Why does Nintendo think people won’t buy RPGs?

Paper Mario: Color Splash releases today, though some of you may have been playing it for some time, and once again the issue arises: why isn’t Color Splash a proper RPG like its non-Sticker Star predecessors? It’s not an invalid question — it can be a perfectly good game for what it is, but it’s hard to play those first two games and not want more of that — but the root problem is larger than that:

Nintendo thinks people won’t buy RPGs or strategy games unless they’re tricked.

This isn’t meant to be clickbait or a rant, but rather an examination of this phenomenon that has so permeated the company’s strategy and affected a large segment of its release catalog, for better or worse. So let’s start with a little film study. Here are the three main commercials for the original Paper Mario and its two sequels:

Sure, ads are mostly about flash, but you see a second or so of RPG menus in that first one, the briefest glimpse in the second and straight-up nothing in that third one. This is an RPG, but what Nintendo wants you to think is that it’s a normal Mario game with a distinct art style. Which… you know, means it isn’t so surprising that it made the series itself into that.

For example, this:

Even stripped of its role-playing elements, the new Paper Mario is still more akin to a point-and-click adventure than an action title. But Nintendo wants to market it like Splatoon, what may be the most diametrically opposed release in the company’s portfolio. “Like multiplayer online shooters? Clearly you’ll love this single-player game in which you walk around slowly and hit A on things!”

Of course, that’s Paper Mario. That game’s light and meant for a wider audience. How about Fire Emblem, a series known for its shrewd tactics?

The only footage here is from the battle cutscenes, useless animations that most longtime players turn off because they do nothing and take forever. More and more time, actually, as the series as progressed. Maybe because Nintendo needed more footage for commercials?

Before you say “well ads aren’t meant for showing gameplay,” take a look at Nintendo’s other properties. Like this one for Super Mario 3D World, which gets right to showing exactly how the game works and why that’s fun:

It’s Nintendo’s RPGs that do this. And the company wonders why they often struggle to find an audience. Look no further than Paper Mario‘s cousin series, Mario & Luigi, which has been named by the company as the justification for Paper moving away from the genre: this was the RPG series now. In Japan, while the first two Paper games were Mario Story and Paper Mario RPG only to see the generic “Paper Mario” name on later releases, Mario & Luigi have always been Mario & Luigi RPG there. So the problem is American marketing, right? When you look at the Japanese side, everything makes sense, because M&L is a faithful, focused RPG.

Except it’s increasingly about hastily-developed papercraft battles and tiny minigames, apparently.

Nintendo lets a number or two slip its way onto the screen for a second, but if you watch those commercials without knowing about the series? It’d be difficult to guess what they actually are. Even Bowser’s Inside Story, a critical darling that’s clever and deep and needs no marketing gimmicks, is sold essentially as a series of quick-time events.

It’s understandable for the company to take this position, if you take a look at its history. It has a habit of being ahead of its time, with online play through the Satellaview and 64DD, 3D on the Famicom Disk System and Virtual Boy and connectivity with the GBA and GameCube. In this case, the Big N bet hard on RPGs early in its life, and… people just didn’t buy them? It thought people wanted Dragon Quest, and it ended up with so many unsold cartridges that it gave them away to magazine subscribers. It thought people would enjoy the charm of EarthBound, and critics were none too kind and largely killed the game’s future. So it’s less about Nintendo not getting with the program as it is the entirely understandable tendency to be gun-shy after failure just being held onto for way too long.

Of course, even with EarthBound, it didn’t really find its footing with marketing.

There are reasons you should care about this beyond simply the financial success of your favorite franchises, though that definitely matters. The part that’s concerning is how it’s reflecting back into the games, often with tacked-on features seemingly only for something to show to little kids. Take Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.‘s mech battle segments. Not everyone liked that game — we did, but still — that any development time was spent on those is concerning, and that much time spent polishing the actual main mode could have really helped.

Mainly, though, money matters. Seeing few options to show Xenoblade Chronicles X and Tokyo Mirage Sessions without, you know, actually showing them, Nintendo… didn’t really bother telling anyone outside of the die-hard hobby about them. And what about a new Advance Wars or EarthBound or Golden Sun? If Nintendo doesn’t think it can sell them, it certainly won’t make them.

It’s a concerning state of affairs, and none of us have the megaphone to make this sort of thing change course. But… it’s always possible that Nintendo will someday learn from a groundswell from Fire Emblem, Dragon Quest and Pokemon fans that the genre’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Until then, we have this.

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