Is This The Last Great Mario Game?

The sun may be setting on the Mario empire with Super Mario 3D World, but wow, what a view.

Earlier this month, as part of the publicity push for the new Super Mario game, I interviewed Shigeru Miyamoto, the Walt Disney of video games, the man who created Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong. “Interviewed”: from a quiet conference room at Nintendo’s office in New York, I, along with the handful of other journalists sat around a long table, was permitted to ask of Mr. Miyamoto, himself a day ahead in Kyoto and smiling over video conference his legendarily impish smile, a single question. It was, shall we say, a highly controlled environment.

I asked him something a little meandering about the changing relationships of young people to Mario: Did he worry that the 30-year-old character’s status as an icon would flag? He was good-natured and philosophical in his answer: Mickey Mouse doesn’t mean the same thing to audiences now as he did at the time of Steamboat Willy, but he still means something. So it would be the case with Mario.

Ten minutes before the interview, in what was, judging by the stressed but polite reactions of the Nintendo staff, a technical snafu, the video conference went live. Miyamoto was already there, and he was the only person on screen. And he wasn’t getting his makeup done or being prepped, or doing, I don’t know, whatever you would expect perhaps the most important single person in the history of video games to be doing 10 minutes before an interview. He was crouched down, arranging the plush Mario dolls on a conference table just so. Someone must have told him that the camera was live, because he looked up, smiled, and then just went back to making sure the dolls were to his liking.

Miyamoto is an artist who was trained as an industrial designer, and I’ve always thought these were the two of most useful ways to think about his work. The former is quite obvious: Here is one guy who has created three of the most iconic character designs in the past quarter-century, and whose worlds, Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom, are etched on the eyelids of a generation. The latter is pretty obvious too, if you stop to think about it. A player interacts with the truly great Miyamoto games the way he or she interacts with any expertly designed consumer product: without encumbrances, bugs, or unintended consequences. Like most great industrial design, his games take forms that allow them to serve their functions simply and without calling attention to themselves. That also, to a certain degree, explains why Nintendo reveals so little about their games, at least until they are at a very advanced stage of development: Why would you let the customers see unfinished design? (Think: Apple.) That’s why seeing Miyamoto puffing up the Mario dolls was so unexpected, but also on one level, makes total sense.

You can make the argument that Miyamoto’s — Nintendo’s — values are also the legacy values of the console gamer. The reason you played consoles (and console games), for many years, was because they were better designed and easier to use than PCs. What you sacrificed in customization or granularity, you gained in polished design and convenience and a certain sense of security that your product would work according to the intentions of its creators. There were very few encumbrances. You just popped in the game and away you went.

The new Mario game, Super Mario 3D World, is a lovely example of these values enacted for a new generation of gamers. You see it from the moment you start playing, in its pleasingly burnished surfaces. Then you begin to explore the game, and you notice how each level, like a course on a good tasting menu, is designed around a single and coherent idea, often delightful. That might be swinging from neon trapeze to neon trapeze, or riding a rubbery pink dinosaur down a waterfall, or ransacking a train made of gold. The ballyhooed new catsuit (not what you’re thinking) is classic Miyamoto: an iconic design that adds a terrific and easy to use function (scratching your way up walls). It’s the most fun I’ve had with any of the big holiday releases.

What’s ironic and sort of poignant about Super Mario 3D World is that it is such a thoughtfully designed, wonderful thing for such a questionably designed system, the Wii U. In contrast to the new Mario game, the Wii U, which has sold atrociously, has a lot of features that don’t really make a consistent case for themselves (a second screen, TV functionality) or seem poorly designed (the chintzy feeling tablet controller). After two weeks of fiddling around with the new Playstation and Xbox, I could lump the new consoles in here as well. While we don’t know their future, right now these systems are powerful globs of potential features — voice commands! gesture control! video sharing! — that don’t really yet have an obvious raison d’etre. I think that’s part of the reason that Super Mario 3D World has been received with such joyful relief: It’s a warm reminder of a time when the fundamental value of console gaming was to put a well-designed thing in front of a customer and let him or her enjoy it as quickly as possible, without system updates or download times.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Miyamoto’s values — the arranging the dolls principle — are no longer the defining values of the console experience. This is for many reasons, not all of them bad: To wit, a new cohort of young gamers, reared on Minecraft and Steam, expect a much more fundamental level of interactivity with their games. They want worlds that they can build, alter, experiment with. (One imagines the next Miyamoto toiling blissfully away in a Minecraft server right now). Still, as far as prefabricated fantasies go, it’s hard to imagine even the staunchest DIY gamer turning her nose up at a product designed with as much care as Super Mario 3D World. For her generation, here’s what Mario, the icon, may come to mean, if Nintendo can hold onto the values of its greatest employee, who is stepping away from Mario games: everything in just the right place.

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