Feature: Keeping Mario at the Top

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.