Just when you thought the legacy of Super Mario RPG couldn’t get any more complicated…
The original Mario RPG was heralded as one of the greatest games of its generation when it was first released in 1996, and even today boasts a diehard fanbase (of which I am a card-carrying member) that wields enough clout that Nintendo added a costume of Geno (the game’s breakout star) for Mii fighters to wear in the Wii U release of Super Smash Brothers. The game was developed as a partnership between Nintendo and SquareSoft, however, and when the partnership dissolved in the coming years, so too did the hopes of fans ever getting a proper Mario RPG sequel.
To fill this void, Nintendo developed Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 in 2001, which contained many of the same RPG/platforming elements that Mario RPG had. Two years later, however, Nintendo released Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Game Boy Advance, which seemed to plow the same ground as Paper Mario. Sure, the battle systems were very different, and Luigi actually did something useful in the M&L game, but by and large the games were doing the same things, and thus competing for the same audience.
Luckily for Nintendo, there was a major difference between the franchises: Paper Mario was primarily a home console game (with the exception of Sticker Star),while Mario & Luigi stuck to the company’s handheld systems. Nintendo has tried to differentiate these games a bit more over the years (mostly by making M&L more of a traditional RPG while making PM into more of an experimental platformer), but the console distinction gave Nintendo a convenient excuse for supporting two separate Mario RPG franchises.
And then this happened:
Suddenly, there was no distinction between home and handheld consoles—they were the same darn thing! With one well-produced 3:37 trailer, Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario were not only fighting for real estate in the same genre, but on the same device as well.
And then things really got weird:
Rumors began circulating that Nintendo and Ubisoft were developing a crossover RPG title involving Mario and…the Rabbids from the Rayman series? While the rumor indicates that the game will revolve around Yoshi and other minor characters from the Mario universe, one thing was clear: Nintendo appeared to be prepared to launch a third RPG series around its flagship franchise.
So…three kinda-sorta Mario RPG games, one console. How the heck is this going to work?
Let’s set aside the Rabbid crossover for a moment, as it sounds like most of Mario’s gang will be reduced to cameo roles in the game (which, in Paper Luigi’s case, means his role won’t be reduced at all). The Mario universe has been successfully spinning off titles for decades now, and if done well, it’s not hard to imagine this co-existing with a proper Mario-centered RPG title. Even so, however, this still means we’ve got two Mario-centered RPG franchises vying for what appears to be a single seat at the Switch table.
Nintendo has three options here:
- They can cross their fingers, hope their efforts to differentiate Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario thus far have been enough, and continue making games for both franchises. Both series still garner generally-positive reviews (although their scores have fallen as the series have progressed), so it’s not an insane idea to keep both alive for a while longer.
- They can drop one of the series in favor of the other, which obviously begs the question “Which one do you drop?” It’s not an easy question—do you stick with the super-consistent Mario & Luigi series, or take a chance on Paper Mario‘s higher highs (The Thousand-Year Door) and lower lows (Sticker Star)? My gut feeling is that they would go with Mario & Luigi, as the elements that made more-recent Paper Mario games unique (stickers, cards) are elements that wouldn’t translate well to a touchscreen-less Switch.
- They could scrap both series, unite the development teams behind the games, and finally create a true sequel to Super Mario RPG. Honestly, this is the option I’m most intrigued by—the Mario universe of 1996 wasn’t all that big, whereas today it is massive enough to support a Final Fantasy VI-sized epic. Drop the paper gimmicks and the Bros Attacks, keep the action commands and platforming puzzles, give us a Smash Brothers-sized roster of characters, bring back some fan favorites from earlier games (seriously Nintendo, just freaking buy the rights to Mallow and Geno already), and hit us with a deep storyline that would make other RPGs weep with envy. With a single console to support, a best-of-both-worlds approach might make the most sense.
Luckily for Nintendo, they’ve got some time to think about their next move—both Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario released titles this year, so I wouldn’t expect to see to see a new version of either game until 2019. The strong (albeit a rumor) first-year game lineup for the Switch also buys Nintendo some time—after all, who gives a flip about a future Mario RPG title when you’ve got Mario, Zelda, Skyrim, Splatoon, and a bunch of other stuff coming in 2017? Still, as someone who has played through the entire Mario RPG game at least 20 separate times and longs for the days when weaponized cymbals were all the rage, I’ll be very curious to see what path Nintendo decides to take.