Super Mario: Same Sales, Different Games

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With the announcement of the Nintendo Switch, there has plenty of hints of a new 3D Mario adventure heading to the system. Footage of a 3D Mario was shown during the system’s reveal, and every rumor seems to put the 3D Mario as a launch title for the new system. Fans are ecstatic. Not just that they want to play the game, but that the Nintendo Switch could be a huge success. But what if that wasn’t the case? Not every Super Mario game is made equal. The inconvenient truth is that 2D Mario brings success that fans are expecting; however, 3D Mario brings the stagnation that Nintendo has been experiencing. Here’s why.

Nintendo Has Never Released a Successful System without a 2D Mario

Behind every Nintendo success, there has always been 2D Mario games. Don’t believe me? Here are the sales of each Nintendo system released and any 2D Mario released for the system:

System Sales (in millions) 2D Mario (if any)
NES 61.91 Super Mario Bros. (1-3)
SNES 49.10 Super Mario World
N64 32.93 None
Nintendo Gamecube 21.74 None
Wii 101.63 New Super Mario Bros.
Wii U 13.36 New Super Mario Bros. U
Gameboy 118.69 Super Mario Land (1-2)
Gameboy Advance 81.51 Super Mario Advance (1-4)
DS 154.02 New Super Mario Bros.
3DS 61.57 New Super Mario Bros. 2

Source: https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/library/historical_data/pdf/consolidated_sales_e1609.pdf

As you can see, Nintendo’s best selling systems always have a 2D Mario. The SNES, which sold 49.10 million (which launched with Super Mario World) outsold Nintendo’s next two systems, the Nintendo 64 and the Nintendo Gamecube, neither of which had a 2D Mario. Of Nintendo’s three worst selling systems, only one of them had a 3D Mario on it. There is a clear correlation between 2D Mario and a system’s success.

“But wait, what about the Nintendo Wii U? It was Nintendo’s worst selling home console and it launched with a 2D Mario.” This is correct. So what happened with the Wii U? The Wii U launched with New Super Mario Bros. U, the fourth game in the series. The system launched on November 18, 2012. As of March 31, 2013, the Nintendo Wii U sold 3.45 million units. In only 4 and a half months, the Wii U sold 25 percent of its lifetime sales. New Super Mario Bros. U, despite being very similar to the prior three games, sold 2.15 million, giving the game an attach rate of 62 percent. The game only sold 450,000 less than Nintendo Land which was bundled with the system at the time. The Wii U’s initial success could be attributed to New Super Mario Bros U.

But Nintendo’s luck changed in 2013. Nintendo originally projected the Wii U would sell 9 million during the fiscal year. However, after six months the system only managed to sell a meager 460,000 units. Nintendo eventually had to update their sales project for the system to only 2.8 million units. Nintendo noted that hardware sales did not meet their expected levels and that expenses will exceed gross profit, resulting in a financial loss. Even worse, Nintendo still could not meet their new projection only selling 2.72 million during the fiscal year. Up until 2016, 2013 was the Wii U’s worse year. And what was Nintendo’s big holiday game for the year? None other than Super Mario 3D World, the newest 3D Mario.

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Nintendo put a lot of faith into this title. During a financial briefing, Late President Satoru Iwata said that Super Mario 3D World was “the key title that is going to drive this year’s year-end sales season.” Iwata called the title a “central pillar.” However, the game launch was less than stellar.  Super Mario 3D World had the worst launch in Japan selling only 107,000 units. As the Escapist noted, “It’s worth noting that the Wii U currently has a smaller install base than the other Nintendo platforms have had in the past, but it’s still not a good sign that even a Mario game (and a fantastic Mario game at that) still can’t sell consoles.

But the Escapist, like many fans, assumes that all Mario games are made equal. As we can see with the Wii U, that is simply not true. 2D Mario sells, 3D Mario doesn’t. We can see this with Nintendo’s other consoles as well. The N64, despite launching with Super Mario 64, a game often revered by fans, could not compete with Sony’s Playstation outside of the US. Likewise, the Nintendo DS, one of Nintendo’s most successful systems, was losing to the PSP, despite the DS launching months prior. Yes, you read that right, reader. The DS, Nintendo’s most successful system, was getting outsold by the PSP.

As early as April 2006, the PSP was outselling the Nintendo DS. That month, the PSP outsold both the DS and the GBA by 101,000 units. May and June saw similar results with the PSP still outselling the Nintendo DS. As of the end of 2005, the Nintendo DS sold 14.43 million while the PSP sold 15 million.  However, fortunes changed for the Nintendo DS with the release of both Brain Age and, yes, New Super Mario Bros. Month to month, the DS’s sales increased a whopping 354 percent. As of year end 2006, Nintendo DS sales were 40.29 million units. To give a sense of how powerful New Super Mario Bros. was, the game sold 9.5 million where Brain Age only sold 8.08 million. The moral of the story was that 2D Mario saved the Nintendo DS. New Super Mario Bros. would go on to sell 30 million while Super Mario 64 DS went on to only sell 11 million. It’s clear there is a significant difference in sales.  [1]

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Like the DS, 2D Mario also revitalized the Wii. After the poor line up for holiday 2008, Wii sales were struggling. Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said the Wii had stalled and noted sales declined 40 percent over a six-month period (from March 1, 2009 to September 30, 2009). When New Super Mario Bros. Wii released in 2009, Nintendo saw an exponential increase in sales. In the US, New Super Mario Bros. Wii sold 1.39 million units with the Wii selling 1.26 million. December was even better with the Wii selling 3.81 million units. At the time, this was the most units a system ever sold in a single month. Despite third quarter year-to-date sales declining, that quarter (ending December 31, 2009), the Wii sold 11.30 million units. Sales of the game reached 10.55 million units which is almost as much as Super Mario Galaxy and is nearly as much as Super Mario 3D Land. This was all in the span of less than two months. Nintendo enjoyed the 2D Mario high where sales for the first quarter of 2010 exceeded 2009, 3.04 million as compared to 2.23 million. Of course, sales declined year-over-year in the second quarter, 4.97 million to 5.75 million. This is despite Super Mario Galaxy 2 being released during the quarter. Even though the game sold over 5 million units, Wii sales still declined. It seems that 3D Mario games, despite high unit sales, do not drive system sales.

The only time a 3D Mario has outsold a 2D Mario was on the Nintendo 3DS with New Super Mario Bros. 2 selling 10.60 million where Super Mario 3D Land sold 10.98 million. Of course, this is with Super Mario 3D Land being launched in the holiday season with New Super Mario Bros. 2 being relegated to the summer which remains the lowest point in the year for video game sales. In all other instances, the 2D New Super Mario Bros. series has sold more, and this is with Nintendo beating the brand with a dead horse. The series uses music, assets and themes, rarely doing anything to innovate. If anything, the only reason these games are close in sales at all is due to Nintendo making 2D Marios feel as cheap as they possibly can. 3D Mario is allowed to innovate and evolve, have big musical scores, unique worlds and levels, and many features the 2D games have longed for such as multiple playable characters. Yet even with all these additions, all this care, and all this time and money spent on it, 3D Mario just can’t seem to get a leg up on the legacy of 2D Mario. And the one who loses is Nintendo.

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Interestingly, the decline of Nintendo is likely linked to the decline of 2D Mario. When 2D Mario is good, the company seems to flourish. When the company betrays 2D Mario, they seem to spiral out of control. 2D Mario made the DS and helped revitalize the Wii. When Nintendo began to treat 2D Mario as a cheap cash-in, the company began to decline. Both the Nintendo DS and the Wii U have been plagued by weak sales and continued financial losses. This is a stark contrast to the rebirth of 2D Mario which saw profits soar and the birth of the meme “It prints money.” Nintendo’s strategy has been to make 3D Mario as successful as 2D Mario. As Iwata even remarks during the Super Mario 3D Land Iwata Asks, “Hmm, I can really sense in this your ambition to slowly but surely change players of 2D Mario into players of 3D Mario.” Despite this, 2D Mario players are not switching. The game sold less than Super Mario 64 which sold 11.62 million and Super Mario Galaxy which sold 12.72 million. No matter what Nintendo tries, they can’t make the 3D games as successful as the 2D ones. If it hasn’t happened by now, it likely never will.

To close, I don’t want to tell fans that 3D Mario can’t exist. Sales wise, the games do much better than many of Nintendo’s other series. But 3D Mario has not helped Nintendo move systems and stay relevant in the same way 2D Mario always has. The games can exist together. The problem I am trying to highlight is that 2D Mario is what drives success for Nintendo’s systems but is not what the focus is. You can see this with New Super Mario Bros. U and Super Mario 3D World. It’s clear that the latter got far more love and care than the former. Nintendo fans often complain that the New Super Mario Bros. games are dull and lifeless. I agree, and I’m sure many others have as well as the sales of those games decline. Nevertheless, the strategy of focusing on 3D Mario is not working and at this point, it likely never will. If Nintendo wants to keep focusing on 3D Mario games, that’s fine, but they will continue to see the same decline that this strategy of “3D First” has brought.

If Nintendo wants to be successful, they will have to realize that not all Super Mario games are made equal.  

[1] Some of the NPD data comes from forums. Unfortunately, the original sources links no longer work. As a result, we couldn’t validate this information to a more official source. There is a possibility the information could be incorrect.

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7 comments

  1. Modern 2D Mario is an interesting subject to me, as someone who dabbles in game design.

    Honestly, even if they seem ‘dull, lifeless’ (I’ll get to that in a moment), the majority of them are still competently designed and executed. Even New Super Mario Bros. 2 on 3DS, the one that gets the most flak for recycling assets, I felt made a brilliant play for speedun/competitive types by effectively turning coins into the score to measure against! (The only one I’ve yet to play is NSMBU, and I’m crossing my fingers it becomes a Nintendo Selects title around the time of Switch’s arrival.)

    As for the ‘dull, lifeless’ thing, I think there’s a reason they feel so same-y and generic. Well, a few. First, I feel the platforming genre is very, very well-explored at this point and I’m not sure how much room there is left to find completely new and crazy off-the-wall ideas to re-invent the game. Two, from the N64 era onward it felt like they started to strictly consolidate Mario’s appearance and mannerisms, compared to the earlier eras where it seemed like they were toying with the art style/direction for every platform game in the same brand. Only Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario seem to get away with doing the non-standard Mario character designs, now. Three, consumers appear to ultimately like and prefer familiarity. Mario’s always been attributed to being just good, wholesome fun platforming, and maybe they just want that reliable anchor experience alongside all the new and weird ideas that can come down the pipeline in other releases on the system.

    For my part, I’ll happily keep playing more 2D Mario, as I still find the acts enjoyable even with a few of the flawed elements that ought to be phased out eventually (Hammer Bros. were probably the biggest game design mistake back then due to their angular attacks not really jiving with the way the player movement physics work). He’s the benchmark for the genre, and even if it doesn’t break out ahead, it often manages to keep pace in terms of functionality even if the ‘wow’ factor has lessened a lot over the increased rate of release we’ve been seeing them show up at.

  2. That’s was a really interesting read.
    With the current state of 2D Mario games, I was surprised to hear that the 3D games didn’t fare as well;
    With me being so tired of the same kind of 2D Super Mario games.

    Though looking back, it’s not the 2D gameplay that I found uninteresting.
    After all, I loved the first four games. (1, 2, 3 & World.)
    And the New Super Mario Bros. for DS was well, new at the time. (New art style, wall jumps, etc.)
    And New Super Mario Bros Wii had multiplayer. (The beautiful chaotic fun of multiplayer.)
    Then well, the 3DS and Wii U games didn’t really add or change anything big.

    I wonder how things would have played out if Mario Maker was made near the Wii U’s launch.

  3. Looks like someone else at Source Gaming has read Sean Malstrom’s articles too! Seriously though, as you point out, 2D Mario is simply more popular with the general public than 3D Mario, and there’s pretty much no chance in hell that Nintendo will ever change that.

    1. It is more that 2D Mario’s are easier for the wider audience to get behind. Some people don’t take to 3D gaming will, whether it is down to the depth perception, or motion sickness, or thinking in 3-dimensions or something else entirely. 2D games don’t really have this problem and so are easier to pick up and play.

      It is kind of why Nintendo does more 2D platformers than 3D ones (Kirby and Yoshi have never had a 3D platformer, DK and Wario only had 1).

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