Nintendo's stunning collection of franchises - carefully built through the company's long history in the gaming market - naturally has a handful of stars that shine brighter than the others. Though all of their characters are somewhat readily recognizable as pertaining to the company, four of them are famous beyond the frontiers of Nintendo's loyal fan base. The reason for such universal success - only comparable to Disney characters and major superheroes - is the fact that, aside from being around since the inception of gaming as a major form of entertainment, they have pushed the boundaries of their respective genres forward and have reinvented themselves enough times to remain relevant for three decades.
Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid have established so many norms and concepts, and have done it for such a ridiculous amount of time, that they no longer determine the rules that need to be followed; they represent some of the most important guidelines to making a successful quality game. They are the bar with which platformers and adventure games will be compared when trying to assess the greatness of a new gaming franchise. Still, with so much well-earned praise and accolades, they have not been entirely consistent in their greatness. In fact, by going back and looking at them on a generation-by-generation basis, it is revealed that they have rarely been simultaneously excellent.
By glimpsing at the four series back in the NES era, it is noticeable that while most of them were trying to push gaming towards new glorious places, they were not doing it without a few stumbles. Donkey Kong was lazily resting on the laurels of his original arcade blockbuster by giving us more of the same, but in a console format. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda introduced the concept of open-world gameplay and a save system, and Metroid crafted nightmarishly mazes on which the world itself was a puzzle waiting to be solved.
Both Zelda and Metroid were imperfect: the original Zelda lacked a clear direction, and - in an indication of uncertainty - Zelda II chose to go on a vastly different direction instead of improving what was there; while Metroid was technically clunky. However, at the time, their technical flaws were hidden by the ambition of their design. Mario, on the other hand, escaped from under Donkey Kong's wings to soar by himself. After three installments of platforming, he was able to let the world know the full extent of what he was trying to accomplish. Super Mario Bros 3, the first masterful game the big four would produce, set a structure so firm and steady that it has been serving as a support for all platformers ever since. It was colorful and alive, and it showed how fantastic gaming could be.
The following generation was vital for the solidification of the four franchises. After all, not only did Nintendo have strong competition at the time, but Zelda, Metroid and Donkey Kong had yet to be flawless in both concept and execution. Perhaps not coincidentally, the SNES - Nintendo's best system - was the one that saw the franchises reach for something beyond greatness at the same time. Super Mario World built upon what Super Mario Bros 3 had presented and delivered amazing levels tied together with an involving overworld that was filled with an unbelievable amount of secrets. Meanwhile, the other three characters found their identity in incredible fashion.
Super Metroid was a bigger and technically tighter take on the original Metroid, and the atmosphere it mustered by using the system's hardware was simply unparalleled. A Link to the Past chose the right foundations to build upon (the original instead of Zelda II) and went out to create an adventure whose size and epic value was only matched by Square's gargantuan RPGs. And no turnaround was as big as Donkey Kong's, who left the outdated confines of an arcade-style game and went on to reinvent itself. The simian, powered by Rare's amazing talents, took such significant steps in graphics, level design and music that the second part of the series was able to top Mario himself in platforming goodness.
Just after finding their footing, Zelda, Donkey Kong and Metroid - alongside Mario - had to face the introduction of a whole new perspective. 3-D gaming was on its way, and the Nintendo 64 provided the franchises with an amazing opportunity to change, but also a considerable risk to fail given the drastic changes that were about to occur. Mario led the way, and his landing was masterful. Super Mario 64 was the point on which gamers met the nuances of a fully explorable tridimensional world, and it wisely made alterations to the franchise's mechanics so that it would adapt itself to the new dimension without losing its charm and signature.
Zelda followed suit, setting standards for puzzle-solving and combat controls, and delivering two masterpieces that showed the franchise would do just fine in 3D: the epic Ocarina of Time and its sprawling world, and the dark indecipherable Majora's Mask. Donkey Kong 64, though, was not as successful as its peers. Rightfully hyped as the “biggest game ever”, its collectathon gameplay divided the fan base between those who loved the game's ambition, size and inflated numbers, and those who dubbed it a chore disguised as a game. The greatness of Donkey Kong 64 is eternally debatable, but - either way - the big four could never shine in unison on the Nintendo 64. Metroid, after all, for undisclosed reasons, just did not make the leap.
One generation later, though, Samus came out to play, and what we got was nothing short of one of the greatest games ever. Metroid Prime woke up the series from its slumber, and it remains the biggest most unpredictable change a Nintendo franchise has ever gone through. It looked like anything but Metroid, but by playing it for less than fifteen minutes one could feel the franchise's alien world crawling through the screen and its organic sounds leaping out of the game. The loneliness of being stuck in an hostile planet fighting against nature itself and an intergalactic enemy was more claustrophobic than ever, and it all happened because we now saw the world through Samus' own eyes.
If Metroid Prime showed itself as worthy of the franchise's name, the same cannot be said for Super Mario Sunshine and Jungle Beat. Though occasionally fun, the two games simply did not hold a candle to what the franchises had previously done. The former's tropical setting was enchanting, but its platforming was lacking; and the latter, while inventive on its bongo-based controls, lacked the substance of the Donkey Kong Country series. Thankfully, Zelda balanced things out by bringing along the spectacular size of the adventurous Wind Waker; a game whose only major flaw - lack of great dungeons - was later addressed by its darker brother. Twilight Princess came so close to the end of the Gamecube's cycle that it got ported to the Wii, and even though it was not as great as the Wind Waker, it brought - for the second straight generation - two great Zelda games to the same console.
On the Nintendo Wii, the overall result of the big four was probably the best since the Super Nintendo days. The Super Mario Galaxy duo was the long-awaited step forward the Mario series needed to take after Super Mario 64 was naturally trumped by more polished 3-D platformers. It overcame them all with the first installment, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 did the impossible of improving upon perfection. Donkey Kong, handled by the same gifted hands that made Metroid Prime, starred on his best game in well over a decade by looking at his past for inspiration. In spite of its lame boss battles and bonus stages, Donkey Kong Country Returns had outstanding levels that put it beside the original Donkey Kong Country, a few steps below the masterpiece that is Diddy Kong's Quest.
Zelda, after a string of successful games, tried to reinvent itself. And although it failed in developing an immersive overworld above the clouds and bringing along great sidequests, it featured amazing visuals, fantastic dungeons and a combat system that positively defined both the Wii and motion controls. Metroid, unfortunately, may have been the low point of the group during the previous generation. Corruption had stellar controls, but its focus on action and its fractured overworld did not please some. Other M tried to take advantage of the Metroid series' amazing and unexplored storytelling potential, but it failed to both create an involving atmosphere - something vital to a Metroid game - and to make Samus a convincing character. It was one of the most polarizing Nintendo games ever made, and the treatment given to the intergalactic heroine was, to some, borderline sinful.
One year into the current generation, the big four are already on their way to further increase the strength of their unshakable legacy. After the sheer quality of the Galaxy games, it seemed Mario was bound for a relatively disappointing corner, but Super Mario 3D World has been getting amazing reviews all across the media. Donkey Kong is flexing his muscles before taking on Tropical Freeze, the second installment of the Donkey Kong Country Returns series, which has a lot of work to do in order to live up to the second game of the original string of adventures. Zelda and Metroid remain nowhere to be seen, but the two franchises are in prime position to do something big. Metroid - after the unsuccessful Other M and the end of the Prime series – seems headed towards a reboot, and Zelda will certainly try to keep implementing changes to its formula, as signaled by Skyward Sword.
Is the stage set for another Super Nintendo era kind of run?