Back in 2016, I speculated about the future of the Mario RPG series on Nintendo hardware: With the company’s home and handheld consoles combining and rumors of a bizarre Rabbids crossover floating around, exactly how many of these series could the Big N support? I closed the discussion with the following paragraph:
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.
Well, it’s 2019 now, and while we haven’t heard any official word about the Paper Mario or Mario & Luigi series, we’ve seen several major developments on this front:
- The more we saw of what became Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, the more we liked it, and it ended up being a surprise smash hit for Nintendo and Ubisoft. The characters were fun, the tactical-RPG mechanics were excellent, and Ubisoft treated Nintendo’s IP with the utmost care and reverence. Mario with a gun didn’t turn out too bad, huh?
- More recently, the game studio AlphaDream, which had been the primary developers of the Mario & Luigi series since Superstar Saga, filed for bankruptcy, leaving both the future of the company and the franchise uncertain. When a company has been working on a series for that long, filling its shoes can be a challenging task.
- The Switch, has gone from a questionable design choice to the hottest console in gaming, and very franchise in the universe seems to be clamoring to get their games onto the device. This includes Square Enix, the original partners on Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, who have successfully brought Octopath Traveler and a whole bunch of Final Fantasy remakes onto the system.
The combination of a lack of official franchise announcements and a plethora of interesting circumstances are raising several questions in my mind:
- Does Mario & Luigi ever return? Their console is dead, their developer is on the ropes, and for as much as I loved all of the games, you could make an argument that the franchise’s formula had gotten a little stale. Despite all this, however, I still think there is a way forward for this franchise. Nintendo’s experience with Ubisoft proved that a third-party studio could truly do justice to the Mario franchise, so switching from AlphaDream to another outside studio may not be the big risk we would have feared several years ago. The 3DS-specific mechanics that I liked the least about the franchise (giant Bowser/Luigi/Papercraft battles) are likely to be cut, especially since the 3DS “replacement” Switch Lite lacks much of the crazy tech that Nintendo might use for such mechanics (unless they somehow incorporate the Ring-Con…). Given all this, I think there’s still room for a more-conventional RPG series in the Mario universe, although there may be better options for such a game than Mario & Luigi…
- Does Paper Mario ever return? As far as I can tell, Intelligent Systems seems to be doing just fine, so they’re ready to take the call if Nintendo needs a Paper Mario fix (although the company seems to be a Fire Emblem-heavy shop nowadays). The graphical power of the Big N’s hardware is certainly good enough to make the game look gorgeous (see: Paper Mario: Color Splash, Yoshi’s Crafted World)., and much like with Mario & Luigi, the gimmicky battle mechanics that put off a lot of people almost have to be toned down due to the I/O limitations (no one’s carrying around that brick of a Wii U tablet anymore). Most importantly, the large number of people who are still banging the drum for a remake of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door indicate that there’s still a sizable fanbase out there waiting for the game to return to its roots. So yeah, there’s no reason for Paper Mario to not make a comeback, unless…
- Does Mario RPG make a comeback? This is the question that really excites me right now. With no split between home and handheld consoles, there’s no reason to split the Mario RPG franchise either, and if Nintendo can get freaking Banjo & Kazooie (and Sans, for that matter) into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, they can totally sit down with Square Enix and hammer out a deal to bring back Mallow and Geno. With the way the Mario universe has exploded with games like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Odyssey, the time seems right to turn Mario loose on a Breath Of The Wild-style imagining of the Mushroom Kingdom, criss-crossing the globe collecting magical MacGuffins to bring down a pseudo-Smithy. As much as I loved PM and M&L, this is what I really want to see, and for the first time in ages, the stars appear aligned to make it possible.
- Does Nintendo even need this games right now? To be honest, the answer is a bright-red “NO.” The Switch has got plenty to games available right now, and frankly I think Nintendo has already crammed too many games into its 2019 release schedule. In the span of a few short months, we’ve gotten Super Mario Maker 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Astral Chain, The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Daemon X Machina, and we’re about to get Ring Fit Adventure, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Pokémon Sword and Shield! (Wait, there’s a new Brain Age coming too?!) My big fear is that less-heralded games like Astral Chain (which actually got some decent press) are going to get lost in the shuffle and be forgotten, and despite their longevity, neither of the Mario RPG spiritual successors have the power to break through a lineup that’s this stacked. Given how much Nintendo milked the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series during the barren years of the Wii U, I think it’s at least another year (or maybe two) before we hear from any of these franchises again.
In the short-term, I think the future of the Mario RPG series remains in limbo as Nintendo brings the rest of its AAA-titles onto the stage (don’t forget Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Metroid Prime 4, and that Breath of the Wild sequel). Long-term, however, I believe that there is still a future for Mario RPG in any of its forms, and I’m excited just imaging what that future might look like. Be patient gang, because good things come to those who wait. (Hopefully.)