Every year, dozens of gaming legends are subjected to cruel and unusual treatment in the name of profit. Such animated icons as Mario are forced to perform tasks beneath their golden standards so their owners may earn a few extra dollars. Do you have a ridiculous game idea? Throw Donkey Kong in there and suddenly you’re sitting on box-sales gold! I come to you today with a plea; a fervent hope for a cause that I hope many players will join: We need to stop the exploitation of gaming icons.
The ultimate example of a game company taking a game believed to be “unmarketable” and transforming it into a massive success by using an icon, is the NES title Super Mario Brothers 2. You see, Mario was not supposed to be in it. Originally released in Japan under the title Doki Doki Panic, it carried with it a play-style similar to the original Super Mario Brothers. Rather than release the game in a tried platform, with new stars and a new theme – the way the game was originally conceived – Nintendo proclaimed Doki Doki Panic the sequel to the beloved originator, Super Mario Brothers. After a few character swaps, suddenly the game featured everyone’s favorite Italian plumber!
Although in recent years the genesis of Mario 2 has become a part of gaming lore, I am sure any child of the Nintendo generation can recall playing the first three Mario games and wondering what the heck was up with the second one. For me, it is the only one of the original three that I never bothered to finish. It was Mario, but it just was not the same. I was not terribly shocked when I discovered the origins of Super Mario Brothers 2 years later.
Unfortunately, the damage was done. We voted with our dollars and Mario continued to be a hallmark of gaming profitability. The result? Nintendo continued to march on with a slew of games, many of which have become classics and others just make you wonder what the heck they were thinking. He now plays golf, races cars, fights his fellow Nintendo characters, enjoys tennis, hosts parties, was reincarnated as a baby, referees Mike Tyson boxing matches, earned a medical degree, teaches typing and math, developed an evil twin with a ‘W’ in his name, and has earned a slew of merchandise from action figures to ice cream bars. And to think I was plenty amused jumping on goombas!
Finally, just when I thought they could go no lower, comes Dance, Dance Revolution: Mario Mix. Yes, now the old plumber has learned how to dance. Apparently, Britney Spears simply is not marketable enough, so why not do it with ye old staple! This kind of mass exploitation confirms two things. One: People like Mario. Two: Nintendo is well aware of this fact. This fall he takes to dancing; I do not even dare speculate what they will have Mario do next.
At E3 2005, I attended the Nintendo press conference where their combatant in the impending console wars was unveiled. Since that conference, I have heard little but negativity about the Nintendo Revolution. Generally, the perception is that Sony and Microsoft are the undisputed leaders and will continue that trend when the three new consoles hit. Yet, for the hour I sat in on the Nintendo press conference, you never would have known. The room, supposedly full of media, would break into applause at the mere sighting of Mario, Link or Yoshi. At one point, a marketing executive said to the room that the other companies (Sony and Microsoft) were throwing lots of numbers at the press (you know little information like what their systems are capable of) and that he too had a number for us. That number? Two. This proclamation, punctuated by a two appearing on the screen behind him, was met with a ferocious round of applause. I sat there baffled. What were they clapping about? To this day, I cannot recall what two stood for, but I recall it having nothing to do with the reality of their system. Yet, when Nintendo says “two” we had better be impressed.
This brings me to the second instance of exploitation of iconic images in gaming. Nintendo gets applause for saying “two”, and people scoop up their products, often regardless of quality, simply because of the name that produced the game. Never was this trend more apparent than with the company now called “Atari.” Originally Infogrames, a French company, they branded their North American face Atari after the legendary, but defunct gaming company enshrined in pop-culture. The aim? To sell more games. Quite simply, consumers take a game more seriously when it bears that logo. In recent years, I have seen Hollywood celebrities presenting awards at internationally televised events wearing the Atari company logo on their t-shirt. Would they ever do that with Infogrames? Of course not. Thus, the name change. In today’s gaming culture it has become easier to simply reincarnate yourself as an old icon than to create a new one. This same mindset is what allows Mario to dance and hawk ice cream sandwiches.
With all of his new activities, it almost seems as if the good old days of Mario smashing blocks and catching stars are over. In recent years you are more likely to find Mario in Metal Gear Solid (I kid you not) than in a game similar to those that made him the icon he is. For this reason, I issue the plea to Nintendo and others holding massive video game icons captive: Be inventive – if a game cannot stand up without the presence of Mario or some other instant-buy icon, do not produce it. When I see Mario, I want to be playing a game in the spirit of Mario games, not tennis.
Using Mario in this way goes against a basic principle of marketing. While a company can make a quick buck by plastering a brand unto a different product, it harms the long-term viability of that brand. This is why the Coca-Cola Company has hundreds, if not thousands, of distinct brands that represent different market niches. It would be easy to make “Coke the Thirst Quencher,” but they realize the danger of it and instead invented Powerade, while Pepsi carries Gatorade. It is the same two combatants as the cola wars, but with different iconic brands. This process allows the company to establish new icons that dominate a particular market niche. Video game companies seem to have forgotten this as they desperately slap brands across multiple genres. The result is that over time Mario, like an actor forced into a million bad movies after snagging an Oscar, will eventually become a burnt out husk of himself, no longer holding the power to sell complete wastes of disk space – or even delightful diversions – to the masses. So take this to heart, stop the exploitation and free our icons to do what they were created to do.
At the same time, I once again challenge you, the fans. We need to stop applauding the number two and take a real look at what we’re buying for ourselves, or in many cases, our children. Mario’s presence does not necessarily make for a good game and for too long we have fooled ourselves into believing this is so. Iconic game figures of our youth are being enslaved and exploited all over the industry in the relentless pursuit of profit. Their only salvation is if we – the consumers – stop paying and stop playing games that are not worthy of the character sent to sell them. Please, help free Mario.
Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.