that will boost Bowser’s power in the final battle.

Because in actuality, after you complete Chapter 4 and Bowser’s heretofore attack on your home soil fails, he resigns himself to the fact that Mario IS going to save all of the Star Spirits.  Chapter 7 is then less about the Crystal King’s history and more about learning through Merlow and Merlumina of the history of Star Haven, the Star Kids, and their ancient tribe tasked with protecting them, giving more weight to (a) your last great adventure up through Crystal Palace, and then (b) the lore, in order to tee up the true endgame.

This subtle realization gives further weight to Bowser’s character, and makes you realize that PM64’s narrative is not as static as you once thought.

But more than narrative, in replaying PM64, what struck me is really just how spectacular the overworld and exploration is.  Like, I enjoyed Origami King’s overworld, but the desert, the size of Tubba Blubba’s castle, the expansiveness of the jungle in Chapter 5, the epic quest up Shiver Mountain in Chapter 7, the game really pulls out all the stops in these areas, and I realize that even more when later replaying Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD).

Because in a weird way, it was easier replaying PM64 than it was TTYD [4].  Don’t get me wrong, I still love TTYD, but the gap between the joys of exploring PM64’s overworld vs. TTYD is larger than I thought, and it actually I think makes PM64 easier to get back into without worrying as much about what kind of headspace I’m in.

But also, there is the fact that PM64 is better in terms of story than we give it credit for.  It tells a straightforward, “hero’s journey” story, with the lore and stakes set up in the game’s prologue, along with the game’s villain, then proceeds to (a) give the hero a colorful antagonist to fight first, (b) expand the world out to a true, overworld-style scale of adventure, travel, and journey, (c) include a Second Act twist in which the villain goes on the offensive, only to fail, (d) focus the third act on some smaller adventures, but mainly a slow, steady build-up of the hero reaching the destination he’s needed to reach from the absolute beginning, in order to “save the world.”

It’s a Mario skin, and simpler than many others, but the fact remains.  This game really reminded me of watching Lord of the Rings.  In which the characters are not necessarily that complex, but that’s okay, there is far more of a focus on the journey than on any sociopolitical angles, and it really is a true adventure from point A to point B, set up in stakes by its prologue, with a few twists here and there, but overall… pretty straightforward.

I had low-key always remembered TTYD as feeling more like Lord of the Rings, with its deeper focus on lore, the supernatural, and deeper characters, but this isn’t truly the case.

And the switch from this grand, Lord of the Rings-level feel of PM64 almost makes the switch to TTYD feel at least partially jarring.

Because TTYD, from an overworld perspective, is not as “grand” as its predecessor [4].  Its stakes are not abjectly clear from the very beginning, and there is far less of a “chosen one for the people hailed to defeat the villain” and more of a “everyman stranger reaches a strange new place and has to mine out the mystery of this place to find out why certain things are happening, and what may happen next.”

And the gameplay supports this, keeping its cards fairly close to the chest, especially early on, and not really focusing on an expanded overworld at all.

The interesting thing about my TTYD replay is that this disconnect of playing a “scaled down” version of PM64 in terms of world built size bothered me mostly in the first two chapters. Maybe it was that the emergent mechanics hadn’t had the chance to take flight or that just it isn’t until Chapter 3 that really shows off what TTYD can do (in the same way Chapter 2 does so for PM64, which is earlier – with PM64 regarding it’s expansiveness and TTYD with regards to its fighting).  Most people harp on Chapter 2 as being a black sheep chapter for TTYD, but I also got a little bored with Chapter 1 as well, which a lot of people love, because it reminded me of Chapter 1 from PM64, but with the world less expanded somehow.

But it was Chapter 3 that not only reminded me, “Yup.  This game still holds up,” in terms of mechanics and intra-chapter storyline, but also made me realize that, unlike PM64, TTYD actually does have a sociopolitical element to its plot (something I especially realized after Chapter 4 too).

In playing Chapters 3 and 4, you realize this comparison between the high class and the low class, not unlike Arcane honestly, in which both universes – directly juxtaposed – show the ideas of how evil develops in each.  In Chapter 3, you have a person at the head of an organization (Grubba) on a floating, glittering city, manipulating the media (basically) in order to stay in power far long after he should be able to, with cover-ups and disappearances from the highest level, even though in PLAYING Chapter 3, there is comfort in that the fights are organized, you can’t be killed in them, it still feels “safe”.  How evil lulls you to sleep under a high class order and is able to develop without resistance.

Whereas Chapter 4 directly feels dangerous, in which people are literally experiencing body horror with zero control, and you find out that Doopliss is targeting them simply because he is bored and wants the thrill of it.  And this is how evil spreads in the lower classes, in which you have a gangster or even someone like the Joker spreading chaos simply for the sake of it, and what you end up with is local terrorism, but because there isn’t real order in any way, it isn’t taken care of until someone like Mario steps into the fray.

This take only became more apparent as I continued to play across the next three chapters.

Chapter 5, in a way, pits the higher class against the lower class, in the form of Flavio and Bobbery.  Flavio sits comfortably in Podley’s Inn with his Skull Gem, singing about his travels and hoping for more adventure (and money), while Bobbery languishes in a state of depression over the death of his wife – a result of her falling ill whilst he was out at sea (which feels like a parable for a working class tragedy).  And even after he first agrees to join you to be the ship’s navigator, he still exists outside of the main party.  This is, in many ways, because Bobbery is looking for a good way to die.

He gladly sacrifices himself to fight two Embers to allow you and two of your crew to escape unharmed, and then speaks about wanting a last wish in the form of Chuckola Cola, which Flavio won’t give you until he sends you on an extended goose chase around the island to get a Coconut to replace it with.

After you give Bobbery this last wish, he speaks himself off the stage, if you will… but doesn’t die.

After this point, it is almost as if the more depressed version of him reaches closure, because from here on out, he becomes a true fighter.  Your biggest advocate against Flavio when he begins to dilly-dally over the need to use his Skull Gem to open the way to Pirate’s Grotto.  Later on, trying to give you advice over how to deal with Don Pianta, who he knows.  And later still, being the voice of determination needed to convince the Fahr Outpost Bob-ombs to reactivate the Big Bomb Cannon.

At the same time, Flavio is able to slowly learn humility.  First by the threat of losing his Skull Gem in order to open the cave, and then, in the Chapter’s finale when he realizes he actually needs to negotiate with the “defeated” Cortez (and lose his Skull Gem for real) in order to barter passage on his ship to fight Lord Crump and his X-Nauts.

Of course, by the end of the adventure, he still takes all of the credit for a “successful” voyage, even though it was the poorer crewmen who set up their makeshift town in the first place, Bobbery’s convincing of him to lend a hand in the first place, and a caught-in-the-middle Mario doing most of the actual legwork and fighting.

I’m not going to go as far to say that Mario in Chapter 5 is an outright metaphor for the middle class, because I don’t think this was intentional, but the symbolism for the higher and lower classes in Chapter 5 is.  Bobbery, the stand-in for the poor, needs to come to terms with his own hardship and maybe even his own death wish, before stepping into the best version of himself – a fighter despite it all.  Flavio, the stand-in for the wealthy, needs to learn humility, initially coerced and later freely given, even if he’s still going to take credit for the eventual positive results.

Chapter 6 later on gives the higher class even more shades of grey, as you need to befriend them in order to solve the mystery on the Excess Express.

And then Chapter 7 brings this duality back into the forefront when you need to get Goldbob’s signature in order to launch the Big Bomb Cannon (just like a poorer area of society is “required” to get permission from the wealthy to simply succeed in their jobs), and then the only way to convince Goldbob is to “speak his language” and offer all the money you have in exchange to show how much you care.

At the same time, you are led to believe that General White, the operator of the Big Bomb Cannon who lost his job and fell into a state of depression, is representative of this depression in poverty, aimlessly wandering alone without any direction.  When in fact, General White found a new purpose in his life, and he actually has been looking for you this whole time, making him then to be a second example after Bobbery of someone climbing out of their depression.

This all then leds to this sequence’s culmination, in which these destitute Bob-ombs come together and shoot you to the Moon, feeling like a moment where a poorer society comes together for one greater purpose.  And I feel like it says something that this, from a story perspective, is the last you see of the public until the game’s climax (as the story instructs you, more or less, to move directly from Chapter 7 to Chapter 8 without pausing in Rogueport).

This worldbuilt subtext I saw in this playthrough contributed to why I didn’t hate the areas that most people hate in TTYD (i.e. the Punies in Chapter 2, the backtracking in Chapters 4 and 5, the lack of replayability in Chapter 6, and the General White sequence in Chapter 7) [4].  I have my own suggestions as to how these areas could have been improved, yes (which can be viewed in the Appendix of this article), but overall I genuinely felt like they provide story purposes.

Chapter 2 is meant to introduce you to the idea of directly helping people on their ground defend their home.

Chapter 4 is meant to dial in the feeling of isolation and being alone in the first of the backtracking sequence, followed by the relief of finally having Vivian with you in the subsequent ones.

Chapter 5 is meant to highlight Flavio’s hypocrisy, as you feel the monotony of needing to run around both to get a Coconut to replace the Chuckola Cola even as Bobbery’s life presumably hangs in the balance.

And finally, the General White sequence of Chapter 7 is meant to be this culmination of returning to all of the places you have visited before sending you off to the story’s endgame.  This is even reinforced in the prelude before Chapter 7, as Frankly tells you that he needs time in order to do some research to find a way to get to the Moon, and you basically have to wander around and appreciate the world around you during this time.  So then the General White sequence reinforces this feeling, and while I do think there were areas where it could have been refined in order to be less tactilely annoying, I also think that the culminating sequence of you literally being launched to the Moon is a more-than-decent payoff.

I could go on more about other examples of this subtext, such as how you get emails from the Rogueport Restoration Committee trying to bring awareness to what’s going on in the town, which does feel like a middle-class attempt to improve things; how the book of Luigi’s adventures, Super Luigi, becomes increasingly overpriced; or how, in Rogueport, you cannot really leave the town unless you know your way around Rogueport Sewers (and thus know how to fight) or you have enough money to ride the Excess Express or the Blimp to Glitzville.  This does create this sense of claustrophobia within the town, and makes it feel less grand and open than PM64, but now I realize this is likely on purpose.

This is likely how all of Rogueport’s denizens feel, trapped in this town and beholden to Ishnail’s thieves or the Pianta Syndicate, with no real means to get out.  And why the prospect of travelling to Keelhaul Key in Chapter 5 excites so many of the downtrodden who come on the journey with you (and many of those who then stay there), as this is the only means for those without money or fighting acumen to leave Rogueport.

I also love the visual flourish in the game’s final chapter, in which you have to solve the Tower of Riddles to start up this old piece of ancient technology to open new passageways in the Palace of Shadow, which is both a hint that the ancient peoples of this 1,000-year-old town knew advanced technology before others, thus contributing to why the environments below-ground feel ritzier than above, and also creates this link between this sociopolitical subtext within the game along with the game’s other main worldbuilt theme involving newer technologies set against a much older world.

But all in all, this is where I realize both sides of Nintendo’s model.  It works for “new” experiences on one hand, in which a person like myself, either by playing one of Nintendo’s “newer” versions of a similar experience or by simply replaying an old game, gets something new out of it, subtextually or otherwise, simply by the fact that I have gotten older.

But on the other hand, this is where I truly began to realize just how much Nintendo is neutering the potential of the Mario franchise with this model.

And now… the big kahuna

Chapter 4: A Franchise with no Genre

After finishing TTYD, I didn’t know which game to play next, and didn’t even know which game I wanted even to play next.  And this is the same way I felt after I finished PM64, this feeling that I didn’t really how to capture the feel I had playing that game again, and that even said game’s direct sequels didn’t truly feel the same.  Sure, everyone talks about PM64 and TTYD being almost one-and-the-same, but… they’re really not, and they’re more unique experiences/vibes than you realize.

One can make the argument that TTYD hasn’t received its “newer” update and that is why I felt so unmoored after replaying it, but it’s not like I felt an abject urge to play Paper Mario: The Origami King (TOK) after finishing PM64, given that TOK is indeed meant to recapture the sense of an expanded overworld adventure that PM64 had, along with RPG-ish (key word “ish”) elements.

But the bigger reason, I think, is just that PM64 has its own distinct feel when you really get down to it.

So does TTYD.

And many a Mario game before and since.

And hence lies the rub, the abject reason for and greatest strength that Mario has as a franchise, the reason I’ve loved it more than any video game franchise even though its stories (even its great ones) are comparatively bare, the reason why (contrary to what one might believe) it actually can do more than a franchise like Legend of Zelda or Metroid can.

Everyone more or less agrees that Mario, from a game design perspective, can criss-cross across genres, from online board game play, to car racing, to RPGs, to platformers, to sports games [5, 46:00].  But the agreed-upon lack of overall story in these games (comparatively speaking to other franchises) belies the point that should also be obvious.

The Mario franchise exists without any narrative genre either.

Unlike The Legend of Zelda, which has to tell different kinds of high fantasy stories by default, with its expanded medieval-esque Hyrule and lore-based characters, or how Metroid has to tell different kinds of science fiction stories if only because its protagonist is an armored bounty hunter cut from the same cloth as The Mandalorian, Mario exists without any of these restrictions.

Its differently-colored, distinctly diverse different worlds, and equally distinct cast of characters, open the door to, well, anything.

See, Mario adventures in brass tacks are hodgepodges of locations and travels with no real connecting tissue (the original platformers and Super Mario 64 are examples of this).  But therefore, a creator can add whatever connecting tissue he/she wants, and some of the best Mario games apply a variety of different genre norms to this connecting tissue.  For those games that Nintendo released that were expansions on the original formula, they did this every time in a way that made each individual game stand out in a unique way.

This is the stuff that was present in Mario games from the late 1990s until 2007, and it started with Super Mario RPG (SMRPG), which, yes, from a gameplay perspective gives off “Final Fantasy” vibes with a Mario skin, but from a narrative perspective is actually a magically realistic fantasy story cut from the same cloth as a Studio Ghibli movie, before transitioning into PM64, which feels a “classic high fantasy story” like Lord of the Rings, again of course with a Mario skin.  Yes, it has all of Mario’s traditional worlds, but Peach’s presence at the center, Bowser feeling threatening, and the Star Spirits as MacGuffins set up from the very beginning exactly like a prologue in such a fantasy story.  It is more kid-friendly of course than other high fantasy peers, but it uses the genre’s connecting tissue to create its own unique tone within the Mario framework, with a touch of maturity.

Same with Super Mario Sunshine, which borrows the tropical setting and leans into it wholeheartedly, yes, but it also draws off of old-school crime stories like The Long Goodbye in which your hero is forced, in one way or another, to play detective or else it’s his livelihood.  And of course, it has a second-act twist in which the perpetrator is discovered (and keep in mind, this game introduced Bowser Jr. to the Mario canon, so the twist of him being the perpetrator was a real twist), and then a third act in which the hero has to chase the villain down.

This is admittedly a minor stretch for this game, hence why I don’t hail it along with its peers as high for using its genre to its fullest potential (nor does it use Mario’s worlds to their fullest potential, only taking place in one real location), but you can’t deny that the skin of the genre was at least used to craft the game.

Still, TTYD, Super Mario Galaxy (Galaxy), and Super Paper Mario (SPM) stand the tallest, for me at least, because they feel the most adult, the stories in which you don’t have to add the qualifier “for a Mario game” when talking about how well the story holds up.  Galaxy is an old-school space opera, with planet-hopping and almost Star Wars-level pomp using Mario’s worlds, but also with the heart to match it, and its story with Rosalina at its center is strong enough to stand up against any space opera story like an individual Star Wars movie or, say, The Fifth Element.

I’ve said before that TTYD feels the most balanced, and after replaying it, I can get a feel as to why – this is because TTYD is cut from the same cloth as a classic action-adventure MacGuffin movie, like the Indiana Jones series, or classic adventure movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Mummy, and even Guardians of the Galaxy.  You have your heroes, your villains trying to awaken an evil or obtain a MacGuffin that could do damage, along with third-party rogues that can cause harm themselves (i.e. Bowser).  These stories also often have a subtle touch with exploring class, like the East India Trading Company vs. the Pirates in the aforementioned Pirates trilogy, or the well-lit ritz of Xandar vs. the decrepid gambling arenas of Knowhere in Guardians.  These stories will also attempt to tie in aspects of a changing world, represented by new technology, set against the most ancient ones.  TTYD does all of this, managing to pull the Mario universe’s characters and elements of its locations into this adventure, along with a sci-fi vibe achieved through the X-Nauts’ plans, plus an ancient element through the utilization of Hooktail and the other dragons, and Shadow Queen and titular location.  Without losing sight of its core tone being a mature adventure movie.

Again, Indiana Jones, Pirates, and the like can still be enjoyed as kids.  But they also have this mature edge that feel like they also have truly something to say.  So you don’t have to say “TTYD is a good adventure story for a Mario story.”  No, it’s just a damn fine adventure story that indeed has something to say.  And for me, this was “the overcoming of darkness.”

SPM, the sequel to TTYD, also feels very sci-fi, with the weird settings and weird creatures you meet, and the characters dabbling with doomsday devices, tapping into the multiverse-hopping genre before it became cool with Rick and Morty, Doctor Strange, and Everything Everywhere All at Once.  Like these movies or series, the search for love is what unites these worlds at their most disparate, and that is the point.

Unfortunately, I think SPM veered so far off of the reservation that some fans started complaining it didn’t feel like a Mario story, and I can understand where they are coming from.  At the same time, I think in order to embrace the wackiest elements of the genre it was emulating, SPM had to leave some of Mario’s traditions behind [5].

Still, I do think this was the moment Nintendo decided that they were drifting into the “too weird” territory, and then immediately dialed it back to focus on what makes Mario familiar.

You can also make the argument that with Galaxy and SPM, the Mario franchise completed its culmination of growing up, in a subtle way like Book 4 of Legend of Korra or The Dark Knight Rises.  But unlike a Zelda or a Samus game in which it might be difficult to do “reboots” without falling into the overt nostalgia-model category, the Mario franchise absolutely can.

If I’m going to make additional comparisons, I can think to similar TV shows that also I would argue exist outside of any true genre, Community and Seinfeld.  For a piece of media without a genre, I do think you need to be careful if you’re going to craft stories that go so far beyond the known characters/setting (therefore allowing the chosen genre to swallow up your IP whole) that they end up alienating a portion of the audience.  Think “The Betrayal” in Seinfeld or “Grifting 101” in Community, or even the episode in Rick and Morty (another show that, despite primarily being a multiverse-hopping show, also in some ways exists without a genre) that solely focused on parodying heist movies.

These examples are in many ways is equivalent to SPM, which went so far that it ended up convincing Miyamoto to impose extreme levels of new restrictions (even though the game itself sold the most copies of any Paper Mario game up until that point and has a cult following to this day (i.e. those who like the game don’t just like it, they love it)).  Okay, if that’s the case, then don’t go THAT far, but you can still find a balance more than just doing nothing with your narrative potential.

My point here is that Miyamoto and Nintendo could have chosen to dial it back to just using Mario’s traditional worlds if they felt that was safer, while still utilizing a different genre narrative for connective tissue.  They didn’t need to go full-on bare bones.

Since 2007, the only two Mario games I think that exist with any connective genre tissue at all are Super Mario Odyssey (Odyssey) and Paper Mario: The Origami King (TOK).  Color Splash felt like it tried a little for some horror genre elements by bringing you to an initially-barren location with an unseen force that can hurt you (which would have been cool, as right now Luigi has the horror genre all to himself), before undercutting its own premise to “visit this location and do some stuff.”

Odyssey has the same issue.  Like Super Mario 64, there is no direct connection between the types of worlds you visit in Odyssey, but they fit the “Mario mold” if you will, and, at least in the first half of the game, the constant tension to try and catch up to Bowser gave off the feel of an old-school road/chase story like Duel or Mad Max: Fury Road, and then was fairly disappointed when it then devolved into a simple just “visit this location and do some stuff.”

TOK I think does pull off an Odyssey-style story better than Super Mario Odyssey.  TOK has you travelling to far-off locations in an open world, meeting new friends just for shorter sequences of your adventure, and then continuing on your own despite having learnt something from the time you spent with those friends.  It even has touches of God-like lore with the backstories of the Vellumentals and the existence of Shangri Spa.  Before its third act becomes something else entirely by bringing all factions of the journey together (to the point that a part of me would argue that TOK is pulling on the genre threads of war movies).

But either way, it says something that TOK was the first game in thirteen years that I felt actually tried something new and expanded Mario out to a new genre.  Yes, some of its overworld elements borrow heavily from PM64, but I wouldn’t call TOK a fantasy movie.

And this is the power that Nintendo holds in their hands.  They could take any one of their Mario titles from 1996 through 2007, redo them so they can satisfy their “new but familiar” model, but also subtely use threads from a genre they haven’t tried before (i.e. a post-apocalyptic story in which there is an extreme limit of NPCs, or the ever-popular superhero genre where, like SPM, you allow the player access to multiple characters but give them different special abilities that are solely theirs (and I genuinely find it amazing that Nintendo hasn’t done a true superhero movie with Mario yet)).

Because they have done Mario + new genre before to spectacular results, from Sunshine to Galaxy to PM64 to TTYD.

When you have games that execute this concept, you can go far out to the Mario reservation and do a lot of wacky stuff, but then by returning to the “felt center” of what the genre is trying to say, it creates connective tissue that holds the game together that then makes it stand out and feel unique.  One can argue that some of these games balance the “Mario” with the “uniqueness” better than others (these will also included in the Appendix), but rather than other games in franchises which feel like they blend together, it’s not a bad thing that I felt a sense of loss after replaying PM64 or TTYD, feeling like there was no true game like them.

These are games that you remember for being their own.

To be concluded…


[1] Lowart, Super Mario 64 – The Problem with Nostalgia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB_QLSb2Yi0

[2] The Geek Critique, SUPER MARIO RPG: The Lost Legacy of the Legend, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-X9bHursFE4

[3] The Geek Critique, PAPER MARIO: The Dark Side of Nostalgia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCfvEITOz18

[4] Lowart, Paper Mario VS The Thousand Year Door | Comparing Paper Mario 64 and TTYD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NhElqiOIAQ

[5] The Red Guy, Super Paper Mario | Review, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOIwiUkF1Ks

On Nintendo’s Nostalgia-Based Model

A deep analysis on both the pros and cons of Nintendo’s design model. Set against my own replays of the first two Paper Mario games


Hello all and happy Mario day.

More than two years ago, I completed my deep analysis and review of Paper Mario: The Origami King.  Itself coming two years after my original post on Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.  At the time, I stated that I was in the process of replaying the original two Paper Marios as part of a deep retrospective on the series in the near future, plus a review of Nintendo’s Mario game design model as a whole.

Those indications ended up only being partially true.

Two years later from that, I have indeed finished replaying the original two Paper Marios, but the near future has now become a much larger delay.  And my intent for a deep retrospective has evolved into something more extensive for when it comes to Nintendo.

Partly because I went through a large swath of personal changes in my own life, from getting my own apartment finally to losing my roommate to a return of some old health issues.

But also… because for the first time in my life, it felt difficult to replay these two games that, outside of maybe Super Mario Galaxy and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, I would cite by default as my favorite games of all time.

So my deep retrospective has now become an attempt to understand why it took me two years to replay these games.

And as we gear up for the upcoming Super Mario Bros. movie in about a month, it’s time to dive in on how Nintendo utilizes the strengths of its most famous franchise… and why I am both cautiously optimistic, but also quietly concerned, as to how the first true big-screen adaptation of the red-clad plumber is going to play out.

So it begins…

Chapter One: Replaying the Paper Marios

For the first half of 2021, I remained stuck in my childhood home, both continuing to wait out the worst of covid and also attempting to build up a decent amount of savings before moving out on my own.  Once I finally did move out in September 2021, there were immediate practical issues to figure out and furniture to be bought, but once that too quieted down, I booted up the original Paper Mario (PM64) on my 15-year-old Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console.

My replay, which more or less took place around November 2021, occurred as I was settling into my new routine of life, during a small window of peace for both me and my then-roommate before omicron hit in full a month later, which would ultimately start a chain reaction that would lead to her moving out in early 2022.

But during this window, which also coincided with Nintendo release’s of Mario Party Superstars for the Nintendo Switch, I realized a fundamental truth for when it came to replaying old video games.

I needed to be in a different headspace than when I was younger.

See, when first stumbled across PM64 in 2001, it was during a time when my family moved from New York City where I was born out to the Hamptons in Long Island, where I would then spend the rest of my childhood and teenage years.  Where my parents still live.  At the time in 2001, I, then a shy, eight-year-old boy, did not know anyone from anyone in this new, alien town, and this – compounded with being home-schooled at the time – led to many isolatory years.  During this time, PM64 was a great source of comfort.  It felt like I was stuck inside and kept apart from the things I wanted, but a simple click of the Nintendo 64 meant I could go on a grand adventure as Mario, across many multi-colored worlds, in order to achieve redemption after a great failure.

When I planned to replay PM64 in early 2021, the situation was too similar.

Stuck inside, in my old childhood home, in my childhood town.

And now, the prospect of replaying PM64 under these circumstances did not feel like salvation, or escapism, it simply felt depressing.  Sure, I could play Hades or watch Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time to escape that way… but these were new experiences, new journeys, new ways of escaping.  It was one thing to be back in the mindset of needing to escape whilst being stuck in my childhood home, but the prospect of escaping using the exact same methodology as I did twenty years ago… was too much.

In retrospect, it is thus is not a surprise that, almost instantly after I crossed into a new threshold of life, I was ready to try PM64 again.

Now, it was “escaping” using an old method, but under new circumstances.  And thus, in a way, it wasn’t even escaping after all, under such circumstances.  It was a way to rest at the end of the day, after going for walks around Astoria, and wind down, after spending the last several hours of worrying about what to eat for dinner.

Under these circumstances, replaying the game was a joy… but the thought remained.  I honestly could only replay it as long as the circumstances were different.

And this notion was compounded by what came after.

I had indeed started to replay Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD) in early December 2021, and I hold TTYD up as maybe the highest, gold standard of any game I’ve ever played in my life.  That’s why I started this series of posts in the first place anyway.

But once omicron hit… and the wave of depression came… and then both me and my roommate came down with covid… and then this opened up a series of triggers that nearly fractured our friendship fully to the point that her moving out was the only option… I couldn’t bear looking at TTYD.

That wasn’t the case when I first played TTYD in 2004, which occurred almost exactly around the time my maternal grandmother passed away.

At the time, with my family in mourning, myself still not having anything resembling a core friend group, and not really knowing how to feel… TTYD was my salvation.  The journey of overcoming darkness.  A familiar universe now covered with rougher edges and darkness.  But with the belief that a return of light and love was absolutely possible.

Similar circumstances now presenting themselves in early 2022, my life feeling like it was covered in a kind of darkness again, and compounded by the existential horror brought on by invasion of the Ukraine that February, would I return to my old ways of escaping under the same circumstances?

Of course not.

It wasn’t until the fall of 2022, as my friendship with my ex-roommate achieved a modicum of peace and forgiveness, remaining intact even after so much; and as other practical, financial mischegas sorted itself out to mean I would be able to remain in my new apartment for the long term; and as I began to accept what it meant to be independent, for better or worse; it wasn’t until then that I was able to pick up TTYD once again.

And even then, it wasn’t smooth sailing, as another series of personal and existential anxieties, complete with coming down with covid a second time, interrupted my playthrough.  I remained paused at the end of Chapter 4 for months, but once the specific stressors that surrounded the holidays of 2022 began to calm down, and the prospect of wanting to release this article in conjunction with the Mario movie became more omnipresent… then I was able to finally finish TTYD in February 2023.

25 months after I originally intended to replay both games.

Because (and I later realized I wasn’t the only one in feeling this at attempting to play an older, beloved game [1]), I could not wrap my head around replaying them under similar circumstances as when I first played them.

A notion that, I think, Nintendo understands quite well.

And here we go….

Chapter Two: The Power of Nostalgia

Look at any major media franchise of the last 10-20 years, be it Stranger Things or Star Wars or Batman, or even Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and you will see a trend as to how they release new content.  Or rather, how they release “new” content.

Because there is a difference to something like the Star Wars prequels versus the Star Wars sequels.

The Star Wars prequels, though themselves being prequels, are meant to be a progression.  The same can be said with the recently released Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, or the 2012 sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra. Experiences meant fully to give something new to the people who recently watched or completed the original series.  Experiences that directly build off of their parent series, but are fundamentally committed to doing something narratively different.

In some cases, these series go too different that they end up alienating the original fans of the franchise, as some may argue both the Star Wars prequels and Legend of Korra did.

But the fact remains.  These pieces of media understand that, from a strictly narrative basis, they do not exist without the franchises they came from.

Contrast this with something like the Star Wars sequels, the new Batman movie of 2022, the new Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power series (I say this maybe since I’ve only read about it and haven’t seen it yet), Stranger Things as a franchise, or the Netflix series The Dragon Prince, which is not-so-subtly a direct spiritual successor to Avatar: The Last Airbender.

These series, unlike their more linear counterparts, do stand alone.  The Star Wars sequels tell their own story fundamentally “separate” from the original franchise.  The new Batman is an entirely different Batman.  You do not have to have watched E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial or Stand by Me in order to appreciate Stranger Things.  And you absolutely do not have to have seen Avatar: The Last Airbender to enjoy The Dragon Prince.

But the series are made for the people who watched their original inspirations.

And as such, these series do not directly follow their originals, serving more as “love letters” to their originals, and do this, they need the nostalgia to build.

Stranger Things likely would not have been popular if it had been released in the late 1990s, and despite the mixed reception to Rings of Power, if it had come out ten years ago, it wouldn’t even have been given a chance.

These series wait just long enough for their original audience to grow, and change, and evolve (and in some cases have children of their own, thereby bringing forward a new audience), before they release themselves.

If they didn’t, their original audience might simply not want something different from their original series.

But wait.

These new series are not different.

They may have new skins, or new faces, or new shades of color, but the thematic theses of these experiences are directly meant to mimic those of their originals.

If that were the case, why not release themselves 5-10 years after the completion of their parent franchise rather than 15-20+ years?  Simply just needing nostalgia to build?  Perhaps.

But perhaps, because as I experienced with replaying the Paper Marios, the original audience, in an odd way… doesn’t want the same thing so soon after the original thing.  In such headspaces, they want to see their parent franchises growing with them, or at least trying.  Releasing a “same but different” piece of media will only alienate them.

Look at what happened to the Amazing Spider-Man series for an example of such an effect, which only released four years after the completion of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.  And its abject similarities to the original trilogy turned its audience off more than it intrigued them.

One can fairly quickly see that Nintendo has been doing the same thing with the Mario franchise for years.  Heck, not even just the Mario franchise, but many of its franchises.

If you look at Nintendo’s gaming repertoire for the last, say, 15 years or so, there hasn’t really been a whole lot of original content since 2007, when Nintendo released Super Mario Galaxy and Super Paper Mario in the same year, instead choosing to focus all its attention on a nostalgia-based retrospective on older games.

In truth, this actually started in 2006, when Nintendo began the release of New Super Mario Bros., which is almost overtly a visually reskinned version of the original Super Mario Bros. from the 1980s.  And from 2007 through 2014-15, Nintendo released repeated games of the mold of this game, in some cases allowing two to four players the ability to play, in some cases pitting the experience in 3D, but all-in-all a continuation of this same version.

Now, these games never truly appealed to me as much as Nintendo’s games from the early 2000s.  Its progressive games.  Like Luigi’s Mansion or Super Mario Sunshine or TTYD itself that, while being odd and different and, on some levels, weird to have in Mario’s universe (i.e. characters complaining about being poor, Mario being kidnapped, Mario being arrested) felt like they were growing up along with me.

Because I didn’t grow up with the 1980s games, these soft reboots in the New Super Mario Bros. series kind of went over my head, but I have older cousins who absolutely loved these games.  They have game night parties with them.  They play them with their kids.  They could have a similar-but-not-TOO-similar experience with both each other and (now) the next generation of an audience for Nintendo.  The same way parents who grew up watching the original trilogy could go to the Star Wars sequels and expect to enjoy themselves, even though The Force Awakens is almost a direct copy of A New Hope (and why The Last Jedi, which undercut all of these unspoken rules, pissed so many people off).

And now, as we have gotten into the age of the Nintendo Switch, now 20+ years from Nintendo 64 era, we can see Nintendo’s nostalgia-based model on display for all of these games.  Super Mario Odyssey is, at its heart, a love letter to Super Mario 64, in a way fundamentally different than Super Mario Sunshine or Super Mario Galaxy are.  Sunshine and Galaxy are continuations of the Super Mario 64 formula, but use different kinds of narrative devices or connective tissue for its locations.  Whereas Super Mario Odyssey fundamentally is Super Mario 64, just with the added perk of being able to control your enemies.  The same way Super Mario 64 did not concern itself with its story tissue, neither does Odyssey really.

The list goes on.  Luigi’s Mansion 3 is meant to be a “return to form” to the original Luigi’s Mansion after audiences complained that the direct Luigi’s Mansion sequel, Dark Moon, was too different.  Yoshi’s Crafted World situates itself as a callback to Yoshi’s StorySuper Smash Bros. Ultimate is a kind of “get the entire gang together and put everything in it at once,” go as big as possible, with all of the courses and all the characters together, same as with Mario Kart 8, a pastiche of everything Super Smash Bros. originally was.

Even Paper Mario: Origami King, though I remarked that its interconnected story felt at least a little close to TTYD, actually draws its heaviest inspiration from PM64, not in its gameplay necessary, but with its worldbuilding and tone.  Like PM64, it tells you upfront what the mission is, and then it is all about exploring the world as you check off the different locations, even as it incorporates newer developments for Bowser, Luigi, and new characters.  Sure, these new developments borrow a little from TTYD, SPM, and Color Splash, but taken as a whole, Origami King is the closest thing you’ll get to a love letter to PM64, if not SMRPG itself, with Bowser teaming up with you to fight against a new evil, but with the worldbuilt tone of PM64, Peach getting kidnapped without any real twist to it, and a heavy emphasis on overworld exploration.  Even the ending directly plays instrumentals from PM64’s ending.

I really noticed this when Nintendo did it again with Mario Party Superstars, which could be read as a blatant cash-grab for not really creating anything new, but people love it.  I love it.  It is a direct return to the original series.  It brings back memories of playing the original Mario Party with my friends and family, in a package that is close to similar to the original, but with new touches.  And I can play it online with my cousins to have a similar-but-not-too-similar experience to the original.

These are the games I grew up with, and I’ve enjoyed “replaying” them in this new era, 20+ years later, in “similar but different” experiences.

This further resonated with me after watching The Geek Critique’s videos about both Super Mario RPG (a game he grew up with) vs. the original Paper Mario (a game he didn’t). [2,3]

I could make the argument that, by releasing similar-but-different games cut in the same cloth as a game 20 years ago, Nintendo is cutting through the possibly of a gamer not playing it because it is too similar, or he/she is in a headspace that in itself feels too similar, like me during my attempted playthrough.

But given that these games borrow so much from their predecessors, I’d actually say that Nintendo is betting on us all picking up copies in spite of this.

Because that is the extra element to this model.  Regardless of whether you are playing a game that is a direct love letter to a previous experience, or simply replaying the old experience, you are likely going to get something new out of it PRECISELY because, 20+ years later, you are,  more likely than not, going to be in a different headspace than before.  An early teenager playing the early N64 games is likely going to still experience something similar in his/her early 20s, but do that TWENTY years later and it’s likely going to feel especially different.  Same with a 15-35 gap, 20-40 gap, and so on.

You may have trouble getting over the proverbial activation energy of replaying the game, but once you are replaying it, you are going to get something new out of it even if you’re trying not to for some reason.

And of course, it behooves Nintendo to either re-release old games in package form like they did with Super Mario All-Stars, or make these Nintendo Switch “love letter” games, because, well, money.  Since otherwise, if someone like me gets an urge to replay an old game and get that similar-but-different version of the experience based on my own changed headspace, I’ll just replay the old game, and, well, that is less money for Nintendo.

But, again, this is what Nintendo – and all of these franchises using nostalgia models – are betting on.

That by waiting to do so, and then by making these “love letters” “similar but different,” it will solve the issue of a member of its original audience feeling skittish to enter into the same headspace he/she did when she was much younger.  That he/she will be at a point in life where, rather than wanting to evolve more, will actually be missing the memories of this nostalgia, and will be in a different enough area of life where missing these memories won’t feel like going backward too much, but will be a pleasant trip down memory lane, and he/she will want to get this experience again in the macro.

And then once in memory lane, will get something new-ish out of the experience in the micro, to thus allow the cycle to repeat again decades later.

My replay of the Paper Marios indeed showed me that this theory of a new experience in the micro is true, even though, at the same time, it showed me how Nintendo is underusing the potential of its most famous franchise.

To be continued…


[1] Lowart, Super Mario 64 – The Problem with Nostalgia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB_QLSb2Yi0

[2] The Geek Critique, SUPER MARIO RPG: The Lost Legacy of the Legend, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-X9bHursFE4

[3] The Geek Critique, PAPER MARIO: The Dark Side of Nostalgia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCfvEITOz18