At 24 years old, Shigeru Miyamoto was a drifting renaissance man. A recent art school graduate, Miyamoto was, by his own admission, a lackluster student. His talents comprised a wide range of artistic skills, from painting to playing the banjo. He was fascinated with making toys and other contraptions, a seemingly useless skill that would bear fruit later in life. In 1977, a chance meeting with then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi (a friend of Miyamoto’s father) resulted in the young man acquiring a job as a staff artist for Nintendo.
At the time, Nintendo was primarily known as a toy company. Due to the efforts of Yamauchi and his chief of R&D, Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo continually sought out new and experimental entertainment ideas. Their first video game, Radarscope, released in 1980 to underwhelming results. Under Miyamoto’s supervision the unsold Radarscope arcade cabinets were reworked into the immensely popular Donkey Kong. From that point on, Nintendo would pursue video games as their primary focus, with Miyamoto leading the charge.
Nintendo has a longstanding reputation for fun and innovation. Each of their games, handheld systems, and consoles exemplify a penchant for experimentation (to varying effect). Oftentimes criticized as “gimmicky”, Nintendo products have always been about exploring new ways to engage their audience. It’s important to remember that behind the screen, behind the pixels, behind the code and hardware that creates Zelda dungeons and marching Goombas, there was a team of human beings that created your favorite games. But that begs the question: How do you manufacture fun? For Nintendo developers, their work isn’t as simple as showing up to the office and cranking out a product. Creativity is a vague, fickle thing, lying somewhere between inspiration and innovation. Super Mario Odyssey captures that sentiment perfectly. It’s a game that embraces its own history and the people that made it.
A Culture Steeped in Humor and Fun
To understand the creativity behind Nintendo is to try and understand the sociocultural context it comes from. An image of a Japanese individual that a foreigner might think up is that of a stalwart samurai or a hardworking salaryman. Beyond those stereotypes, however, lies a culture steeped in humor, wordplay, and fun. As a nation with a strong sense of cultural identity, comedy has played an important role throughout Japan’s history. Its sociocultural and artistic history have created a unique environment for comedy and entertainment to develop uniquely Japanese sensibilities.
“I think we’d all understand Japan a little better if we made a commitment to roll with it.”
Japanese comedy covers a wide swathe of mediums and formats, many of which have deep roots in the nation’s past. Working from a sense of familiarity is typical in Japanese comedy, as it’s meant to appeal to the masses by providing an accessible context to the performance. Parallel to Western society, theatre historically allowed comedy to develop as a medium for entertainment and artistry. There’s kyōgen, traditional Japanese comic theatre that relies on stock characters and folktales, manzai, standup comedy based around the straight-man/funny-man dynamic, and rakugo, stories and fables told by a single storyteller. All three of these comedic formats can trace their origins as far back as the 14th century and still enjoy popularity in the modern age.
Even in the era of globalization, Japan still retains a unique sense of humor. Writer Hisashi Inoue talks about the dichotomous nature of Japanese society in regards to comedy:
“There used to be a saying that a samurai could lift one side of his mouth in a grin once in three years; a whole laugh was all right every five or six. That tradition is still alive: the samurai in modern Japan — the bureaucrats, the white-collar employees in the big companies have no sense of humor at all. The more important you are in some organizational way, the more serious you have to be. Japanese humor comes from ordinary people like me who work for themselves.” (Hisashi Inoue, ‘What Makes Japanese Laugh?’)
This notion of not taking oneself too seriously is a large part of why Japanese comedy covers such a wide range of topics. Oftentimes, Western society deems these subject matters as strange or bizzare, but that doesn’t mean that Japanese people don’t think the same. Far from it.
Japanese television has served as a platform in which comedy is free to experiment. Anime like Cromartie High School, Osomatsu-san, and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure have well-earned reputations for embracing the weirdness and relishing in it. One of Japan’s most popular variety shows, Gaki no Tsukai, regularly features segments called “batsu games” or “punishment games”. During a batsu game, the show’s hosts endure a number of ridiculous challenges and bizarre punishments like getting spanked by masked commandos if they fail to contain their laughter. In blog posts that explore the weirder side of Japanese pop culture, like body-pillow girlfriends and offbeat game shows, journalist Lisa Katayama defines the term majime: being too serious. In her own words, “I think we’d all understand Japan a little better if we made a commitment to roll with it.”
In Pursuit of Fun
Throughout the years, Mario has embodied that loose notion of Japanese humor and fun in its gameplay, music, and visuals. Super Mario 64 is a game about a giant dino-turtle that kidnaps a mushroom monarch. You play the role of a stubby Italian plumber that was invited to the princess’ castle for cake and must jump into paintings to save her. The story behind Mario doesn’t ever get much deeper than that, but it doesn’t really need to. Like Lisa Katayama said, just “roll with it”.
“From the colorful blockiness of Super Mario World to the bright, sandy shores of Super Mario Sunshine, Nintendo has scoured the galaxy in pursuit of fun.”
Mario as a series has always been about fun, first and foremost. However, that doesn’t mean that story and setting take a backseat. In my review of A Hat in Time, a contemporary homage to and evolution of the 3D platforming genre, I wrote about how the game encourages you to forget about the destination and get the lost in the journey. This is a page straight out of the Nintendo playbook. A huge part of Mario’s charm has been its fantastic variety and imagination. From the colorful blockiness of Super Mario World to the bright, sandy shores of Super Mario Sunshine, Nintendo has scoured the galaxy in pursuit of fun.
Nintendo’s wild sense of imagination and creativity is innately tied to technology. Yoshiaki Koizumi, a longtime designer, director, and producer at Nintendo, notes how “we’re always asking ourselves questions like this as we’re researching new games, about the opportunities presented by the hardware.” But, unlike their competitors at Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo has never tried to be on the cutting edge of hardware. Far from being thrifty, it speaks more to a desire to achieve innovation that is both novel and fun. Gunpei Yokoi described this philosophy as “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology”. For the past few video game generations, Nintendo has been the butt of several jokes in how it tries to deviate from the standard console-controller format of gaming systems. While Nintendo’s efforts have had varying degrees of success, it has never stopped them from pursuing this vague idea of “fun”.
At the Intersection of Novel and Fun
Super Mario Odyssey is a return to Nintendo’s design roots: a lateral experiment on the concept of play. Although it’s shifted and changed over the years, core figures in Odyssey’s development team have been with Mario since his original 3D debut on the N64. This depth of experience is abundantly clear in how the game’s producer views Odyssey in the context of the Switch:
Most of the 3D Mario projects I’ve worked on in the past were titles for home consoles, and for me it was always a dream to be able to take that kind of gameplay experience out of the house. So one of the big considerations when creating Super Mario Odyssey was that idea of being able to make a home console 3D Mario that could also be taken and played on the go. … Although it is sort of different to a 3D Land or a 3D World, Super Mario Odyssey really does contain a lot of elements which can be enjoyed in very short game play sessions, which is more of a handheld-oriented feature. But you can easily do meaningful things in Super Mario Odyssey with only two or three minutes to play it. (Yoshiaki Koizumi, Interview with “The Verge”)
Developers like Koizumi have an intimate understanding of how Mario works on its fundamental levels. Each 3D Mario is the cumulative result of the games that came before it, and Odyssey is no exception. On a micro-scale, it takes many elements from 3D Land and 3D World, allowing for short bursts of gameplay. But on a macro-scale, Odyssey hearkens back to 64 and Sunshine. It puts the player on an adventure, offering an experience that, as Goomba Stomp editor Harry Morris puts it, “is an endless cascade of freshness that refuses to withdraw from the limelight, resulting in a consistently steady stream of engrossing exploration and rewarding discovery.”
Where Super Mario 64 created many of the standards for 3D platformers to follow, Odyssey ironically does much the same by breaking out of what is considered “standard”. While Nintendo houses many seasoned game development veterans, it has a sterling reputation for allowing the next generation to shine. Shigeru Miyamoto, once a freshfaced newcomer brimming with ideas, talks about how the younger developers and programmers inspired ideas for Odyssey’s gameplay and settings. The development team started the project overflowing with ideas, concepts, and mechanics. In order to contain them all, development naturally swung towards a sandbox style of game, which ended up bearing close resemblance to the environments found in 64 and Sunshine. Odyssey, by embracing both its past and future, is a game that lies at the intersection of novel and fun.
A Japanese Game with Global Appeal
There is no denying that Super Mario Odyssey is a distinctly Japanese product. With its cartoony flair for the colorfully exaggerated, Odyssey derives from a culture that prizes levity and fun. Japan’s sense of humor has deep historical and sociocultural roots that belie its seemingly nonsensical and bizarre nature. Nintendo embraces this notion and encourages its players to just “roll with it.” Go ahead, be a T-Rex. Stop that aristocratic octopus from drinking all the fancy water. New York City? That’s one word away from being a perfect Mario level.
Nintendo has always promoted accessibility. Koizumi argues that it’s better to think of them as an entertainment company rather than a games company. It’s a deceptively small distinction to make, but one that has deep implications. For Nintendo, it’s about crafting “an experience that [isn’t] just relevant to people who grew up in Japan, but kids who grew up anywhere who have the experience of playing in parks and playgrounds.” With the advent of the Switch and its incredibly low pricetag for a dev kit, this accessibility now extends to the development side.
In 1984, the video game market was all but considered dead. Now, more than 30 years later, Super Mario Odyssey shows the same kind of magic that brought video games back to life. It’s a magic that’s hard to replicate, even for Nintendo. It’s a magic that tugs at the innate human desire to be surprised, have fun, and seek out play, wherever it may be.