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Mario. Zelda. Donkey Kong. The holy trinity of Nintendo franchises has appeared in about a billion games that have sold a gazillion combined copies worldwide. Add in the more-recently sainted Pokémon series, and you've got the world's oldest and possibly most widely-accepted, thriving videogame religion.
Dig deeper into the Nintendo catalog and you'll find ... well, actually, you'll find even more franchises. Kirby. Star Fox. Metroid. F-Zero. They're not quite household names, but they're all well-known and well-loved by the Nintendo faithful.
But dig even deeper past the main franchises and you get ... heck, you get spin-off franchises. The Mario Tennis, Golf, Kart and Party series have nearly 20 games between them, with more coming. Even the spin-offs have spin-offs - the Wario Land series has spawned four Wario Ware games so far, with more no doubt coming.
In an industry obsessed with extracting every last penny from any proven franchise, Nintendo is the undisputed king. Anything even remotely successful will eventually be repackaged, remarketed and resold back to a new generation of gamers at a premium price. They're like Disney, but without the theme parks (at least not yet).
But amid all these unmitigated franchise successes, there are some false starts. Nintendo's history is littered with the abandoned-but-not-forgotten corpses of partially aborted franchises - the under-appreciated classics that got one or two games and then faded into the background of our collective gaming memories for decades. Like, do you remember that game with the bikes where you could do all sorts of crazy jumps and stuff? Or the one with those weird bird things on balloons? Man, they should totally make some new versions of those.
So, why do some series become pillars of Nintendo's success, while some become trivia? Why has Mario appeared in over a hundred games while the guys from Excitebike and Balloon Fight can barely manage two apiece?
Bad timing is sometimes to blame. Star Tropics came out in 1990, when any self-respecting NES owner was too busy playing Super Mario Bros. 3 to pay attention to a quirky, Zelda-styleaction-adventure. A sequel, Zoda's Revenge, came out in 1994, when most gamers had put away their NES in favor of the next generation of 16-bit systems. After less-than-stellar sales for the sequel, Nintendo wasn't eager to make another follow-up.
Some are just too weird for an American audience. EarthBound, a satirical RPG released in the heyday of the SNES, eschewed traditional dragons and heroic knights for talking monkeys and a 13-year-old with a baseball bat. The game achieved great success in Japan and has a cult status among English speakers, but failed to capture the attention of a larger American audience. "EarthBound is the Rocky Horror Picture Show of role-playing games: underhanded, subversive, witty and strange," says Casey Toner, a fan of the game who frequents EarthBound fan site Starmen.net.
Some failed due to ineffective marketing. EarthBound was promoted with an odd scratch-and-sniff ad thatsmelled like various offensive odors (slogan: "this game stinks"). The game itself came in an oversized box that included a strategy guide, which made it an unlikely fit in busy retail displays.