News Article

Feature: Keeping Mario at the Top

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

A never-ending icon

Mario is the face of Nintendo, a fact that is clear to most. As a character, however, he lacks any depth or back-story. Although some titles, such as the Mario & Luigi RPG titles on the Game Boy Advance and DS, apply a simple and humorous story to Mario and his world, he is often simply rescuing a Princess from a giant turtle creature. In fact, games writer James Leach said it best in a recent article in EDGE magazine:

Why does Mario work? Because he’s a nothing. He hasn’t got a character. He’s recognisable in the way that a logo is. Mario works simply because everyone knows who he is, and the sort of game he appears in.

Despite this shallowness of character, the strange idea of a chubby plumber being the hero and the barmy nature of the worlds that he inhabits, Mario represents an image of quality and gaming history. It’s a contradiction: a meaningless character who defines so many of the industry’s greatest moments. Nintendo have not only kept Mario relevant, but ensured that he remains in the spotlight, with each major Mario release still being an event that draws attention.

It’s easy to say that this is because so many Mario titles — perhaps excluding some less-impressive spin-offs — are of the highest quality. To achieve this consistency, Nintendo continues to employ talented game-makers with experience of what makes a great Mario title. Focusing on three major Mario franchises, we look at how these titles continue to innovate and build the Mario legend and some of the key developers who make it possible.

Mario in 3D

With the recent release of Super Mario 3D Land on 3DS, we can all enjoy the first Mario platformer with stereoscopic 3D effects. It’s a title that, in some ways, blurs boundaries between 2D and 3D Mario gameplay, though formally falls into the latter category. This concept of 3D Mario began with Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64. This is a title of legendary status, utilising new technology to revolutionise Mario gaming.

Features that are taken for granted by modern gamers, such as running around in a 3D space or performing acrobatic moves in any direction, were a sensation in 1996. It was a major adjustment for gamers, as they were no longer required to simply run left and right while avoiding enemies. Analogue control was replacing the D-Pad, and Super Mario 64 successfully made a number of revolutionary changes possible. It was clear that this new style of Mario gameplay would continue to be prominent in Nintendo’s future, so how were standards maintained? How have subsequent 3D Mario titles carried the legacy forward, even when experimenting with new ideas?

At a basic level, part of the secret is keeping the development of 3D Mario games in-house, without entrusting the mascot’s premier outings to other development studios. It isn’t just being in-house that matters, though, as the people working on this series need a grasp of what makes these titles work and why they continue to enchant gamers. In the case of 3D Mario platformers, Yoshiaki Koizumi is an influential figure.

Yoshiaki Koizumi was assistant director on Super Mario 64, having previously worked on other major Nintendo releases. In addition to this role, Koizumi also served as a 3D animator, one member of the team that made the fluid, acrobatic actions of Mario possible. Such animation was vital to the Super Mario 64 experience, so it’s no surprise he's been kept at the very forefront of Mario’s adventures in the third dimension. Koizumi has served as director of Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy, and also as producer on Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D Land. He has worked in prominent roles in every Mario 3D adventure, and has a distinguished record in other major Nintendo franchises. As these titles continue to evolve, a case can surely be made that this is due to the continuing maturity and experience of developers like Yoshiaki Koizumi, developing his skills and understanding and applying them to each subsequent Mario title.

To create Mario, you must understand Mario

This continuity of creative vision and experience also extends to other major facets of the Mario gaming juggernaut. Firstly, let’s look at 2D Mario gaming, perhaps the most well-known and beloved of gaming styles for the moustachioed plumber. For this genre we’ve actually identified a younger member of the Nintendo inner-circle, who is performing a vital role in the continuing success of the 2D Mario platformer: Shigeyuki Asuke.

Mr Asuke’s first experiences with Mario came in 2002, as an assistant director on Super Mario Sunshine and in a support role for Yoshi's Island: Super Mario Advance 3, focusing on that game’s level maps. He continued work in handheld Mario titles as map director for Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3, an experience that no doubt boosted his understanding in the importance of strong level design in this genre. This is all relevant, as Mr Asuke’s first full role as director was for New Super Mario Bros. on DS, a title that revived the concept of an all-new 2D Mario platformer that wasn’t a remake from pre-N64 days. With fun level designs, a degree of challenge that encouraged newcomers in early stages and a blend of 3D graphics with a 2D perspective, this title captured the imagination of DS owners. It had been over a decade, in fact, since the last original title in this gameplay style, and it has achieved enormous commercial success as the biggest selling DS release.

It's understandable then that Mr Asuke also served as director for New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a title that took the foundations of the DS entry and included manic four-player co-operative gameplay. This title has also sold an incredible number of copies, ensuring that this genre is once again at the forefront of Mario gaming, with New Super Mario Bros. Mii one of the first demos shown off for Wii U.

Finally, with Mario Kart 7 about to drift onto 3DS consoles around the world, we’ll highlight one more example of Nintendo’s reverential care with its famous mascot. Hideki Konno, who was a major figure in development of the 3DS itself, was the director of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64, two titles that introduced wacky racing and weapons in 2D sprites and then 3D polygons. Although these aren’t Mario adventures in the same sense as platformers, they are nevertheless now a major series for Nintendo and, by extension, its famous icon.

Since Mario Kart 64, Hideki Konno has become the series producer, with Mario Kart DS, Mario Kart Wii, and Mario Kart 7 all on his CV. Each new entry in the series continues the good work of its predecessor while adding subtle new features, whether it’s online play, bikes and stunt moves or even karts that fly or drive underwater. Each iteration maintains a level of the same feel of other games in the series, while gradually moving the franchise forward.

If in doubt, turn to Mario

The continuity of key figures working on major Mario titles is an indication of the character’s vital importance to Nintendo. That's an obvious truth, as the continued excellence of major Mario games highlights Nintendo’s ability to remain at the forefront of game design. Exceptional gameplay, combined with customary charm and brightly coloured worlds, keeps Mario relevant to experienced gamers and younger generations. There are spin-offs, sports titles and mini-game collections that are entrusted to external developers, but the truly vital Mario series are kept in-house, the rotund plumber wrapped in cotton wool and guided forward by experienced hands. He is Nintendo’s most valuable asset and only the most skilled game designers, with the supervisory guidance of Shigeru Miyamoto, are entrusted with his fate.

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User Comments (41)

antdickensAdmin

#2

antdickens said:

Fantastic article Thomas, thought provoking. It's strange how popular Mario is without any real character or concept. Love it.

Einherjar

#3

Einherjar said:

Having no character is really the main point why mario is so popular and well known. While having no character ore huge backstory, the player can focus on the game. Also, you can jump in on every game and dont have to worry that you missed importend story parts. Mario is, more or less, just an avatar just like link is. All you need to know about them is "Its that guy that rescues the princess".
In case of mario, everyone can be mario ;) You like / play golf ? You are mario, because he can play golf too.

Geonjaha

#4

Geonjaha said:

Not what you'd expect in a gaming icon. Kind of random if you think about it :/

Link79

#6

Link79 said:

Mario is an everyman. Just about anyone who's ever played a videogame has likely enjoyed a Mario game at some point. You don't need a big story to follow the games.
Your only task is to save that princess and stomp on anything that gets in your way.

DestinyMan

#7

DestinyMan said:

Mario is the Mickey Mouse of Nintendo, no doubt about that. They should keep all Mario game development work to the inside experts that known the franchise best. It's been with Nintendo through the thick and thin, and that bond will only hold tighter when the Wii U comes around.

Mario doesn't have much character, and even his brother Luigi has more than him, but he is the very representative of the games he's in and the mascot of Nintendo. Even seeing his name on a game cover in a store would entice people to buy it. You can't help but see the name, "Mario" anywhere besides on a video game and think of the cheery, moustachioed plumber. Why, his very looks were designed based on gameplay and development, not character!

ThumperUK

#8

ThumperUK said:

5. 6ch6ris6

Or Mario is to Videogaming what Mickey Mouse is to CARTOONING ???

;-P

JimLad

#9

JimLad said:

Mario games are all about the level design, which is why they could theoretically keep making them forever.
And I hope they do.

GameLord08

#14

GameLord08 said:

I feel Mario needs a new adventure soon. Or maybe that's just my incredible ability to tire of things fast. :O

Kid_A

#15

Kid_A said:

Great article. The day Nintendo starts trying to add "depth" to Mario's character is the day I stop playing Mario games.

Dodger

#16

Dodger said:

I love the Mario series. It isn't my favorite Nintendo series but it is always good fun, 2D or 3D. I hope they never get lazy with it though. Even the greatest mascots can fall. Look at Sonic and Pac-Man.

sinalefa

#18

sinalefa said:

Takashi Tezuka is really an underdog. He is a key figure in many Mario games and he seldom is mentioned in articles like these.

The interesting thing is that Nintendo has young and old people working together, so the experienced ones are forming the ones who will take their place in the future.

I agree with the part that says that the consistent quality of Mario games is due to making all the main games in house. That said, I still enjoy a lot more the EAD Tokyo developed games.

Dodger

#19

Dodger said:

@Clinker But you have to agree that the mascots are nowhere near as popular as they used to be. I say Pac-Man went downhill after Mrs. Pac-Man. Baby Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, didn't one of them have a pinball machine? Then he went on consoles and you had 3D pac-man games that I really don't understand. Championship Edition goes back to when people had Pac-Man fever and added modern features. Still seems like other pac-man games stink. Party looks worse then Mario Party 8 which is saying something and that 3DS game collection looks rather average. I'm not saying any of this out of nostalgia. I'm 15. I'm looking at it and it seems to me that pac-man fever died out when they started to be lazy and Mario could do the same if they start to be lazy because they've been innovative so many times before. That's my only point.

I've seen a lot of average reviews for Sonic Generations. Good Sonic games do get released but who here preorders a Sonic game? You can't trust him anymore.

EvisceratorX

#20

EvisceratorX said:

The thing is,though, what will happen when Miyamoto and all those other guys inevitably kick the bucket? A new generation will have to take their place and they may not be as good.

Ras

#21

Ras said:

They farm out the other games to outside developers, but they typically do a great job, too. The sports games are usually tops, particularly when Camelot is on the task. I can't wait for the 3DS Tennis. Also, I do think Intelligent Systems does a good job expanding Mario's personality. It's a simple thing, but it's really delightful how relentlessly upbeat and positive Paper Mario is. He's always got a smile, no matter what is going on. The only time that changes is when he's temporarily shocked by a big boss's appearance, but then it's back to his determined grin.

Lobster

#22

Lobster said:

I don't think we should worry about what happens when all these people working on Mario eventually die. There are a lot of people working on Mario games, after all, so it's possible that someone could start out working on SMG2 or SM3DL and learn from those guys and eventually be on top in ten years.

I don't want to think about when Shigeru Miyamoto dies, though. That's really going to be tough for gaming as a whole. He's done more for gaming than any other person, possibly combined. It will be a very, very sad day.

Great article, though, despite all the talk of death in the comments! :D

gyyrro

#23

gyyrro said:

You could say the exact same thing about link, that doesn't change the fact that the games are awesome.
Mario is an all around easy to play and remember character and trying to deepen his character could jepordize that. In my opinion, the Mario RPGs do a good enough job showing Mario as a character and that should be good enough.

DestinyMan

#24

DestinyMan said:

@Square-enixFan: Well, certainly there will be a point in time when the inside experts throw in the towel and fly to the heavens. No one can escape death, not even Miyamoto. The day he passes will be like when Walt Disney passed. Just as he did a lot for cartoons, Miyamoto did a lot for video gaming. Hopefully that day won't come for a long time, but there will always be the new group to rise up and take the wheel. I'm sure years from now we'll be talking about rising stars in Nintendo similar to Koizumi, Aonuma, and the like.

Mario will still have a future too, and unlike other iconic video game mascots that have had shaky times, he should still have quality games.

NSBlueLighing

#26

NSBlueLighing said:

:'( unfortunate i'll most likely out live Shigeru Miyamoto cause when he passes or stops with Mario(doubt he wont stop till his death bed) Mario will either die or die from others trying to make mario games. Super Mario 64 was my very first video game.

StarDust4Ever

#27

StarDust4Ever said:

Not necessarily BlueLightning: Even after Myamoto's life is over, the legacy of Mario will live on. Just look at Charles Shultz or Walt Disney. Their legacies still live on, and so will Myamoto's.

Long live Mario! :D

AlbertoC

#28

AlbertoC said:

Really cool article. I've never thought about Mario story from the big picture, putting the NES and SNES classics directly in front of Super Mario 3D land.

Gameday

#29

Gameday said:

Im thinking maybe wii u will bring out more of a character for mario. Hey you never know , Nintendo is trying new things NEXT year.

Punny

#30

Punny said:

I guess Mario doesn't need depth. His games just need to be good! :D

Hokori

#32

Hokori said:

yes and even if Miyamoto were to die doesnt mean Mario will, I mean look at Metroid

NSBlueLighing

#33

NSBlueLighing said:

What im meaning people is that his games have a chance to turn out like crap, when Miyamoto dies...Mario wont die but his era of good games MIGHT die when Miyamoto dies!

J-Forest-Esq

#34

J-Forest-Esq said:

I suppose it's similar to when authors deliberately choose to set their book in an ambiguous time period. That way nothing can get out of date or seem clichéd thanks to the ravages of time. In the same way, as you described, Mario isn't really anything, nothing about him can wither with age. If you look at any other mascot; Sonic, for example, when he went through his "cool" phase it soon went out of fashion as people's pre-determined expectation of what was "hip" and "funky" advanced beyond him. In fact, I'd argue it's Mario's irrelevance that has kept him at the top. You can't look at his games through the lens of current society and apply its' values to it, thus he can't be perceived to be out of date. Or something like that.

HawkeyeWii

#37

HawkeyeWii said:

This one of the greatest reasons I get Nintendo consoles over Sony's and Microsoft, the very very original ideas and charcters. They don't have to make sense just as long as it is fun. After all that is what videogames are for right?

LeasTwanteD

#38

LeasTwanteD said:

Wow. This feature is a real grower. While at first I didn’t see anything special in it after some time thinking and reading all the comments you’ll see just how thought provoking it is by the length of my comment. ;)

First of all I want to thank you for giving me another perspective on the remakes. I even kinda despised them before~(especially the GBA ones).~ So it’s nice to see that actually someone really benefits from them beside of the filthy lucre they make from ‘em. ;)

Secondly I find it great they brought the pure 2D games back with New Super Mario Bros (especially Wii). And while I equally love Galaxy 2 the simple perfection of a great 2D game is something you cannot get in 3D gameplay.
It’s also amazing someone had the idea to make the Kart games, RPG’s and Lugi’s Mansion. I wouldn’t wanna miss any of ‘em.

Now to the deeper part. Mario’s character.
I think his wordlessness and lack of background story are a really great thing for his games. While he really isn’t defined in anything but his outer appearance and the ability to jump like crazy all that shallowness leaves so much more room for you to fit in.
And that’s the thing the Mario games do best imo. While there are kinda similar characters like Mega Man or the Belmont’s who are starred in quite simple NES games you don’t have as much freedom in them as in the Mario games. Even in SMB if you were exploring you could chose which levels you wanted to play. You can chose to run and use fire to defeat who’s standing in your way. But most of the time you don’t have to. In SMB3 you were presented with the map and even more powerups you could choose to use. SMW imo is the most amazing 2D platformer ever made because it gives you such an amazing freedom of exploration, choice and Yoshi. :)
I can’t think of another character who could be a frog, a penguin, a tanooki, a bee or a ghost without seeming out of place either.
This is what to me makes Mario games the greatest pure gaming experience out there. They are games about you having all the fun you want, they cheer you on, don’t complicate things. They celebrate you.
Maybe that’s why I can’t stand Mario mascots at conventions. The real world Mario should be me, it should be each and everyone of us who love to play his games. Not someone in a static costume.

PS: Since there’s a lot more background story that Link is presented to in the Zelda games I think since AlttP it’s a bit more of a cinematic experience than the Mario games. Metroid games are more defined in their atmosphere so it's not right to compare them to each other. ;)

LittleIrves

#39

LittleIrves said:

Love hearing the names and stories of other, less-heralded developers who are as important to recent Nintendo success but mentioned waay less often than Miyamoto. Even he says it's always a team effort, doesn't like taking all the credit. Nice work.

rafaelluik

#40

rafaelluik said:

Why comparing it to Mickey Mouse and Disney?
Mickey still a famous character but he doesn't make success anymore nor defined any standard in the animation area... @27. StarDust Does Mickey still have a TV show? Is it good?... Disney now only creates 12-16 year old aimed sitcoms, lost most of its Classics beauty. See, comparing Nintendo to Disney doesn't works.

mega

#41

mega said:

Mario is good but i prefer adventure games like the 2d metroids

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