Mario’s makers speak on his 35th anniversary for Nintendo
September 14, 2020
“Thinking about ‘play’ was all so new to me that none of it actually felt like work,” Tezuka said. “I was going to the office to have fun every day.”
The team introduced “Super Mario Bros.” to the world 35 years ago, the first installment in a video game franchise that has come to define the Nintendo brand. As Mickey Mouse is to Disney, Mario is to the Japanese game makers, starring in titles that have highlighted every generation of Nintendo consoles. In honor of the anniversary, The Post interviewed, by email, four of the principle figures in Mario’s proud and enduring history: Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, Zelda and Nintendo representative director; Tezuka, assistant director for the first game and producer for several others; Yoshiaki Koizumi, director of “Super Mario Sunshine” and “Super Mario Galaxy”; and Kenta Motokura, character design for “Sunshine” and director of “Super Mario 3-D World” and “Super Mario Odyssey.”
Across the history of video games, there have been two inflection points that sent the industry soaring into a bold new direction, and both of them revolved around the most influential Mario games. The original “Super Mario” spurred a reversal of fortunes for the entire gaming industry after a catastrophic 1983 market crash. “Super Mario 64,” released in 1996, is credited as the first true 3-D title and the first game to offer players independent camera control. Players could now frame the 2-D picture on their TV sets by using three-dimensional movement. Hallmark video games ranging from “Grand Theft Auto” to this year’s surprise hit, “Fall Guys,” owe a large debt to the groundbreaking Nintendo 64 launch title.
From a ‘rectangular sprite’ to a 3-D hero
Mario as a character first debuted with the name Jumpman in “Donkey Kong” in 1981. But Nintendo wanted a new hit game, and Miyamoto had ideas for an “athletic” focused game starring a “large character.” The first prototype of the first game didn’t include Mario, and didn’t even have a principle protagonist. It wasn’t until later that Mario was retrofitted as the lead character and named after the landlord of the company’s then-new Seattle warehouse location.
It’s well known that even Miyamoto didn’t expect Mario’s popularity, but it wasn’t lost to him and his team that they were working on something new and exciting for the world. The first game’s prototype hero was a “rectangular sprite that was 16×42 pixels and basically only able to move and jump,” Tezuka said. But even played in that diminished state, the team was excited for the game’s promise.
“It gave me a distinctive feeling that I had never experienced before,” Tezuka said. “As development progressed and we had more opportunities to see the reactions and the impressions of the test players, I started to get a real sense that we were creating something new. I never imagined that it would turn into a franchise that would last for decades.”
The four men were keen on reflecting on Mario’s legacy in the 3-D space. Three titles, “Super Mario 64,” “Super Mario Sunshine” and “Super Mario Galaxy,” were announced for a limited time collection on Nintendo’s current console, the Switch, in honor of Mario’s anniversary. The three titles give a compelling overview of the character’s evolution in three dimensions.
“Super Mario 64” introduced the sandbox style of gameplay to 3-D games, bringing the series closer to the other landmark Nintendo series, “Zelda.” It gave players the ability to not only tackle levels in almost any order they pleased but gave them various objectives throughout the world and various paths to complete them. Dan House, creator of the Grand Theft Auto series, once told the New York Times in 2012, “Anyone who makes 3-D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda is lying.”
“Because we were making games with no precedent and no model, we had no restraints in terms of process and were free to think however we liked about issues,” Tezuka said. “That is how we came up with so many ‘inventions.’ Our concept of the sandbox, for example, is a little like today’s open-world games in that it enabled a freer style of play that wasn’t limited to a single path.”
When Koizumi, a Miyamoto protege, began work animating the 3-D models for “Super Mario 64,” he had no real frame of reference for many of the actions. The team was treading in uncharted waters. What would Mario, or any character, look like when he jumps, runs or swims?
“There was no jumping actions in 3-D we could reference at the time, so we shared in the enjoyment of going through all the trial and error with Mr. Miyamoto and other team members,” Koizumi said. “It was arguably tough work, but that feeling was overtaken by the joy of innovating in a new field. With the 3-D Super Mario games that followed, we continued to go through the tough-yet-enjoyable work of figuring out how to take advantage of 3-D spaces and make the adventure feel more robust on an emotional level.”
Jumping is the central mechanic of Mario games. Fist raised, legs outstretched, his jump is more than just an aesthetic icon. When a player jumps in the original Mario game, there’s a degree of control still left in your hands. It was an astonishing use of early in-game physics. When you push left while Mario jumps right, he’ll pull back just a bit. For regular humans, jumping is an act of fruitless rebellion from gravity, a quick, self-induced jolt into precarious uncertainty from the laws of nature. When Mario jumps, there’s control. There are rules to understand, and sometimes break.
Mario’s creators set the groundwork for those rules and had to reinvent them again for the 3-D space as Mario games evolved from the Nintendo 64 to the GameCube to the Wii due to new game settings and innovations. For Motokura, who has worked on several 3-D titles starting with “Sunshine,” it’s all about the player’s desired direction and the distance they have to cross.
“In ‘Super Mario Galaxy’ and subsequent titles, Mario has been able to jump from the very edge of a cliff,” said Motokura, who was director of the newest Mario title, 2017′s “Super Mario Odyssey.” “After ‘Super Mario 3D Land’ [for the Nintendo 3DS], we made further improvements to give players a little more control in mid air. In addition to working on the jump in recent years, we have also worked to make some of Mario’s enemies easier to be jumped on, for example, having them stand still for a brief moment.”
Longtime Mario watchers will know that the exact science of his jumping can change across several titles. While “Super Mario 64” introduced the gymnastic, tumbling triple jump, it was removed in “3D Land” and “3D World,” the latter game is also being remastered for the Switch next year. Those games reined in Mario’s excessive 3-D exploration by designing narrow levels akin to the original 2-D games but with more depth and movement. When it comes to structure, “Super Mario Odyssey” reintroduced the sandbox concept but pushed players down a linear progression of levels, unlike the castle in “Super Mario 64,” where Mario was able to jump into paintings of levels in any order to tackle them.
“Those games are designed to meet the needs of levels that are built for sequential jumps and getting across narrow platforms,” Motokura explained. “And for ‘Super Mario Odyssey,’ we didn’t want to use a system that sends players on a trip by coming and going through a painting because the central theme of that game is the journey and the fun adventures you have along the way. We decided what elements to put into a game by figuring out new kinds of play and what would best support them.”
The Mario in “Sunshine” is easily the series’s most adept and agile, thanks to the water pack, known as F.L.U.U.D., that allowed him to float, fly and stream like a jet across water and air. This level of movement remains unparalleled in Mario games, but it also reduced some of the game’s challenge. It wasn’t until players hit the secret levels of “Sunshine” that they got a taste of challenging, classic Mario platforming gameplay. This level design ethos eventually evolved into the planet concepts of “Super Mario Galaxy.”
Tezuka said the freedom of control F.L.U.U.D. gave Mario was intentional and meant to further address the challenges of player accessibility in a 3-D space. It was also meant as a more consistently engaging way to tackle enemies. “Super Mario 64” only gave punches, jumps and butt stomps in the plumber’s skill set.
“The F.L.U.U.D. in ‘Sunshine’ came from the difficulty of handling 3-D space when we developed ‘Super Mario 64,’” Tezuka said. “In order to make it easier to get onto a platform, we created the hover feature where the characters slowly falls as if in low gravity. Also because it was difficult to stomp on the enemy in ‘Super Mario 64,’ we created ways to defeat them using water.”
Mario games are made to best suit that title’s ideas and player movements, Motokura said. It’s why there’s always a change in his abilities and feature sets, or why some moves are gone in the next title. Mario went from throwing fireballs to wearing an entire mechanical shoe that covers most of his body. In “Odyssey,” he overtakes enemy minds with his hat, Cappy, inhabiting their powers.
“We added features and abilities to ‘Super Mario Odyssey’ that work with the sandbox style,” Motokura said. “We implemented new basic actions using the hat, and more exceptional actions by using its capture ability. We are constantly working on creating a Mario that feels like an extension of the player while we devise better actions and improve what it feels like to interact with the world. I do think it’s very likely we will continue to see new kinds of Mario actions in the future.”
The team also had to rethink Mario’s jump for Nintendo’s first smartphone game, “Super Mario Run.” Without buttons on a touch-screen phone, the team had to make Mario run automatically while the player controls his jump output.
“We started by thinking we should incorporate cool-looking parkour action to give players that feeling that comes with skilled control,” Tezuka said. “But then again, if we couldn’t get the kinds of experiences we wanted in an action game from our prototypes, we might have stopped developing ‘Super Mario Run.’ In other words, we do not run haphazardly toward an idea. We first find something that might work, and then we work hard on it. That is why we don’t mind when the work is hard.”
Populating Mario’s world
Outside of Mario, an entire cast of characters have become staples of day-to-day conversation. Toad, Waluigi and Bowser are all recognizable icons. But these designs and character personalities also follow this same game-to-game context. The designs are meant to fit with the ethos of that particular title. Motokura was in charge of character design for “Super Mario Galaxy,” which introduced mainstay characters like Rosalina and the Luma people.
“When I was working on it, Mr. Miyamoto taught me the importance of ‘function’ in character design,” said Motokura, who added they used that same philosophy when creating enemies and characters for “Odyssey.” “In that game, you play as a number of characters, and we wanted to make the function of all those different controllable characters clear, such as which ones can jump, and which ones can fly through the air. And advances in graphics allow us to show so much more now. Even things that look like flashy decoration at first will have an important function. I consider relevant design to be one of the distinguishing characters of a ‘Super Mario’ game.”
Like songwriters who start with the beat before coming up with lyrics, story-writing in Mario games comes last in the process. Koizumi said while story is an important motivation for play, “we think about it at the very end of the game development process, just as we are completing it.” This explains why so many fantastical story elements of Mario games seem so random. And these knowledge gaps have contributed to the casts’s enduring appeal. Especially in the last 20 years, fans have created wild theories and musings about every aspect of the characters, from Mario’s last name to Luigi’s long-suspected bitterness toward his slightly older twin brother, to the shape of Toad’s head and the ongoing questionable existence of Mario’s nipples.
“When we create a game, Mario, the enemies and the stages come first, and the story is there to wrap things up neatly into one world,” Koizumi said. “By story here, I don’t just mean what the characters say and what happens to them. In fact, everything that people feel when they play as Mario is part of the story. So there is not just one ‘story.’ In fact, I think it is different for everyone.”
Tezuka, who helped write the first Mario game, said the earliest titles were laid out like acting skits. They weren’t attempting to create epic stories about the human condition.
“As long as there was a reason for Mario to go from left to right, the player could happily defeat enemies and move forward,” Tezuka said. “More than that, because it was a game where Mario stepped on enemies, it was more important for us to create designs that made the rules intuitive, for example, shaping Buzzy Beetle’s shell so that it looked like it would hurt if you stepped on it.”
You can see this design philosophy in “Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout,” the surprise hit indie game of the year many people call a mixture of obstacle course game shows and Mario Party games. The goal and rules of “Fall Guys” are simple: Don’t fall, and get to the end of the race before everyone else. It’s why “Fall Guys” and Mario games are such huge crossover successes. The rules are understandable on an instinctual level.
Building a dynasty level by level
This design philosophy also extended to the level designs. The classic Mario level formula was inspired by Miyamoto’s work in drawing manga, using a four-panel format. It was this school of restraint that inspired the instantly memorable World 1-1 in the first Mario game. The player is presented with a solution (jump over the Goomba), a more complicated solution (jump over tall pipes and a gap); then the level would introduce the two elements together to test the player’s skills. This timeless formula has worked on many games, and it’s evident across all three Mario 3-D titles in the new “3-D All Stars” collection.
“Four panels give you a beginning, development, twist and conclusion to create funny stories,” Miyamoto said. “This concept is, I think, the foundation for script writing in Japan, and when I make games, I use it often.”
Miyamoto said the approach to simplicity also informed their decision to give players three lives to start with — three chances to win or fail. If you haven’t noticed, most of the bosses in Mario games follow this rule, needing to be struck by the player three times before they win.
“Experts say that people are pretty good at mentally handling three things, and we often use three as the right number for items and mechanics too,” Miyamoto said.
The upcoming “3-D All Stars” collection forced the team to revisit all three classic titles. Their intent was to keep the original design and spirit of the games, while increasing the resolution and made some controller tweaks. Motokura said they interviewed team members of all the games to weigh in on the significance of each title.
“I can hardly believe it’s been over 20 years since we made ‘Super Mario 64,’” Koizumi said, who added that was his favorite project. “Whenever we finish a game … it always inspires us to want to do more, and that feeling is what leads us into creating the next game. I feel that will continue to be true in the future as well, and not just for ‘Super Mario’ titles. I think generally every Nintendo game has the ability to inspire future Nintendo games. My job is to see it through.”
When asked about his favorite title, Tezuka said he thinks fondly on “Super Mario Bros. 3,” which he directed. He said he enjoyed the freedom he got from creating it but was constantly afraid of his lack of experience and worried he created extra work for the development team. The third game is often considered the greatest game for the original Nintendo console.
“I am now very nostalgic about this Mario game,” Tezuka said.
Motokura said he relished the opportunity to reexamine the Mario catalogue, which gave him a greater appreciation for the work done over the last 35 years.
“Looking at these games from a broader vantage point like this helped me realize for the first time how Nintendo products are made in the day-to-day work we do, little by little,” Motokura said. “I have a renewed sense of how fortunate we are to be able to look back at these past games and to bring a collection like this to our fans. The development and I also feel the importance of continuing to try new things, little by little, in our day-to-day work.”
The experiences of these four men are cast across a wide variety of Mario titles, even beyond ones mentioned in this article. Motokura and Koizumi have both been promoted through the years, going from character designer and animator up to producer and director roles, respectively, of mainline Mario titles. Miyamoto, whom the New Yorker last year called “Nintendo’s guiding spirit,” said he continues to work on all the games, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. If Miyamoto had a muse, it would probably be the spirit of youth, whether drawing upon his own childhood or encouraging curiosity among his team.
“I have met with younger staff a few times to talk about my experience, but it really doesn’t compare to creating something together with them,” Miyamoto said. “I treasure the moments I have with the younger developers. Every time I work with young people, I feel like so many of them have a lot of talent. I’ve been working with them lately with the hope that I can help think beyond what they can now.”