Designing 'Super Mario Odyssey': Nintendo re-invents a gaming icon
From the opening of the trailer for "Super Mario Odyssey" -- which saw the mustachioed plumber burst from a manhole in a city resembling New York -- it was clear that change was coming. The latest installment of the gaming industry's best-selling franchise, out Friday on Nintendo Switch, marks a sharp departure from recent outings.
Seeing Nintendo's pudgy mascot walk among realistic-looking humans twice his size (but with smaller heads) will be jarring to some. As will seeing him bounce off yellow taxis and swing on traffic lights. But the series' latest incarnation is just the next step in an ongoing design evolution.
Since debuting in 1981's "Donkey Kong," Mario and the worlds he inhabits have proven their enduring appeal to casual and hardcore gamers alike.
"One thing that has always been constant is this idea of empathy," said Yoshiaki Koizumi, who has worked on Mario titles for over 20 years. "It's the idea that anyone can pick up and play the game, and they have an intuitive understanding and feel for how the game works."
And according to the director of "Super Mario Odyssey," Kenta Motokura, Mario's new surroundings only serve to highlight his abilities. "The impact of Mario's acrobatic and jumping ability becomes much more obvious when you put him in a familiar setting," he said.
Building a stage
Before settling on the game's look, Nintendo's developers had to decide how it would feel. It was only later that the team added scenery and decided on an aesthetic -- which in turn triggered more ideas, Motokura explained.
"When we're designing a stage, we start with very simple ideas -- just little things you think are fun when you play them," he said. "And then it's a matter of how we can combine those."
But the design of new levels -- which in addition to the city, includes a vast desert and dark woods -- has also undergone fundamental structural changes.
Instead of linear stages where the goal is simply to reach the end -- like in the original "Super Mario Bros" game in 1985 -- "Odyssey" has wide-open spaces. Harking back to a style last seen in 2002's "Super Mario Sunshine," the levels have no specific end point. Instead, the game's stages are filled with dozens of small objectives, each with their own reward, encouraging players to explore and pick their own path.
"Mario is, in a good way, a game of repetition," said Koizumi, who served as a producer on the latest game. "You go through the same stages over and over again, but you go through them in different ways."
This freedom presents challenges for designers, such as ensuring that gamers don't get lost. Motokura explained a number of ways in which designers nudge players in the right direction -- placing objectives atop easy-to-see landmarks or moving the player's viewing angle to show a point of interest.
But going off the beaten path is just as fun, he said.
"It's a bit like skipping school. It's that feeling when you know you are doing something you're not supposed to -- that's the excitement we want to give players when they go off course."
Function over form
Mario has always been a product of function over form. In fact, the character's most iconic features were dictated by the limitations of early video game technology.
He has a moustache because there weren't enough pixels for a mouth. He first wore overalls to make it easier to see his arms move. He sports a hat because it was simpler to create than hair.
But in a sign of the series' evolving gameplay, that hat is -- for the first time -- an active element of the game. in "Odyssey," Mario can jump on his cap to make extended leaps, or throw it to vanquish enemies and trigger switches.
"Instead of adding something brand new, (we thought that) if he's going to throw something, he might as well throw something that's familiar to users," says Motokura. "It ties back into that idea of empathy... you have an intuitive connection even though it's something new."
This new move enables one of game's stand-out features: By throwing his hat at certain enemies or objects, Mario can "possess" them, giving player control over a range of new items. This opens up a whole new world of ideas, as now gamers aren't just controlling Mario -- they're controlling the bullet that was just chasing him, a caterpillar that can stretch over gaps or even a giant tyrannosaurus rex.
Koizumi says that giving gamers a variety of options is key to the game's appeal.
"Mario is about using different moves and mastering them," he said, "and the way users combine them to create their own kind of gameplay is something that I think is very, very interesting."
"Super Mario Odyssey" continues the series' habit of breaking with its own traditions. "Super Mario 64" shifted the series from a 2D, side-scrolling game to a 3D world for the first time.
"New Super Mario Bros. Wii" allowed multiple users to play simultaneously. And the gravity-defying setting of 2007's "Super Mario Galaxy" resulted in one of the most beloved games of all time (it's currently the top-rated title on review aggregator GameRankings' "All-Time Best" list).
But while most Mario games are noticeably different from one another, both Koizumi and Motokura repeatedly highlight the consistency and importance of the gameplay's "feel."
The new hat-throwing move was, for instance, informed by how it feels to the player: Motokura said it was fun to wave the Nintendo Switch's controllers in his hand, naturally connecting the feeling of flicking the controller with flinging something.
"For me, the basic thing for a Mario game is, at a touch, it has to be fun," he said. "You just touch the controls for a little bit and it's fun."
"We're all very particular about the way Mario moves," Koizumi added. "The way he feels when you play is something that we take very seriously."
Yet, Mario must himself take credit for his long-lasting appeal. Over the years, he has played a variety of roles across dozens of games, from a kart driver to a boxing referee and even a painter. This flexibility may be behind the character's ongoing popularity.
As contemporaries like Pac-Man and Sonic the Hedgehog are relegated to nostalgia, Mario remains as relevant as ever -- "Super Mario Odyssey" is expected to be one of the holiday season's biggest games.
"He's an everyman type of hero," says Koizumi.