We’re tackling the numero uno of video gaming history, Nintendo’s Mario franchise. Apparently, since Mario is the most beloved franchise of one of the top console gaming companies of all time, nobody is ever allowed to call a game in the Mario universe bad.
But there has to be bad games in the franchise! Nobody cranks out this many titles for this long without flubbing a few. Omelets and eggs, right? As is the case with any long-running franchise, there are some installments that just didn’t live up to the series quality standards. Well, Mario, better stock up on mushrooms because it’s high time somebody shrank you down to size!
See, this is the kind of free pass that Mario gets. Everybody forgets this game ever existed. As with 90% of all the games with “Mario” in the title, there was no reason to make this a Mario game. It’s actually a re-skinned Puyo Puyo, a very old Japanese tile-matching game with a Tetris-like logic. Jointed colored capsules fall from the top of the screen in an endless cascade and you have to match three or more color segments to make those units disappear and avoid filling the screen. You also have to take out “viruses,” these fuzzy little boogers which also have to be matched by color.
Along with this, you have Mario who is suddenly a doctor, leaving the blue-collar ranks for a much higher tax bracket. And then you have THE THEME! On the NES, this is a beeping 8-bit chiptune, about a second long, which repeats over and over until your ears chew their way off the side of your head and crawl away to freedom. Insult to injury, the gameplay is repetitive and uninspiring and Mario is barely even recognizable here. Nintendo ported it to half the systems they released. This game sucked, and anybody exposed to it for too long may need to seek the help of a doctor of another kind.
Hey kids, you know what sounds like fun? SHUTTING DOORS! Isn’t that a blast? You know how your parents always yell after you to “shut the door, were you raised in a barn?” Well now you can tell mom and dad, look, I got this game so I can practice shutting doors! What kid doesn’t want to play this? Well, apparently everybody, because Hotel Mario is rated as one of the worst games ever. It would have been acceptable as a 1980s quarter-gobbling arcade game, but completely flunks on a mid-90s console. It is phoned-in, repetitive, and lazily done.
On top of that it has some of the most horrific cutscene animations in Mario history, which get their own separate hate on game review sites. Hotel Mario is an embarrassment that was fortunately confined to a console that is itself forgotten today.
See, here’s another case of a forgotten Mario game. This time it was on the Game & Watch series, the handheld LCD units which were produced when Nintendo decided, for some reason, that it needed to compete with those super-cheap Tiger games. Nintendo would have been far better off if it had never sullied its feet at this bottom-end market, because as soon as the Game Boy came out, the first week’s sales cleared their entire Game & Watch profit anyway.
So, what about Cement Factory? Run up, down, left, and right to operate the hoppers so cement loads can plop into trucks. The platforms you’re running around on move. Then do that some more. That’s it! There’s no tie in to any other point in Mario’s franchise. You could have called this game “Cement Head” and it would be exactly the same. It’s sort of interesting for a handheld LCD game, but falls fall short of rising above the crippling limitations of the technology.
If you’ve ever seen packs of rebellious outcast Luigi fans prowling the back hallways at game cons, you might wonder how they got such a complex about this. Well, this is one of the games that started the idea that Luigi was not only the lesser of the Mario Brothers, but the unloved ghetto sibling. Luigi got stuck with games like this, which first of all serves as a rip-off of both Super Mario World (ripping the graphics without giving you the action gameplay) and – believe it or not – Where is the World is Carmen Sandiego, by way of replacing famous landmarks to their rightful city.
The landmarks were all stolen by Koopas, because apparently Bowser is going into the bootleg museum business. You can see when the game gets to the actual play area (after a detour through standard Super Mario World graphics to get your hopes up) that it’s actually a cheap, sloppy street map that has no resemblance to the Mario universe. On top of that, it’s not really as educational as Carmen Sandiego either. Nintendo tried this numerous times, rebranding it as Mario’s Time Machine, but all of them are clunky, diet-Mario substitutes for the real thing.
This is one entry that’s not so bad. By itself, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble (word count go brrrr!) is an OK game. It was the third sequel in the popular DKC franchise, all of which were a marvel to look at and play. The only real complaint about DKC3:DKDT (even the acronym is long!) is that it’s an uninspired addition. Nintendo didn’t have their whole heart in it this time, which makes sense because 16-bit gaming was getting long in the tooth with the N64 right around the corner.
For the finale of the SNES days, hailed as one of the greatest game consoles in history, this was a mediocre game. It’s weird, because if you play it through, it looks and smells and sounds like a DKC franchise game. All the elements are there, and there’s even lots of new mechanics and features to keep you occupied. But it doesn’t quite come together as the same recipe. It feels like a pile of ideas that were discarded from the first two games swept into a bonus-content cheapie to keep you tied over until 64-bit Christmas.
That opening quote “What was Nintendo smoking when they came up with this one?” says it all. This game has the honorary distinction of being on both our lists – it’s one of the weirdest moments in the Mario franchise, and also one of the worst. First off, who the heck is this sprayer guy? How double-dog dare you replace Mario with this buck-toothed hick called “Stanley”? Then this game yanked us away from the platform game experience we’d come to love throughout the Donkey Kong / Mario franchise to give us this vertical shooter.
To be fair, the game was OK in the arcades. The graphics looked good for 1983. I favored it with a few quarters just to tour through the levels because I knew, in my arcade-rat days, that this was a rare title that few could say they’d even seen. But it was by no means a Donkey Kong / Mario franchise game. It didn’t play like one, it had nothing in common with anything else in the franchise, and seemed exactly like any other generic game where they’d just slapped Donkey Kong into the bad guy slot on a last-minute whim.
You’ve no doubt noticed a pattern by now: all the worst Mario games seriously broke genre from the standard platform-hopping, goomba-stomping action that made Mario games famous. Mario is at his worst when he’s crammed into a game genre he has no business touching. So yeah, here it is again with Mario Pinball Land for the Game Boy Advance. As pinball games go, you have to admit, this is one of the best virtual pinball games out there.
The trouble is, “best pinball video game” is like saying “best menu item at Applebees.” It’s still pinball! Take it from a Generation Xer, I played through the heyday of classic pinball, and have little to no nostalgia for it today. Pinball is just too limited in what it can do. You could combine pinball with PeeWee Herman’s Breakfast Machine and I’d still be interested for only half an hour or so. There’s a reason that video games replaced pinball in arcades, and it’s the same reason more advanced video games replaced Pong. Hitting a ball with a paddle only stays interesting for so long.