SU­PER MARIO ODYSSEY

HOW NIN­TENDO IS TRANS­FORM­ING THE MOST FA­MOUS FACE IN GAMES

EDGE - - FRONT PAGE - BY NATHAN BROWN

So, how was your E3? It’s a ques­tion that used to be re­served for the lucky few: those with a pro­fes­sional in­ter­est in the most im­por­tant event on the videogame cal­en­dar. As­sets came on discs – some­times even on slides – and you’d have to carry them home with you, un­less you were on dead­line, in which case they’d be couri­ered. If you had copy to file you’d fax it or, in the case of one tabloid journo whose le­gend lives in in­famy, lit­er­ally phone it in while loung­ing by the ho­tel pool. Un­less you were there, or knew some­one who was, you’d know noth­ing of E3 un­til the mags hit the newsagents’ shelves weeks later.

Need­less to say, things have changed. On­line out­lets keep more staff at home than they send to the show these days, since you can cover it more ef­fi­ciently from the of­fice, where the Wi-Fi ac­tu­ally works. Once the doors open, you’ll need to be there to play any­thing, sure, but there’ll be full game­play footage on­line within hours. To pun­ters, it’s just like be­ing there.

The thing is, though, you re­ally have to go to E3 to un­der­stand it. There are few ways in life, and even fewer le­gal ones, of feel­ing the kind of buzz you get when a plat­form holder pulls out a stun­ning sur­prise at its press con­fer­ence and an arena full of peo­ple ex­plodes in de­light. You have to stand in the blaz­ing LA sun­shine wait­ing for the doors to open, know­ing you’re min­utes away from be­ing among the first to play some hotly an­tic­i­pated favourite. These, at least, are the things we tell our­selves so we can sleep at night. Once the jet­lag’s worn off, any­way.

E3 has changed a lot over the years. It has switched venues and cities; com­pa­nies have quit it and re­turned; it has seen a shift from print me­dia to on­line, and from on­line to video. This year, for the first time, E3 opened its doors to the pub­lic. It was a dra­matic change, and it made life dif­fi­cult (though we still got out with over 50 pages of cov­er­age). But as trans­for­ma­tive as this year’s event was, it can’t hold a can­dle to the stun­ning makeover Nin­tendo has given Mario.

There’s an aw­ful lot of Breath Of The Wild in

Su­per Mario Odyssey. Some­times, it’s a di­rect lift: jump into a lake and dive be­neath the wa­ter, for in­stance, and Mario bor­rows Link’s stamina wheel, re­pur­pos­ing it as a breath me­ter. Of­ten, it’s in the scenery, in the way a tempt­ing trin­ket looms on the hori­zon, far away and out of fo­cus enough to com­pel closer in­spec­tion. It’s there in the struc­ture, too. In­stead of Stars, here Mario col­lects Moons to progress, and while plenty are locked away be­hind tricky plat­form­ing sec­tions or boss bat­tles, many are to be found through sim­ple, play­ful ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with your sur­round­ings. A ground pound on a sus­pi­cious bump in a rooftop, for ex­am­ple, may yield a Moon, in the same way that drop­ping an ap­ple into a statue’s empty of­fer­ing tray might sprout a Korok seed. The clos­est point of com­par­i­son be­tween the Switch de­buts of Nin­tendo’s most fa­mous videogame faces, how­ever, is a spir­i­tual one. Su­per Mario Odyssey, like Breath Of The Wild, is pow­ered by the de­sire to break its own rules, to play­fully thumb its nose at the con­ven­tions of its her­itage. Like Breath Of The Wild, it al­ready ap­pears ex­cep­tional.

Odyssey her­alds a re­turn to the sand­box val­ues of Su­per Mario 64 and Sun­shine – but ‘sand­box’ is a west­ern term that doesn’t quite do Nin­tendo’s de­sign phi­los­o­phy jus­tice. It im­plies a tod­dler muck­ing about, a messy, im­pro­vi­sa­tional style of play that of­ten yields won­der­ful re­sults. In­stead, 3D Mario games are built on the con­cept of hakoniwa: a Ja­panese minia­ture gar­den, built in a small con­tainer, its tiny trees and shrubs given con­tex­tual scale with small fig­urines or bits of scenery. Look at the gar­den from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, and you find some­thing new. Breath Of

The Wild was a sprawl­ing, open-air land­scape that begged you into its dis­tant cor­ners. Su­per Mario

Odyssey, like hakoniwa, is dense and in­tri­cate, painstak­ingly as­sem­bled by ex­tremely skilled hands.

“In Breath Of The Wild, there’s a very wide open space,” pro­ducer Yoshi­aki Koizumi tells us. “There’s a lot of em­pha­sis on see­ing a far­away lo­ca­tion, and think­ing about how you might get there. But in Su­per Mario Odyssey, the space is more com­pact. The goals, and the kinds of ac­tions you use, are more about the things that are right in front of you, and how they will in­ter­act.”

Hakoniwa’s in­flu­ence is most ob­vi­ously, lit­er­ally ev­i­dent in the Wooded King­dom, a ver­dant, sun-dap­pled for­est. This, it turns out, is ac­tu­ally a green­house, a hand­made minia­ture flower gar­den whose yield has been stolen by Bowser (the story has the se­ries an­tag­o­nist kid­nap Peach for a pur­pose this time: they’re to be mar­ried, and each king­dom has been some­how af­fected by his wed­ding plans). Look out to­wards the hori­zon and you see a vast moun­tain range, but you can see the seams in the glass wall that hems you in. At first the king­dom seems small, with a high wall at one side and hedgerows around its perime­ter, bor­der­ing a drop into the abyss. Yet fol­low­ing a line of coins that lead off a hedge – a route, you as­sume, to in­stant death – in­stead sees you land in the Deep Wood, an en­tirely new area. Throw a seed in one of the planters dot­ted around and a huge beanstalk raises up, of­fer­ing a route back to the up­per ground; pick the right

“The goals, and t he kind of ac­tions you use, are more about the things that are right in front of you, and how they will in­ter­act”

one and you’ll emerge on the other side of the wall. Use a nearby set of binoc­u­lars and you’re cat­a­pulted high into the sky, pan­ning the cam­era around to find new routes or ob­jec­tives, the minia­ture gar­den yield­ing more of its se­crets the more an­gles you look at it from. None of this, by it­self, is par­tic­u­larly new. Su­per

Mario 64 and Sun­shine were built along the same lines, al­beit sub­tly chang­ing the level lay­out for each new ob­jec­tive. But for Odyssey, Nin­tendo has bro­ken the rules of Mario in dra­matic, fun­da­men­tal ways. While the lay­out of these spa­ces may feel fa­mil­iar, if you try to tra­verse them us­ing the tra­di­tional Mario moveset – run, jump, bounce – you won’t get far.

“Mario games be­gin de­vel­op­ment not just with one idea, but many,” Koizumi says. “You’ll have some ideas from pre­vi­ous pro­jects that you weren’t able to in­cor­po­rate into the fi­nal prod­uct, and maybe a few new ideas. Once you put them all to­gether you start to see a lit­tle bit of a vi­sion about how the game’s go­ing to look and play as a whole. Once you have enough fun ideas, you can start to pro­to­type each of those, play them, and see which ones nat­u­rally fall out be­cause they don’t fit, or aren’t as much fun. Be­fore long, you have a game con­cept that is start­ing to de­fine it­self.”

Mario’s cap has al­ways been im­por­tant, even if it was orig­i­nally de­signed out of ne­ces­sity, since Nin­tendo’s coders couldn’t work out how to make his hair move re­al­is­ti­cally when he jumped in Don­key Kong. Along with his mous­tache, his pot belly and the but­tons on his over­alls, it is a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of one of gam­ing’s most iconic sil­hou­ettes. Re­mem­ber the shock of see­ing it stolen, or blown off by a strong wind, in Su­per

Mario 64, the first time you’d seen the head of hair be­neath? That was in­tended to de­mean Mario, to rob him of his essence, and his power – he took more dam­age with­out it, and could no longer use spe­cial abil­i­ties. Los­ing it in Mario Sun­shine ex­posed him to the el­e­ments, caus­ing him to grad­u­ally lose health. In Su­per Mario Odyssey, our hero will­ingly, con­stantly gives it away – and do­ing so makes him im­mea­sur­ably, trans­for­ma­tively stronger.

Now, Mario’s cap is a char­ac­ter in and of it­self. With ei­ther a but­ton press or JoyCon mo­tions, Cappy can be flung out in front of Mario; it’ll come back to him in­stantly, but it can also be kept in place to serve as an im­promptu plat­form, or moved around to whack en­e­mies and col­lect coins. Chuck it at a Pi­ranha Plant in the Wooded King­dom and it’ll try and gob­ble Cappy up, no longer able to spit trou­ble­some blobs of poi­son that pool on the ground while it’s chow­ing down. Fling it at one of those trou­ble­some, eva­sive rab­bits, and you’ll stun it for a mo­ment, mak­ing one of the se­ries’ most in­fu­ri­at­ingly flighty op­po­nents a lit­tle eas­ier to pin down.

Cappy’s real pur­pose, how­ever, is to power the cap­ture me­chanic, which is where Nin­tendo re­ally rips up the time­worn Mario rule­book. Throw it at one of a huge num­ber of en­e­mies or bits of scenery and Mario will pos­sess it, tem­po­rar­ily adorn­ing it with his iconic hat and mous­tache. Sud­denly he’s a Goomba, a Koopa or a Bul­let Bill; he’s a frog or a T Rex; he’s a bol­lard, a Christ­mas tree, a tank. Each comes with its own moveset or abil­ity, or will solve a puz­zle. A Goomba’s boots won’t slip on icy ground, for in­stance, while a Bul­let Bill can be used to tra­verse large gaps. Bol­lards are springy, and can be used to fling your­self long dis­tances; Mario will hit the ground run­ning, arms out to the side like aero­plane wings to em­pha­sise the boost in speed.

The re­sults are twofold. It chal­lenges the way you think about travers­ing a Mario level, and sets Nin­tendo’s de­sign teams free af­ter three decades of be­ing hemmed in by the arc of the pro­tag­o­nist’s var­i­ous jumps. New en­e­mies have been in­tro­duced, or old ones brought back, specif­i­cally for the op­por­tu­ni­ties they of­fer when cap­tured. In the Sand King­dom, for in­stance, Moe-Eyes (a vari­a­tion on

Su­per Mario Land’s Toko­toko stat­ues) can see hid­den plat­forms when they put their sun­glasses on. In the Wooded King­dom, Up­roots can grow high into the sky to reach lofty plat­forms.

Up­roots are adorable crea­tures, at first walk­ing around with a plant pot on their heads that must be knocked off be­fore they can be cap­tured. “One rule we set up,” says game di­rec­tor Kenta Mo­tokura, “is you can’t cap­ture en­e­mies with a hat on. No one wears two hats, right?” Mo­tokura ad­mits that the

cap­ture me­chanic brings its own set of chal­lenges (“We hope no one will break the se­quence of the game it­self,” he says) and as we play we can see the new lit­tle bal­anc­ing acts to keep play­ers in check. Bul­let Bills will ex­plode af­ter a time, for in­stance, to en­sure you can’t just fly from one end of the level to the other. While Cappy can pick up coins in flight, he can’t col­lect Moons – Mario has to get there to fin­ish the job. These are sub­tle, but vi­tal, lim­i­ta­tions en­sur­ing that Mario’s new power is ground­break­ing, with­out be­ing game-break­ing. All that com­bines into a game that, like Breath

Of The Wild, thrums to the rhythm of cu­rios­ity and dis­cov­ery. Odyssey, too, is a game about see­ing some­thing that piques your in­ter­est, and work­ing out how to get there. Here, how­ever, chances are that the so­lu­tion will in­volve throw­ing your cap at some­thing, and that what fol­lows will be some­thing you’ve never done in a Mario game be­fore. It is, like its Switch sta­ble­mate, ut­terly in­tox­i­cat­ing.

Nin­tendo’s de­sire to break the Mario mould spreads far beyond Mario’s mas­sively ex­panded pow­ers, too. For a start, this is the first time we’ve seen him out­side the Mush­room King­dom, rub­bing shoul­ders with salary­men in suits, creep­ing around doz­ing di­nosaurs, fly­ing from one new place to an­other in an air­ship shaped like a top hat. Odyssey also does away with the lives sys­tem, with death see­ing you de­posited at the most re­cent check­point in ex­change for a fee of 10 coins. With no need for ex­tra lives, coins them­selves have at last been rethought, and now ac­tu­ally mat­ter. There are two cur­ren­cies: gold coins, of which the sup­ply is the­o­ret­i­cally in­fi­nite; and a lo­cal cur­rency unique to each world, of which 100 are cos­seted about the place in fixed lo­ca­tions. Both are used to buy sou­venirs and trin­kets to dec­o­rate Mario’s ship, the Odyssey, and to buy new out­fits.

Yep, out­fits. If you thought the sight of Mario as a di­nosaur, Cheep Cheep or Goomba was mad, just wait un­til you see him in a pin­stripe suit and fe­dora, a builder’s hard hat and over­alls, or a wet­suit and snorkel. At first, it seems like sac­ri­lege. Then, it’s funny. Be­fore long you’re scur­ry­ing around lev­els ig­nor­ing ev­ery­thing but coins so you can buy your next out­fit, and it just feels right. “Mario is a strong IP,” Mo­tokura says. “Wher­ever he goes, what­ever he wears, he’s Mario.” So it proves.

This, you’d think, would have been a tough sell within Nin­tendo a few years ago. But the rel­a­tive fail­ure of Wii U and 3DS ap­pears to have made the man­age­ment re­alise it was time for some fresh think­ing. With that has come a sort of chang­ing of the guard. While Eiji Aon­uma re­mains the fig­ure­head for the Zelda se­ries, Breath Of The Wild was made un­der Hide­maro Fu­jibayashi’s di­rec­tion. While we still most read­ily as­so­ci­ate Mario games with Shigeru Miyamoto, Odyssey is be­ing pro­duced by Koizumi, with Mo­tokura as di­rec­tor. Fu­jibayashi spent most of his ca­reer at Cap­com, work­ing on

Zelda games; Mo­tokura be­gan his time at Nin­tendo as an artist on Su­per Mario Galaxy. It is hard not to draw a di­rect line be­tween the pro­mo­tion of (rel­a­tively) youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance and the play­ful rule­break­ing of the games that have re­sulted from it.

“Generations turn over,” Koizumi says, “and when you’re work­ing on games like these, you can’t have the same vet­er­ans on ev­ery­thing for­ever. Any time that you have a new gen­er­a­tion work­ing on games, they’re al­ways go­ing to think about the things that are close to them, and in­cor­po­rate those into the game some­how. That def­i­nitely changes the way the games feel.” He’s half right – Mario games al­ways feel won­der­ful. Odyssey, how­ever, is some­thing more. The last time Nin­tendo re-thought, from the ground up, how a Mario game should work, it re­sulted in one of the great­est games ever made. Odyssey prom­ises the most trans­for­ma­tive change this beloved se­ries has known since Su­per Mario 64. Sud­denly, Oc­to­ber seems like a life­time away.

“Generations t urn over. When you’re work­ing on games l i ke t hese, you c an’t have t he s ame vet er­ans on ever y t hing f or­ever ”

Our three re­tail cov­ers and ex­clu­sive sub­scriber edi­tion

MAIN Fire and Ham­mer Koopas don’t walk; rather, they move about with small, adorable hops. RIGHT Mario as a di­nosaur: the most sur­pris­ing sight of E3 2017. ABOVE We know Nin­tendo likes to plan ahead, but surely it’s a co­in­ci­dence that its UK PR team sent Pi­ranha Plant flow­ers as Valen­tine’s gifts a few years back

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