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How Nintendo turned Super Mario Odyssey into the ultimate vacation

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Director Kenta Motokura on Mario’s strangest adventure yet

Super Mario Odyssey

Whenever my hat-shaped spaceship landed on a new location in Super Mario Odyssey, my mind always went to the same place. Stretched out in front of me was a huge expanse of land — sometimes it was a lush jungle, other times an idyllic beach — and all I could think of was where I wanted to go first.

Most big-budget video games are structured like epic quests, but Mario’s new globe-trotting adventure, Super Mario Odyssey, feels a lot more like a vacation. “The theme was basically going on a journey,” explains director Kenta Motokura, “and searching for surprise.” Mario may be trying to save the world, but he’s still going to enjoy his time everywhere he visits.

It’s a feeling that extends throughout Odyssey, thanks to a series of seemingly small details and design choices. In each area you visit, you’re able to buy stickers to decorate your spaceship as if it were a suitcase, and you can also pick up souvenirs to spruce up the interior. After you visit a few worlds, your ship will be full of local knickknacks, each with a story attached, and you’ll have a camera roll full of strange memories from far-flung places.

These aspects were designed explicitly to help you better relate to the world and characters by associating them with experiences that are already familiar to many people. “I think a big thing in all Mario games is the core idea of empathy, of feeling a connection and a reaction to what you do in the game,” says Motokura.

Super Mario Odyssey

Like Super Mario 64 before it, Odyssey offers up large spaces and the freedom to explore them how you like, as opposed to the more linear structure of other 3D Super Mario adventures. The designers at Nintendo then fill those spaces with all kinds of tiny — and often hidden — details to uncover.

It’s a feeling reminiscent of visiting a new city for the first time. It seems intimidatingly large at first, but the best way to get to the good stuff is to go out and see what you can find. And Odyssey encourages this mentality by tucking away items — like local currencies specific to each world — in tough-to-reach spots. You won’t find them if you don’t go looking.

Motokura says that the worlds were inspired by the team’s own travel experiences, leading to levels based on real-world places like Mexico and New York City. But many of the locations were created around the ways they wanted Mario to interact with his surroundings.

“When we had all of those different prototypes, those different play ideas, we also started thinking, ‘Well what kind of location can this fit into? What kind of location would be fun for this play idea?’” Motokura explains. “For example, if we came up with a gameplay idea that kind of required ice or snow, maybe a slippery surface, we would have to think that would be fun to use in a place that had ice or snow.”

Odyssey includes somewhat familiar Super Mario landscapes like a vast undersea kingdom where beautiful plazas are housed in bubbles, and an icy village surrounded by dense fields of snow. But there are also new and unexpected worlds to explore: a prehistoric jungle island complete with lumbering dinosaurs; a colorful food-themed kingdom inhabited by sentient forks; and a dark, ruined castle that looks ripped out of a gritty fantasy role-playing game.

The variety of locations fed back into the creative process. A designer might come up with a new move for Mario that inspired a new world, but once the team started fleshing out the setting, that process led to even more ideas. “It’s always a process of more and more things being added to the game,” says Motokura.

Super Mario Odyssey

The traveling theme also inspired one of Odyssey’s most notable features: a photography tool that lets players capture images, tweak them in a variety of ways, and then share them on social media. For Motokura, an avid traveler and artist who previously worked as a character designer on titles like Super Mario Sunshine and Galaxy, being able to capture moments from the journey was important.

“I’m a very visual person,” he says, “and photography felt like such a natural fit for the game.” Since Odyssey launched last Friday, Twitter has been deluged with snapshots of Mario running across sandy beaches and taking in the bustling crowds and towering skyscrapers of New Donk City.

Of course, with so many disparate places to explore, each with their own distinct look and feel, there was always the potential for Super Mario Odyssey to end up feeling like a disconnected series of spaces. Ultimately, that turned out not to be the case. Instead, Odyssey is surprisingly cohesive — and Motokura has a theory as to why.

“Even though there are lots of different countries and environments, I think the character of Mario, and his impact, is so strong that it’s very easy to understand,” he says. “It makes sense if Mario is there.”