When getting more of the same is just what everyone wants...
I have to thank the forums here at Modojo for giving me the idea for this article. Just over a week ago, a small debate was initiated discussing the lack of innovation in Yoshi's Island DS. One side argued that more of the same was just fine if 'the same' consisted of the original Yoshi's Island for SNES, a game that many (including myself) count as the best Mario-related platformer. The opposing side argued that the new game looked more like an expansion (created by a questionable developer), and was really nothing other than an attempt to get gamers to give more of their money to Nintendo.
This debate actually ended somewhere back in 1994 with the release of Super Mario All-Stars.
Allow me prove this by asking a different question:
How many times have you played Tetris in your lifetime?
I'm going to assume the answer ranges from "once or twice" to "way too many times," and assuming this is the case, ask a second question:
How many different versions of Tetris have you owned?
I've owned about six. That's six versions of the same simplistic puzzle design, none of which had any major changes made to the core gameplay. I was quite happy to buy each one, and still play Tetris DS at least once a week.
Along the same lines, have you ever considered why it was that Super Mario All-Stars sold a bajillion copies (roughly), proving that everyone was not only content but eager to buy 'more of the same?'
What it is that makes Mario such a lasting figure? It's not his character design, he's a somewhat overweight 'Italian' plumber who wears overalls. It's not the story, which can be summarized by: "save a princess from a fire-breathing lizard while jumping on giant turtles." He is an icon because Super Mario Bros. is such a joy to play that it still holds up well today, over 20 years after its release, and the sequels stayed true enough to the original to continue that tradition. If the series had instead featured a talking squirrel named Maurice, but the same gameplay design, then Maurice would very likely now be the spokes-squirrel for Nintendo.
If you don't quite see my point here, please read on. What follows are games for the GBA and DS whose roots lie with the Nintendo and Super Nintendo:
Game Boy Advance
Super Mario Advance 1-4
Metroid Zero Mission (and Fusion)
Zelda: The Minish Cap (and Link to the Past)
Final Fantasy I&II, IV, V (and soon VI)
Castlevania (three of them)
Kirby (also quite a few)
New Super Mario Bros.
Yoshi's Island DS
Super Mario 64 DS
Advance Wars: Dual Strike
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Final Fantasy III
Mario Kart DS
What does this list prove? That both sides of the original argument are irrelevant. These games were generally best-sellers, well-reviewed, and enjoyed by a huge chunk of the gaming population. If people really had a problem with buying the same game in a new form, then the Mario Advance series would have sold like crap and everyone would have stopped playing Castlevania after Symphony of the Night - the predecessor to all the recent handheld Castlevanias.
This does nothing to discount the suggested greed behind these design decisions, it is certainly simple to continue adding slight upgrades to Tetris as a guaranteed way to make money. If you want a real offender in this category, just look at the Pokemon series, whose many versions have changed in almost nothing but superficial ways, save the addition of new Pokemon to capture. All of them have sold millions of copies.
The games that are guaranteed to sell, that we keep playing for years, and that are eventually called 'classics,' succeed because the gameplay is so well-designed that the actual act of playing is enjoyable long after the content has been exhausted. The danger designers face when working with these games is in deciding whether they should give us what we want or whether they should take a chance and give us something we didn't know we could have.
In the end, it seems that what we really want as gamers is security and familiarity.