This interview is from Hobonichi, Shigesato Itoi’s website, from 16 years ago. I don’t believe it’s been translated, and it’s a fairly long interview– this is part 2, focusing on Smash 64 and it’s origin and development. You can find the original interview here, and my translation of part 1 here.
(Mr. Iwata, How did you manage to negotiate that?)
As preparation for when we were going to go up to Mr. Miyamoto and ask “please let us borrow Mario,” first, we gathered some staff and created a prototype version with only four playable characters. I believe it was Mario, Donkey, Samus, and Fox?
(Editorial Team Annotation: Mario needs no introduction, of course. Donkey is Donkey Kong. Samus is a warrior who appears in Metroid, and Fox is the protagonist of StarFox).
(Mr. Iwata, cont.)
Before receiving formal permission, as a team we all thought of how each individual character should be like—what kind of character is Mario, how does he move, same for Fox, and Link. And after brainstorming and breaking down each character’s movements together, we tried to bring those images we had into the game.
For Mr. Miyamoto to give his okay to this project, we thought that his first impression would be everything. We needed to win him over with the first thing we showed him. We needed him to think, “With this team, I could leave it to them and it’ll be okay.”
And on top of that, we were embarking on the challenge of making a whole new game. Mario has punched and kicked a variety of things, and he’s always been jumping around, but he’d be operating in an entirely different system now. So we needed [Mr. Miyamoto] to think, “Even without the direct help of Nintendo’s internal development studios, if HAL could do all of this on their own, we [Nintendo] could collaborate on development and that would be enough to work through any hurdles they’d encounter.”
We were really asking for a “face” for this game, something that would help it sell, so the staff put in a lot of effort to create our prototype for the presentation. To tell the truth it was basically an unauthorized production, really. Although of course, it wasn’t really unauthorized—we’d breached the topic with Mr. Miyamoto beforehand. Of course, just that one meeting wasn’t enough for him to grant us the OK.
We’d already been rejected on our first negotiation attempt. So we thought a straightforward plan of creating something that they would approve of was the best, and rethought our strategy. Mr. Miyamoto said to us, “I won’t give you the OK just because it’s your second try.”
If we thought “this isn’t Mario,” then that’s a problem. On the other hand, if we created something really amazing and got them to incorporate it into one of their own games, there’s no way to know sure if we’d be able to have Mario retain any of those new characteristics in future Mario games.
Things need to synchronize well in that sense, so we did think, “This is pretty hard. Isn’t there another way?” And at the time, Nintendo had just approved a prototype for Mario Party, which is a Mario series board game. But getting permission to use Mario as a character in a board game, and getting permission to use Mario as a character in an action game where he’s running and jumping are pretty different in terms of difficulty. But from our perspective, we strongly thought that would be the best outcome, so we weren’t going to back down easily.
But, for me, if I’d heard what Mr. Miyamoto had said beforehand, I probably would have given up on borrowing characters, and this game would never have been born. But Mr. Iwata, as the captain of this ship, hid that information from me, so that was one way in which he steered us in that right direction.
I’m sure that if there were any complications or problems in the product, he would have mercilessly shut down the project. I wasn’t told this directly, of course. He doesn’t put that sort of pressure on people. I think the fact that the game went on sale without incident means that, as far as content goes, it was something we could be proud of. It seems the impression you get from just hearing information about a game and the impression you get actually playing it are completely different. So the prototype we created for the presentation succeeded in that manner, and without it, we probably wouldn’t have been able to really convey that this was a “fighting game with Nintendo characters.”
It felt really great when we got that reaction: “Oh, this? I can play this. This isn’t bad,” and “You can move ahead with this” (laughs). I felt very relieved, feeling for the first time that I could see the path forward.
We didn’t harbor any sort of competitive mindset towards the people at Nintendo during development, but I always pictured the faces of the people who created the originals. For Mario, or Link, there are people that were involved in the creation and production of these characters, and of course I thought about the end users as well, but first and foremost I thought, “I can’t betray the original creators,” which was a big source of pressure.
Sakurai really cares about properly taking care of every character in the way that the original creators would. During development, he was so busy, and could barely stay afloat, but he always made time to go off to the original creators, show them what we’d made and get their permission and understanding. He’s the creator of Kirby too, you know, so as a result he’s familiar with the process where characters get licensed out on other products. For every instance that does comply with his expectations/conception, there’s bound to be another one that doesn’t. With characters, that always happens. But it seems like for something that he’s working on, making something that doesn’t mesh with the original creator’s vision is something he wants to avoid to the utmost of his ability. I don’t know how much of that reaches the original creators, though.
(Editorial team annotation: Kirby is HAL Laboratory’s biggest series. Mr. Sakurai is the director who created and developed Kirby. Of course, Kirby is appearing in Smash Bros. as a character as well).
This game has a lot of chinks in its armor—you could say it’s a flawed game. We had to make it in a short period of time, and we weren’t trying to make it a game that was extremely high quality (deluxe) in every facet. That was influenced by time, of course, but it was also a conceptual thing.
But, even if it had flaws, it was just fun to play, and if the people who played it had fun, could get excited and rowdy, and feel satisfied after playing, then that’s a product that has value. However, in today’s rating system where we operate via demerits, you’d look at it and say, “here’s a problem, and there’s another one.” You keep taking points off, and the flaws might end up masking the good parts.
There were people that immediately understood the fun of Smash, but on the other hand there were people who rated this game very negatively. Well, these people, once they played it, their impressions became more positive, but before that understanding was reached it was pretty painful.
Even Sakurai was pretty nervous, before the release. He went to Nezuana* and complained about it to Mr. Itoi (laughs). But, during development, Sakurai always said, “I want to make games.”
Creating new, original games is fine, and I don’t mind the fact that games will need to move forward by becoming increasingly novel, but I just strongly thought “I want to play games, I want to make games.” So, I just wanted to make a “pure game” that was just fun.
Something that was simple, but the more you play, the more you get into it, the more you come to understand its depth. It’s not heavy on cutscenes, and it’s not reliant on the 3D stick, it’s a simple game—kind of like a playground. Other games are often compared to novels, or movies, but if one were to come up with a comparison for this game, it would be a sandbox, or a field, probably.
It’s a playground and a sandbox, but at the same time it might also be like a ball, or a trampoline. And I really do think that we got it right, that it’s very much a “pure game.” Recently, these kinds of games haven’t been very successful, actually. And we made a “pure game” that was this successful, so I think as the creators we can hold our heads high and be proud of what we’ve made.
(Editorial team annotation: The comparison to the playground was very interesting. As I listened to them talk, I recalled HAL’s renowned technological skill and strength, and thought that the strong intent of the director and the ability to bring his ideas to life was supporting this company).