Every community has its visionary geniuses, its rock stars. There are rock stars of biological science, rock stars of disc golf, rock stars of experimental literature, rock stars of… well, rock ‘n’ roll. Kenta Motokura and Yoshiaki Koizumi? They are rock stars of game design.
Motokura got his start in the early 2000s, providing character designs for the Pikmin and Super Mario Galaxy series before moving into the role of director a decade later, eventually even helping to bring Super Smash Bros. to the Wii U and 3DS. Koizumi’s work with Nintendo dates back even farther. He was originally tapped to design the manual for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and he wound up developing the series’ three Golden Goddesses in the process. He’d go on to give us the Z-targeting system in Ocarina of Time, as well as the central time loop mechanic that came to define Majora’s Mask.
Earlier this week, I was offered the rare opportunity to speak to these two men via telephone to discuss their creative process, their work as the director and producer of upcoming Switch release Super Mario Odyssey, and just where they find their inspiration. As we chatted back and forth via translator, me asking questions in my convoluted southern style and them answering back in measured, formal Japanese, there was plenty of room for error, for outright catastrophe. But what I got instead was a brief but genuine glimpse into the minds and motivations of these two industry stalwarts.
Unlike a lot of “launch window” titles, Super Mario Odyssey, I discovered, has always been a project tied to the Switch console. But surely there must be unimaginable pressure on the creators of such a banner title for the new Nintendo hardware, right?
In actuality, not so much. “When working as a team together trying to make something fun” Mr. Motokura assured me, “you tend not to feel pressure in that way.”
Fun. That was a word I’d hear quite a lot.
Regarding the creation of Odyssey‘s new character, Cappy, it seems fun was the real motivating factor. Countless gameplay concepts were brainstormed by the development team—or “prototyped,” as Motokura preferred to call it—with their only aim to create a fun experience for the player. One idea that arose was the concept of taking over an enemy (which would later come to be known as the “Capture” feature). Another, this one based the movement of the Joy-Con itself, was a natural throwing motion.
They just needed a way to tie these together. The answer, as it turns out, was right on top of Mario’s head. The hat, Koizumi mentioned, was already its own iconic piece of Super Mario history. Further, “Having it on you,” Motokura said, “makes it feel a little closer to you.”
With the Cappy concept in place, the team was able to explore even its more outlandish level prototypes, platforming, striking from afar, and, ultimately, possessing enemies to access areas—and entirely new Kingdoms—where Mario would otherwise be unable to tread.
Which of these expansive new Kingdoms best captured the spirit and imagination of these creators was a bit of a dicey subject. Eventually, though, the duo settled on New Donk City. In retrospect, this isn’t exactly surprising, considering that it was through this bustling metropolis that we were introduced to the title at the Switch reveal event in January and, more recently, it was the Kingdom featured in the playable at E3 demo.
But what about the rest of us, those soon to play Odyssey for the very first time? Was there a specific moment, a single action that perfectly encapsulated the vision of all the team’s myriad concepts and exhaustive experimentation? Motokura was (understandably) cagey:
“If I had to boil it down to one thing—that’s pretty hard. Just one, right? I guess that would be using this new action that Mario’s now capable of, Capture, where you can take over an enemy, and using that to explore this sandbox world looking for surprises.”
It’s a very different gameplay mechanic in a very different Mario title. Luckily, both those within the team and without were onboard for this spirit of adventure and exploration. There was no resistance to these new things, these new worlds and experiences, or even new sounds, as the theme song to Super Mario Odyssey boasts its own series first—eschewing the classic Mario instrumental in favor of a swinging new track with lyrics all its own.
Of course, not everything prototyped would make it into the final game. But even in the face of this, the duo was not just realistic, but downright cheerful. Koizumi reminded me that his novel approach to solving the problem of camera control in 3D environments wasn’t fully realized until his work on the spherical worlds of Super Mario Galaxy. That game, in turn, helped inspire the Photo Mode in Super Mario Odyssey.
As an artist working on that title, Kenta Motokura found himself taking lots of screenshots. The inclusion of a Capture button on the Switch hardware itself, not to mention the ease and regularity with which modern gamers share their exploits via social media, offered a unique way for even solo explorers to show off their grand Kingdom-hopping adventures to the world.
For those of us hoping to play Super Mario Odyssey with our family, the game has a couple of extra options in store. We’re encouraged to “Share the Joy” by passing a Joy-Con to a child or spouse, allowing us to control Mario while they help out as Cappy—or vice versa. Assist Mode can also be enabled, helping to assure that even inexperienced gamers have a chance to progress without fear of becoming lost or overwhelmed.
The designers seem pleased when I mentioned that sharing Odyssey with my kids, making one (ex)plumber’s journey a family affair, was exactly what I had in mind. After a few more shared laughs—and no small amount of fanboying from yours truly—I hung up the phone and looked through my notes. What I found in the words of these living legends was part Game Design 101 part pep talk, all encapsulated in a very humble, unassuming package.
I thought a lot about Kenta Motokura and Yoshiaki Koizumi—both during the interview itself and while writing this piece—and what they’ve meant to me as a gamer. I thought about playing Super Mario Kart as a teen, Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat as a newlywed, Super Mario 3D World with my own children.
The fingerprints of men like Motokura and Koizumi could be found on so many games across so many eras. It seemed improbable, if not downright impossible that they could be so near the heart of all these amazing gaming experiences. But then, written in black and white at the top of the page in my own weird shorthand, I found the answer, as plainly and simply as it could be put in any language:
“It really starts with, ‘What is an idea that’s fun to imagine?’ And once you’ve settled on that, ‘Is it also fun to play with?'”
Thank you, Mr. Motokura and Mr. Koizumi, for all the decades of fun. My family and I can’t wait to experience more in Super Mario Odyssey.