What Makes The Mario Franchise So Iconic?

Mario isn’t just one of the most iconic video game characters of all time; he’s at the very top of the list. The Mario series is the best selling video game franchise of all time, with more than 500 million games sold altogether. However, Mario originally came from humble beginnings – he wasn’t even the star of the first game he appeared in, and had yet to receive a proper name. Originally, he was just called Jumpman, the player character in the arcade game Donkey Kong. Between then and now, what happened to make Mario so iconic?

The First Great Console Game

Some may debate Super Mario Bros’ claim to the title, but many would argue that this was the first great console video game. Games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong were all popular arcade games, but console gaming may have died entirely without Super Mario Bros. In 1985, video game revenues were down 97% from where they had been two years earlier – from $3.2 billion to only $100 million.

The NES and Super Mario Bros worked together to resuscitate the entire industry. The game was packaged with the console, and it was a great game – some players even bought the NES just to play Super Mario Bros. The game is incredibly well-designed, and still holds up well. Level designs ramp up gradually in difficulty and the controls are simple but precise. It feels good to play. It also looks good, and thanks to Koji Kondo (who also created the soundtrack for many games in the Legend of Zelda series) it sounds great, too. To date, the game has sold more than 40 million copies, and it is still the 6th best-selling game of all time 34 years after its release.

A Graceful Transition To 3D

The Super Mario series started with the original NES Super Mario Bros in 1985. Since then, Nintendo has released a new game (or at least a remake) in the series almost every year. In 1996, Nintendo released Super Mario 64, which has often been called one of the greatest video games of all time. 

Many game developers who had been successful designing games for the NES and Super NES struggled with the transition to 3D. There were no stumbles with Super Mario 64. Mario began long-jumping, backflipping, and climbing his way across stages rather than just jumping, but the platforming action of the original Super Mario Bros translated perfectly to 3D. Even today, 23 years later, the game is totally worth playing.

Casting A Wide Net

The Super Mario series, with 30 entries, is the best-selling and most well-known set of Mario games, but there are dozens upon dozens of others. Making spinoff games and putting your flagship character’s face on as many games as possible is an obvious marketing move, and that’s what Nintendo seems to have done over the years. However, it’s a strategy that won’t work if the games aren’t any good. Fortunately, Nintendo knew what they were doing with each of their spinoff series. Nearly every household that owns a Nintendo console also owns at least one Mario Kart game. Mario Party, while less ubiquitous, has also been very successful. The Mario Sports series has done well, and the Mario RPG series has earned itself plenty of dedicated followers.

Altogether, there are more than 250 games in the Mario franchise. Some of them have performed better than others, and there have been a few truly awful Mario games (mostly games produced by third parties and distributed by Nintendo, or weird early-90s experiments in edutainment). However, these missteps are few and far between. Overall, the Mario franchise has delivered consistently good games over a multitude of genres, whether or not each title is a part of the main Super Mario series. 

Innovation And Consistency

There are hundreds of spinoff games featuring Mario and his supporting cast, but only 30 games in the core Super Mario series. However, despite being few in number, the core series is by far the best-selling of all Mario games. There is a reason for this. 

Following the release of 1996’s Super Mario 64, we can think of the Super Mario franchise as being split into two different directions: 2D and 3D. Despite the success of Super Mario 64, Nintendo didn’t abandon the style of the older games – although they did leave them behind for a decade. Through 1992, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros-style side-scrolling platforming games. Each one introduced new power-ups, and Super Mario World introduced a world map in 1990, allowing players to progress through the game in a non-linear fashion.

From 1992 to 2006, the only new 2D-style Mario games were remakes of older games, updated and improved for handheld consoles. 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine played essentially just like Super Mario 64 with some new mechanics and twists. It capitalized on what the previous title had done well and added more content to keep things interesting. Super Mario Galaxy, Galaxy 2, and Super Mario Odyssey followed the same formula, and each of these games was extremely well-received and positively reviewed by critics.

In 2006, Nintendo once again began releasing 2D Mario games with New Super Mario Bros. Since then, there have been ten more releases in the series, which has done well. By carrying on the traditions of both the first Super Mario Bros and Super Mario 64 – two of the best video games ever – Nintendo has been able to keep Mario’s core games going strong over the decades. Each game brings something new to the table, but also (wisely) stays true to the series’ origins. This formula has led to a series of games that is consistently excellent, and has no end in sight.
Just about everyone knows who Mario is, but he had to work hard for his position as the most iconic character in gaming. Despite being present in a few other titles before 1985, Mario didn’t take off until Super Mario Bros. This game was (and still is) a masterpiece. After that, Mario spawned several successful spinoff series, and Super Mario 64 repeated the success of Super Mario Bros on a new generation of console, and in 3D. Now, there are more than 250 games starring Mario, and the franchise remains the best-selling and most iconic video game franchise of all time.

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