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Bright colorful illustration of Nintendo logo Illustration: Inkee Wang for Polygon

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What’s next for the Nintendo Cinematic Universe?

Nintendo games, ranked by their Mario movie potential

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Nintendo and Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie is the second-highest-grossing movie of the year, just behind the box-office phenomenon known as Barbie. The logical question to ask of Nintendo’s partnership with the maker of Minions and Despicable Me is: What’s next?

Nintendo fans have daydreamed of a vast Super Smash Bros. universe, where Mario, Link, Kirby, Captain Falcon, and Samus Aran come together, Endgame-style, to defeat… I don’t know, a giant white glove? Giga Bowser? It’s fun to imagine, but how likely is it? Nintendo is a cautious company, and it’s only begun to wade into the media of cinema with The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

For a dispassionate breakdown of what could actually be next from Nintendo and Illumination, I present the following ranked options for the continuation of the burgeoning Nintendo Cinematic Universe.

1. The Super Mario Bros. Movie 2

Mario and Luigi carrying plumber tools and smiling with their fists raised in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Image: Nintendo, Illumination/Universal Pictures

Anyone still innocently fantasizing about a rapid, full-court press expansion of the NCU with a Legend of Zelda or Metroid movie needs to face the facts: After a $1.3 billion box-office run for The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the logical, profit-maximized choice for Nintendo and Illumination is to make a direct sequel. That very thing was teased at the conclusion of Mario, Luigi, and Peach’s extremely successful movie; seemingly it will focus on a Yoshi running wild in the streets (or sewers) of Brooklyn.

This certainly isn’t the worst possibility! There are plenty of Super Mario characters that deserve the big-screen treatment, like the Koopalings and Bowser Jr. I’d personally love to see Illumination flip the script and make The Super Mario Bros. Movie 2 a rescue movie about the Koopa Kids rescuing Bowser from his Mushroom Kingdom prison — inject some heart into it as the kids reconnect with their absent father. The bolder choice would be to lean into the “2” here and give Wart another shot at being the villain.

2. Pikmin

Consider the lowly Pikmin, a series personally beloved by Nintendo creative fellow (and BFF of Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri) Shigeru Miyamoto. Pikmin are not only vaguely Minions-like, making them perfect fodder for the kind of physical comedy Illumination trades in, but the narrative setup for the Pikmin franchise is also a solid framework for a kids’ movie.

Like the games, a Pikmin movie could feature a team of space explorers from a planet facing impending doom and searching for a new home. On a potentially hospitable world, they would encounter the subservient Pikmin and fight to survive against larger threats, like Bulborbs. They could even encounter a long-lost explorer — Captain Olimar, perhaps, voiced by Chris Pratt — who has been stranded there for years and is desperate to be rescued, having falsified data about the planet’s sustainability for humanoid life. Having been driven mad by isolation, with only the Pikmin to keep him company, Olimar would turn on his rescuers, revealing him to be a villain. Is this part of the plot of Interstellar? Yes. But kids don’t deserve a shocking, dark sci-fi twist in their animated comedies, do they? I argue that they do.

Nintendo has already tested the waters of Pikmin animation with a series of shorts — and if there’s one thing the game maker excels at, it’s iterating on good ideas to make them great.

3. Kirby

Kirby gazes out upon a lush wasteland with a rusted car behind him in artwork from Kirby and the Forgotten Land Image: HAL Laboratory/Nintendo

One might think that Kirby is too vacuous of a character to support a full-length animated feature, but Souji Yoshikawa and Studio Sign managed to squeeze 100 episodes of anime stories from Kirby characters and lore for Kirby: Right Back at Ya! in the early aughts. If Nintendo gets Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai on as a producer, we could be treated to a Kirby cinematic tour de force that would… well, shave additional years off of the life of Mr. Sakurai, sadly. But after wrapping his work on the Super Smash Bros. series, Sakurai needs a new obsession.

Our choice for Kirby? Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt. And no, this casting pitch is not predicated solely on the idea that people think he sucks! (Personally, I think Chris Pratt is fine. He’s perfectly fine!)

4. Splatoon

Artwork of the original Splatoon, featuring Inklings in humanoid and squid form spraying each other with blue and orange paint Image: Nintendo

The success of Sony’s Spider-Verse movies and Paramount’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem might just teach Hollywood the lesson that animated movies with distinct, kinetic animation styles are what kids crave. Nintendo’s stylish Splatoon series is the perfect fit for a stylistic diversion from Illumination’s typical house style. It even has a built-in cast of memorable stars: Squid Sisters Callie and Marie; Off the Hook’s Pearl and Marina; and Deep Cut’s Shiver, Frye, and Big Man (maybe played by Chris Pratt?).

Unfortunately, there’s a potential roadblock to Splatoon joining the Nintendo Cinematic Universe: the box-office bomb known as Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, which has turned Hollywood off of squid kids for the foreseeable future.

5. Animal Crossing

Artwork of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, featuring Blathers, KK Slider, Tom, Timmy, and Tommy Nook, Isabelle, and Mabel standing in a field Image: Nintendo

Only one game has managed to outsell Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Nintendo Switch: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Thanks, in part, to a pandemic, Animal Crossing became a household name, introducing tens of millions of players to an army of adorable animal villagers and the fun of paying down a mortgage (a little something for the kids, a little something for the parents).

The Animal Crossing series has always had Studio Ghibli-adjacent vibes, with its bucolic setting and whole talking-to-animals thing. An animated movie about a down-on-his-luck divorcé (voiced by a Chris Pratt type) moving to a new home — let’s say, on a plot of land willed to him by a wealthy, eccentric uncle — being built in a magical land where cats, dogs, rabbits, and, for some reason, a bizarre sheep who wears clown makeup reside sounds like a fun blank slate for Illumination.

6. The Legend of Zelda

Art from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild shows Link standing on a rock overlooking Hyrule. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

After the runaway success of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, the bestselling games in Nintendo’s fantasy adventure franchise, a Legend of Zelda animated movie seems more likely than ever — certainly more likely than that rumored live-action Zelda series for Netflix ever did. But the No. 1 thing holding the Legend of Zelda franchise from becoming a Super Mario Movie follow-up is Link. He’s a far less charismatic blank slate, and Nintendo already has a profitable princess-saving franchise on its hands. Just imagine Chris Pratt yelling “Hyup! Hah! Hyah! Hyup! Haaaaahhh!” for two hours.

And no, we can never return to this Link.

7. Metroid

Artwork of Samus Aran in her armor, kneeling and gun arm held aloft, from Metroid: Samus Returns Image: Nintendo

One of Nintendo’s all-time greatest game franchises has never been its most popular. But until such time as all of the above properties have been adapted for the big screen and mined for respective spinoffs (including stand-alone Donkey Kong, Luigi, Yoshi, Wario, and Waluigi films), Samus Aran will not get her shot. I’m sorry, but it’s true: There will never be a live-action Ridley. Just go watch an Alien movie, kids!

8. Star Fox

Peppy Hare, Fox McCloud, and Falco Lombardi from the Star Fox series in puppet form from Nintendo’s E3 2015 promotional video Image: Nintendo

Despite the theatrical draw of talking animals — believe me, I would love to see Slippy on the big screen — 2016’s Star Fox Zero kinda feels like Fox McCloud’s last hurrah. As Nintendo franchises go, Star Fox simply doesn’t have the popularity for a big-budget movie adaptation. But as a puppet-based TV show for the Nintendo Plus streaming service launching at some point? That’s a much better fit.

9. Fire Emblem

Artwork of Fire Emblem Heroes, featuring characters from across the franchise attacking a woman with swords and polearms drawn Image: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo

Intelligent Systems’ Fire Emblem franchise has more than 30 years of story to draw from for a potential fantasy action-drama aimed at tweens or teens. But in the modern age, a Fire Emblem product needs to have one crucial ingredient: horniness. Nintendo would never (outside of every Fire Emblem game).

10. A 12-way tie: F-Zero, Kid Icarus, Earthbound, Punch-Out!!, Chibi-Robo, Advance Wars, Arms, Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball, Ice Climbers, Devil World, Golden Sun, Starfy

Any of these beloved Nintendo properties feel as likely as Marvel’s The Eternals 2 being released in the next 50 years. Don’t worry: Chris Pratt will find plenty of work without them.

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