Iwata Asks: Super Mario Galaxy

Iwata Asks: Super Mario Galaxy

Volume 2: Producer and Designer

(Official Nintendo USA translation is now up.)

(This article is my rough translation of volume 2 of the Iwata Asks: Super Mario Galaxy series. Content is copyright Nintendo, who is not responsible in any manner for this translation.)

The essence of Mario

Iwata: Welcome to "Iwata Asks (Business Trip Edition)" No. 2. Making an appearance in this installment are five young developers from EAD Tokyo. I'm really looking forward to this conversation. Please introduce yourselves, everyone.

Hayashida: I'm Hayashida of EAD Tokyo. I'm in charge of the overall organization of stages. My job is mainly to create the flow of the game based on the opinions of the staff.

Shimizu: I'm Shimizu of EAD Tokyo. I'm primarily in charge of the movement and animation of Mario.

Aoyagi: I'm Aoyagi of EAD Tokyo. I'm in charge of Mario's gravity system, and enemy and boss programming.

Shirai: I'm Shirai of EAD Tokyo. Similarly to Hayashida-san, I work on stage organization but at a more detailed level. As component is piled on top of component, my job is to make adjustments so that the entire system remains balanced.

Motokura: I'm Motokura of EAD Tokyo. I'm in charge of character design. I pretty much do anything related to characters--players, bosses, objects, you name it.

Iwata: The first thing I'd like to ask is, for how many of you is this your first Mario game?

Aoyagi: (raises hand) ... Just me. (laughs)

Iwata: The other four of you have experience working on Super Mario Sunshine and others. What was your impression, Aoyagi-san, when you found out you would be creating your first Mario game?

Aoyagi: Needless to say, Mario is Nintendo's flagship title. My true feelings didn't reveal themselves right away. I kind of felt like "I'm really making a Mario game...?" For that reason I made sure to constantly think about the "meaning of Mario".

Iwata: The Zelda team discusses the essence of Zelda amongst themselves to the very end while creating that game. I haven't heard much regarding discussions on the essence of Mario, though. Hayashida-san, as someone who has worked previously on Mario, what you do think is the essence of Mario?

Hayashida: Shigeru Miyamoto has said that the essence of Mario and Zelda is almost identical; only the course of the games differ. It was a big shock to me when I heard this.

Iwata: Miyamoto said the same in the Zelda chapter of "Iwata asks: Wii Project" [1].

Hayashida: Something I've discussed often with the director, Koizumi-san, is that play control is important in Mario games. The essence of a Mario game is that of feeling good in your hands, having a sense of responsiveness; it ought to always feel like a new toy. And I think Mario is a brand that represents our games.

When we create a new product, customer hopes are very high; it's important to respect Mario tradition, but at the same time we have to exhibit new elements of play. In this way, a Mario title is somewhat of a dilemma for us.

Iwata: There are things you have to inherit, and at the same time, new things you have to exhibit. Achieving a balance between these is hard. Shimizu-san, you've worked on Mario before. What do you think?

Shimizu: When you think Mario, you think jumping. We wrote a lot of code while creating the game, but the code for jumping was the most complex. There are ten-odd varieties of jump, and these change completely according to the current mode of operation. So I think jumping is the heart of Mario.

Iwata: Shirai-san, as the person in charge of stage organization, what do you think?

Shirai: The first time I played Super Mario Bros. was as a 4th year elementary school student [fourth-grader]. It was fun, and I played without thinking, on pure instinct. And moreover, obstacles would appear one after another, and I would think "man, enough already" ... and yet...

Iwata: ... you'd hear that voice saying "just one more time!" and challenge that game over and over. (laughs)

Shirai: Exactly. (laughs) In Galaxy, I wanted our customers to once again get a taste of this desire to challenge the game over and over. Although you are aware of what your next move is, getting it done is not easy, yet you can clear it after challenging it many times; this is a game in which a comfortable difficulty level and balance are highly important.

Iwata: Not too hot, but not too cold either; instead, it's just right.

Shirai: That is what Mario is. You know what you're supposed to do, but you also know if you make a mistake that it's your own fault. Thus, you want to try again.

Iwata: I know this feeling well. (laughs) In a Mario game, if I do poorly I'm led to believe I'm to blame, not the creators. Motokura-san, as designer, what do you think?

Motokura: Speaking from a design point of view, Miyamoto-san has said "it must be functional". As a designer, you are inclined to make the functionality come from the design of the character in and of itself. But he said if you do this, you lose sight of the function.

Iwata: In Mario, this is like when a turtle or something appears on-screen, and you can tell with just a single glance that it would be painful to jump on.

Motokura: That's why we decided to add spikes and things like that... thinking about this sort of thing is the kind of mental attitude of design.

Iwata: This concept came straight from none other than Miyamoto-san, who studied industrial design as a student. That form follows function.

Motokura: From the start, I've had in my head a certain image of Mario-like characters. But it would be a bad idea, generally, to draw from this image. And characters as they appeared earlier in the series or combinations of characters are out as well. So, after I got a reliable reading on the concept of the new character, I grasped its function. Once this was put into the design, I drew it easily. Also, you might think "what?" as this is coming from a designer, but when it comes to enemy characters there are also places where enemies are just there to get beaten by Mario.

All: (laugh)

Motokura: These enemies must be related to the terrain. However well-designed an enemy, if it's not involved with the terrain, they won't work. So, if enemies are placed on terrain suiting them, it ensures they can be beaten by Mario in a most pleasant way.

The merit of spheres

Iwata: Through Mario, we've seen the evolution of the jumping game. In this game the theme is gravity, the stages are spherical and furthermore the setting is space. If you were to hear only this, your mind would fill with question marks. When you first heard of the Mario Galaxy project, what was everyone's first impression?

Hayashida: Very positive, myself. The spherical theme had been around since the launch of the Gamecube, and I thought it ought to be done sometime.

Iwata: Were you able to get a sense of the merit, the value of creating a spherical-terrain-based game from an early stage?

Hayashida: The approach looked really fresh, but as we had decided on a jumping game I thought also it wasn't really suitable. But I thought that if we prepared a new style of play that made use of the spherical aspect, it might solve this problem.

Iwata: And thus the spin action was born. What did you think, Shimizu-san?

Shimizu: To be frank, I was pretty negative.

Iwata: That is, I think, a very natural reaction. One might wonder uncertainly at first what exactly going with spherical terrain would make more interesting, and in what way.

Shimizu: In my case, I wondered as well if such a thing could be created practically. We had done Jungle Beat earlier, and although that was a 2D game we were out of breath just finishing it; this would be a big leap over previous 3D games, and I wondered how and if we could create such a "super-3D" game.

After the project had gone through, and I found out the programming job had devolved onto me, I felt a sense of impending crisis.

All: (laugh)

Iwata: You thought you might have gotten swallowed up in some crazy job--you sensed danger. (laugh)

Shimizu: And therefore, I was opposed to it with all my power.

All: (burst out laughing)

Iwata: You felt so negative, and yet your impression turned positive. When did that happen?

Shimizu: The change came relatively recently. All I was doing day after day was writing code, and I hadn't gotten the chance to play the game through. After we entered the final stage of development, while I was debugging, I tried playing through from the top. Doing this--I got such a sense of freshness. "I'm playing a game unlike any before it," I thought.

Iwata: That kind of sensation is so important. With surprises in games becoming fewer, it's a sense that you're holding something different from everything before it. Shirai-san, do you think there are any other merits to spherical terrain?

Shirai: When it was decided that I would be in charge of stage organization, and I first heard about this project, I wondered what kinds of bodies it would be fun to float in space. We floated ice cream cones and apples and stuff, and it was fun to run around those, and different ideas just gushed forth.

Iwata: Various ideas came about just from the setting of the game in space.

Shirai: This is why both Hayashida and myself started with a positive impression. Ideas came to mind, and were immediately written down and stuck on the wall. Raising our eyes to the heavens, we saw many shapes spread out against the sky, and we felt we had to try to put them in the game. And revolving around to the underside of a planet, one can discover another planet previously unknown--this is the unique merit of spheres.

Iwata: Designer Motokura, what say you?

Motokura: Though we speak of coming and going between planets, I think previous games would do this by completely changing scene and moving to an entirely different stage. In Galaxy, Mario lands on planets like a gymnast--it's so smooth, and you can enjoy adventures on different planets. Moreover, many varieties of planets float in a compact void of space, so even design-wise this is unlike any game before it.

Aoyagi: Additionally, I think scenes like the one where a gargantuan boss suddenly appears on a little planet have a great impact.

Hayashida: I think one big point of merit is that even though this is a 3D game, it's rare that you have no idea where to go next. The sensation of wandering from planet to planet is similar to that of the worlds in 2D Marios.

Iwata: Being able to see, through the void of space, the planet where you ought to go from here... even if you're running around, you get the impression you can go there without getting lost.

Hayashida: That's why I suspect even people who are bad at 3D action games can enjoy this one.

Iwata: Even so, I bet you heard all kinds of things from the playtesters along the lines of not understanding what to do.

Shirai: Oh, yes. When this happens, we redo the content and such, but sometimes instead, we made Toad pop up here and there to give you a hint. This is kind of a bad solution, but... (smiles bitterly)

Iwata: Solving this with text--it does solve the problem, but as developers, there is that sense of defeat. (laughs)

Shirai: Yes. That is the last resort. (laughs) To solve something by way of design is better... to create a design in which with one glance you can tell what Mario needs to do.

Motokura: And when you see spikes you're in trouble.

All: (laugh)

Iwata: Certainly, you take one look at spikes and you know Mario is in for a painful experience. (laughs)

From anxiety to confidence

Iwata: During the two and a half years that everyone has been working on this game, the game market has changed. The Nintendo DS was released in 2004; in 2005 the "Touch Generations" games were hits one after another and the definition of games expanded; and the Wii came out the following year. In the midst of this dramatic change in environment, everyone here was absorbed in the job before them. What were you thinking during this time?

Shirai: I must honestly confess that on hearing that the DS was a huge hit and that the main office in Kyoto was full of energy, I felt rather alienated. I kind of thought we had been left behind. Of course we were located in Tokyo, which had the merit that we were able to focus on our job, but I also had the feeling that Nintendo as a whole were doing something different.

Iwata: You were anxious that everyone else might be proceeding in the opposite direction.

Shirai: It seemed like the rest of the world was moving in the direction of light games. We were working on a classic game, and I thought it likely no one would play it.

Iwata: How did your anxiety come to be alleviated?

Shirai: Last year, at the E3 in America [3], at the Japanese "Wii Personal Experience Meeting" [4], and so on, when we saw how many kiosks were being prepared for Super Mario Galaxy, we were like "we weren't abandoned!"

All: (laugh)

Iwata: There was never any reason to think so. (laughs)

Shirai: I believe it now. (laughs) I did the work to create the stage data for the E3 version. For people who were bad at 3D games, I was really nervous whether they would be able to play properly, as they were not even walking straight ahead, on heretofore unseen spherical levels. I made sure to completely destroy and revise the places where such people would have difficulty, and still, it was impossible to wipe away this feeling of anxiety.

Iwata: However, even the customers did not abandon you. (laughs)

Shirai: Yes. Seeing the long lines at last year's "Wii Personal Experience Meeting", I realized that lots of people were demanding a Mario game, and I was really happy. Moreover, this teeny-tiny 5-year-old kid was really enjoying playing. I thought if even a young elementary-school student--and other similar customers I observed--was able to beat a boss, then things really were going well. It was then that my anxiety turned to confidence.

Iwata: Up to that point, you felt like you'd been left behind on a desert island, and then the Wii meeting happened and it was like you'd discovered a bridge to dry land. What does everyone think of Shirai-san's story of transformation from anxiety to confidence?

Hayashida: Until just before I went to E3 last year, I was pulling all-nighters to finish the E3 version up, and I got on the plane totally sleep-deprived. When I checked in, I nearly forgot to hand over my luggage.

All: (laugh)

Hayashida: And so, I somehow stumbled along into the conference hall in America, and when I saw what a huge line there was for the Super Mario Galaxy exhibit--all my fatigue instantly evaporated.

Iwata: The reception at E3 was really great. Everyone playing looked to really be enjoying themselves.

Hayashida: At the E3 hall, Super Mario Galaxy was placed in the interior of the Nintendo booth. Before reaching it, people would see Wii Sports et cetera, and we thought Galaxy would be more or less unsurprising. However, lots of people were delighted, and so for the first time we were able to feel things would go well.

At any rate, this was a gaming first, and in our hearts we were self-confident, but before our customers saw it we were naturally apprehensive.

Shimizu: In my case, when I was experimenting with the Wii Remote, honestly speaking, I was wondering if we could really create a game with a controller like this.

Iwata: As a developer you wondered at one time whether a 3D Mario could be created that used a remote you held in one hand. It was a realm in which you could not use the know-how cultivated from previous Mario games.

Shimizu: However, when the Wii came out, everyone accepted it before our very eyes, and we knew the "Wii way" was not a mistake.

Iwata: Before the Wii came out, you didn't believe in it. (laughs) However, there were so many people that thought this way, and it's also significant that developers had the same sense as the average person.

Hayashida: And then another big factor in my own anxiety turning to confidence was when Co-Star mode [*] became available. It was to the point where in the staff rooms people would forget they were working and exclaim that the 2-player game was so fun. (laughs)

Shirai: Next to where I was sitting, the staff were playing a lot of Co-Star Mode. It looked enjoyable to an almost painful extent. Next to that I just continued working silently. (laughs) Moreover, I could hear really lively conversations. Stuff like "get that enemy in the upper left!" and "which way should I go?" The ability for 2 people to play together and make noise as the staff did is an element that has not been present in recent Mario games. That is incredibly fresh, and I feel it has great potential.

Hayashida: At the time of the original Super Mario Bros., when 2 players would play and one died, the other would want a turn and they would alternate play. With Co-Star Mode, I think that you can similarly switch off who is going to assist.

Shirai: Additionally, when the gaming-impaired girlfriend plays, the boyfriend can help her out. That would be quite exciting.

Iwata: People who have only experienced things like "Brain Age" can, via Co-Star Mode, be helped out by expert players, and it would be great if they wanted to try moving Mario around by themselves.

Shirai: Indeed. I'd like everyone to experience it personally!

Born from the memo of a female staffer

Iwata: From the start, "Mario" has meant a game whose great play control results in a high degree of freedom. You become Caped Mario and fly in the sky; turn gigantic; and even at times, morph into a racoon! However, this time around the transformations are especially thorough. Bee Mario is kind of like cheating, though. (laughs)

All: (laugh)

Motokura: Speaking of Bee Mario, he actually has the aspect of helping the beginner. We ensured that even people who can't jump very well can accomplish their mission by flying around.

Iwata: Based on the playtesters, Bee Mario is really popular with the ladies.

Motokura: Actually, there was a time when Bee Mario looked completely different from the way he does now. But everybody complained really loudly that it "just wasn't Mario." (laughs)

Iwata: I'm glad that changed.

Shimizu: In the end, we had the transformation to Bee Mario come about via a specific item. At the beginning, though, it was done through an incantation. While under the influence of this spell, you'd be turned into a bee unwillingly; moreover, Mario's actions were restricted. So you'd really want to return quickly to your original form. (regretfully) ... however ... during the time when I was diligently coding Mario's actions, the course changed without me being aware of it...

Iwata: That was certainly a good decision. The weirdness of Spring Mario is also good.

Shimizu: That form in itself is under a spell.

All: (laugh)

Motokura: The directive came from Koizumi-san, the director, to create a Mario who would keep jumping for a long time.

Iwata: Naturally, function is preferred over design.

Motokura: I thought about how jumping should feel, and settled on the present form.

Shimizu: With Spring Mario, if you try to play a normal course, it's really interesting. He doesn't move like the player thinks he will, and this is one aspect of the fun of the game.

Iwata: I understand this feeling well. There are times when you use Kirby's technique to take an unsuitable ability, and it leads to clearing the stage.

Shimizu: That's why in the early days of development, we talked about making it possible to transform into Bee or Spring Mario anywhere, but as I expected, the game's balance crumbled so we gave it up.

Iwata: Of course, Mario was able to transform into various guises in previous games, but in this game, with Boo Mario and so on the breadth of this has expanded greatly, and I think you could say the number of transformations is at a series high. Was this the work of someone or other? (laughs)

Hayashida: Of course, the first idea came from the director, Koizumi-san. A female staffer was given the topic "If Mario transforms, what would be a good form?" and she put up a memo suggesting Bee Mario. Upon seeing this Koizumi-san happily exclaimed "Bee Mario?!" "We've gotta create stages made for Bee Mario," he said, and this kind of talk steadily progressed from there.

Iwata: The organization of the game changed from the single idea of Bee Mario. It gave us more work, but everyone talks about it really enjoyably.

Hayashida: Of course, the first time I saw Spring Mario and others move, it was really interesting. When I saw it, I was holding my stomach I was laughing so hard. However, I then came to my senses with a gasp, thinking "but it's my job to do stage layout..."

All: (laugh)

Iwata: The fact that everyone on the staff was enjoying Super Mario Galaxy while they were creating it must be reflected in the product.

Shirai: Many really great character ideas came from the Character Team, and the Map Team was whipping up ideas as well... they created the characters out of a mutual discussion of opinions. So I think the teamwork was really great. When the idea for Boo Mario came out, we were wondering what we should do with this guy, and we settled on making something like the mansion in Luigi's Mansion [5]; thinking about the layout of this stage was really fun.

Iwata: The space setting was a really profitable source of ideas, wasn't it. Pretty much anything goes.

Hayashida: That's why we could have a planet shaped like an apple. If this were Zelda, an apple-shaped planet would be right out. (laughs)

All: (laugh)

Shirai: Even if Yoshi's face is hanging in space, it's not at all disconcerting.

Hayashida: However, I still worried whether a planet shaped like Yoshi's face would be okay, and I asked Miyamoto-san, who replied with a single word: "Yeah." (laughs)

Iwata: Miyamoto-san had a pretty wide influence on this project; is there anything he did that, as creators, you thought perhaps was somewhat regrettable?

Shimizu: Really only one thing...

In the early days of development, you could pull in coins surrounding Mario with your spin. However, we could not get Miyamoto-san's approval on this; he said Mario had to move toward and physically contact them, and that's what we wound up doing in the end. However, you can't grab coins easily this way, and this was really regrettable ...

All: (laugh)

Shirai: From my team's perspective, Mario games are all about picking up lots of coins... in the early days, coins were put all over the map. However, Miyamoto warned that having so many would make coins less significant ...

So, coins became a way to recover health and were restricted, and the things you could gather were consolidated into Star Pieces. Doing this, the game's balance was really tightened down. When I saw the result I thought Miyamoto had really done a great job.

Shimizu: Raising the value of each coin and making the player grab each one specially really added value.

Iwata: Miyamoto-san grasped the essential difference between simply making coin-grabbing into work and making it into a valuable action, and it really set things in order.

Easy to play, hard to master

Iwata: With the ability to become Bee Mario, the addition of assist play and so on, we created a game that beginning players will find easy to play. Still, I think that quite a few people misunderstand that intermediate or expert players will find it unenjoyable. However, I'm sure that you in charge of development must certainly think this is untrue. (laughs)

Hayashida: That cannot be emphasized enough. This game is huge. Also, there are lots of variations on play, and stages that expert players can really sink their teeth into. If an expert player goes through the regular stages, you can fight enemies in a cool way.

Iwata: We call this "Super Splendid Play".

Hayashida: You will definitely want to record this and show everybody else.

Iwata: It answers the needs of people demanding the sports-like challenge of a traditional Mario.

Shimizu: Actually, I'm one of those people. So I put the things I like in there, of course.

Shimizu: If I might use a car analogy, anyone can use an automatic from the first, but as you become more comfortable and switch over to manual, you can control the car more to your liking. So it's truly the case that beginners to experts can enjoy it, and we were really conscious of this in creating the game.

Iwata: It's easy to say the game is both broad and deep, and yet there must be places where it is hard to make these compatible.

Shimizu: You might call that "camouflage"...

Iwata: What a great expression. (laughs) In other words, on the surface it's wearing a soft sheepskin, but inside is packed a hard sports-oriented core.

Shimizu: It was thoroughly created this way.

Aoyagi: But, if you only do hard things, even expert players may just punt. You're not training to be a monk, here. I think the level of difficulty is such that it is still enjoyable.

Shirai: Among my responsibilities were the EX (extra) stages; you can play them for a short time, but they're really "spicy". Even maniacal players will shiver in fear.

Iwata: So even expert players will get sweaty palms.

Shirai: I'd really like it if the people demanding levels they can bite into would play the EX stages. The music is really cute too.

Iwata: This is camouflage as well. (laughs)

Shirai: However, even if you don't clear them, you may still advance.

Iwata: Finally, please say a few words to the customers who are waiting for the release of Galaxy.

Hayashida: (taking a memo out of his pocket)

Actually, I've been charged with a message from the staff who were not interviewed. May I?

All: (laugh)

Hayashida: "Please be certain to play the Tamakoro (Ball Roll) stage."

Aoyagi: "Ball Roll" uses the tilt sensor, and was originally one of our experiments in how to control Mario. However, it was much more fun to play with a ball than with Mario. So we made a game of it.

Hayashida: And also: there are pseudo-2D stages, and when you come to them it'll feel as if you're returning to your old hometown, and they've been created with such a suitable sound and beat... we really want you to play these parts... the members of our staff humbly suggest. (laughs)

Shimizu: It's become a game rich in variety. Moreover, the degree of difficulty has been adjusted to reach a balance where you won't think something is impossible, and we've fashioned a perfect answer to those who would ask "why can't I find this guy I'm looking for?" (laughs)

We thoroughly designed every nook and cranny of this game, and we want you to enjoy it thoroughly.

Aoyagi: I created the gravity code, so I'd love it if you run all around weird planets and enjoy a heretofore unparalleled experience. Also, speaking as a programmer, we were really particular about making this run at 60 frames per second, so please enjoy the glass-like smoothness of the display.

Shirai: What I'd like to say concerns the Toad exploration party ("Toad Brigade"). You'll naturally get lonely as you venture through the vast depths of space. However, from time to time you'll meet Toad, who will give you hints, cheer you on and so forth. I get the sense you'll be travelling deep space with Toad and friends in order to rescue Peach. Also, there are hidden stages, and pipes in unexpected places, so you can taste the joy of discovery; I want you to fully enjoy every nook and cranny of this, the vast world of Super Mario Galaxy.

Iwata: Exploring every nook and cranny may turn out to be a impossible proposition. (laughs)

Motokura: We put in sooooooo many planets.

Iwata: Thank you so much, everyone. Next time, we return to Kyoto and talk to a different set of developers.

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

Date: 2007/10/27 23:55:36