I’m always interested in scenarios in which we examine the “what-ifs.” In some cases, that means discussing what might have happened to RIM if it saw the touchscreen craze coming. In others, it’s a look at what Apple might have been without Steve Jobs. But this time around, I want to take it away from the real world and put it in the digital realm: what might the game industry look like today without Mario?
Nintendo haters will, of course, cringe at such a question. For years, they’ve been saying that Mario hasn’t improved all that much and his importance has been largely overblown. The gaming industry, they say, was going to end up at this point despite Mario’s presence, and to say otherwise is ludicrous.
But I’m not so sure I can agree. When Mario first made an appearance on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the gaming industry was in a state of disarray. Retailers weren’t sure that consoles could appeal to consumers and the crash the preceded the mess was still looming in all gamers’ minds. It appeared to many that in-home gaming would die sooner rather than later.
But with the NES came the kind of innovation, thanks to Shigeru Miyamoto, that captivated gamers and made them realize that maybe there really was an opportunity to enjoy playing titles in the home again.
Without Miyamoto’s talent, the NES would have never succeeded. And Nintendo, a company that was once known for playing cards, likely wouldn’t have a place in the industry as we know it today.
I think a solid argument can be made that the NES proved to be the “Big Bang” moment of gaming. Sure, there was gaming before the NES, but its success prompted other companies to invest heavily in the market. Would there have been a Sega Genesis without Nintendo’s success? Would Sonic have ever existed? Would Sony even be a player in that market today?
It was the Super Mario franchise that kept Nintendo afloat over the years, and the set of games that even to this day, other companies would love to emulate. Mario played an integral role in keeping the gaming industry going in the 16-bit days and set off a 3D craze when he landed on the Nintendo 64. Super Mario titles through the 1990s were the benchmark by which all other games were judged.
Today, Nintendo is hurting, and there is some concern that the Wii U might not be able to get it out of its current mess. But chances are, its Super Mario title will be wildly popular and a key reason many people buy its console. A similar scenario has played out since the beginning, both in the console space and the portable market. When Nintendo launches a Mario game, it knows it’ll sell more hardware.
The funny thing is, all of those games might have also helped its competitors sell more hardware. Mario is the character that welcomed young people into gaming and those people turned around and became hardcore players that bought every console out there.
So, perhaps we should thank old Mario more often. Without him, there’s a very good chance that the gaming industry wouldn’t look anything like it does today.