What Is The Future Of Mario Role-Playing Games?

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 SplashYoshi’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&Lthis 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 2Fire Emblem: Three HousesAstral ChainThe Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Daemon X Machina, and we’re about to get Ring Fit AdventureLuigi’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 HorizonsMetroid Prime 4and 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.)

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions: Is It Worth Buying?

Before we get to the question of whether this game is worth buying, we need to tackle a more fundamental question: Why does this game even exist?

Nintendo’s releases have been heavy on retreads lately, but most of these re-releases serve a greater purpose: Pokkén Tournament DX expands the game’s audience beyond the paltry Wii U install base, Metroid: Samus Returns throws a bone to fans of a long-forgotten franchise, and the SNES Classic lets players relive the glory days of the 16-bit era. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, however, fits none of these explanations:

  • The 3DS has a substantial user base, and every other Mario & Luigi game can be played on it (including the DS games).
  • Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam was released just last year, so the franchise isn’t suffering a release drought.
  • While the franchise is fairly old, its history still pales in comparison to Metroid and the Super Nintendo.

In short, a grand total of nobody was clamoring for this game to come back…yet here we are.

To be fair, I loved Superstar Saga back when it came out, and if you never got to play the Game Boy Advance version, it’s worth checking out the 3DS remake. However, if you’ve already played this game, you’re free to give this version a wide berth. The game’s story is exactly the same as before, and Nintendo doesn’t provide a compelling reason to revisit it.

Sure, the Bowser’s Minions portion technically counts as an expansion to the storyline, but it feels like an aftermarket add-on than an added layer to the story. Basically, you build up an army of various baddies from Bowser’s army, and then watch them butt heads against a bunch of other enemies while you play the role of benevolent overseer (your options are basically limited to “captain commands” and occasionally tapping minions for charged-up attacks). While this sort of gameplay can be entertaining (it worked really well in Miitopia), it requires the characters to have a lot of charm and personality, and that’s not something the generic Goombas and Koopa Troopas of Bowser’s Minions provide. It’s just not enough to justify re-buying the entire game.

Superstar Saga, like every other entry in the series, is the kind of game you’ll play through once, say “Hey, that was fun!” and then never touch it again. If you’ve never played the original version, then it’s worth picking up now, because it’s a solid, fun RPG on its own merits. If you have played it before, however, you’re better off waiting and saving up for Super Mario Odyssey instead.

Why I’m Excited For Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

Image From Polygon

Back when I discussed the future of the Mario RPG series, I mostly ignored the Mario/Rabbids crossover that was rumored to be coming at the time, partially because we didn’t know much about the game at the time, and partially because it sounded “like most of Mario’s gang will be reduced to cameo roles in the game.” In the wake of yesterday’s massive leak regarding what’s now billed as Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, however, it’s time to start taking this game seriously.

Reaction to this announcement has been a bit mixed, seemingly ranging from cautious optimism to outright disgust. While I’ll admit that there are a few aspects of this game that concern me, on the whole I’m actually interested in this idea because it presents the perfect opportunity to shake up a series that was in need of refreshing.

Both Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario have grown heavily reliant on existing characters from past Mario titles, and while Nintendo’s has made the formula kinda-sorta work up until now (or not, given some of the critiques of Paper Mario: Color Splash and Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam), at some point the company was going to need more than just battle system tweaks to inject some new ideas to add some life to the series. The introduction of the Rabbids (and maybe other characters from the Rayman universe, and maybe even all-new character designs) provide an opportunity to expand the Mario universe and give us more characters to interact with than ten Toad palatte-swaps. Maybe Mario & co. could fight Vermi-Dogs, or Zombie Chickens, or Scissor Birds, and maybe different types of Rabbids could inhabit towns as NPCs. The possibilities for variety are enormous, and we haven’t been able to say that about either Mario RPG successor in quite some time. (The same goes for the environments, as even a “twisted” desert or ice world would be more original than the usual generic ones.)

The relatively large number of playable characters also hints at a return to a more-traditional party/battle setup for the game. Mario RPG fans have been clamoring for the return of partner characters for quite some time, and while Rabbids dressed as Mario characters probably weren’t what they had in mind, they’re the closest thing we’ve had to non-Mario PCs since Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Having 8 different characters to play suggests that the game will scrap the Mario-and-occasionally-Luigi-vs.-the-world style of prior games in favor of the three- or four-person party seen in most standard RPGs. (Honestly, I wish they’d go even farther and scrap the action-command system as well, but that’s a staple of Mario RPG games at this point, so I won’t hold my breath.) In addition to the new Rabbids, I’m curious to see how the game handles Peach and Yoshi, as neither has seen the character-building that the Mario bros have had over the years. Is Peach more Daisy-like than we imagined? What exactly does “the explosive head” description mean for Yoshi? Even “eagle eye” Luigi might be in line for some new quirks! I’m not sure what’s coming, but I’m very curious to find out.

Of course, change for the sake of change isn’t alwaya good thing, and there are a few tidbits about the game that make me a little nervous:

  • According to The Game Historian, Shigeru Miyamoto rejected Square’s proposal of equipping Mario with a sword because it didn’t square (no pun intended) with the Mario universe…and the laser cannons being advertised here seem even less suited to the series.
  • The released documents promise “humor & self-mockery,” but Mario RPG games have always been known for this kind of stuff (especially PM: Color Splash), so I’m not sure how much farther Ubisoft can go with its humor before it wears thin.

On the whole, though, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle feels like the breath of fresh air the Mario RPG series needed. It also feels like a low-risk move for Nintendo: The company can just return to Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi if the game flops, and whatever damage it might do to the Mario legacy will be quickly forgotten the minute Super Mario Odyssey hits store shelves. (Actually, I would argue that the worst-case scenario would be a repeat of the Square/Nintendo saga: M + R Kingdom Battle becomes a hit, Ubisoft and Nintendo have a falling out over something, and the game winds up a beloved one-hit wonder that never gets a proper sequel.)

So I say bring on the laser cannons and cosplaying rabbits! I’ll need something to play in between Splatoon 2 marathons, and it’s nice to see Nintendo swing for the fences and take a risk with its IP (even a small one) for a change. If Rabbid Luigi becomes the next Geno or Goombella in the process, so much the better.

How Many Mario RPGs Can The Switch Support?

smrpg_headerJust 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.