There was something magical about Nintendo's earliest Mario and Zelda games. Something simple. Something pure. Something Nintendo has gotten away from.
Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who led the creation of those first games and is still the chief game design force at Nintendo knows this.
He's noticed that Nintendo's big games have been slow-starters, that it takes ages now for a good Zelda game to become really fun. He knows Nintendo's games are now often gummed up with tutorials. He's not exactly down on Nintendo's games, but if you thought he hadn't noticed what longtime Nintendo fans have noticed, you're wrong.
Miyamoto and I discussed some of this last week in Los Angeles at E3 after I told him that I didn't care much for the little bit I've played of New Super Mario Bros. U, one of the launch window games for this fall's Wii U and a thoroughly traditional Mario side-scroller. I told him that the game felt "unusually safe and conservative for you guys."
I asked Miyamoto if he noticed that Nintendo's franchise games feel formulaic and how his teams are dealing with the problem of being too formulaic with their longest-running series.
"This is a hard question," he said. "Specifically with regards to the New Super Mario games, Takashi Tezuka is the producer on both of the new Mario games, and is working on the Mario series and New Super Mario series for quite a while now, and he is the main developer on those games and is in fact the one you would want to ask specifically about that."
Fair enough. I was unable to interview Tezuka, who has been helping lead the creation of Marios since he worked with Miyamoto on Super Mario Bros.
But on the formulaic problem thing, I was talking to the right man.
"With something like Zelda," Miyamoto said, "we're in the process of now of discussing what is the right form for the next Zelda game. What should that be?
"One thing I should point out is that the New Super Mario Bros. series in particular exists as a way for the traditional Super Mario Bros. game style to remain in a relatively traditional state. And that's done specifically because there are certain players for whom that style of games is really what's best suited for them. So that sort of series is designed to retain those traits and retain that safeness that you described.
"But, at the same time, we're continuing to look at different ideas and different ways we can bring Mario to new experiences, for example, with something like Super Mario 3D Land we'll continue to look at new ideas and maybe as a new experiment or idea comes up maybe we'll find that Mario is the right character to pair with that."
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)
Earlier this year, the website Gamasutra published a fascinating comparison between old Zelda games and new ones. I told Miyamoto about it, though I mis-remembered its exact contents. The actual article compared the amount of time it took to reach and complete the first dungeon in the old Zelda games to the new ones (2 minutes, 20 minutes for the first one on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System; 70 minutes, 100 minutes for the most recent one, Skyward Sword). I mistakenly described it to Miyamoto as a comparison of how long it takes to get your sword in these games, but the point still stood. And he got it.
Basically, I asked him… well I'll just quote my own question: "The theory that began to be developed in this particular article was that these games can become a lot of fun—I finished Skyward Sword and thought it was fantastic—but there might be an issue there that a lot of video games from Nintendo and others take much longer to be fun and to get into than a lot of others. And then I think about Angry Birds. That's fun within seconds. Have you noticed that is at all an issue? Is that something you've noticed that some games take a long time to become fun? Is that a problem with modern games?"
Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
"This is actually a topic that has been a big discussion internally for us lately," he said. "I think there a couple of things going on. One is that, often times we're creating games where you're doing a lot of different actions. Zelda is an example of one of those. And, particularly with these types of games, you have to first learn the action and then you have to master the action and then you have to have more actions added in and master those. Then, when you have a lot of actions you can do all at once is when the game really becomes fun. And with a game like Zelda, on top of that, you have the story elements that also take additional time to tell.
"So one of the things we're talking about internally is how can we get people to that point of fun more quickly, and 'How do we balance the need to teach them how to do something with the need for them to be able to master it and feel they can do it well?'—and also tell the story—and 'What is that overall balance and how we approach it?' That's one of the key things we're talking about with Zelda right now."
This made sense to me, but there was just one problem. The first Super Mario Bros. and the first Zelda had no tutorial text. Their fun started right away. "Is it something that was more natural back then that you guys got away from?" I asked. "Is that what you're saying that you want to go back to that?"
"That's the exact topic that we're discussing," Miyamoto said. "It used to be that actions [in older games] were very simple and you could do them very quickly and easily. Now we're making games that have so many more actions that you have to learn how to do them.
Super Mario World (1990)
"I think back and actually was discussing Super Mario World with Tezuka-san and how that was a game where, for the first time, you would run along and hit blocks and these text messages would pop up and they would have a little bit of tutorial information in them. That worked very well for that game and we thought that was a great idea, and then, gradually, that type of tutorial sort of became rather commonplace and now we're starting to have these games where it is taking longer and longer to sort of get to that core fun. So that's precisely what we've been having discussions about."
One more thing, he added, playfully: "Even Angry Birds has quite a bit of messaging" in it. They do tutorials, too.
But forget Angry Birds. The good news here is that Nintendo hasn't forgotten its first games. And maybe, just maybe, they've recognized that they've gone down a path too far. Their games used to show; now their games often tell. Their games used to leave you more free to discover and learn on your own. Their games are now full of helping hands and friendly lectures.
Their oldest games were magical and phenomenal (and also some of the best-selling things they ever created). It seems that they are discussing that. I look forward to playing the results.