Super Mario World – 1990 Developer Interview

Super Mario World – 1990 Developer Interview

This delightful interview from 1990 with the Super Mario World development team was originally featured in the SMW official guidebook. Topics include the overall design, new features like the cape and dotted-line blocks, and the various challenges of working on the new Super Famicom hardware. Finally, there’s an individual Koji Kondo interview that briefly goes over his history and the music of Mario.

Shigeru Miyamoto – Producer
Takashi Tezuka – Director
Toshihiko Nakago – Progamming
Hideko Konno – Map Director
Koji Kondo – Composer

—First, let’s start with a quick self-introduction.

Miyamoto: I was the producer on Super Mario World. How to describe my role… basically, I stood by and watched closely, for a long time, what everyone was doing, interjecting various ideas of my own here and there.

Tezuka: I came up with many of the different enemies and gameplay mechanics, often working late into the night. I also talked through ideas with the staff, making decisions and helping the game take shape. Occasionally Miyamoto would pop in and say “nope, that’s not gonna work.” (laughs)

Nakago: I directed the programming side. In consultation with Tezuka, I supervised everything that was programming-related.

Kondo: From composing, to programming, to sound… I’ve been involved in all of it, starting from the very first Super Mario Bros.

Konno: I worked on the maps and stage designs together with Katsuya Eguchi, who couldn’t be here today because he’s on his honeymoon. (laughs)

—How many people were on the Super Mario World staff, in total?

Miyamoto: There were the 5 of us, then Eguchi, one character designer, and 3 main programmers. So about 10 people all together, I think. Most of them have worked with us since the original Super Mario Bros.

The Super Mario World team. L-R: Hideki Konno, Toshihiko Nakago, Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, Koji Kondo.

—Would you say that you wield the main authority still, Miyamoto?

Miyamoto: Well, I don’t know. They ignore me sometimes. (laughs) In any event, more often we debate ideas together as a team, late into the night.

—This is the first Mario game for the new Super Famicom hardware. Were there any difficulties working with the Super Famicom?

Tezuka: In my case, up to now I had drawn all the character art myself, but for Super Mario World I was able to give that work to others. In that regard it was a lot easier.

Miyamoto: That has nothing to do with the Super Famicom. (laughs)

Tezuka: Well then, I would say that being our first time with new hardware, there were a number of challenges, like the software tools which weren’t fully developed yet. Mostly just things that go along with starting something new.

Miyamoto: We no longer had the restrictions on scrolling and the number of colors that the Famicom had, so it became much easier to depict things. That was nice. However, before starting Super Mario World we ported Mario 3 to the Super Famicom as a hardware experiment, and even though the colors and sprites were more detailed, it was still the same game. It made me realize that we couldn’t just make the same game again: we had to create something new. So it was in that context that we talked about how to make the most use of the new hardware. There was a lot of discussion about it, actually.

Tezuka: Many people at Nintendo who saw Super Mario World being developed remarked to us, “it doesn’t look all that different from the Famicom games.” We felt the same way. (laughs)

Miyamoto: That’s true, but just because we found something cool the hardware could do, something that made us go “whoa!”—if it ruined the balance or flow of the game, we didn’t want to include it. Also, while Super Mario World was upgraded to a 4MBit cart (SMB3 used 3MBit, in comparison), more memory was needed for the expanded colors, so the memory limitations were actually more strict this time.

—How about on the programming side?

Nakago: The biggest thing was not having to worry about the hardware limitations like we did in the Famicom days. One specific example would be Mario riding Yoshi: we came up with that idea a long time ago, but couldn’t do it on the Famicom. I’m really happy we finally got to realize that in SMW.

Miyamoto: That paper with the “dinosaur sketch” on it was taped up at my desk for 5 years!

Top: Koji Kondo (composer) and Hideki Konno (map director). Bottom: Toshihiko Nakago (programming director).

—How about the sound?

Kondo: With the Super Famicom you have to create the sound samples themselves, so compared with the Famicom, it was 100x more difficult.

—Well, it sounds like you win the “Most Troubles” prize, Kondo. (laughs) On a different note, how has the way you make a Mario game changed, from Mario 1 to Mario 4?

Miyamoto: With the first Super Mario Bros. I started out by trying to create an athletic game where the movement felt instinctively “right.” I was starting from scratch, so that meant a lot of experimentation. In contrast, with 3 and now 4, I don’t have to worry about the basic direction of the Mario games. It’s more about how much polish we can give them, and what kind of fun new elements we can add.

—And the cape would be one of those new things.

Tezuka: The cape controls—where you open the cape and catch the wind, rising upwards—were a little different at first. We didn’t know if it would feel right, so as we had done with Excitebike’s controls back in the day, we solicited a lot of feedback from test players. As we expected, players found the cape too difficult to control, so we adjusted the way it handles so that even though Mario’s flying is a little clumsy, the controls feel much more playable.

—It also feels like Super Mario World is much easier than Super Mario Bros. 3…

Tezuka: We did make some very fine, detailed changes to the difficulty and the hit detection.

Miyamoto: SMB3 was made for experienced players who had delved deep into the previous Mario games. In contrast, we aimed to make SMW friendly to beginners as well, but still exciting for those who played SMB3.

—It sounds like you paid a lot of attention to the difficulty.

Tezuka: Yeah. If one of the playtesters told us “this part is hard”, I really scrutinized it. I’m not a very good player myself, after all… (laughs)

—Who is the best Mario player out of you all, by the way?

Konno: Of the five of us here, it would be me, but Katsuya Eguchi, who couldn’t come today, is actually the best. He knows all the courses in his head, it’s like he can see three screens ahead. (laughs)

In Super Mario World, the dotted-line blocks turned out to be the key to adjusting the difficulty, and I think it came out really well. If a player activates all the switches, the game becomes much easier.

Miyamoto: One of the issues with action games is how to make something that can be enjoyed by all skill levels, from beginners to more advanced players. One way is to add an “Easy Mode”, but I think the best method is when the player can adjust the difficulty himself while playing. The dotted-line blocks fill that role in Super Mario World.

For awhile now, I’ve been wanting to make a game that isn’t simply about reaching the end of the level—a game where even after you beat the level, you still want to come back again and explore and experience more of. For that, making the levels easier is a pre-requisite.

Shigeru Miyamoto (producer) and Takashi Tezuka (director).

—Taking the dotted-line blocks as an example, how do you come up with these game ideas?

Miyamoto: That was Nakago’s idea, if I recall…?

Nakago: Was that me? Hmm…

Miyamoto: I really don’t know anymore who came up with which idea. Things get decided by everyone throwing their two cents in: “oh, how about this?” or “make it do that!” Although people do still claim certain things from past games, like “hey, that was my idea!” (laughs) As for the dotted-line blocks, it started with the question of how we could increase the number of different block types. From there it was simply a lot of experimentation…

—Is it right to say that in game design, everything begins with experimentation?

Miyamoto: Well, of course there is a lot of discussion and talking before that. Taking Zelda and Mario as an example though, it’s almost entirely the same team for both series, and while we’re bouncing ideas off each other you often hear things like “Oh, that idea would work better for Zelda, I think.” So maybe you’ll see Link riding a dinosaur next game. (laughs)

Anyway, the idea (and maybe it’s a joke at first) gets taken to the programmers, and after talking with them and doing some tests, once they can see a general picture for how the game would work, the staff is assembled and things go from there.

—So right now is everyone working on a new Zelda for the SFC, then…?

Miyamoto: We’re making steady progress, putting the finishing touches on it. I think it will be done by Children’s Day (May 5th) next year, but don’t quote me on that. (laughs)

—Finally, I’d like to close by asking what kind of games each of you would like to make in the future.

Kondo: As the hardware progresses, the quality of music improves, and soon game music will have to compete on the same level as general music. I want to take on those new challenges, keeping in mind that game music is music for video games.

Konno: The million dollar question for me is how to make games deeper, and I don’t mean just adding more space or memory. Even if we enter an era with new media that can store 10x the memory, I don’t think the importance of that question changes.

Tezuka: This was my approach to Mario as well, but I want to make games that no matter how many times you clear them, you want to keep that game and hold onto it like a treasure. I want to keep making games with that mindset.

Nakago: Since I may collapse of exhaustion from all the overtime before long (laughs), I’d like a game I can play while I’m hospitalized. I remember being completely absorbed in these old simple games like marbles. I could get lost in them for hours. Any genre and medium are fine, but I’d like there to be more games like that, I think.

Miyamoto: I want to see console games become a “destination for play” — a world that kids feel a kind of affection and attachment to, and want to return to again and again. And how awesome is it that kids have all these worlds they can visit, all inside a console and game library small enough to fit in a dresser?

Also, as a parent my eyes have been opened to something new recently. I’ve noticed that when a parent sees their child reading a book, they think that’s a good, proper thing. But sitting their children down in front of a TV to play a video game somehow makes parents feel guilty, even though games are an active experience. Why is that, I wonder? I’d like to make a game that, when a Mother sees her child playing it for the first time, she thinks, “Ah, good! My child is old enough to play video games now!”

Of course, I’ve got these lofty goals on my mind, but my daily reality is spent hammering out the details of questions like “how many pixels should Mario jump?” (laughs)

—We’re eagerly awaiting your next wonderful game. Thank you for your time today!

Five game maestros.
Koji Kondo – 1991 Developer Interview

from the Super Mario World official guidebook (vol. 2)

—Please tell us about your musical roots.

Kondo: It all began when I started learning the Electone in my first year of elementary school. Just learning practice songs on piano seemed boring to me—I wanted to learn songs and be able to perform them. Looking back on it now though, I sometimes think it would have been good if I had studied piano back then.

—What are some of your favorite genres/artists?

Kondo: In middle school I liked jazz and fusion. I listened to a lot of Sadao Watanabe, of course. (interviewer laughs) No, for real! I went to many of his concerts too. I really idolized him for a time. I learned to play a lot of his songs on Electone. I was also obsessed with hard rock in middle school. Many people in my generation fell under its influence.

—Are there any albums you’ve been into lately?

Kondo: I like Shang Shang Typhoon. I’ve also been listening to the Gypsy Kings, and other world music.

—Back in middle school, did you think you’d have a career in music?

Kondo: No, not at all. I just wanted to continue being able to play music as my hobby. I was in some amateur bands though. When I went to college, I didn’t pick a music major.

—What did you pursue in college then?

Kondo: I was in the Art Planning Department of the Osaka University of Arts. You can’t really tell what I studied from the name of that department, but we studied visual art, literature, music—various fields of the arts, surveyed broadly.

—Did you join Nintendo as a game programmer?

Kondo: No. When I joined Nintendo, it was the first year they were hiring dedicated sound staff. I worked on sound from the beginning of my job there.

—What was the first project you worked on at Nintendo?

Kondo: It was versions of the theme songs for Sazae-san and Doraemon, composed in Family Basic by inputting do-re-mi notes in katakana. I also used BASIC to program some Seiko Matsuda songs.

—How many sound staff were there like you at Nintendo, at that time?

Kondo: Hmm… about 10, maybe?

Saxophonist Sadao Watanabe’s jazzy arranged medley of SMW music.

—That seems really small!

Kondo: Yeah, maybe it was. As a matter of fact, we did always have a ton of work. Even today it’s like that. Right now I’m working on music for the new Zelda game for SFC, but as soon as the next game comes along I’ve got to get started on that right away.

—Could I ask about your process when creating video game sound/music? How do you begin your work?

Kondo: Basically, I first wait for the game concept and image to be decided on, and for some actual in-game screenshots to be finished. I then start thinking about the music based on that. Normally, I try to write the main theme of the game first. With Super Mario Bros., though, I had a really hard time finding that theme, and the first thing I finished was actually the water level theme. I felt a waltz would be the right sound for an underwater level. That idea came to me in a flash of inspiration, but that’s an exception for me.

—How did you end up writing Mario’s main theme, then?

Kondo: My first image was of “walking around an open grassy field.” That got me thinking about how carefree it must feel, and I wrote a relaxed, light melody to match. However, when I played it back alongside the actual game, it didn’t match the speed of the game or its rhythm at all! I tried adding a swing feel to it, but many people told me this made the melody sound weird, so that was out too. After trying this and that, I came up with the idea of a “cha cha cha” melody, and it all expanded from there.

—What instruments have you been composing on recently?

Kondo: Keyboards. But the sounds on the keyboard differ from the sounds the SFC can play, so as soon as I write a melody I have to take it to the computer, program it in, and hear how it sounds on the actual Super Famicom hardware. I don’t write the entire song at once, of course: it’s done in pieces, taking different lines, melodies, and sounds to the SFC hardware and hearing it played back there. The song gets completed gradually as I arrange it. Because of that, I never have any sheet music or anything. If someone asks me to make sheet music later, I dump a transcript from the song data itself and use that to figure it out.

The Doraemon theme, transcribed from the Family Basic manual. Although not attributed to Kondo in the manual, it was likely programmed by him as one of his first assignments at Nintendo, according to his comments above.

—Do you ever ask the other developers for guidance as you’re writing the music?

Kondo: In the past there was a lot that I didn’t know or understand, so I would often consult with Miyamoto. Lately, though, it’s rare for me to ask any questions before I’ve completed something myself first.

—How long did it take to write the music for Super Mario World?

Kondo: I remember working on it for a year and saying, “damn, I’m still working on this?” So I think it took about a year and a half in total. Of course, this was my first time writing music for the Super Famicom, so I was having to figure out its capabilities and the software tools at the same time. Nor was I able to focus solely on Super Mario World during that entire period: I had a lot of other work too.

—There’s been a real wealth of games released for the Super Famicom now. Are there any games out there which you particular liked the music for, that you feel are deserving of the “Kondo Award” ?

Kondo: I really liked the music for Ultraman. The tones were good, and it had a real nice old, nostalgic atmosphere. Actraiser and Gradius 3 were also really cool.

—Do you feel like there’s still a lot you don’t know about the Super Famicom’s sound capabilities?

Kondo: Well, I can usually guess how things will sound as I’m writing for it, and I dare say that I’m usually right. But I didn’t create the sound development tools we use, so there’s still a lot I don’t know.

—Do you ever have to explain the way the sound development tools work, for third party developers?

Kondo: When Nintendo lends those tools to third-party developers, the people who were involved in creating them go along and explain how to use them. If there’s something new, or something that we in-house sound guys at Nintendo don’t understand, we’ll accompany them and listen in.

—We’ve come from the Famicom, to the Super Famicom, and now it’s rumoured that CD-ROMs will be the next media. Is that going to have a big impact on the way you make game music?

Kondo: Yeah, I think so. In the Famicom era we composed using simple triangle and square waveforms. Now with the Super Famicom, we can use the sounds we’ve created on a synthesizer. The number of tracks we can playback simultaneously has also increased from 3 to 8. With CD-ROMs, we’ll have to take on the challenge of full sound design. The amount of actual work we do is going to change.

But in contrast, I think that the closer you get to actual, live sounds like what you’d find on a real CD, the harder it is to make it sound like “game music.” Ultimately, you’ll still need to find the sounds that fit that particular game best, so I don’t think the basics will really change that much.

Where the magic happens: Koji Kondo at his composing workstation in 1990.

—Finally, I’d like to ask about the new Super Mario World cd release. How did it feel to hear Sadao Watanabe’s arranged version?

Kondo: It was great! I was a fan before this, of course. I met Watanabe at the studio during the mixdown, and it was a very moving experience for me. When I walked into the studio I heard Watanabe’s remix of the title theme playing back over the speakers, and it sounded so different to me, I was like, “whose song is this?” (laughs)

—The second disc contains versions of the BGM with the sound effects playing over them. This is the first time you’ve done something like that, isn’t it?

Kondo: I was really uneasy about that decision at first. But I think hardcore fans don’t want only arranged versions; they want the original sounds. Once we put it together and listened back, I thought it came out really nice. (laughs) The sound effects sound like they’ve been added randomly.

—Did you talk with Koichi Sugiyama (the producer) and Sadao Watanabe much while you were in the studio?

Kondo: No, not that much… I was kind of awestruck by the whole experience, to be honest.

—Is there something you’d like to say to them in this interview?

Kondo: I’d ask them, what should I study next? Please give me your guidance!

—Wow, that seems very humble of you.

Kondo: Watanabe released a book awhile back called Jazz Study. I bought it, but I’m yet to read and study it. I’m planning to take a serious look at it soon though. And when I met Koichi Sugiyama, he gave me some advice. He said that sheet music allows you to see the whole scope of your composition at once, and that I should try writing out my music. I feel like there’s still so much I have to learn as a musician!

—Well, we look forward to more wonderful game music from you. Thank you for your time today!

Upper left: Koji Kondo at the workstation used to input song data to the test SFC hardware. Bottom: Koichi Sugiyama, Koji Kondo, and Sadao Watanabe in the studio. Right: Sax Mario!

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