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Super Mario Bros. Wonder designers on first Mario game since its blockbuster movie

Classic design meets surreal flourishes in Super Mario Bros. Wonder. (Courtesy of Nintendo)
Classic design meets surreal flourishes in Super Mario Bros. Wonder. (Courtesy of Nintendo)

The “Super Mario Bros. Movie” reigned over the box office for months, only to be supplanted recently by “Barbie.” The Nintendo adaptation made over $1.3 billion in ticket sales alone, according to Box Office Mojo.

But Nintendo’s banking on more from the heroic plumber this year.

Mario’s also starring in the upcoming “Super Mario Bros. Wonder,” out Oct. 20 on the Nintendo Switch.

The new 2D-style game is as much a return to form as it is a bold reinvention. It not only features the usual pipes, platforms and goombas — but also ‘talking flowers’ that offer fully-voiced hints or encouragement, and trippy ‘wonder flowers’ that upend entire levels. One moment you might be jumping from left to right, the next you might be floating up into the sky like a balloon or riding a stampeding horde of enemies far past the traditional end of the stage.

My hour-long preview in New York City left me with plenty of questions that I had the good fortune to ask the game’s producer Takashi Tezuka and director Shiro Mouri in an exclusive broadcast interview.

Tezuka goes way back with the franchise — he designed the original 1985 “Super Mario Bros.” with Shigeru Miyamoto and has guided numerous franchise titles since, from 1990’s “Super Mario World” to 2019’s “Super Mario Maker 2.” Mouri is a veteran Nintendo programmer who has taken on directorial roles at the company since 2012’s “New Super Mario Bros. U.”

3 questions for ‘Super Mario Bros. Wonder’ designers Takashi Tezuka and Shiro Mouri

What puts the wonder in “Super Mario Bros. Wonder”?

Mouri: “Starting from the original ‘Super Mario Brothers,’ as the series grows and as we have more iterations in the series, this idea of secrets and mysteries starts to become sort of a standard. There’s the idea that if you go down a warp pipe, you enter this kind of secret underground area, or if you climb a vine, you get to the secret area in the sky. And what we did was create a new version of that. “What we tried was you walk to a new area once you grab an item, so once we actually put that into practice and showed Mr. Tezuka the prototype, he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to be a warp to a different area, it’s not much different from the past. Why don’t you just change the place you’re at right now?’

“We thought, why don’t we just have the entire course change? And so that’s where we got to the idea of having the water pipes wiggle around or having the screen the entire screen tilt or having to travel on a horde of enemies.”

Where do you get your level design ideas?

Mouri: “It’s not something that I did alone. What we did was get the entire team together, regardless of what team they were working out, what department they were working in or how long they’ve been working at the company. And we just compiled and pooled ideas. Well over 1,000, 2,000 ideas. And from that big list of ideas, we then kind of whittled it down to those that have potential and created prototypes and tested them out.”

Tezuka: “Our philosophy around creating games is that everybody that is working on the game is part of our planning. Regardless of whether that was someone from the sound team or an artist, we would share these ideas with the programmers.”

Mouri:And speaking of the sound that Mr. Tezuka mentioned, he also had this ridiculous request of saying, ‘Can we add some narration or some kind of announcer in there?’ And when he first asked us that, I was like, ‘How do you do that? What does narration sound like in the world of Mario?’ So when we tried out something akin to a standard announcer, it just didn’t really quite click with the world of Mario.”

Tezuka: “Because I thought it was a very difficult challenge, I actually brought in some more people to come in and help us tackle that. So the homework I gave them was, ‘Can we come up with a way to completely alter what’s going on and have it still fit the Mario world.’ And what came from that is the talking flower.

“We made it what we supposed would be the voice of the player themselves. What were they thinking while they were playing this particular scene. And we also included some hints for the talking flower to share.”

Mouri: “Sometimes, you’d have a course where the talking flower is hiding behind or under some snow. And because we did away with the timer, the player has the freedom to choose what they want to do, explore the course and maybe find some of these hidden talking flowers.”

Mario has been a tanuki, a cat, and now, he’ll be an elephant. Could you explain the thinking behind this power-up? 

Mouri: “It really starts with the game to experience and after consideration, we thought elephant Mario would be the best way to realize that gameplay experience. There’s three specific things that we wanted to accomplish:

“The first is to have a body that’s a little bit bigger. By having a slightly bigger body, you’re able to hit blocks a little bit easier. You can grab coins a little bit easier. You can stomp on enemies easier. So it really fundamentally changes the basics of how Mario plays.

“The second thing we wanted to accomplish was be able to hit blocks from the side. By allowing Mario to hit blocks from the side, it creates an environment where you’re able to access new areas.

“The third gameplay experience we wanted to realize was the ability to spray water. For example, by watering a withered flower, you might be able to discover something new. We wanted to be able to use this as a way to experience more secrets and mysteries.

“So the three gameplay experiences you want to realize, again, having a slightly bigger body, being able to attack blocks from the side and being able to spray water — I mean, the elephant’s the only natural answer to this.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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