Few game franchises manage to consistently redefine the medium like Super Mario. There’s not a single game character more iconic than the mustachioed plumber, and Nintendo’s aiming to reinvent platformers all over again with Super Mario Bros. Wonder. The first 2D Mario in more than a decade features transforming stages, emergent multiplayer modes, and the instantly beloved Elephant power-up.
Surprisingly, that power-up was initially intended for just Mario himself.
“Midway through development, the only character that actually transformed into the elephant was Mario. But from there we created the Peach elephant transformation, the Toadette transformation, and the artwork started to catch up to the idea,” producer Takashi Tezuka tells Inverse. “The artists really liked how cute Peach’s eyes were when she transformed into an elephant. That made it exciting for us to continue that development process.”
Ahead of Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s release in October, Inverse spoke with Tezuka and game director Shiro Mouri, both of whom have a long and storied history with the franchise. The pair provided a ton of insight into the development of Wonder — and how the “methodology they employed will influence future titles.”
It’s been a decade since the last 2D Mario entry. How has that changed your approach with Wonder?
Mouri: There are two concepts that we wanted to explore. The first one is “packed with secrets and mysteries,” and the second is “freedom of choice.”
The original Mario Bros. was packed with secrets and mysteries, like eating a mushroom to get bigger or using a pipe to travel down, instead of as an obstacle. With that idea, it became challenging, as we noticed all the secrets and mysteries started to become standardized.
We felt that we needed to overcome this challenge, so we came up with the idea for a new item that warps you to a different area. We created a prototype of this and we showed Mr. Tezuka and he said, “Well, if you’re just warping to a different area, it’s the same thing. Can’t you just change where you are right now?”
When I heard the word, ‘change,’ it made me think, if I’m going to change, let’s just do the entire screen, the entire course.
When we started testing this out, we started off with things like what if a pipe came to life and started wiggling around? Or what if we tilted the entire screen one way, or maybe we have to travel on a horde of enemies? That was kind of the conception of wonder.
Tezuka: They were really hard to create and implement, so I think Mr. Mouri was thinking, “We’ll create a few of these wonders and sprinkle them out over a few courses.”
Mouri: That’s exactly what I thought! [Laughs] Mr. Tezuka suggested we create a unique Wonder for each level, and when I asked, “Are we really doing that?” He said, “Yes, we are.”
It takes a lot of work even just to create one wonder. But on top of that, in every course, there’s going to be a version where you touch the Wonder Flower and a version where you haven’t. Our level designers were like, “No, that’s not possible.”
For a different approach, we decided no matter how long someone had worked at Nintendo, or what part of the game they were working on, we’d all pitch ideas. That led to over 2,000 ideas that we narrowed down.
It really makes a difference having a proof of concept, something that’s actually moving, to see if it’s going to work or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new employee or an idea that the producer tosses out — what’s good is good.
Tezuka: Our process for development is that every person on staff becomes a game planner. But this time we pulled more out of people, we made it a richer or more intense experience.
Wonder introduces new multiplayer elements like standees. Were there any games that you looked to for inspiration for these elements, and did you run into any challenges during development?
Mouri: There wasn’t any game we took inspiration from, but we made sure to start the game design with single-player, local multiplayer, and online multiplayer in mind. We tried to think of a multiplayer experience that really fits a Mario game, and part of that was live player shadows. These are shadows of players that are actually, in real time, playing the game in your course at that moment.
Because Mario is at the very basic, fundamental level an action game, when we talk about multiplayer, we thought that it should also involve being able to play multiplayer with players across the globe, in real-time.
Something that I was envisioning, in the beginning, was say, if you fall down a pit or you dîe, you are turned into a ghost. And there is an action element where other players can then go to help you.
What we came up with to resolve that potential issue was the idea of standees. It provides an option for players to revive themselves if there’s no live player shadow, and allows for them to still enjoy that gameplay experience.
How do you make sure you strike a balance on difficulty between longtime players and those who might be playing their first video game?
Mouri: Going back to our concept, we focus on freedom of choice. On the world map, you can play any course you want, and their difficulty is depicted by stars. Using this you can decide which ones might be too difficult. You can also choose to play as any character, and characters like Yoshi and Nabbit don’t take damage even if you make contact with an enemy. Other options, like the Badge system, provide options for novice players, like a badge that automatically rescues you if you fall down a pit.
There’s also a badge that turns you invisible. I see this probably more as something for advanced players who want to play the game with a little bit of restriction or limitation.
Where did the idea for the Elephant power-up come from? Was there ever a moment where you thought the idea wouldn’t work?
Mouri: There were three things that we wanted to do.
The first thing is to make the body a little bit bigger. When the body is bigger, it’s easier to hit blocks, stop enemies, and collect coins. We thought that changing the fundamental mechanics of Mario would be a refreshing experience.
The second thing we wanted to do was hit blocks from the side, which provides opportunities for players to explore areas they couldn’t reach without it.
The third thing is to spray water. For example, there’s a withered flower, you water it, the flower blooms, and something happens.
When we tried to put these three concepts together, we thought about the optimal way to give it form. And elephant was the only answer.
Tezuka: There was a time during development when I liked the spraying of water on flowers, but we just didn’t have a lot of places where we could use it. I just thought the balance didn’t seem very Mario-esque to me. I thought if we were able to create more instances to use the water spraying mechanic, that would fulfill the potential of the elephant transformation.
You recently talked about how Wonder wasn’t developed on a deadline. What opportunities did that afford you?
Tezuka: Until we were able to hit that pace of creating wonder for each individual main course, we weren’t able to actually come up with that deadline for that development schedule. If we did have a set deadline for that creation there’s going to be a point where people say “This is all we can do.” So rather than focusing on what we could do by this deadline, we wanted people to focus on what are all the interesting things we could bring to game development.
When we were starting to feel a pace for development progress, that’s when we said okay, now we can create a deadline. One day, I just said, Okay, we have a year and a half left. And I think they panicked.
Mouri: We said yeah that’s pretty tight. But with a lot of work, I’m sure we can do it. [Laughs]