You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know who Mario is. Due to his iconic red hat, blue overalls, and a fluffy mustache, Nintendo’s mascot is instantly recognizable. But after appearing in many new games, sequels, and remakes over the past 30 years, I’m beginning to grow weary of the Italian plumber.
Last week, the GamesBeat staff shared their thoughts on the state of the Wii U, and the consensus wasn’t very positive. At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, Nintendo proved once again that it’s relying on heavy hitters like Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. to keep 3DS and Wii U players happy. And not surprisingly, Mario plays a prominent part in many of those games.
I kept this fatigue in mind when I spoke with Koichi Hayashida and Yoshiaki Koizumi at E3. Hayashida is the director of the upcoming co-op platformer Super Mario 3D World, and Koizumi is a producer in Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis and Development (EAD) division in Tokyo. Both men have worked at Nintendo since the ’90s, with résumés filed with games like Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy (as well as its sequel). They work closely with Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, making them the ideal candidates to talk about Mario’s role in video games today.
A hardware-driven philosophy
As a hobby, Hayashida keeps a book full of quotes from Miyamoto, where he writes down interesting things that the legendary designer says about game development. One of those quotes explains the central philosophy behind each new Mario game.
“There is one thing from my quote book that Miyamoto is fond of saying: Mario games are easy to make in the sense that they’re always based on the way that hardware has evolved,” said Hayashida. “So you have to look at what the new capability of hardware is. You think about a specific, fun, new experience based on the capabilities of that hardware. That’s really what influences the outcome of the software. And so, we see Mario games changing all the time. And it’s very much based on what each new iteration of hardware can do.”
Though Nintendo finds a way to reinvent Mario with each new console it makes, the changes are never too dramatic — arguably, the last big leap was the advent of the 3D platformer in Super Mario 64. But since then, the changes usually come in the form of new worlds to explore, new powers to wield, or the addition of cooperative multiplayer. And with similarly sounding titles like New Super Mario Bros., Super Paper Mario, Mario and Luigi, and Super Mario 3D Land, it’s hard to keep track of them all.
With enough Mario games out in the wild to last a lifetime, I asked Hayashida and Koizumi if Nintendo is ever afraid that gamers will eventually lose interest in its chubby hero. As expected, I didn’t get a direct yes or no on the matter, but Hayashida did bring up some insight to how the company views Mario: He’s a status symbol for “quality.”
“I guess I should really turn that idea around,” said Hayashida. “Rather than getting worried about people getting tired of Mario, I like to think of Mario as being a reliable character, in the sense that people can be relieved knowing that they’re buying a game that represents a really high level of quality and a certain amount of [thought] that goes into the design.
“And certainly, that’s the case with Super Mario 3D World. We are presenting a lot of interesting new elements that really change the gameplay experience. Certainly the Mario character is familiar to everyone, but the cat suit is entirely new. And the ability to have multiplayer in a 3D Mario game for the first time I think feels very fresh and different. So it’s the same Mario character of course, but with each new hardware iteration — as I’ve said — we’re trying to bring different, new, fun experiences. So I usually don’t worry about it from that perspective.”
Making a Mario game in 2013
In the ’80s, Mario was unstoppable. His charming mug was found on every type of merchandise imaginable. His worldwide fame even survived the release of a terrible live-action movie starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo. No other video game character could have hoped to match his popularity.
Today, that clearly isn’t the case. In terms of recognition, he faces stiff competition from Rovio’s Angry Birds, who also have an aggressive licensing team (the birds will even appear in their own film in 2016). The gaming audience has expanded with the rise of new business models (free-to-play), powerful mobile devices (smart phones and tablets), and of course, new consoles from rivals Microsoft and Sony.
Despite this ever-changing climate, it doesn’t sound like Nintendo has tweaked its development process for Mario games all that much. According to Koizumi, the methods behind making these titles do change from one game to the next, but only a little.
“But in the past — for example, let’s say for Super Mario 64 — it wasn’t just a matter of like, ‘Oh, we need to make a Mario game!,’” said Koizumi. “But rather, [it was] ‘What can we do this time? What’s an interesting play experience?’ We get a few ideas together and we create a proposal for Miyamoto. And that’s usually the start; that gives us the main direction that the game development is going to go in from that point. … We do lots of tests and different kinds of gameplay just to see what feels good. And when we find some ideas that work, we pull those together and that becomes the skeleton of the game.”
He was reluctant to reveal the size of EAD Tokyo — who focuses purely on the 3D Mario titles, while a separate group in Kyoto does the 2D games — saying only that they were big enough to “play baseball.” They may work on different projects at any given time, but for now, they’re concentrating on shipping Super Mario 3D World.
It was clear from our conversation that Mario is still Miyamoto’s baby. He lives in Kyoto, but visits EAD Tokyo once a month, where he gives feedback on their projects. Sometimes, that feedback is exquisitely detailed, especially when it came to Super Mario 3D World’s new cat suit, which lets the characters attack with their claws and climb up walls. Miyamoto is a cat owner, so he had something to say about how Mario and his friends should move when using it: The developers changed some of the animation to reflect Miyamoto’s “very specific observations of cat behavior.”
“Introducing a new suit breaks the rules of the world that we have established up until this point,” explained Koizumi. “It introduces new gameplay that wasn’t present before, so we always have to be a little bit nervous about what that could mean for how the game changes.”
While they don’t have a specific set of guidelines for what they can and can’t do with Mario, they have to treat the plumber’s legacy — and the expectations that players have formed from those past games — carefully.
“I guess one thing that we do have to keep in mind is the main character of a game is the player,” said Koizumi. “They have to be able to see themselves in that character. We have to have a little bit of a neutral starting point. It can’t ever get too specific. We don’t spend a lot of time, for example, building up the character in the sense of, ‘This is Mario. He really loves pizza. He broke his left leg as a child.’
“We can’t do very specific elements that are going to take people out of a situation where they can apply themselves to that character. So in that sense, anything that makes the games harder to create in the future would be something we have to avoid.”