Iwata Asks: Super Mario Galaxy

Iwata Asks: Super Mario Galaxy

Volume 1: Producer and Designer

(Official Nintendo USA translation is now up.)

(This article is my own translation of volume 1 of the Iwata Asks: Super Mario Galaxy series. Content is copyright Nintendo, who is not responsible in any manner for this translation.)

(Also see Volume 2.)


Satoru Iwata: On November 1, the Wii's first 3D Mario action game, Super Mario Galaxy, goes on sale. I think not a few people wonder whether the nature of a 3D Mario is compatible with the Wii. So, we're going to listen to plenty of stories about what the developers of Mario Galaxy were thinking when they were creating the new Mario. Incidentally, with us here today is Mr. Sao, original editor-in-chief of Nintendo Dream, and currently a freelance writer, who has kindly agreed to help us. Sao-san, thank you for coming.

Sao: Thank you for having me. Actually, it's been about 6 years since I've been able to sit down next to you and really listen.

Iwata: Yes, I remember it well. It was the year the Gamecube went on sale--if I'm not mistaken, the end of the year.

Sao: You certainly do remember it well, as I expected. (laughs) At that time I asked for a long interview. This time the form is different, and I'm a little tense as I'm in a very valuable spot. The topic today is 3D action in the land of Mario, and I'm really trembling in anticipation at hearing the various creators' stories in all 4 parts.

Motive for the birth of Mario Galaxy

Iwata: Mario Galaxy was created in the Tokyo studio division of Nintendo ("EAD Tokyo"). Because development has just gotten to a climax, I was sent here to Tokyo. In this installment and the next, I'll be delivering my report, "Iwata Asks (Business Trip Edition)". In the first installment, we'll hear stories from the producer and the director. So, please introduce yourselves, gentlemen.

Shimizu: I'm Takao Shimizu, and I work as a producer in the Tokyo division. I'm primarily in charge of creating an environment in which the Super Mario Galaxy staff can be absorbed in development.

Koizumi: Similarly, I'm Yoshiaki Koizumi, and I'm in charge of the director position in the Tokyo division. Shimizu-san takes care of all the outside negotiation, so I can be deeply submerged in the here and now and absorbed in development. My job is also to decipher and convey the words of Shigeru Miyamoto in the head office in Kyoto to the development staff.

Iwata: So first of all, let me ask: in what manner did this project start?

nKoizumi: The story goes back to 2000, at the Gamecube product launch [1], when the Mario 128 [2] demonstration software was shown to the public. I was the director of this software. Afterwards, we wanted to use and commoditize the Mario 128 system, but we had been worried all along it might be impossible to realize this.

Iwata: Why did you think it would be impossible?

Koizumi: It was a technical problem. At the time of Mario 128 there were disc-like stages, but with full-blown spherical topography, for Mario to run around freely, we needed extreme technical skill. Additionally, I thought that in order to surmount this high wall, the staff's motivation had to be quite high.

Iwata: By the way, I had heard from Miyamoto-san over 5 years earlier concerning the potential of spherical terrain, and hearing this I did not understand at that time why it was a revolutionary thing. But when it took shape in Mario Galaxy, I gradually came to understand.

Koizumi: At the time I was the same way. I thought it was interesting, but I wondered if doing it would have any value. I think perhaps the other staff had the same feeling. But Miyamoto-san continued to say all along that he wanted to make it happen, one way or another.

Shimizu: And so two and a half years ago, when the development of Donkey Kong Jungle Beat [3] had ended, it was time to think of the next project. At that time, my group proposed an original game, and Mr. Miyamoto said in a lonesome, halting voice, "I want to create a game with Nintendo characters..." (laughs)

Koizumi: First of all, EAD Tokyo was just created in 2003, and at that time we were thinking we could not create large-scale software. So we proposed a compact game project, but Miyamoto said "don't you want to create something bigger?" and listening to the opinions of the staff, the common refrain was "let's create the next Mario as it's our strength!". Through developing Jungle Beat together, our staff's abilities had become known and I thought that we might be able to solve this new and very difficult spherical topography problem.

Iwata: But the development didn't progress without issue.

Koizumi: Indeed not. My role was to act as a sort of cook. First, we showed everybody a recipe saying "we'd like to make this sort of 'food' on the Wii", but the staff could not foresee what kind of cuisine we would end up with.

Iwata: Because showing someone only a recipe, he won't know if the end product is delicious or disgusting.

Koizumi: Miyamoto reassured us that it would be tasty. But almost all the staff said "we can't make such an amazing dish." So we thought we needed to sample the food a little, and with limited team members we spent about three months and created a prototype. As spherical terrain goes, making it into a planet was easiest to understand; we set it in space, added gravity, and just like that created the prototype for Mario Galaxy. After that development started in earnest.

Iwata: Rather than showing them whatever kind of incredible recipe you have, people will understand much better if they actually eat some of the food, even if the amount is small.

Koizumi: Yeah. I think of it as borrowing a vegetable plot from Mr. Miyamoto. "Please lend me your secret-formula plot because on it I can surely grow good fruits and vegetables," I said, and the staff and I planted seeds there. The food made from what we harvested from the land is first given to Mr. Miyamoto. He owns the land, after all. Every bit of the food we made is sent to Kyoto, where he samples it and says it's a bit too salty or now it's just right... this goes on forever. When the developmental endgame is reached, he comes to the "restaurant" in Tokyo, samples food to an extreme extent, and eats until completely full.

Shimizu: Eating everything we create may feel like penance to Miyamoto-san.

Koizumi: And so, Miyamoto the owner gradually became more satisfied, and then we decided to get regular people to sample it for us. There were many people and it took plenty of time to do so. Seasoning the dish and listening to the opinions of our regular customers, we finished making the food.

Iwata: Even so, Miyamoto gave it the luxury treatment. (laughs)

Koizumi: Miyamoto's sampling was really helpful for the cooks. (laughs)

Iwata: In "Galaxy", what I asked of Miyamoto-san was only one thing: "You're Miyamoto, so do what only Miyamoto can." It's been a long time since the last 3D Mario, and I wanted to raise a product that would represent the Wii.

Shimizu: That's why even on days off we got mail telling us where to make changes. And moreover starting early in the morning! (laughs) Although we were working in separate places, we didn't feel like there was much distance between us. We tried to make sure that what we created in Tokyo could be seen at the same time in Kyoto. Additionally, at the end of development, we were really grateful for his frequent trips to Tokyo.

Iwata: You must have differences of opinion with Mr. Miyamoto at times, though.

Koizumi: Naturally. But he would explain exactly why something was good, and at times he would understand what I was saying and give in. This is an old story, but once when I would not give in no matter what, he persuaded me by saying "have faith in the experience of an old man!" (laughs)

Iwata: He has persuaded people in that manner... but I've never been convinced by it. (laughs)

Koizumi: But as the director, I was in a place to see the staff's troubles, so I recently told them "you'd better listen to an old man!" too. (laughs)

Listening to many voices

Iwata: At Wii's release last year, there were many voices wishing for a new 3D Mario. As well, when the Gamecube came out, people were asking the same thing about Super Mario Sunshine [4]. I think Mario software is burdened with this fate. Now over 11 months after the release of the Wii, Mario is going on sale; let me ask you, what kind of conflicts have there been?

Shimizu: Last year, when E3 [5] opened in America, at the opening exhibit Miyamoto-san announced that Mario Galaxy would be available within 6 months of the release of the Wii. I and my staff thought we could do it.

Iwata: Easier said than done, though.

Shimizu: Yes. We thought that was really unfair to our customers, who had been waiting a long time. But this was the first 3D Mario in a long time, and we had many different thoughts regarding it; and unless we digested these thoughts then we felt we our customers wouldn't assess the game highly. For that reason, even though coming out at the same time as the Wii was important, our preference was to create a product that our customers would really want to buy. If the valuation of Mario Galaxy were to be low, there would be some enthusiasm for dismantling the Tokyo studio.

Iwata: And so you got a huge number of playtesters. How did you decide on this course of action?

Koizumi: It came from our experience with Jungle Beat. This software came out at the 2004 Nintendo World event [6]; we went to the meeting hall and carefully observed the figures of the people playing, and were able to make use of this for our final adjustments. As creators, we were able to get precious experience in which concerns we should have in which scenes, and in Mario Galaxy, we thought about making use of this ability thoroughly.

Iwata: Of course in the 3D action genre, more than any other, you need to get playtesters' hands on your game.

Koizumi: In fact, there were times we thought we might not be able to ensure everyone could easily enjoy 3D action games. In 3D space many people lose their bearings, and when the camera moves of its own accord, not a few people get motion sickness. So during the development of Mario Sunshine, we tried various camera modes, and we made sure to include a manual one to satisfy the customer, but in doing so we had arranged to impose an additional job other than playing on the player.

Iwata: Do you regret that now?

Koizumi: Yes. In Jungle Beat, which we created afterward, we used an automatic camera for this reason; in other words, we pursued a side-scrolling action game which you could play without worrying about camera control. But this caused us to finish up without anything emerging as an answer with regard to the subject of 3D cameras.

Iwata: So in Jungle Beat, you were able to address the immediate future but the real question remained unanswered. Another game you worked on, Super Mario 64 [7] was very highly valued, but on the other hand it gave birth to a group of customers who felt they were bad at 3D games. It was decided to postpone addressing this subject at that time.

Koizumi: It does feel like we looked the other way on the underlying problem. For this reason, in Mario Galaxy we thought we would tackle the hard problems in 3D action games up front. It was necessary to listen to the opinions of many playtesters to accomplish this.

Shimizu: So we chose many of them, and in a sense, there was also a part for me as a delegate playtester. Of course Mr. Miyamoto did a lot of sampling, but there are a lot of differences between he and myself, and in fact I'm one of those types who gets 3D motion sickness.

Iwata: The producer gets motion sickness? (laughs)

Koimizu: We made sure to give every little bit we finished to Shimizu-san, and when he was like "this is bad, I get sick" we would say "ok, we'll fix it right away!"

Iwata: He's just like a 3D motion sickness sensor! (laughs)

Shimizu: So I kept playing the role of sensor. Miyamoto would come along and say "if we don't make the camera all flashy, it'll lose its appeal!" and I'd repeat "well if you do, I'll get sick". But he didn't listen to my opinion at all. Yet if the playtesters said a particular place made them sick, he told us to fix it. (laughs)

Iwata: To Mr. Miyamoto the opinions of customers are far more important than those of his team.

Koizumi: But everyone is different, and though to the last we aimed for a "non-sickness-inducing camera", we cannot absolutely guarantee that the camera will not cause any sickness.

Iwata: I see. That being said, in "Galaxy" we thoroughly pursued the matter of having non-staff members play our software while still in development, and incorporated their reactions into the game.

A Mario even beginners can play

Iwata: Speaking of 3D action games, in addition to the problem of motion sickness, not a few people get lost and don't know which way to go to advance. And also not a few people have the feeling that they're bad at 3D action games in general. Now that a 3D Mario is coming out, what kinds of things are we trying for this sort of customer?

Koizumi: The first time I saw the Wii remote, I thought it was a new challenge, and a good one. At any rate we decided to use only 2 buttons. Mario's basic action, jumping, is done with the A button. But on a 3D sphere, jumping on enemies is kind of difficult.

Shimizu: You've said that requiring the player to jump in 3D is pretty outrageous in the first place.

Koizumi: So we devised the spin technique, in which even when the camera is directly above the player, you can get a sense of the distance to your opponent; it sums up to an action that can easily beat them. Moreover, even if you're easygoing, we made sure to make fighting enemies easy. You can stun enemies with your spin and then jump on them at your leisure to easily beat them.

At first during development, we had the player rotate the control stick on the Nunchuck to do a spin. But in the middle of development, the tilt sensor was added to the Wii remote, which made it possible to shake the controller to do a spin. This way, even people who do not normally game can play intuitively.

Shimizu: In the first place, running is the foundation of 3D action games. From a running state, the easiest way to attack is not by jumping but by spinning. That's why in Mario Galaxy, the "running spin" is the basic action.

Iwata: So it's not a jumping game?

Koizumi: Not all stages are spherical; of course there are also jumping-oriented stages to enjoy. If jumping weren't possible it wouldn't be a Mario game, after all. (laughs)

Shimizu: Originally, you could spin continually. If you continued to shake the controller, you could beat enemies one after another. However, Miyamoto-san said "Let's make it so that after you've used the spin once, you can't use it again for a little while. You'll have to think about timing when shaking the remote, and during the spinless period you can be attacked by enemies. This will certainly make things interesting." And so spinning assumed its present form. Adjusting the boss and enemy balance after this was hard. (laughs)

Koimizu: Yet through Miyamoto-san's advice, I think, things fell into place very nicely.

Shimizu: One of the actions that's key in this game is when the Killers (the big Bullet Bills) chase after Mario, and Mario leads them into some object to destroy it. This is managed entirely with the nunchuck stick, so it's easy to play. If we had put in action that made the user press the jump button at the same time, the bar to play would be a little higher. This was also done with the beginning player in mind.

Iwata: In a Mario-style game, it can be generally stated that the fun is kind of like playing sports. One might say "I'm going to challenge this game!" and at the beginning barely be able to play at all. Nevertheless you might hear a voice from on high telling you to try just one more time. (laughs) And when you try and try again through sheer willpower and eventually succeed, you get a real feeling of achievement. But in recent times, I think the number of people that give up right away has increased. And so has the number of people who won't even try a 3D game. Are we making any efforts to win these people over?

Shimizu: I wonder if our enabling 2-player simultaneous cooperative play is the answer to that question.

Iwata: You mean the "assist play", don't you. Actually, I have a deep affinity for 2-player simultaneous play. Miyamoto was the one who created "Mario Bros." [8] and every time he created a new Mario, he'd always think we couldn't do anything interesting with 2-player simultaneous, and that it wouldn't turn out well. In those days, I was at HAL Labs [9], and he would talk to me. We had a conversation at the time we were creating "Kirby Super Deluxe" [10] for the Super Famicom, and he said that the tempo of Kirby was more relaxed than that of Mario, and that 2-player simultaneous play was suited to that.

At the time, I had talked to Masahiro Sakurai (who is working on "Super Smash Bros." at the moment), and we wondered why Miyamoto was bringing up a topic he couldn't solve himself. (laughs)

Thinking back on the difficulties of that time, I felt it would be a hard challenge getting it to work now as well.

Koizumi: That's true. It was harder than we imagined. Through "assist play", you can stop rolling rocks and enemy motion and assist less-skilled players. And an unskilled player can enjoy the game merely by collecting star pieces. Moreover, the second player can use the pointer to indicate which direction to go next, leading to fun conversation.

Shimizu: At the beginning, I wanted to make sure that both players could do similar things. But dividing their responsibilities up was very difficult... however, Miyamoto-san arranged it expertly, and even when beginners participate they can perform a very useful function. Those on our staff who were bad at action games said that assist play was incredibly enjoyable.

Iwata: What sort of things did Miyamoto arrange?

Shimizu: He said that we should make it possible to do things in 2-player simultaneous mode that are not possible in single-player, and that the game should be created with this division in mind. Actually, up to that point, even in single-player mode you could use the pointer to stop rocks and stuff. But what he had suggested meant that this would only be possible in 2-player mode, which made things more balanced--it really felt good.

Iwata: If we had allowed rocks to be stopped even in single-player mode, it would have been a completely different game. However, before this talk about "division", cooperative play must have been in disarray.

Shimizu: Yes, completely so. The simple mantra "divide it up" led to many things being put in order.

Iwata: Miyamoto's oft-used phrase, "an idea is something that solves several problems at once" certainly applies here. (laughs)

For ages 5 to 95

Iwata: Now that you've worked with Miyamoto for a long time on Super Mario Galaxy, I bet you felt there were times you had finished when you hadn't.

Koizumi: Indeed, many times. It was I who "upended the table" [*], though. Miyamoto would actually ask "Why did you overturn it? It was perfectly fine as it was." and then set the table once again.

Iwata: Shigeru Miyamoto, tidier of tables.

All: (laugh)

Iwata: I heard that Miyamoto would help clean up when he overturned the table himself.

Koizumi: I prepared many dishes and tried to throw away the ones that were of no use, but Miyamoto would remark "this idea is good; let's use it over here" and set the dishes back on the table one by one. One got the impression that he was simply tidying up the table for us. This is why I used the allegory of the cook at the very beginning. (laughs)

Iwata: In creating a game, when it is failing there are usually many cooks who try to bring in new ingredients. But Miyamoto is the kind of person who combines this and that into a tasty meal, making use of existing raw materials.

Koizumi: This was extremely helpful.

Iwata: Through great pains and long effort, even a cook can rise to the top.

Shimizu: By the way, Iwata-san, when the Wii and the DS came out you said over and over that they could be enjoyed by people aged 5 to 95. For that reason my staff and I made this our battle cry for Super Mario Galaxy as well.

Koizumi: In order to ensure that anybody can play, the difficulty setting was configured low from the very beginning of development. But Miyamoto-san said if it was overly easy, there would be no tension.

Iwata: "It's bad to make it easy by lowering the tension. We need to make a game with tension that is easy to play." I heard this often. Our earlier conversation about having a fixed time for which spin cannot be used--this is related.

Koizumi: In line with our discussion on tension, in this game we made a very bold proposal--we decided to set LIFE at 3. The result of this is that Mario may die more often, but we decided you could also pick up a lot of 1UPs, and created "restart points". In Mario 64, LIFE was set at 8, and Mario almost never died. In Mario Sunshine LIFE was also 8, but the LIFE parameter was almost completely unrelated to the tension. When a 1UP appeared, it did not inspire any feelings of gratitude. Here we decided on a LIFE of 3, and we rely on the prevalence of 1UPs to offset the fact that it's easier to die.

Iwata: This notion of having 3 or 8 lives significantly changing a game--this is an example of something not obvious to players.

Shimizu: Out of all the factors, wondering how to keep the tension and satisfy your dictum of "from ages 5 to 95" caused a lot of trouble.

Iwata: While we were creating this game, I was constantly haranguing the staff with my "from 5 to 95" message. Of course, many games have been born with this motto in mind, but in creating Mario Galaxy it was quite perplexing. However, out of this, assist play was born, and we feel the response will be to expand our user base.

Finally, would you each say a final word to our customers.

Koizumi: By nature, a Mario game is one you enjoy through exploration more than just clearing it. That's why we made plenty of places where you can just move Mario around and enjoy it, even if you're a little kid. There, you can play without feeling that you need to do something specific; you can find a place that suits you, and I want each person to find his own special way of enjoying the game.

Shimizu: In the end, this is about everyone gathering around the TV. A Mario game is not necessarily played by oneself. In Galaxy, it's possible to create 6 save slots. So you can check out the file created with your Dad's Mii, and see that wow, he got 10 stars right under our noses. And the last played time is right on the file select screen, so you can see your dad played at midnight! From such things great conversations are born (laughs).

Iwata: 22 years ago, when the original Super Mario was introduced, large audiences would gather around the TV. The Famicom established a place in the living room, and family and friends would surround a player, experience his highs and lows, demand their own turn and scramble for the controller. However, with the passage of time, the number of people gathering around games has decreased, and lately playing by oneself has become the norm.

In truth, a well-done game has that community portion in it, where people can have fun simply by watching another play. At long last, the Wii has established its own place in the living room, and an audience is once again gathering around the TV and really enjoying themselves. In the middle of that are people dabbling in assist play; people are playing who don't normally play games at all. If this is the scene that Super Mario Galaxy makes possible, I will be thrilled.

Shimizu: Indeed. We created it precisely for this purpose, so that lots of people can enjoy even a single-player game.

Iwata: Thank you very much for your time. Next time, we'll listen to young members of the EAD Tokyo development staff.

Author: Jim Ursetto <jim at this website dot org>

Date: 2007/10/27 23:35:17