The Mythology of Mario: Q&A With Nintendo’s Legendary Shigeru Miyamoto

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Do you have favorite parts about the re-mastered editions of the older games?

Well, I look back and play some of these games and there are a lot of places where, to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed. I look at Super Mario 3, and was like, “This was it?! This is what we thought was good enough?” That being said, I do have new understandings of that work. The balance in that game is what it needed to be at that time. It really was. And so, even seeing all the limitations, I’m very happy with what we created and I wouldn’t change it.

One of the things I’ve read is that the magic mushrooms in the Super Mario games come from myths about enchanted food. Is that true?

Whether or not, this is actually a factor or not, we’re not really sure. But, this whole idea of mysterious foods that have mysterious properties comes from a lot of the European folk tales. Of course, you see foods like that in Alice in Wonderland. I’m not really sure if the Japanese folk really knew what we were referencing. But that was sort of kind of where it was coming from. At least I think that’s what it came from.

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I think the fantasy elements in The Legend of Zelda games are obvious, but were there other folklore or mythology elements that inspired parts of Mario’s world and his universe?

Yeah, like you said, Zelda, of course, does have elements of fantasy folktales with goblins and whatnot. You can see those right away and they are easily recognizable. With Mario, however, it’s more surrealism. You’d see blocks floating in the middle of the air, doorways just appear out of nowhere. That kind of look draws on the work of Magritte.

There’s that sort of surrealistic element of just giving people the freedom to draw–where the drawing is playing the game–and not really being worried about facing it in reality. Players are artists who create their own reality within the game. So that’s sort of Mario. Creating new and surrealistic things rather than being based on anything else.

The typical structure of a Mario game is kind of a mythological journey. There’s an over-world and an underworld in all of them. And it’s interesting how the games themselves have become passed on through the generations, like old stories used to be. With that in mind, how do you feel about maybe those stories moving to another medium again? Like other TV or movie adaptations again?

When we’re creating a game, we have the world that’s there but, really, it’s up to the user to fill in the spaces of things that aren’t explained or laid out for them. Our job as the game creators or developers–the programmers, artists, and whatnot–is that we have to kind of put ourselves in the user’s shoes. We try to see what they’re seeing, and then make it, and support what we think they might think.

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So, if we’re playing, we think, “Well, the players would probably want to do something like this or maybe they’re going to do something like this.” The games need to be flexible enough to hit all of the different users and support all of those possible ideas of what they think might be out there.

Whereas with a book or a movie, you’re basically explaining to people, this is what’s here, we’re showing you what’s here. And for us, it’s sort of the opposite.

Players are showing you what’s there.

Yes. It’s hard to define the exact nature of the impact on that but it’s definitely a real impact. It affects the process.

That’s interesting because there’s lore built up around the play experience of the Super Mario games themselves. Going back to mythological theme, you always heard these stories.  “I heard you can jump over the flagpole in the original games!” People didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t until just this year, I think, that the proof came out. If you hit the exact sequence, you could in fact jump over the flagpole. So, it’s interesting that your point-of-view is to let the player show you things about things you built.

It’s really probably one of the most interesting parts of the job, trying to envision what the player wants to do and how the player wants to play. We then try to create a world that sort of answers what we think they want to do, and that interactivity is super-interesting for us.

There have been lots of homages to Super Mario Bros. over the years in games like Braid or Super Meat Boy. Super Meat Boy even has the same initials as Super Mario Bros. How does it make you feel to see that formula, that recipe being re-invented? And have you liked any of “the riffs,” the improvisations on the formula?

I haven’t actually played any of them! But I’m assuming they’re done pretty well. I think we were just lucky. Super Mario, of course, is sort of the pioneer of that side-scrolling, action-game style, and we’re just lucky to be in that position.

Right. It could have been somebody else whose game caught on and became one for the ages.

It could have been somebody else. And even when we go into 3D with Super Mario 64 or whatnot, we revert back to that side-scrolling style so often. If people like it and want to use it, that’s great, isn’t it?

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