The Super Mario series has been responsible for some pretty amazing forward strides in the video game industry; the NES original arguably triggered a 2D platforming goldrush which would dominate the ‘80s and early ‘90s, while Super Mario 64 did the same for 3D gaming in general. Later, Super Mario Galaxy would allow players to hop between entire planets, harnessing the power of gravity to create an entirely new gameplay hook.
As one of Nintendo’s leading franchises, it should come as no great shock to learn that the company uses Super Mario as a testbed of sorts for new gameplay concepts, but what’s interesting is that there are very few cancelled Mario games - or, at least, cancelled games that we know of. By far the most high-profile canned Mario instalment isn’t really a game at all, but a series of tech demos which would go on to inspire and influence several other titles in Nintendo’s library.
Super Mario 128 has its origins in Super Mario 64; more specifically, the name was first coined when Shigeru Miyamoto was discussing a possible sequel to the N64 game in 1997; a throwaway remark which would reverberate through the years:
Sometimes I ask myself if we should continue this approach. For example, should we keep trying to put all the new technologies into each new Mario game. What comes next? Super Mario 128? Actually, thats what I want to do. (laughs).
At the end of the same year, Miyamoto elaborated on this, but referred to the game as Mario 64-2:
We're in the middle of preparing Mario 64-2 for release on the 64DD. I'd like to take advantage of the 64DD's ability to store information. As of now, Luigi's also a full part of the game, but we haven't started thinking about 2-player gameplay with Mario and Luigi yet. We'll tackle that once we've got the system ironed out—we've figured out the processing power issues, so we could do it if we tried.
Luigi was apparently due for a larger role in this outing (indeed, he was almost in the original), with a two-player co-operative mode a key focus for the team. However, the failure of the 64DD seems to have put paid to this project, and while the add-on's Mario game almost saw release, it lacked the famous sibling.
In 1999, Miyamoto again mentioned the existence of a Mario-and-Luigi 3D title to Nintendo Power magazine and said that a prototype had been sitting on his desk for well over a year - the first indication that the collection of projects which would become known as ‘Super Mario 128’ was destined to endure a long and tortured existence. "We've been thinking about the game," he added. "It may be something that could work on a completely new game system."
It’s vital to remember that the name refers not to a single project, but several; this was made abundantly clear when Nintendo lifted the lid on ‘Super Mario 128’ at the 2000 SpaceWorld event. Footage was shown of a 2D Mario splitting off into - you guessed it - 128 different Marios, all in 3D form, in a world that could be rotated and manipulated to showcase realistic physics. It looks like Mii Plaza, before Mii Plaza was even a thing.
Rather than hinting at any potential game, the tech demo was intended to showcase the graphical grunt of the upcoming GameCube system, but the connection with the mysterious Super Mario 128 moniker was enough to elevate the demo to a whole new level of importance; at the time, there was speculation in the gaming press that the previous 64DD project had evolved into something more significant, and that GameCube was now the target platform.
However, the arrival of Super Mario Sunshine appeared to shoot down this theory. Announced at the following year’s SpaceWorld event, Sunshine offered a 3D world very similar to that seen in Super Mario 64, but added in gameplay elements which took it in a new direction - the F.L.U.D.D. backpack being the most notable. However, the fact that Miyamoto confirmed at the time that Super Mario 128 and Super Mario Sunshine were separate projects continued to feed the rumour that another Mario game was in active development for the console, and that it would be based on the concepts seen in the 2000 SpaceWorld video.
What followed were intermittent reports and rumours which kept the memory of this oddball game alive; Miyamoto apparently spoke to the Japanese edition of Playboy magazine confirming the existence of the game, while reports surfaced shortly afterwards that it was so mind-blowingly groundbreaking that Nintendo was scared to show it off in public, just in case rivals copied its unique ideas. In 2003, Miyamoto confirmed yet again that the game was still in production in an interview with the UK's Nintendo Official Magazine, and that the gameplay had taken a new direction:
I can't say anything concrete yet - sorry. We're making it, of course and as afar as Mario games go, I want to make this a different - but still Mario-esque game. At E3, the question I was asked the most was, where is Mario 128? But I can't say anything now. Sorry!
After another no-show at E3 2004, Miyamoto discussed the project with GameSpy, saying:
It's moving along secretly like a submarine under the water. When developing, we often look at the different hardware and run different experiments on it and try out different ideas. There have been a number of different experiment ideas that we have been running on the GameCube. There are some that we have run on DS, and there are other ideas, too. At this point I just don't know if we will see that game on one system or another. It is still hard for me to make that decision. I am the only director on that game right now. I have the programmers making different experiments, and when I see the results, we will make the final decision.
The word ‘experiment’ would continue to crop up whenever Miaymoto was asked about the game, which was perhaps the most glaring hint yet that Super Mario 128 was never going to surface as a fully-formed project. Nonetheless, it had so much momentum behind it that the gaming press continued to dig for answers.
At GDC 2005, GameSpot pressed Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime about the game’s existence, and was told that all would be revealed at E3:
We're going to answer that question at E3. You know, we at Nintendo are probably waffling back and forth on what's the best thing to do. Legend of Zelda is going to be on GameCube. We're going to launch that this holiday. And there's more to come on what happens with Mario 128.
In terms of how we're going to show Mario 128, though, it's likely that we'll show it in video form more than playable. We have so many great games in playable form already.
When Super Mario 128 was nowhere to be seen at E3 2005, an exasperated Fils-Aime was forced to tell GameSpot: “I can only show what Mr. Miyamoto gives me to show. I've seen bits and pieces." At the end of 2005, Miyamoto told Wired that Super Mario 128 would not be released on the GameCube, but for Nintendo's 'Revolution' system - the Wii - instead:
Wired: But there's still no sign of the long-rumored Mario 128 for GameCube.
Miyamoto: It's still floating around. We're searching for that fundamental idea that's going to drive the next 3-D Mariogame. But we're not sure when that's going to jump out at us. We're doing lots of tests with small groups.
Wired: If that's the case – if the design process is still at the point where you're doing experiments and tests – is it even possible that Mario 128 could come out on GameCube at this point? Or is it definitely a Revolution title?
Miyamoto: We think we want it on Revolution.
Wired: So, there will be no new GameCube Mario platform game.
Miyamoto: Right. The Mario team can't create too many games at the same time, so they're concentrating on the Revolution.
It’s at this point that Super Mario 128 was effectively put to bed by Miyamoto himself; speaking in 2006 to Nintendo Dream, he struggled to recall the exact history of the project but said that elements had been absorbed into other games, and explained that the whole idea had evolved from the concept of having Mario and Luigi on-screen in Super Mario 64:.
I'm sorry. I've forgotten. However, I believe it's become other games. From the time that we were originally making Mario 64, Mario and Luigi were moving together. But we couldn't get it working in the form of a game.
Clearly, the tech demo had snowballed from that point onwards, pulling in new ideas and riding the wave of fresh hardware to remain at the back of Miaymoto’s mind; present, but never directly in his line of sight. However, in the same Nintendo Dream interview, he does touch upon the impact of Super Mario 128 on other games:
We've been experimenting all this time. Some percentage is included as Mario Galaxy on the Wii. Mario 128 was a test concept for Mario, so, for instance, the parts in Mario Galaxy where you're running around on the surface have come from Mario 128.
That’s not quite the end of the Super Mario 128 story. In 2007, Miyamoto delivered the GDC 2007 keynote speech, and during his talk, he decided to mention Super Mario 128. In contrast to his previous comments over the years, he stated categorically that the ‘game’ wasn’t a game at all, and that the GameCube tech demo shown in 2000 had gone on to influence titles such as Pikmin and Super Mario Galaxy:
The one question I'm always asked is, 'What happened to Mario 128?'... The purpose of that demo was to show how the new technology in the GameCube could dynamically change the nature of Mario games. So when people ask me what happened to it, I'm always at a loss as to how to answer it, because most of you have already played it - but you played it in a game called Pikmin. This game featured one element of Mario 128 that allowed a large number of characters to operate independently and as a group - it's advanced AI. But of course if I was to tell you all that this is what happened to Mario 128, you'd all be pretty angry.
In Super Mario Galaxy, you'll be playing on numerous spherical stages, and this was one of the experiments we were conducting at the time of Mario 128…
It’s little wonder that Super Mario 128 has become such a massive mystery among Nintendo fans over the years; unlike a great many cancelled projects, this one was in the public eye for quite some time, with the company even outright confirming its existence year after year, teasing players with a style of game that would rip up the rulebook, just as Super Mario 64 had done. And heck, it's Mario. Of course Nintendo fans are going to feel bummed out about a potential mainline Mario game they never got to play.
Looking back, it’s easy to see how press and players alike got swept away in the hype, but it’s equally easy to see how the ‘game’ was never a game at all, and more a codename given to a series of experimental tests which would ultimately find their application in other titles. In the cold light of day, it’s abundantly clear that Super Mario 128 was never something we were going to actually play - but that doesn’t prevent it from being seen by many as one of the most alluring Nintendo titles that never made it onto store shelves.