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Nintendo’s Yoshiaki Koizumi on Super Mario Odyssey and the future of the Switch

Nintendo’s Yoshiaki Koizumi on Super Mario Odyssey and the future of the Switch

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Super Mario Odyssey producer Yoshiaki Koizumi
Sam Byford / The Verge

Yoshiaki Koizumi has been the face of the Nintendo Switch ever since its launch event in January, but he’s also been intimately involved with the Super Mario series for decades, serving as assistant director on the groundbreaking Super Mario 64 and directing the subsequent Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy

That continues with Super Mario Odyssey for the Nintendo Switch, which Koizumi is producing. I got to play it for the first time at this week’s Gamescom trade show in Cologne, Germany, and it’s just as dizzyingly inventive as it appeared earlier this summer. Koizumi is the perfect person with whom to discuss Mario, Odyssey, and the Switch itself, which is exactly what I did in a wide-ranging interview conducted a little after I put the controller down. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Did you know from the beginning of Odyssey’s development that it was going to be a Mario game, or did you design the concept first and decide to apply Mario later on?

Our team is always thinking about how to make new, exciting, fresh experiences, and the overall concept of the game, of traveling between kingdoms and collecting power moves and the basic setting, that was something that was decided at a very early stage of the process. In terms of deciding to make a Mario game and deciding to make it that kind of game, those are things that were both decided at the same time. 

The 3D Super Mario series has a very strong reputation and the games don’t come out so often — there’s only one or two on every system. Since the expectation for their quality is always so high, is there any pressure when deciding on the concept for each game?

I would say that rather than feeling pressure externally, the pressure we feel is the pressure we put ourselves under to make the best game possible — that's something that we always have in mind while creating the games. As an example of that, creating the game at 60 frames per second is something where we held ourselves to a very high standard with this game. 

Through your involvement with the Super Mario series, you’ve often been responsible for the story elements, like the storybook sequences in Super Mario Galaxy. Odyssey is a big departure in terms of theme and tone, so I’m curious about your thoughts on continuity and story and the role they play in the series.

I think the basis for all of the story in the Super Mario series goes back to the original Super Mario Bros., and that basic set up of Princess Peach being kidnapped by Bowser and Mario having to go and try to save her. And I think it's because it had that emotional resonance of giving players greater motivation to actually go and try to complete the game. And in every new game having the difficulty or struggle that has to be overcome was solved in terms of creating a story.

So an example of that would be Super Mario Galaxy. Taking Mario out of his regular world and putting him in space would be something that, if done without enough context, could have confused players and made people think. “Why is this happening?” So creating the story and the context for that change in setting was a very important part of developing that game. The story allows for the kind of gravity-defying play which was unique to Super Mario Galaxy.

I don’t think of story as being the central focus of Super Mario games, but the two important roles that it plays are firstly providing a motivation and an emotional driving factor for the player to play the game and complete it. And secondly, to provide context for the game mechanics and the actions that are contained within the game. I think that players create their own story in a video game and so it's not necessarily for the creator to map that out. 

Super Mario Odyssey

One interesting new element in Super Mario Odyssey is the inclusion of a dinosaur. I like Mario and I like dinosaurs, so I would like you to explain this dinosaur. How did it get into Mario’s world, or is it just Yoshi with better graphics?

[Laughs] Firstly, not directly relating to the T-rex, but I would say that for example with New Donk City in this game, the fact that there are realistically proportioned human beings was a result of the desire to express the kind of strange feeling you might get when travelling to a new place, seeing something that you've never seen before, and encountering unfamiliar things, which in this game Mario is doing. And if Yoshi and the T-rex met and looked at each other, they'd probably both be kind of puzzled. But just within the general theme of surprise within the game, having a T-rex appear doesn't feel out of place. 

Rather than just trying to create a real version of Yoshi, for example, having an actual Tyrannosaurus Rex in the game and specifically calling it a T-rex was an attempt to strengthen that sense that there are unfamiliar elements in this Mario game. The gap between what people are familiar with as a dinosaur that lived on this planet, the T-rex, and what you would normally expect to find in a Mario game is, for us, a way of achieving that sense of surprise that fits into the overall theme of travel. 

Can you speak about Shigeru Miyamoto’s involvement in this game? Do you have to sign off with him on things like adding a T-rex to the game, as the creator of Mario?

The involvement of Mr. Miyamoto in this project is pretty similar to previous projects as well, in that we will go to him and say “this is the kind of game we want to make, this is what we're hoping to achieve,” and he will look at it and give his feedback and advice and ideas. In terms of actually how much of his advice we take on, we have a degree of flexibility and a degree of autonomy. And for Super Mario Odyssey, actually I'd say he left us to our own devices quite a lot.

The 3D Super Mario games are often seen as good examples of how Nintendo uses its own unique hardware, going back to Super Mario 64. Was there anything about the Switch that you particularly wanted to make use of for Super Mario Odyssey?

“You can easily do meaningful things with only two or three minutes to play.”

Most of the 3D Mario projects I've worked on in the past were titles for home consoles, and for me it was always a dream to be able to take that kind of gameplay experience out of the house. So one of the big considerations when creating Super Mario Odyssey was that idea of being able to make a home console 3D Mario that could also be taken and played on the go. Another big feature of the Switch is that it comes with two controllers attached, and so creating a Mario game that could be played using one of those controllers in each hand and incorporating motion control functionality was another key consideration. And the third consideration was making a game that makes use of the HD rumble feature.

The last home console game in the series, Super Mario 3D World, was based on the design of a handheld game, Super Mario 3D Land, so it seems like that’s the kind of game that would work well both at home and on the go. But Super Mario Odyssey is a lot more ambitious and expansive than those games, so were there any challenges in making it work both as a console and portable title?

Because of the nature of the Nintendo Switch as a home console that you can also take with you, from the very outset we were very carefully considering making a game that would work in both of those ways. Although it is sort of different to a 3D Land or a 3D World, Super Mario Odyssey really does contain a lot of elements which can be enjoyed in very short game play sessions, which is more of a handheld-oriented feature. But you can easily do meaningful things in Super Mario Odyssey with only two or three minutes to play it.

Super Mario Odyssey

Until recently Nintendo’s software development has been divided between home consoles and portable consoles, and a lot of Nintendo series have their own styles for different types of systems — for example the Legend of Zelda games usually have a top-down perspective on handhelds. Because of the Switch’s design, do you think that kind of portable-focused game design will go away, or will Nintendo still make games that theoretically could have been played on a classically portable system in the past?

So Nintendo is still continuing with Nintendo 3DS alongside Nintendo Switch. But I would say in terms of game design for Nintendo Switch, I feel that the distinction you made in your question about the difference between handheld-focused design and home console-focused design, perhaps already that distinction has gone. Think about a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It's a very large game, but a lot of the play within that game, like going and completing shrines — there are lots of them and each one is quite small. So that is an example of a game that lends itself to either the handheld or home console style of play. And I think going forward that approach of designing games that really are already for both is the most likely.

But irrespective of technical capability, some people might prefer top-down Zelda games, or for example you also have games like Metroid: Samus Returns for 3DS coming soon. If you were to make future games in those franchises for the Switch, would they be 3D by necessity or would Nintendo still consider a 2D perspective for these types of games?

I wouldn’t necessarily consider a top-down Zelda or a side-scrolling Metroid games that have to be on a handheld, and there are of course people who like those kinds of games. And I think for Nintendo Switch I could definitely imagine those types of games appearing for it. At E3 this year a new side-scrolling Yoshi title was announced, and I imagine that going forward those types of games will be able to be played at home or on the go.

One of the Switch’s more unique features is the ability to play multiplayer games anywhere. Can you talk a little about how this works in Super Mario Odyssey?

The multiplayer co-op functionality was something we were thinking about right from the start of development because the Nintendo Switch has two Joy-Con. As I mentioned earlier you can play single-player using both Joy-Con, one in either hand, But by handing a Joy-Con to a friend you can also play cooperatively, and in that mode one player would control Mario and one player would control Cappy. And so yeah, the anytime, anywhere, with anyone element of the Nintendo Switch is very much present in Super Mario Odyssey

How have you found the reaction to this feature of the Switch in general? I think when the system was announced everyone saw the commercial with people playing at parties and so on and were wondering if that would actually happen, but it seems like it is happening — did you expect it to be popular in this way?

I think a big part of my job is having a dream and thinking “wouldn't it be cool if we could actually make this or actually do this,” and then getting a lot of people to work very hard to make that a reality. Videos like that commercial are quite a good way, I think, of just being able to directly communicate what we were hoping to achieve and show people our vision.

“A big part of my job is having a dream and thinking 'wouldn't it be cool if...'”

At the time we were thinking for us to communicate this message to people, it might take one or two years for it actually to catch on. We were thinking we would need to be persistent. But one thing I am really happy about is that it hasn't taken one or two years for that to get through and for people to adopt it — people have consciously taken it to heart in quite a short space of time. 

And of course my ultimate dream is for everyone to be playing like that with the Nintendo Switch. There are lots of people who have adopted the system and are not having fun with it in that way, but I think it can be more and more and I would like to achieve that.

The Wii U launched with the unique multiplayer idea of asymmetric gameplay, where different players with different controllers did different things, but throughout the life of the system there didn’t turn out to be many games that used the feature. Are you planning with the Switch to really concentrate on supporting the local multiplayer aspect?

One important thing with the Nintendo Switch is that it's quite an easy platform to develop for. So as well as first-party Nintendo titles with Nintendo IP that will focus on that portable and local multiplayer aspect, I think we can also look forward to third-party titles that make use of the Nintendo Switch’s functionality and its two controllers. 

Are you relying on third-party developers to provide that kind of game, or is Nintendo itself planning that kind of software?

I think saying “relying” on them is perhaps not the right phrasing. But when you’re trying to achieve something big then you need lots of people's cooperation and in this situation I would say it's the same — of having the cooperation and the sort of collaborative effort of lots of other developers. The more you get the more you can go on to achieve and make something even bigger. So yeah instead of relying on, I would say that we're enjoying working with other developers to really push the Nintendo Switch and make it as big of a success as it can be.

Finally, Super Mario Odyssey is coming out pretty early in the Switch’s lifecycle. Normally there’s only one 3D Mario game per system, and Super Mario Galaxy was the only one to get a direct sequel. What are the chances of another game for the Switch — would you rather iterate on this idea, or would you want to do something completely new?

I'm obviously considering lots of things for the future. In terms of Super Mario Odyssey and whether there would be a sequel, the first game hasn't even come out yet so it's very tough to say at this stage whether there would be a sequel or not. I'm first and foremost just hoping that Super Mario Odyssey is a success. And secondly, yeah, with the Nintendo Switch lifecycle again it's very early — who knows how things will turn out? As you say, in the past maybe there's been one 3D title per hardware generation on average, but I wouldn't say that that's a hard-and-fast rule that would have to be adhered to.