As we discussed during 1996 Week, 20 years on, the creation of Super Mario 64 seems nothing short of miraculous. The game’s developers were tasked with redefining how we interact with video games, and while the results weren’t perfect, they’re pretty damn good for a first try and laid a foundation for decades of games to come. This week, a pair of newly translated interviews from right after the game’s release gave us a rare, fascinating peek into the making of this groundbreaking work and the team’s headspace as they fought to get it right.
Translated by Shmupulations, a veteran fan translator whose website is full of obscure and interesting interviews from the annals of Japanese game development, the insights in these Q&As from an old strategy guide go all the way back to Mario 64’s earliest days. As you might expect, tuning the analog controls that allowed Mario to run around a 3-D space with relative precision was the first massive hurdle. According to director Shigeru Miyamoto, the game started with a room full of “simple Lego-like blocks” for Mario and Luigi—the latter of which was meant to be in the game until he was cut late in development—to traverse. The team used this little test area to tweak the brothers’ movement, and once they had that right, it was time to build a game around it.
Aside from nitty-gritty details like that, the interviews get into Miyamoto and company’s philosophies about the differences between 2-D and 3-D games. This is where these articles get especially interesting. As anyone who’s played Mario 64 or a game of its ilk would agree, pulling off precise jumps is nowhere near as simple as it was back when you only had to worry about two dimensions. Miyamoto mentions the designers had to make sure players could succeed by being “close enough.” The interviewer calls it a difference between the predictable measurements of 2-D being quantitative and 3-D being more intuitive. Miyamoto agreed, saying, “That’s the decisive difference between 2-D and 3-D. At the same time, it’s what accounts for the dynamism players enjoy in a 3-D game. The essence of what makes a 2-D game ‘fun’ is entirely different.”
And it was watching people be content to play around with Mario—to not do anything in particular and just enjoy the “dynamism”—that got Miyamoto to rethink his own definition of what makes a video game fun. He was astonished to see a bunch of middle-schoolers, including his own kid, spend hours doing a whole bunch of nothing in the game’s first level. When the interviewer mentions that they themselves enjoyed purposely playing in the yard outside the game’s castle, Miyamoto makes it clear that this leisurely freedom is what the developers were after. “That was our big gamble. We thought that half the people would just go straight into the castle, and half would hang out and explore outside, as you described. We made the game with that latter half of players in mind.”
He refers to Mario 64’s move away from the precise, high-speed action of 2-D Mario as a gamble on multiple occasions. According to him, the team was committed to its new approach, but there was plenty of doubt throughout development. Responding to people who were critical of Mario’s “slippery” movement in an earlier version of the game, Miyamoto summed up what he and his team were trying to accomplish and why the plumber’s slower pace was important. “We weren’t about to back down that easily, though. We dug in and pushed forward, knowing that this kind of response is to be expected if you’re trying to change the culture. […] Ultimately, though, we really did want to change the culture of gaming, and it was in that spirit that we made Mario 64.”