The line of games that started with Super Mario Bros and extends to this week's New Super Mario Bros. 2 have an unusual, innate appeal, according to the president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata.
"Sidescrolling Mario has a special existence in that it really is part of the fundamental DNA of gamers," a cheerful Iwata said through a translator during an interview with Kotaku at Nintendo's offices in Redwood City earlier this week that also covered the company's policies on paid downloadable content and the challenge of making two big new Mario sidescrollers at once.
"What we have in the sidescrolling games is a goal," Iwata continued, elaborating on Mario games' appeal, "and to reach that goal you're jumping and flying and collecting items and attacking and defeating enemies—and you have this sort of almost in a managerial sense a checklist of the things you have to do to get from here to here. I think that structure is something that really goes beyond cultural and language boundaries, which means we are really presenting Mario games to consumers as a 'Nintendo-representative' game that you can only play on a Nintendo platform."
These are crucial times for Nintendo, a time when Iwata and the rest of Nintendo very much want to remind people what a Nintendo-type game is. Nintendo's once-red-hot Wii is now ice cold and some investors and reporters actually ask Iwata and his team (again) if maybe the company should just make games for other companies. Nintendo's newest machine, the 3DS, had to get a major 33% price cut just months after it was released before rebounding last Christmas. Nintendo is releasing a bigger, improved version of the 3DS in America this Sunday alongside New Super Mario Bros. 2. And later this year it will release a new console, its first in six years, the Wii U. Yes, this is when Nintendo would like to remind you of what their game—and they might argue, only their games—feel like.
But as Nintendo releases a new Mario they run a risk they used to not run with Mario: the risk of over-doing it, of turning Mario from a prestige series of games into something that feels a bit cheaper, a bit more of a byproduct company mandate than a result of creative inspiration. There are two Mario sidescrollers coming out this fall, after all, and at least one of them, the 3DS' New Super Mario Bros. 2 will have paid downloadable content extensions.
Iwata: "Sidescrolling Mario has a special existence in that it really is part of the fundamental DNA of gamers."
"We only create a New Super Mario Bros. title one per platform," Iwata said, while acknowledging that is unusual and a "challenge" for the company to be making two for the same calendar year, one for 3DS and one for Wii U. "I think we'll probably go ahead and continue at that pace. That being said, that's probably [Mario creator Shigeru] Miyamoto's choice, so I can't give you a 100% guarantee that that's the pace we'll continue at."
After a three year gap between the first Super Mario Bros., which was released in 1985, and its unusual, re-branded-for-America sequel, Nintendo released Mario sidescrollers about once per year. They did this with Mario side-scrollers on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo and the Game Boy, through 1995, before crafting a 3D Mario game in 1996 and then taking six years before the next one of those. The company didn't make a new side-scrolling Mario again until 2006 with the DS' New Super Mario Bros. and waited three years, after more 3D Marios to craft a side-scrolling sequel, New Super Mario Bros. Wii in 2009. Now, three years later, gamers are suddenly getting two in the span of a few months for 3DS and Wii U.
"They do share a name and there are some components that are similar," Iwata said. "That being said, these are two very unique and separate titles…We have a Mario you can play in the palm of your hand and a Mario you can play seated in front of your TV. I believe the two titles are unique enough that I wouldn't say that I'm super-worried that people are going to be confused."
As Iwata discussed the appeal of his star character, he asked a question of his own: "Before Mario became Mario, when he was a nameless character, do you know what Mr. Miyamoto called him?"
"That's one," he replied, smiling. "Another is Ossan, which is basically a generic name. It could be anything from an older brother to an older guy in the neighborhood. 'That guy,' sort of thing.
"And the other one was Mr. Video Game," Iwata continued. "And this is important. Mr. Miyamoto sometimes referred to him as Mr. Video, but I think really it's important that we call him Mr. Video Game. And Mario, of course—other than the sidescrolling Mario that we're talking about now—has appeared in lots of different games and has had lots of different roles. But I think what Mario has come to symbolize for a lot of people is sort of this quality guarantee. They think, 'It's got Mario. We know that it's a good experience.'"
Iwata: "I think what Mario has come to symbolize for a lot of people is sort of this quality guarantee."
This explains, Iwata suggests, Mario's relevance in the sports games he's been in and therefore why it seems that any time a gamer turns around there's another game with Mario in it. It explains why he's also the star of racing games and role-playing games, maybe why he's the ref in Punch-Out and the medical master of ceremonies in the puzzle game Dr. Mario. "We want him to become 'Mr. Video Game', the guy. That was the basis. I believe he fulfilled that dream."
Note that name: Mr. Video Game. Could that mean that Mario's last name is "Video Game"? No, Iwata replied. "He does not have a last name."
The newest Mario game, this weekend's New Super Mario Bros. 2, mixes up the familiar Mario side-scrolling formula just a little bit as it turns a run through the game's levels as a quest for the most gold coins possible. Mario can turn enemies into gold, which makes them toss coins at Mario. He can turn bricks into gold. Nintendo's marketing team and developers are challenging games to collect a million coins (full disclosure: we've reviewed the game positively here at Kotaku and I gave it a positive review for The New York Times; I finished the game with 32,000 coins). All this coin-collecting will be extended in the coming months with the release of extra paid downloadable content.
Iwata: "Our goal is to create DLC in such a way that consumers do not feel that they have been cheated or deceived."
While paid DLC is commonplace for games as disparate as Call of Duty and Street Fighter, Nintendo's games have tended to be games that come out entirely as is, with as much or as little content as Nintendo wants to put on a disc or cartridge. The rise of paid DLC appears to worry some gamers who fear that game-makers will nickel-and-dime them for things that should be on the disc or previously would have been free. In January, Iwata's comments about paid DLC appeared to downplay the promise of paid DLC and led some observers to think Nintendo was actually opposed to the concept. He had said, in part, that "we cannot, and should not, ask our consumers to embrace the situation where they are required to make excessive payments. Doing such things might be good for short-term profit, but it will not serve our mid-term and long-term business developments."
Iwata never said Nintendo would not issue paid DLC, and, sure enough, that's what they'll be doing with Mario. Nintendo simply won't do it crassly, Iwata promises. "I think, when the player has exhausted what's in an existing piece of software, when there are no more challenges and there is nothing more they can do, if we then introduce a new level or a new character—something new for them—we just increased their motivation to want to go back; we've also increased the amount of time they're going to enjoy that software. And one thing Nintendo has determined as a company policy, what we are not going to do is create a full game and then say, ‘let's hold this back for DLC.' That's not our plan. We're definitely not doing that. It's an extreme example, but I think there are examples of games where you get that initial purchase—the very core part of the game—and everything else around it is all DLC. However, if you do that I believe customers will have no motivation to go out and buy the retail package to begin with.
"So our goal is to create DLC in such a way that consumers do not feel that they have been cheated or deceived. Now I believe there are people out there, readers, who have are worried about that, and we just want to ensure them that we have that in mind and want them to know that that's not what we are planning on doing."
Mario is Nintendo's Mickey Mouse, their omnipresent character who is known the world over. There may be such a thing as over-doing it, of turning Mario too much into a profit generator, of making him a marketing device for new platforms and new DLC strategies. But there is a way to do it right, to make money from Mario while keeping true to the fun and quality gamers have long associated with the character. Now's the time when Nintendo would most likely use Mario for everything they could, and they sure are using him a lot. But are they using him properly, as Nintendo's modern-day seal of quality? Satoru Iwata would say that Mr. Video Game is getting that job done just right.
Postscript from Stephen about a question finally asked: My interview with Satoru Iwata this week was the first opportunity I'd had to chat with the Nintendo president since 2005, well before the release of the Nintendo Wii or the release of a certain Game Boy Advance game, Mother 3, a sequel to the beloved Super Nintendo game Earthbound which was never released in America despite great acclaim in Japan. In the past half-decade I have interviewed Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime numerous times and what first was a relevant inquiry about whether Mother 3 would ever be released in America turned into a running gag. He'd always say there was nothing to announce and say it was a question for Mr. Iwata. Finally getting a chance to interview Iwata again about New Super Mario Bros. 2 and the 3DS XL (more on that next week), I naturally concluded my interview as follows:
Me: I would be remiss in not telling you that some of my writers would like to play another Advance Wars and they would someday like to play Mother 3 in America… [Note: Iwata writes something down] … Whenever I ask Reggie about Mother 3, he says, ‘ask Mr. Iwata.'"
Iwata: [in English]: "Just yesterday, before I left from Japan, I met with Mr. Itoi, who is the creator of the Earthbound series. [laughs]"
Me: "Oh, I know. Are we ever going to get it?"
Iwata: "And, yeah, accidentally we were discussing that there are huge fans from Western countries for the Mother series [laughs].
Me: "So, someday? Someday?" [I stand up to shake his hand]
Iwata: "[laughs] Thank you. Great to see you!"