This October ’95 interview with Super Mario RPG director and then-Square employee Chihiro Fujioka sheds some light on the collaborative process and the division of duties between Square and Nintendo, with a particular focus on expressing the “essence of Mario” within the parameters of seemingly dissonant structures like isometric game maps and conventional RPG tropes. Interestingly, the “timed hit” battle system, perhaps the most innovative and Mario-like conceit, was something they were still holding close to their chest just months before release.

Along with some brief comments from other developers including composer Yoko Shimomura, I’ve appended some additional reflections from Fujioka from a 2014 interview; despite spending most of his post-Square career working on Mario RPG titles, he still regards the original as his crowning achievement.

1985 developer questionnaire with contributions from Chihiro Fujioka

Mario 20th Anniversary Interview

Super Mario RPG – 1995 Developer Interviews

originally featured in Family Computer Magazine and Haou

Chihiro Fujioka – Director

—The announcement for this “Mario RPG” seems to have come out of the blue, but how far along is the development now?

Fujioka: We’re currently about 70% or 80% done. We’re working closely with Nintendo as we go, so our plan is to have things complete by October.

—When did the development begin?

Fujioka: We started around the beginning of last year. During a business meeting with Nintendo, the topic came up of us working on something together. Nintendo has Mario, and Square has RPGs… well, why not simply stick the two together? Being entirely different things, we had no idea how this would turn out… but that’s actually what made it so exciting.

Getting everything straight during that first phase of the development really took a long time. Mario is Nintendo’s character, so there was a lot of back and forth with them, searching for a way forward that would satisfy both Square and Nintendo. Miyamoto is also on the main team, so yeah, I mean it just took a really long time before we could get down to brass tacks.

url

Super Mario RPG director and
head of Square Development Section #6,
Chihiro Fujioka (1995)

—So the basic ideas and development itself was all handled by Square, with Nintendo periodically checking your work?

Fujioka: Yeah. With regard to the graphics, Nintendo has a certain style they like. It was the kind of thing where you think you’d get it perfect, only to realize, “oh, wait, this is wrong…” Our graphics team cried a lot. (laughs)

—With this being a “Mario” game, I can imagine there was a lot of pressure then?

Fujioka: Naturally, all of our staff has a lot of love for Mario, so there were a lot of strong opinions flying around. “This isn’t Mario!!!” or “Mario would never do this!” or “It’s not Mario if we don’t have this!”

Although we had those kind of disagreements, I think it was actually for the best that we did. The things they objected to were like a miniature version of the very same things, I think, that players would have objected to as being “not Mario”. Now that we’ve overcome those issues, I think we can fairly say that we’ll be delivering a sufficiently “Mario-ish” game for everyone.

—A Mario-style RPG… the idea itself is somewhat mysterious.

Fujioka: Yeah, I know. “Why make a Mario RPG?” is actually something that many of the employees at Square asked, too. But I think it’s turned out to be quite a natural combination of Square’s expertise and Nintendo’s expertise.

The main concern for all involved was that we didn’t want to make a “normal” RPG that simply subsituted in Mario characters, like some cheap Final Fantasy sprite-swap. And yet, the basic core of the game was Mario. I mean, the title has “RPG” in it, so we knew that much, but should it be an action RPG, a turn-based RPG, or something else? Our answer was it’s a Mario RPG, which means an RPG featuring things that only Mario can do: jumping, dashing, and so forth.

It may sound strange for us to put it this way, but Square has made various kinds of RPGs: Final Fantasy, Seiken Densetsu, Romancing Saga… and those established series can actually act as restrictions on our ideas. Once we freed ourselves of them, we were able to say, ok, let’s just make a world that brings out the best of Mario.

—And what would that world be…?

Fujioka: Well, for example, if we take the visuals, I think our decision to use an isometric view—3D, in other words—really brings the world of Mario to life. The usual complaint about isometric visuals is that yeah, they look pretty, but they make the controls difficult. While that’s true, the 3D isometric view allows us to show Mario’s world in a way never seen before, so I think it was the right choice.

Then, for the control problem, we solved that by allowing Mario to move in all 8 directions, as opposed to the usual diagonal-only movement of isometric games. That includes dashing and jumping: this is Mario, after all, so we talked about how he needed to do more than just walk around the field.

—Did Nintendo ever shoot down any of your ideas?

Fujioka: We had periodic meetings with Miyamoto, and he thought the majority of our ideas were interesting. He would rarely say a certain idea was “bad”; rather, he would point out how if we changed this, or re-arranged that, it would be more interesting, and more “Mario”-like. He gave us a lot of advice like that, which we used to adjust things in the game.

Another thing was that, before we even started making Mario RPG specifically, we had this pre-conception at Square that RPGs==weapons. As our conversations progressed with Miyamoto, however, it became clear that this would be weird for a Mario game, that it didn’t seem to fit. When we realized that, it was a huge change in the direction of the development. We had always imagined the enemies would have weapons though. One thing we did leave in was the hammer, which Miyamoto insisted on having. Personally, I think getting hit with a hammer is more painful than being cut by a sword, but… (laughs)

url

A step-by-step breakdown of the process behind crafting Mario’s 3D model and the application of then-cutting-edge, now de rigueur rendering techniques like lighting models.

—What were some of the important things you focused on to make it feel more like a proper Mario experience?

Fujioka: I think the essence of Mario lies in his movement. The way he jumps, jumping on enemies to destroy them, transforming with mushrooms, running like mad after you get invincibility from a star… in other words, how the controls feel. Mario games are very tactile—you’re always pressing buttons.

However, it wouldn’t make any sense to just translate these things directly. For example, in most RPGs, mechanics like jumping and dashing have just been convienent ways to move your character around a map/dungeon. But in a Mario game, dashing and jumping carries with it a risk.

—That’s true, even a single jump in Mario can be risky, depending on the enemies’ positioning.

Fujioka: For this game, had we made the jump and dash an advantageous way to avoid enemies, it would have changed the essence of what jumping and dashing are in Mario. We had to think of what different connotations and nuances jumping and dashing had in the Mario world… on this point, we really had to depart from the established conventions of RPGs.

—Were you aiming, then, for an RPG that placed more emphasis on the role of “action”?

Fujioka: That’s right. Paradoxically, though, if you emphasize the action elements in an isometric game, you run the risk of alienating users with a game that is meaninglessly difficult. Well, all I can say is that I think we found a good solution to that.

—Which was…?

Fujioka: We really wanted to make an RPG where the player is always engaged with the controls. In RPGs, there’s usually a lot of waiting. The majority of the time is probably spent not pressing any buttons, in fact. But pressing buttons, the controls themselves… that’s a huge part of the fun.

This may reveal a bit of our battle system, but… you can definitely get through Mario RPG just by applying standard RPG strategies. But for those who want to get the most out of the experience, we’ve added some elements which allow a moment of action in the gameplay: in other words, a moment of greater Mario-ness.

—Is Mario RPG a difficult game?

Fujioka: The good thing about RPGs is that if you mess up, it doesn’t mean game over. This is unlike action games, where a single mistake can mean you have to restart the whole stage/section. RPGs don’t have that. I think, therefore, that even players who couldn’t beat the Mario games will be able to clear this one, while also enjoying a taste of Mario-style action.

—I feel like Mario games usually include some puzzle elements too, in addition to the action.

Fujioka: Hmm.. I think that if you were to look at most RPGs, in a sense, the events/scenarios are set up in way that makes for a very linear, connect-the-dots experience. For example, you go to Town A, fight, go to Town B, fight, and so on until you reach your final destination. Distilled to its essence, it’s something like “Visit Places, Fight Battles, Gain Experience”… for Mario RPG, we’ve tried to introduce a bit more open-ended playability into that formula.

I think there are sections that will inspire players to stop and think, “man, I don’t want to leave this place just yet, I’d like to keep exploring and linger here a bit.” Of course you can just hurry and move to the next area, but Mario isn’t supposed to be that serious: we want players to enjoy themselves in a more leisurely fashion.

—Were there any “Mario” traditions you wanted to include, but couldn’t?

Fujioka: We wanted to have the mushroom mechanic—where little Mario eats the mushroom and becomes big Mario, and so forth—but we were unable to realize it. Partly it was hardware limitations, but it just looked weird for Mario to be walking around the map in different sizes (laughs). It’s too bad, as we had wanted to include some dungeons that you’d only be able to reach as little Mario.

—Finally, if you could sum up the appeal of Mario RPG in one sentence?

Fujioka: “Fun to control”, I think.

url

A brief timeline of the development schedule; development began at the start of 94, but the basic system wasn’t decided on until the end of the year. Three months were then spent nailing down Mario’s movement in the isometric play field, while the programming, story events, and graphics data took up the majority of 1995.

Super Mario RPG – 1995 Developer Interview

from Game-on! magazine

Shigeru Miyamoto – Producer

Long before Super Mario RPG got started, I had talked with the staff at Nintendo about wanting to make an RPG that featured Mario. One day we were talking with Square, and they revealed that they wanted to create an RPG that would have worldwide appeal, with characters that both children and adults could love. We had many meetings and discussions after that, and eventually hit upon the idea of a Square-Nintendo collaboration that would feature both our strengths. As such, I think we’ve managed to combine the action gameplay of Mario and the turn-based RPG system in a way no one has seen before. Another big point was to make “an RPG where no blood is shed.” I think the game will be warmly received by Mario fans, RPG fans, and video game fans alike.

Yoko Shimomura – Composer

Super Mario Bros. was my first encounter with video games. I love the music of the Mario series. After I got assigned the job of writing the music for Super Mario RPG, I let my imagination run wild as I composed, trying to find sounds that fit with Mario walking around a town chatting people up, Mario sleeping, Mario just living his life… it’s been SOOO fun! We’re still making some refinements, so I hope you look forward to it!

Hideo Minaba – Graphics Designer

The hardest part of this development was making sure we didn’t harm the image of Mario, yet simultaneously producing something new. It was a 180 degree change for me from my previous work on the Final Fantasy games, plus you had the new isometric perspective and the hardware challenges… it was like starting over from zero, as a developer. From the first drawings, all the way through the development, we thought a great deal about how each individual element should be displayed. I hope players notice the detail we put into everything graphics, all the way down to the individual tree stumps in the forest…!

url

From left to right: Yoko Shimomura, Hideo Minaba, Chihiro Fujioka (1995)

Super Mario RPG – 2014 Developer Interview

excerpted from a longer interview hosted at god-bird.net

—How did you get started at Square?

Fujioka: I joined Square right around FF4. They were still working on the Super Famicom development, and when I arrived in Tokyo, I remember they were like, “Take a look at these amazing graphics!” Before the SFC, they were using a graphics editor called “Tile Paint”, I think for their Famicom development. It allowed them to draw sprites with very subtle color tonalities. They continued using this method into the Super Famicom era, just with more colors, and I remember saying I thought the FF4 graphics had a Famicom look to them. When I had a chance to see the finished game again, though, it had changed a lot, and felt more SFC-ish.

I saw a lot of the FF4/5/6 developments as they were happening, actually. I played FF6 a ton… I would usually stop just before the last boss, in RPGs. The game ends if you defeat them! So I’d get all the way right to the end, then spend a bunch of time meandering around the world. When I first transferred from Square’s Osaka Development Division to Tokyo, I lived in a small hotel room for travellers. I got ahold of the FF6 rom, and everyday after work I would go back to my hotel room and play it for hours on end. That was my life for about 3 months.

—I understand you were working on a simulation/strategy game for Square then?

Fujioka: That was just before Super Mario RPG. After moving to Tokyo, I was positioned in Square’s 6th Developer Department. No decision had been made yet about what kind of game we’d make, but the staff had some vague ideas about making a strategy game, which they thought might be interesting to try. Researching the genre is about as far as it got, though, and this was all before any kind of formal development, so nothing was produced. While that was going on, I heard about Super Mario RPG. I believe the senior executives of Nintendo and Square were having meetings about it.

—What happened to the original team you were working? Did they go to a different project?

Fujioka: Yeah, some went to Rudra no Hihou. Only one of them joined the Super Mario RPG team, so it was completely different.

—That means Rudra no Hihou and Super Mario RPG were being developed at the same time, then.

Fujioka: When Super Mario RPG came out, Square had already moved onto the Playstation, so it was kind of a neglected stepchild. It’s sad…

—But didn’t it sell really well? I remember the commercials.

Fujioka: Of all the things I worked on, I still think it’s the best game I ever made.

—Really!

Fujioka: I worked on a lot of the set pieces in Mario RPG, and drew a lot of the maps myself. We had some amazingly talented programmers, and they set up the base program for me, and I created scripted scenes on top of that. For example, I did the part where you have to climb Booster Hill, the part where you go down Midas River, the part where you climb the cliffside using Sky Troopas… I did all those events. It was extremely fun for me, both creating it and playing it. It’s a good game.

—Thank you for your time today!

Fujioka: Thank you. I’m happy there’s someone out here who remembers all this!