Super Mario Odyssey New Donk City
Image: Nintendo

When Super Mario Odyssey was first announced, the very first thing we saw was a realistic-looking city. It could've been New York with its yellow taxi cabs and bright billboards littered all across the skyline. People with actual, believable human proportions were walking around this city. Then, our favourite Italian plumber leaps out of a manhole cover, and we knew we were in for something special.

Super Mario Odyssey is a game where Mario is thrown into a plethora of different worlds, from a prehistoric island, a crimson sand desert, a kingdom made entirely of colourful foods and even the moon. We're being selective here, but the point we're making is that Super Mario Odyssey's worlds are creative, bizarre, and combine multiple different art styles seamlessly.

One person we have to thank for this is lead VFX artist Junki Ikeuchi, who also worked on The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, ARMS, and the Nintendo Labo. In a posting to Nintendo's Japanese recruitment site, Ikeuchi has shared some insight into how he got all of these designs to work together — especially given Mario's more cartoony look.

The piece has been translated by the folks over at Nintendo Everything, and in it, Ikeuchi brings up that first promotional trailer — which came out before the Switch even launched!

Before the release of Super Mario Odyssey, we made an announcement trailer for the game where Mario leapt from a manhole and ran around a CG New York-like city. The concept of the video was to have an animated Mario contrasted against a realistic, lifelike cityscape. As the effect designer on the project, this created many challenges for me.

When Mario runs in Super Mario Odyssey, a small white cloud of smoke appears under him. Senior colleagues of mine often say “effects are like glue” that also hold things together when things in the game interact with each other. When Mario throws his hat and it hits an enemy, things like stars pops up to visually let you know that you’ve hit the target.

When Mario interacts with the ‘real’ world, the big problem was choosing which of the two art styles the visual effects should resemble. Should we choose an effect that resembles the animated Mario? If so, it wouldn’t match the realistic city, and the same could be said for the reverse. To solve this problem, ideas were taken from both themes and blended together.

Even though Mario clearly stands out from many of the world's designs (remember that boss fight towards the end of the game), there had to be some form of cohesion. Recognisable details like the cloud of smoke from Mario when he runs, and stars when he hits enemies, helped make this feel like a Mario game even if it was set in a huge city, or a Japanese castle.

But Ikeuchi was conscious and didn't want one 'style' to overtake the other, so faced many challenges during the game's development. The team felt that as effects get closer to Mario, they could become more 'Mario', and every character would need different effects. Ikeuchi also hones in on the Cappy abilities, and how Mario transforms into whatever he's capturing. The team needed a lot of help developing a game for the new Nintendo system, and these transformations were made possible because of that help.

Take for example, a waterfall in the middle of the wilderness, which has a realistic splashing effect. But when Mario hits something, cutesy stars pop out instead. We didn’t want every character in the game to have the same effects. If a dragon breathes out fire, the fire gets more realistic the further away it gets from Mario and we kept that design choice in mind when making all the effects across all stages in the game.

Effects design may seem simple when compared to character design, but the technology allows for more unique expression. Implementing the technology, however, is not something a designer can do alone. You need help from programmers to help apply the ever-evolving technology to effects, and we had a lot of help with this in Super Mario Odyssey.

The disintegration effect when Mario captures an enemy is one such example. It was a joint effort with the programmers and is an example of how technology can be used successfully.

One of the best things about this job is that we can add a single effect to allow what’s happening on screen can take center stage. In a forest stage, adding mist creates a more natural look. Or if from outdoors you see a picture of a cherry blossom tree – it is beautiful on its own, but what happens if you add a wind effect into it? The context of the picture changes and it depicts the progression of time. Effects not only glue things in the game together, but they’re something additive to the world. The job of effect designer is not just to make effects but make the game feel more ‘real’.

The blend of environments and art styles allowed for a lot of freedom, and the variety meant that the VFX artists had a lot of flexibility on how to make these places seem more 'real'. It made Odyssey feel coherent even if every single world looked different and helped catapult the game to a magical status.

Super Mario Odyssey is nearly five years old, and it still makes our eyes sparkle whenever we see it. From exploring the galaxy to going on vacation, the one thing we know about Mario's 3D adventures is that we never know where he'll go next, and Odyssey has proved that even if we think that the galaxy is the limit, then it can smash through that and create many fantastical worlds we never thought possible.

What's next, Mario?