I hope you’re sitting down, dear reader, because I have some disturbing news. Nintendo has partnered with Nabisco to create a Mario game featuring Oreos, Nutter Butters, and Triscuits. The skateboarding bear from Dizzy Grizzlies is rumored to be an unlockable character.
Dear reader, I hope you have remained seated or are planning to sit again, because this second paragraph contains more shocking news. Nintendo has been commissioned by NPR to remake Pokemon Red/Blue with the Pokemon replaced with 150 talk show hosts like Diane Rehm, Terry Gross, and Garrison Keillor.
I hope you are now prepared to sit harder than ever, because I have more unsettling news. Nintendo has agreed to create an original game focusing on the adventures of Southwesty, the character mascot for the SXSW Music Festival.
Actually, I have a fourth news. Those previous three newses were all lies. But if they were true, it would make Nintendo seem a little desperate, right? Making games like that would indicate that Nintendo had fallen on hard times. Well, harder times.
But the point remains, games with such blatant advertising tie-ins always feel cheap and weird. Players can sense that something is being pushed on them, which is why, if you’ve got the mun-muns (that means money), you shy away from having in-game endorsements. Even worse would be making a game from the ground up that is centered around a promotion; for example, Nintendo presents, The Legend of L-Bo, the Barilla Macaroni Noodle.
So no, Nintendo is not doing any of these things. But the truth is, it did. Back when Nintendo was the undisputed champeen of the world (of video games), it made three games at the bidding of other companies. This is not the Nintendo with a struggling Wii U or Gamecube. This is the Nintendo that made game developers and consumers bow to them and offer burnt sacrifices of praise. The Ozymandias Nintendo in its prime made three shameless, pandering, promotional games.
These are three times Nintendo sold out.
KAETTEKITA MARIO BROS.
In 1983, Nintendo released a little game called Mario Bros. which introduced pipes, turtle-stomping, and Luigi. Mario and Luigi ran around on a fixed screen kicking enemies and collecting coins. Nothing too special, but it was hit in arcades and was eventually overshadowed by the legendary Super Mario Bros. in 1985.
But in 1988, Nintendo released Kaettekita Mario Bros. (Mario Bros. Returns) for the Famicom Disk System. And to what did the Mario Bros. return? The exact same game that was made in 1983. There were a few tweaks in the physics and graphics but, at its core, Kaettekita Mario Bros. was identical to Mario Bros. Aside from gameplay, there were a few key differences, namely shameless advertising.
Kaettekita Mario Bros. was sponsored by Nagatanien, which was the large Japanese food manufacturer that made Mario Curry and Mario Furikake, at the time.
Before starting a game of Kaettekita Mario Bros., one of three advertisements would play. Mario and Luigi, sometimes joined by company’s CEO, would engage in silliness in front of large advertisements for Nagatanien foods. Surprisingly, only one of them is Mario-related.
But why would anyone pay for a then five-year-old game with advertisements? Because it was cheap and promised free crap.
Kaettekita Mario Bros. was only 400 yen as part of the Famicom Disk Writer service. You could take a Famicom Disk (which was a big yellow floppy disk) to your local merchant and pay a small fee to erase and replace it with a new game, some of which were exclusive to the Disk Writer Kiosks. Kaettekita Mario Bros. was one such game.
So let’s say you had Castlevania, for which you paid 2980 yen. You would take that very good game and pay more money to erase it and, in its place, get a mediocre game with advertisements. But wait, there’s more!
Kaettekita Mario Bros. featured a mode called Nagatanien World. If you could score 10o,000 points in this mode, the game would give up a code that you could send to Nagatanien in exchange for a deck of cards or a keychain. If you scored 20o,000 points, you would get a code to receive Super Mario Bros. 3, which had just been released a month earlier.
This at least makes slightly more sense. You were erasing an expensive game you owned and enduring hours of mediocrity with commercials, all in the hopes of receiving Super Mario Bros. 3.
But the question remains, why did Nintendo need Nagatanien to do this? I understand suckering kids out of 400 yen by making them slave away for the game of their dreams (In 1988, Super Mario Bros. 3 was probably the best game in existence). But why did Nintendo need to put Nagatanien advertising in the game?
ALL NIGHT NIPPON SUPER MARIO BROS.
All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. is only slightly less lazy than Kaettekita Mario Bros. and its origins and reasons for existence are a lot clearer.
All Night Nippon (ANN) is a talk radio show that has been airing in Japan six nights a week from 1:00am to 5:00am since 1967. So it’s pretty popular. As the Famicom (The Japanese Nintendo Entertainment System) grew in popularity, ANN started several segments in their show that highlighted and praised its games.
The only information I can find about the reason this game was made is that “a deal was struck”. Fujisankei, who owns ANN, asked Nintendo to make a special version of Super Mario Bros. for a giveaway celebrating All Night Nippon‘s 20th anniversary. But why did Nintendo agree? If Howard Stern starts talking up the Wii U and his parent company asks nicely, will Nintendo make a special Howard Stern version of The Legend of Zelda? I doubt it.
Somehow for some reason, a partnership between Nintendo and Fujisankei was formed and All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. was made. And to say it “was made” means that it was brought into existence. There wasn’t a whole lot of making involved in this title.
All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. is basically just Super Mario Bros. with a few cosmetic changes. The goombas and piranha plants are replaced with the pixelated head of ANN DJ Sunplaza Nakano, the characters you rescue from each castle are popular Japanese celebrities from the 80s, and the Fujisankei logo is strewn about here and there. Also the first world is changed from day to night, because All Night Nippon airs at night. That’s it.
The game is a basic hack, which couldn’t have taken Nintendo long to put together. It is unknown how many copies were given away, so existing copies are extremely rare and sell for nearly $1000.
But again, what made Nintendo do this favor for Fujisankei? What did Nintendo have to gain? Sure, they didn’t have to do much work, but why produce a strange, adulterated version of your game just because some DJs talked it up?
YUME KŌJŌ: DOKI DOKI PANIC!
Now, we finally get into the good stuff. The good, weird stuff.
Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic! (Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic!) is better known in the U.S. as Super Mario Bros. 2. You know, the one with the vegetables. This veggie-oriented game was not the Mario sequel that Japanese gamers received. The Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 was basically the original Super Mario Bros. designed to punish and frustrate. When it came time to bring a Mario sequel stateside, Nintendo of America sidestepped the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2. not wanting the Mario series to be known for frustration. Instead, they replaced the main characters of Doki Doki Panic! with Mario heroes and released it as Super Mario Bros. 2.
It would be fine enough if Doki Doki Panic! was an imaginative romp for its own sake. It’s actually a great game! But, it was made at the bidding of Fujisankei, our friends who commissioned All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. But Doki Doki Panic! wasn’t a mere remake or rom hack. It was a full-fledged original game baked from scratch. So why this level of effort? Were the main characters of Doki Doki Panic! stars of their own popular anime series? Were they incredibly popular media characters? The truth is much more shameful.
The heroes of Doki Doki Panic! were the mascots of a festival called Yume Kōjō 87, a carnival held by Fuji TV to promote its fall lineup of shows. Granted, it was a big carnival, but its sole purpose was to promote a television station, and it only lasted from July 18 through August 30, 1987, a mere month and twelve days.
One of the themes of Yume Kōjō 87 was Rio De Janeiro’s Carnival, thus a great deal of mask imagery was used in the promotion and the festival itself. There’s a good deal of flying masks in the commercial above, and below are some stationary, non-flying masks printed on Yume Kōjō 87 phone cards.
So it’s no coincidence that many of the elements and enemies from Doki Doki Panic! ended up being mask related. The mushrooms, turtle shells, and stage exits in the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2 were all originally masks. Likewise, many of the enemies that hop about and try to murder you wear masks.
The shyguy in particular has become a mainstay of the Mario series. So, if you’re slurping up shyguys in the new Yoshi’s Island for 3DS, you can thank Yume Kōjō 87 for inspiring their expressionless, Michael Myers face.
But I digress. Doki Doki Panic! is a full-length game that Nintendo poured its sweat into. Shigeru Miyamoto, Koji Kondo, and most of the original Mario team worked on this game. All this talent and hard work was expended to promote promotional characters. These characters aren’t even good enough to have their own show. They were created to promote other, better shows! Doki Doki Panic! is a promotion of a promotion. I’m not sure you can go much lower than that, unless you consider the commercials that promoted Doki Doki Panic!
Sell Out Nevermore! Well, Maybe Just One More…
So, why did Nintendo, in its mightiest form, kowtow to these other companies? Nintendo was at its bossiest back then, so why let itself get bossed around? Maybe because it was only the biggest chipmunk in Chippy-Nut Kingdom.
Nintendo may have been at the top of the video game world, but back in the late 80s, video games were still a burgeoning children’s novelty. And the burgeoning children’s novelty industry does not trump the food, radio, or television industries. Nintendo was certainly doing well for itself, but it had only recently found incredible prosperity. After 100 years of humbly manufacturing playing cards, it abruptly exploded to an unprecedented level of success, a level inhabited by companies much larger and more sophisticated than itself.
When you suddenly find yourself among the big dogs, you’re probably going to try and make those big dogs your friends. Especially if you’re a chipmunk.
So, in retrospect, it makes sense that Nintendo would do weird, sell-outy favors to make friends. But in the present and recent past, Nintendo has not been known to do favors or work with hardly anyone it couldn’t bully. Even in the difficult days of the N64 and Gamecube, Nintendo mostly kept to itself, not willing to put Cheetos in a Kirby game for a little extra cash. So it sold out a little in the beginning, but it certainly wouldn’t do anything like that again.
Whoops! I spoke too soon.
It seems that, in an effort to boost the appeal of its IP and the Wii U, Nintendo did a cross-promotion with Mercedes-Benz. Mario Kart 8 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA SUV were both released the same day in Japan, so Mario appeared in a commercial for the GLA and the GLA appears in Mario Kart 8 a downloadable bonus vehicle.
Maybe this could be seen as more of a コラボレーション (collaboration) the way Japan loves to do, ie. SOMETHING X SOMETHING. But whatever you call it, it’s still promotion. Is Nintendo selling out yet again? Maybe not. Selling out implies that things are going well and the entity is using that success to make a shameless money or power grab. Nintendo is an established and mature company, but it isn’t having the happiest stroll through money town. It may need to team up with other companies now more than ever. Though the little chipmunk is now rather large, even giant chipmunks may need help from big dogs every now and then.