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

High-Risk Storytelling: Betrayal at House on the Hill

The benefits of a high-risk storytelling board game

18 months ago, I played the story-driven board game Betrayal at House on the Hill for the first time with new friends and fell in love with the sheer scope of its storytelling capabilities.  The fact that no one game can ever be the same appealed to me, as well as the role-playing that ends up coming to play with the characters you inhabit.

First is the premise – it is an easy premise to get: a bunch of characters go into a haunted house and a bunch of mischief ensues, as you have to move around the house not knowing which room card will be placed in front of you or what objects you’ll run in to.  These are easy grounding mechanisms so there is not any inherent complexity.  The game is completely emergent.

Second is the world-building, which is different every time – the first half of the game is just you and the other characters moving around the house and unlocking randomly placed room cards, which are shuffled in a deck and are thus different each time.  The first half is all about getting the feel of the world and the characters, but it isn’t boring because the inherent focus of exploration is powerful enough.

Third is the betrayal itself, which can be triggered depending on the size of a die roll after each time a player encounters a haunted object.  If the betrayal (or the “haunt”) is triggered, the type of monster/event that happens is determined by the object that triggered it AND the room in which it was triggered.  There are 50-some-odd possibilities of this, which means that, in theory, you could play the game 50 different times can get a different type of haunt event.

BUT the premise remains inherently simple.  The player that just triggered the object is now the traitor, and thus inherently brings tension into the play space.  The traitor himself/herself feels confused and may not necessarily want to be the traitor, but can give in to the role very easily.  The other players may be wondering what the traitor has planned.  At this point in the game, the traitor gets a different passage than the other players with regards to what to do to win the game.

So, now the board is set and the characters have been established (but, again, inherently simply, with a “bad” guy in the traitor vs. the “good” other characters).  And now, the story can play out.

By having the first half occur rather than just starting on a given board with a die roll to determine the type of haunt, it feels that the players determined both the world itself and the type of haunt they find themselves in.  So, therefore, the story follows feels connected to everyone.  There are stakes.

And, the interesting part here is that, even still, the story can fall flat.

The first time I played Betrayal, I was the traitor and ended up summoning Death who needing to be “playing chess” (i.e. rolling dice) against the other players at all times, or else the traitor/Death team would win.  If the other players could defeat Death before they were defeated or before a turn went by without a fight happening, the “good” team would win.  The “traitor” player could help Death in rolling, but didn’t need to be fought or defeated for the “good” team to win.

This played out with Death taking out one player easily, making this player drop her items.  Then, the second player battled long enough until the third player arrived.  The third player battled Death while the second player went to go collect the items that the first player dropped.  But then Death rolled an outrageously high number and wiped out the third player in one move.  So then the second player had to roll a high enough number to run across the house just to make it to Death in order to keep fighting and keep the game going.  He succeeded, and in doing so picked up the dropped items of the third player.  Now evenly matched with Death, dices were rolled, but Death rolled the higher number and the game ended.

This was fantastic.  Twists, a race to a final fight, downed characters giving their “essences” in the form of items to the remaining player in order to continue the fight.  It was easy to visualize a movie that contained this story.

However, the second time I played Betrayal, it felt very different.  We all explored the house, but due to a freaky die roll, the haunt was triggered by I think the fourth turn.  You see, each time a haunted object is encountered, the person who encountered it must roll two dice and “beat” a certain counter number, which increases with each object encountered.  If the player fails, the haunt begins, the player becomes the traitor, and the monster is summoned.  In theory, this is very easy in the beginning because the numbers to beat start out very small.

But in this playthrough, the player rolled a bad roll, and the haunt was triggered with very little of the house explored.  This type of haunt trigger was an angry, demon kid that could kill other players with one shot.  The goal for the other players was to find certain MacGuffins scattered around to give them powers to defeat the kid.  However, with so little of the house explored, it was easy for the kid to move around the limited rooms, find the other players, and kill them very quickly.  By the time just one of the three needed MacGuffins was found, the game was over and the kid/traitor team won.

Not a great story.  No tension.  No heroism.  No buildup at all.

But I didn’t mind.  Because that’s what the game is.  Because the players are in control of so many of the world elements that trigger the story, it remains randomly possible that certain events triggered at a certain time with a certain board structure lead to a limited, flat story.

And other times, other events can be triggered that lead to a story that almost feels cinematic.

High-risk, high-reward storytelling.  So I didn’t mind experiencing the flat story.  Because I knew that I could play the game again, given its vast possibilities, and potential experience a fantastic, player-driven story that I hadn’t even thought of.

The lesson: If the players are in control of all of the elements that make up the game story, and if there are a large number of possibilities given the combination of these elements, then even if the story ends up not landing, it ends up feeling okay.  Because you can always play again.