I find it virtually impossible to get mad at Mario games. The fact they’re pretty good most of the time definitely helps, and even when the franchise is running in circles, the final products never fail to put a smile on my face. Nintendo truly cares about the quality of its most famous IP, and the spinoffs other studios put out. But what about taking risks? That’s a different story altogether.
Mario is safe. Too safe. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: yes, Mario has dressed up to tackle several sports, organized plenty of parties, become a top racer, and even let many of his friends lead their own spinoffs – whether that’s to find ancient treasure, or to explore haunted mansions. These experiments translated into rapid explorations of a bunch of different genres, with most of them finding a decent amount of success. The most famous and accessible experiments quickly became mainstay series for Nintendo, but – at some point – experimentation kind of stagnated and was replaced by an endless loop of sequels: Mario Party, Mario Kart, Mario [insert sport], Paper Mario… and of course, the mainline 2D/3D games. All cute and fun, but you had to wonder whether Mario could become something more.
Perhaps Luigi’s Mansion, a kid-friendly riff on horror games, always felt like the predecessor to the more out-of-the-box approach the Mario + Rabbids games (perfect introductions to tactical RPGs) have taken. If you start to wonder what the franchise could do outside of its comfort zone (genres and premises you can sell to pretty much anyone), you realize there’s an entire world of possibilities out there for the Mushroom Kingdom and its citizens.
Of course, this would mean taking some financial risks, but Mario is anything but a fragile IP, and its output of familiar, highly profitable stuff is constant and relentless. Moreover, both Mario + Rabbids games were developed alongside Ubisoft, so there’s clearly an interest in trying out new stuff alongside Western publishers and dev teams. Taking big swings is always easier when you’re not alone, IMO.
So, where could Nintendo take the Mario franchise next in order to broaden its horizons and trick more casual players into checking out genres that are traditionally seen as more demanding? We have a few ideas…
Management sims and city builders
We already know the Mushroom Kingdom and the Mario universe as a whole reach far and wide, and we’ve met plenty of colorful characters that inhabit them. Maybe it’s time to look at the bigger picture and cook up a Mario-themed city builder and/or sims along the lines of Two Point Campus.
The franchise has dabbled in architecture design and large-scale creativity through the widely acclaimed Super Mario Maker games, so this seems like a logical next step. I’d personally love to see a Mushroom Kingdom version of SimCity happen, but managing Bowser’s Castle a la Evil Genius also sounds like something that would sell well. Add in the usual comedy and charm we’ve come to expect from the IP and you’re set.
Musou (Mushroom Warriors?)
You might be wondering whether we need to see Mario and Peach striking down 50 Goombas with a single blow and tanking the framerate, and the answer is a resounding and unwavering YES. Nintendo x Koei Tecmo collaborations have yielded great results for both Fire Emblem and The Legend of Zelda, so it makes sense to look at Mario & co. as the next potential candidates to brandish weapons against massive hordes of evil minions in full anime fashion.
Koei Tecmo CEO Hisashi Koinuma has even expressed interest in the past about doing Mario next, so the ball appears to be in Nintendo’s court. The biggest roadblock here might be how Nintendo perceives and presents the Mario IP – kid-friendly and rather tame when it comes to violence – so maybe a Mario-centric musou is a bit problematic for them. That being said, FE and TLoZ’s musou titles did really well and feel very much family-friendly. Furthermore, the classical musou formula could be adjusted to better fit Mario and friends, as well as their cheerful abilities and lighter personalities.
What if Dark Souls but Mario sounds like a dumb but meme-worthy idea for a PC mod, but we’ve already seen the – now incredibly famous – subgenre expanding in a variety of directions and taking many shapes. Game designers have identified a handful of traits and elements that make such games click together, and the rest is quite flexible.
In fact, the Metroid Prime games could inform a Mario-centric soulslike’s overarching design; you’ve got well-defined 3D areas, static enemy spawns, save rooms (bonfires) spread far and wide across the world, challenging bosses, etc. Make it as cute as you want, but applying the philosophy and (adjusted) challenge of one of the hottest genres at the moment to the Mushroom Kingdom doesn’t sound like a bad idea for a slightly more mature spinoff adventure.
I mean, if we’re dreaming about Mario going full soulslike, what’s stopping Nintendo from simply following the Metroid and Castlevania route with another 2D iteration of the famous plumber? We’re surprised it hasn’t happened already. Just swap Dracula for Bowser. Maybe even use the underrated Paper Mario art style again?
The basic combat and movement mechanics wouldn’t have to be much different from what we’re used to, but add some cool weapon and skill progression in there and we’re golden. Then we just need an engaging maze of areas, secret rooms, and cool enemies. Moreover, they could really go crazy with Bowser and other big bads, honoring the iconic 2D fights against them while crafting more complex encounters with phases and nice move sets.
Mario is halfway there after doing tactical strategy (sort of) in the Mario + Rabbids games, and with all the world-building done over the decades, going real-time with strategic gameplay could also work. We’re not necessarily talking about an Age of Empires reskin, but it’s not hard to come up with potential Mario-themed factions, buildings, and units to fill an entire Mushroom Kingdom RTS.
This genre has also adjusted well in the past to each IP’s necessities and the control limitations of consoles. It sounds like a perfect fit for Nintendo’s interest in touch controls, too. The biggest challenge here would be trying keep it relatively simple but also engaging for veteran RTS players, but Nintendo typically excels at crafting systems that resonate with most people, so I reckon they could get it done satisfactorily.