In this interview, developers from Nintendo and Intelligent Systems discuss the making of the original Paper Mario, a late Nintendo 64 title that charmed fans with its unique 2D/3D papercraft aesthetic, inventive action-tinged battle system and offbeat take on the Mario universe.

This interview was found at the GSLA, a Japanese a website that, among other things, preserves game developer interviews from older, now-defunct print sources. The GSLA often redacts the original interviewer questions, so the text ends up reading more like a narrative than an interview.

Super Mario RPG interviews (1995)

Paper Mario – 2000 Developer Interview

taken from the GSLA archive

Ryota Kawade – Chief Director (Intelligent Systems). Games include Trade & Battle: Card Hero, Pokemon Puzzle Challenge, and others.

Hiroyasu Sasano – Technical Support (Nintendo). Acted as liaison between Nintendo and Intelligent Systems. Also worked on Kirby 64 and Sim City 64.

Paper Mario vs. Super Mario RPG

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Intelligent Systems’ Ryota Kawade (2015), director of the first three Paper Mario games; currently a producer who recently made the Fire Emblem Cipher TCG.

Kawade: I joined the team as an advisor of sorts, when the Super Mario RPG staff were first getting this development started.

Sasano: One thing we decided early on was to make Paper Mario less of a sequel to Super Mario RPG, and more of its own thing—a brand new RPG featuring Mario. To that end we consciously distanced ourselves from the stylings of Super Mario RPG.

Sasano: We spent close to a year and a half trying out different character ideas. We also tried using pre-renders like SMRPG, but we figured it would be more fun for us to attempt something completely different this time, and that paper-y Mario was the result.

Kawade: Yeah, we tried polygons, but there was too much overlap with the N64 Zelda games, I guess, so it got rejected. (laughs) We were using Silicon Graphics as a software tool, but ultimately we ended up dusting off those old Super Famicom tools and using those to create the Paper Mario graphics. (laughs)

Since our first priority was to protect the atmosphere and setting of the Mario universe, we decided to only use characters from the mainline Mario games. The side characters from Super Mario RPG therefore do not appear. I think that with Mario, sticking to the “main road” is the best. Plus, it would feel weird to have heavy themes like “betrayal” in the overall cozy, heartwarming atmosphere of the Mario world. (laughs)

Creating the Story

Kawade: As for the story, that was figured out very early in the development. As such a lot of our efforts went into figuring out ways to make all the other, non-story content appealing to players. We could have tried to make Paper Mario’s appeal all about some grand enticing story, but what we really wanted was to make a game that you wouldn’t quickly get bored of playing, something you could enjoy for the long-haul. It’s a fact that most games on the market today are prioritizing their storylines above everything else, but you know, part of it too is that our policy at Nintendo is not to compete in the same arena as everyone else. (laughs)

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As discussed in this Iwata Asks interview, the pre-production team built multiple design samples in parallel in order to best devise an appropriate aesthetic; ultimately, the look of the game was inspired by this somewhat off-the-cuff concept image produced by artist (and future series director) Naohiko Aoyama.

Designing the Battle System

Sasano: Above all, we didn’t want battles where you’re just mashing the A button to win. That’s where the idea for dividing the enemies up by their vulnerability (to either being jumped on or hammered) came from. By doing so, I think we’ve succeeded in avoiding that phenomenon that often occurs in RPGs, where you become so overpowered by the second half that the battles become a mere annoyance.

Kawade: Yeah, about half of the game’s production time was spent on the battle system. Two things we were careful about were, one, to make sure you were never just sitting there doing nothing for too long, and two, that the difficulty was not so high as to exclude players. In doing so, we successfully created an enjoyable battle system with a “pleasant” kind of tension to it.

Sasano: The N64 has Zelda, of course, but it didn’t have a pure RPG, which was another motivation for this development. And given the special characteristics of the N64 hardware, we knew we’d have to design the game in such a way that younger players (first and second graders) could clear it.

Kawade: Yeah. But the danger there is that, if you make the game super easy, then experienced RPG players won’t find it any fun. Our answer to that problem was the Action Command. Even if you mess up the timing, you won’t lose the battle, so it serves as a nice bonus mechanic for players. For people who are already good at video games, I think the Action Command is one of the mechanics they can really sink their teeth into.

Sasano: We tried to avoid the need for grinding; the difficulty is always set so that if you just try a little harder you can probably succeed. It should be a stress-free experience for children and adults alike.

Dialogue

Kawade: One thing we struggled with was the dialogue. Nowadays people expect voice acting in their games, but playing back voice samples on the N64 is difficult, and we were stumped for awhile. Then the idea came to us of using those various font effects for the text. When an old man speaks, for example, the text sort of shakes, or when someone is surprised it gets really big for a moment. This approach wouldn’t break the atmosphere of the Mario world with real spoken dialogue, and I think the text effects also enhance that cozy, heartwarming feeling we’re going for.

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Just one of Paper Mario’s many and varied action-based attacks. (source)

The Badge System

Kawade: The biggest reason for the Badge system was that we didn’t want Mario to have any weapons. That, and not wanting to have to include a bunch of unnecessary “stats” and parameters like you find in other RPGs. Somehow it feels wrong to talk about a “Speed” stat for Mario, you know? (laughs)

On the other hand, one of the things people enjoy about RPGs is that whole progression of going to one town, buying the strongest equipment, powering up, and then moving on to the next location. We had discussions about how to include something analogous for a Mario game, and the Badge System was the result. It would be boring if players could just equip them all though, so we wanted some way to limit which ones you could use, which is why we added Badge Points. We want to make sure players feel that satisfaction of getting stronger with each level up, after all.

Sasano: The customization system for the badges is a strong point. It’s all up to the individual player what kind of Mario he wants to create… it’s quite fun and they can vary wildly.

Kawade: We wanted you to always be actively moving in this game, so it’s our hope that players will take advantage of the badge system to create some truly original Mario designs. We don’t want players to go on autopilot and just go to the town, buy an item, equip it, and move on to the next town.

Sasano: Badges are where the personality comes out. Some of our developers have even managed to clear the game with the starting 10 HP. (laughs)

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Mario’s “berserk” badge, titled “Ikari no Power”, is one of the many unused badges that remains in the data of the final game (minus the Luigi-esque green hue).

Kawade: Of course they could only do that because they knew the ins and outs of the enemy algorithms. If you equip badges like Close Call or the Lucky-type badges, then you’ll enter the battle with Bowser in a danger state, and from there it’s just making good use of Power Bounce and items.

There were rejected badges too. In one of them, Mario would get into a “berserk” state where you couldn’t give him commands, but his attack power would shoot way up. For some reason though, that badge made him turn green when he was berserk. The programmer who created it was a Luigi fan, and I guess that idea was that if Mario became Luigi it could be very dangerous. (laughs)

Sasano: Our method was basically to implement any idea we had, and then later remove the ones that didn’t seem like they’d work. It was that process, repeated again and again.

Kawade: The Attack FX badges, those came about because we thought it would be kind of boring if all the badges were just about power. Those FX badges can be like a nice fresh coat of paint for the battle system.

Final Thoughts

Sasano: We truly put a lot of effort into the battle system, so I want players to have fun with it. Experiment with the badges, and enjoy figuring out all the different ways to defeat the enemies.

Kawade: Most people probably won’t notice it, but in the fight with the Goomba King, if you hit the chestnut tree with the hammer, a Goomnut will fall out and it can deal big damage to him. There’s a lot of things like that in Paper Mario—little things where if you notice them, they can make the fights a lot easier—so I hope players enjoy searching for them.

Also, I think this game shows off a lot of my personal tastes and interests, but if I were allowed to indulge myself even further… I really love the badge system so I’d like to develop that more. In any event, I’m not putting a lot of thought into a sequel yet until I’ve had a chance to hear feedback and requests from all the players.

Sasano: It’s hard to believe, but Paper Mario took 4 years to make. (laughs) I hope the next one we make can be done in 2 years or so. If we create a sequel with the same overall vibe, but a different story, I think that could be done in 2 years. Well, anyway, I guess a sequel will all come down to the market and user response.

Knocking down the Goomnut makes the King Goomba fight much easier; most major encounters in the game, and indeed the series reward this sort of lateral thinking.