Most franchises pick a gameplay genre, and stick to their guns. Mario, on the other hand, has ventured far and wide from his original gameplay mechanics. The Mario games have transcended from their original genre to a broader scope of what can be considered a Mario game. What started out as a simple adventure, platformer has turned into a series of racing games, sports games, mini games, and role playing games. Each sticking true to the core to what makes a Mario game a Mario game. And each building onto the broader definition of the meaning of a "Mario Game".
Typically with franchises they are going to stay true to the core of the original source material. Grand Theft Auto games will continue to be open world playgrounds with tongue-in-cheek commentary on the American Dream; Call of Duty games will continue to be action heavy, large scale battle focused first person shooters; and Pokemon will continue to be Pokemon. And if any of these games get any sort of spinoff, rarely do they venture off from the core mechanic, or concept as widely as Mario has with his.
Mario's Start: Platforming Goodness.
I believe most readers know the history and origins of our red, mustachioed friend. So I will not regale you all with a tale that you already know. But, if by chance you do not know, Make Use Of has a wonderful little diddy on the history of this old titan of gaming.
Mario's first foray into what would be considered the classic Mario game formula was Super Mario Bros. for the NES/Famicom in 1985. This is what would become the main template for all mainline Mario games. The design, enemies, power-ups, and the world/level structure would go on to define the basis of a Mario game.
The game play was simple, but the challenges in the level design created rich and wonderful experiences. Mario controlled well, and the enemies were clearly marked for what they would, and would not, be vulnerable to. It was all based on common sense design, and the enemy design shouted "Jump on me!" or "Don't jump on me!" Nothing was obtuse, or out of place. Mario made sense.
Each iteration beyond the original built on the simple premise presented in the first. (The exception being Super Mario Bros. 2—or Super Mario USA as it was known in Japan—for being a large diversion from the formula from the first). Each new mainline Mario game brought new worlds, new power-ups, new level types, and new enemies into the fray. They diversified boss battles so you weren't always facing a version of Bowser at the end of each world; they built, and expanded with each new game, adding more and more; and added secrets and alternate routes through the overworlds; all while still maintaining the core mechanic. Run. Jump. Repeat.
Dr. Mario, Please Solve This Puzzle
In 1990, Mario got his MD, and began practicing medicine. This would be his first spin-off game that featured his name in the title, and not just a version of the plumber as a playable avatar (like Alleyway). His appearance in the game wasn't an easter egg, or a draw to allure players to a new game with a familiar character. This was a full fledge Mario game. Even though it wasn't the same genre as what was traditionally a Mario game.
Dr. Mario is similar to Tetris. In that you have falling pieces into an arena, and you have to keep making them disappear before the arena fills to the top and you lose. Except this puzzle game has an added objective. Use the same colored pills, or same colored side of a pill, to stack on an enemy bacteria to kill it. Your success in each level depended on the luck of the draw in which pill would fall, your quick thinking and strategizing how and where you were going to place that pill, and if your thumbs were quick enough to do it all.
I always had fun with Dr. Mario. Unlike Tetris, having the goal of getting rid of each bacteria helped me understand the game as a kid. Match like colors with like colors. It made sense. And it gave me an objective to complete, rather than just simply "achieve this score" that Tetris had.
Mario Gets Behind the Wheel
In 1992, we got our first Mario Kart game, Super Mario Kart for the SNES. We were introduced to the crazy antics of kart racing Mario style. There were slight differences in play between the playable characters (Bowser and Donkey Kong included), and a host of fun tracks with their own obstacles, short cuts and pitfalls. While Super Mario Kart switched up the genre of your typical Mario game, it brought all of the charm and care that were presented in the mainline platformers.
It also introduced us to battle mode. A different take at a multiplayer mode for a racing game. Rather than race your friend around the course to see who could take first, you would be placed in an arena, with question block items at your disposal. The first one to hit the other player three times, wins.
For myself, Super Mario Kart didn't control very well. As a kid, I wasn't the most skilled gamer, and to this day I can't get the greatest handle on how each kart drives, regardless of which character I choose. My personal favorite Mario Kart game is Mario Kart 64. This was the pinnacle of this sub-franchise. It's hard to dethrone it in my eyes. My I do wear rose colored glasses.
In 1991, Mario and crew were featured in the spots game, NES Open Gold Tournament. But the true Mario sports sub-franchises wouldn't really get kicked off till the N64 era with Mario Golf and Mario Tennis. Those two really jump started the trend. The Gamecube and GBA would get their own iterations of these titles as well. With the gamecube also getting Super Mario Strikers, a soccer game. And then the Wii getting Mario Super Sluggers, a baseball game, and starting the Mario & Sonic Olympic games.
Mario would have hits and misses among these types of titles. With the original N64 golf and tennis games nailing the blend of remaining true to the rules of the sport it was representing, with the Mario charm to razzle and dazzle. Recent entries into the Mario Tennis franchise have been met with less than stellar reviews, but it doesn't negate the fact that at one point, more then just his name on the box sold the sports title.
Mario Needs to Stop His Party Bender
1998 saw the first Mario Party game. With a game board acting as an overworld linking to mini games for friends to compete head to head on, to see who can get the most stars before crossing the finish line at the end of the board. Nothing created more fun, and ruined more friendships than Mario Party. Mario Kart games are a very close second.
Another sub-franchise, like the sports titles, that have dwindled in its recent iterations. It is a game that has been around for almost 20 years, and has several titles released per console generation. Unlike the other franchises which normally have one or two released per generation.
Mario Role Plays as Mario
1996 saw the greatest diversion for a Mario Game. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Before this, when you'd think of Mario, RPG would be the farthest thing from your mind. A platforming adventure didn't have much in common with the in depth RPGs of the SNES era. Yet, in partnership with Square, Nintendo pulled it off.
This has got to be the most successful, and most diversifying Mario sub Genre. From this game came Paper Mario, and it's subsequent titles. And than starting on the GBA we got Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, and it's iterations. And even a crossover of Mario & Luigi, and Paper Mario games. All in all we have 10 RPG Mario games with one more due this holiday season.
What Kind of Mario Game?
There has not been another game mascot, or franchise, that has deviated this much in their spinoffs as the Mario games have. Nor has any other franchise had as much success with their spinoffs as Mario has. And what once started off as a simple platformer, is now a franchise that encompasses so many different types of genres.
Not every game has been a winner. But each of the genres Mario has dabbled in, has at least one game that is more than just enjoyable. And most of the sub franchises, have more than one game that is considered great. While some have waned in the past few years (Mario Tennis), others have flourished (Mario Kart 8).
There is so much there in the Mario games. There's just about some game type for every type of person. His games are extremely diversified. Now, when someone asks you "What's your favorite Mario game?" your first response is, "What kind of Mario game?"