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.
Star Tropics graced the cover of Nintendo Power issues 21 and 22, as the magazine spread a 33-page strategy guide over two issues. Not bad, but Super Mario Bros. 3 got its own feature-length advertising movie. Sometimes it’s hard to compete with yourself.
Some potential franchises fall by the wayside because of simple neglect from the publisher. Punch-Out was one of Nintendo’s biggest hits for the fledgling NES and had a well-received sequel on the SNES, but has sat dormant for 11 years since. “I think that without Nintendo pushing the series or having any new ideas for a new Punch-Out game, it becomes forgotten,” says Frederick Shafer, who manages a Punch-Out fan site and created a popular hacked version of the game.
But this doesn’t mean Punch-Out is down for the count. Other Nintendo series have suffered through longdroughts only to be revived years later, transformed by the big N into marketing powerhouses.
The F-Zero series enjoyed a several year hiatus between the original SNES edition and the Nintendo 64 sequel. Today, the series has its own cartoon on Fox and three new versions on the Game Boy Advance. And there were eight long years between the SNES’ Super Metroid and GameCube’s Metroid Prime. Since then, there have been four new Metroid games in as many years, and spin-off Metroid Pinball is planned for the Nintendo DS.
“Nintendo knew they had this successful franchise sitting around, but they probably just lacked the team to make it,” says Devin Monnens, a contributor to Metroid fansite Metroid Database. “Nintendo [has a] desire to push their franchises and try to reach as many kinds of players as possible and Metroid is such a powerful series to help do that.”
So what can a fan do to let Nintendo know where to direct their precious resources? An internet petition is always a first step. “I think the fan support for Kid Icarus is a silent power,” says Wesley Grogan, a KidIcarus fan who has started an online petition to get another sequel to the NES classic (Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, was released for the Game Boy in 1991). Over 300 signatures have been added so far, with pleas like “I LOVE KID ICARUS GAME!” and “If done correctly, this could be bigger than Zelda.”
“Kid Icarus was one of the defining games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, even if it wasn’t recognized as such at the time.” Grogan says. “In many ways, [it] spoke to a fairly refined gamer that was content to wait for the next game in the series to come out. It took us over seventeen years to realize that this might not actually happen. Now, though, I think the sleeping giants are beginning to awaken.”
Even if you can’t get the groundswell of popular support for that sequel, there’s always the chance your favorite classic will be catapulted to popularity by a cameo appearance. Marth and Roy’s appearance in Super Smash Bros. Melee likely cleared the way for the two domestic Fire Emblem releases for the Game Boy Advance.
Or the cameo might do next to nothing. “Most people can’t identify Ness from a flying basket of grapes,” Toner says of the EarthBound character’s appearance in the Super Smash Bros. games. Still, consider how many people had even heard of Ice Climber before Super Smash Bros. Melee. Most gamers now at least know the name, even if they’re not exactly clamoring for a sequel.
If a sequel or cameo isn’t possible, you can always hope that a re-release will generate some support. With the Nintendo Revolution’s planned virtual console allowing backwards compatibility across generations, all your favorite forgotten Nintendo games might soon be a legal download away. And once gamers get tired of replaying Super Mario Bros. 3, it’s possible they’ll turn their attention to some of those neglected originals.
But if and when you do get that re-release, be prepared for a damaging hit to your nostalgia-laced memories.When Clu Clu Land was released for the Game Boy Advance under the NES Classic label, many thought Nintendo was already scraping the bottom of its historic barrel. “Different? Yes. Classic? Debatable. Fun? More like clunky and frustrating,” quipped the IGN review.
This brings up the distinct possibility – which fans might be loathe to entertain – that some of these games were forgotten because they just weren’t that good. Or at least not as good as the rest of Nintendo’s catalog. “Kid Icarus probably didn’t make it because of the design: linear levels (either horizontal or vertical) followed by a Zelda-like dungeon,” Metroid fan Monnens said. “While there’s certainly a lot that can be done with this layout, there just wasn’t that mechanic of backtracking you see in the later Mario games.”
Some games that seemed great, even revolutionary, when they first came out might not seem as fresh in light of twenty years of progress. Shafer thinks classics like Punch-Out might be hard-pressed to get any attention in today’s marketplace. “With the newer and picky gamers and game reviewersout there, you would have to push the 3D elements, graphics, sound, music, play control, and fun factor to please all of them.”
And why should Nintendo bother with all of that, when they can slap Mario’s face onto a new version of Dance Dance Revolution and sell a million copies without breaking a sweat? There will always be Nintendo faithful around, ready to snap up the latest sacred offerings of the holy trinity. As long as this doesn’t change, it seems unlikely that Nintendo will spend the time and energy necessary to revive that many old, forgotten series.
But man, wouldn’t you love to see a new version of that flying game? With the parachute jumping and rings and stuff? That game was awesome.
Kyle Orland is a videogame freelancer. He writes about the world of videogame journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.