Mario has become a universal character like Superman or Mickey Mouse. What does he symbolize for you? Is it a spirit of adventure? Or adaptation?
Well, as I said earlier, I start with the game system [the rules and ideas that will go into the experience] . So I’ll think of a game system and maybe that system is originally the concept for a Mario game, but we realize while we’re doing it that this is more suited to a Zelda game, and we’ll try to do that, we’ll switch characters out.
But, how I think of Mario is sort of as my go-to actor. So, when I’m creating that new system, I start by plugging Mario in to see how he will react or what we can do with Mario in this design. He’s like the trusted guy you throw in to see how the system is working.
That’s funny because, a lot of the times Mario always seems very harried or the character himself is like, “I don’t understand what is going on? I guess I just have to figure out the stuff that’s in the world.” So it’s funny that you say you just drop him in a situation for the player to control.
The player is the one who is playing the game and Mario is sort of their surrogate vehicle for enjoying that game. And because we know it’s Mario, there’s a sense of reassurance and familiarity. The player can think, “Even though I don’t know what’s going on, at least I’m Mario.”
You’re talking about fitting Mario inside new game designs. What’s the most difficult part of sustaining creativity over the last 25 years? Were there moments of doubt that you might not be able to pull off a concept or a mechanic off in a game?
I look at Mario as being equal to digital technology of the time. When we first started, we were looking at, let’s say, 8-bit limited technology. There are always limitations to what you can do.
But the fun in that, and the job for us is to take that and see what could happen, and rather than complaining and wondering about what we can’t do and wondering, “Oh, if only we could do this?”
(More on Techland: New Super Mario Bros. Wii Review: Welcome Back, Old Friend)
We create by looking at what we can do and using our energies to utilize that technology to the fullest, to maximize its potential. And of course, as technology grows and advances, that refreshes our ability to look at Mario in new ways, and to be able to do new things with him. And it’s really been for me, a very natural process in that, as technology advances, so does Mario.
On that note, it was obviously a big evolution was when Nintendo went to 3D graphics with Super Mario 64. What was the hardest part about that transition? Did you have to play-test it differently and educate the design team about how the ideas might work?
For Nintendo, Mario 64 was a big leap for us. Of course, 3D technology had been used in movies and other arenas, but not in any interactive arena. And so, our focus was “How can we take this 3D environment and implement it in a way that works in our world?” And I told people that there are other people working with these 3D environments but, as far as games, we are the pioneers. This is the frontier for us. Another thing that we considered when we were going into the 3D environment was that, of course, people were used to the familiar, side-scrolling Mario territory.
Anyone could pick it up and play [Super Mario Bros.] And everyone knew what they were getting into. But, when it moved into the 3D realm, of course, the perception was that things had changed and that it might be difficult to play. And so, it seemed that we were going to lose some customers who might just think, “I don’t know what that is.” That was too much for me to bear.
And so we really focused for many years on doing this in a way that’s accessible. We’ve always had that focus and I think the pinnacle of our efforts right now is [Super Mario] Galaxy 2. That game was the result of a lot of focusing on how can we make a game that is challenging and familiar yet accessible and playable by everyone? We did that by lots of focus testing and keeping that [accessibility] at the forefront of our minds when moving forward. And I myself played it over and over and over.
I really loved Super Mario Galaxy 2. It kept on surprising me. It felt like a theme park where you can run around and all these different ideas are there for you to explore.
It’s almost like a mixed fruit salad, too. [Everyone laughs.] Everything tastes different, but, all together, it’s also like its own separate thing. Is it weird having reached this new pinnacle to go back to the older work of Super Mario Bros. 1, 2 and 3? What does that feel like?
You know, it’s interesting. I think there are a lot of people who think that, “Wow, simple is pretty cool!” They look at the older games, and think of them as amazing. And especially if you see people who are very good at them…We got to see a very excellent player playing through [Super Mario Bros.], and it was just nice to see how much fun he had with it, regardless of whether or not it seemed simple or not. Other people watch the people who are playing, and of course, there’s entertainment in that, too. It’s another way of getting the idea that how enjoyable a game is.
(More on Techland: Jumping to a New Level: Techland Reviews Super Mario Galaxy 2)
Exactly. Even working with some of the younger staff at Nintendo on a sample of New Super Mario Bros Wii., a lot of them, unsolicited, were saying, “One of the important things is that we can’t change this element. This is what makes this game.” So, they understand that some of that familiarity and simplicity is very important, and is excellent to see.