Nintendo and Satoru Iwata: Dream Brothers

RIP Iwata Mario & Luigi

Nintendo lost its President a month ago, leaving a fine legacy from one of the game giant’s shortest leaderships. There were distinct highs and lows during his 13 years, and perhaps his most significant legacy will prove to be a fresh and secure direction towards mobile gaming. While the identity of his permanent successor remains a mystery, Jokerside sets about a tribute play of two handheld games that have a lot to say about Nintendo and the legacy of Iwata-san:

1989’s Super Mario Land and 2013’s Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros.

Iwata-san RIP

One of Nintendo’s occasional revolutions

THE GAMING WORLD WENT INTO APPROPRIATE MELT-DOWN IN MID-JULY WITH NEWS THAT NINTENDO’S CEO IWATA-SAN HAD PASSED AWAY AT 55. Taken too soon, too young by cancer, he left Nintendo at a crossroads as his 13 year Presidency of the company came to an abrupt end. Only the fourth President in the company’s 126 year history, his relatively short presidency saw the typical triumphs and stumbles we’ve come to expect from the Japanese giant as it continued to stridently stick to its own path. For all the highs of the Wii and the DS, their successors have stalled… But in leaving a new and set strategy for development into the mobile market there is a chance for Nintendo to grab a crown that was always waiting for them. A natural and overdue fit for the company, we should all hope they’ll magic up one of their occasional revolutions on mobiles over the next two years. It’s a long time coming and a move engrained in their DNA, but leaves the future of their hardware undefined to the outside world…

A new century

An unwavering pursuit of gameplay

Under Iwata Nintendo pushed into new ground with the new century. It started by resisting the continued rise of Sony while sticking rigidly to its non-connected and affectionately unique formats. The GameCube, remains a distinctive and brilliant idea – but while Nintendo had learned from the limited software range that left the Nintendo 64 bereft, the GC couldn’t quite move on from expensive cartridges without dipping into the unusual mini optical discs for a generation. It was a well-received console, a fun and contained example of what a gaming device should and could be. But while the GC managed a six year career, its clear and unwavering pursuit of gameplay over graphics, experience over a multi-player network, pushed Nintendo well behind the social machinations of its Japanese and American rivals.

The Third Way

Via dead-ends and love hotels

Mario NintendoIwata was hand chosen by President Hiroshi Yamauchi to become his successor at the start of the 21st century. Following five decades that had seen Yamauchi take Nintendo from playing card manufacturer to world leading videogames company, via all sorts of dead-ends and love hotels, was some ask. A games developer by aptitude, Iwata had joined by proxy from a part-time programming position at HAL Laboratory to heading the giant’s corporate planning division. On the way he helped develop titles including Kirby’s Dream Land, Pokémon Gold and Silver and Super Smash Bros. before spending a couple of years before his presidency successfully cutting Nintendo’s game cost and development time.

As the GameCube valiantly but unspectacularly marched on, 2004 saw the new President announce the third way in the form of the Nintendo DS, a masterstroke throwback to the old Nintendo Game & Watch consoles, where great gameplay centred around the handheld’s touch screen. It proved irresistible to the tune of 154 million hardware sales. And just two years later, there came quite possibly Iwata’s finest hour. A masterstroke that became the most successful games console of all time. The Nintendo Wii. A finely pitched machine that exemplified Nintendo’s core qualities, broke down gaming boundaries, united families and signalled Nintendo’s belated embrace of the internet. Subsequent iterations, with the 3d innovation of the 3Ds and the slightly too complicated brilliance of the Wii U (arguably Iwata’s first hardware development away from the shadow of his predecessor) couldn’t match their predecessors.

A singular approach

A sometimes odd but unflinching position

But then, what is Nintendo without a few falters amid brilliant, bright and confident steps. There are wilful refusals to follow trends, strange decisions that don’t quite make it, obtuse and erratic rejection of dominant trends… But all the way through, the core foundation of Nintendo remains exposed and rather nostalgically respected. The explanation of those ‘three ways’ are remains vague while other anomalies abound. For one, the fact that one of the Nintendo 64’s favourite sons was the ultra-violent, hugely influential and best James Bond videogame ever GoldenEye in 1997, later joined by MadWorld, Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden, runs contrary to a company who not only promote Kirby and Mario’s approach to battling but also happily sit as stridently anti-violent. That’s just one perversity that enhances the company’s odd but unflinching position.

Jokerside was always going to take a look at the Mario and Luigi games, this intrepid writer just entering the 50th hour playing the last and fourth instalment of the Mario and Luigi RPG, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Brothers on Nintendo 3DS when news of Iwata broke. It proved a timely moment to have the 3DS open. Nintendo’s future remains on the move.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Brothers |マリオ&ルイージRPG4 ドリームアドベンチャ (2013, Nintendo 3DS)

An ambitious and gigantic adventure

Not only was Dream Team produced by Iwata, alongside Tetsuo Mizuno and Mario creator (and current, temporary, co-successor) Shigeru Miyamoto, but it’s an ambitious and gigantic adventure that nods its plumber’s hat to various parts of Iwata’s time steering the gaming giant.

Off the platform

Pulling on 60 hours of a completist’s work

The first franchise game with elements of RPG was Super Mario RPG, developed by Square Enix, which soon branched out into the Paper Mario series and then the Mario & Luigi titles. At this year’s E3 it was announced that those two franchises would crossover in 2016, with a game that every role-playing game fan should be excited for, especially based on Dream Team and 2012’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star.

Dream Team was the fourth game in the Mario & Luigi franchise, released two years ago. And it’s the most expansive so far, eventually pulling on 60 hours of a completist’s work by the time they sleepily hammered, jumped and puzzle-solved towards the final boss battle. It brims with customary confidence and imagination, with barely a hint of slavish repetition to the games that went before. Or rather, that Nintendo patented kind of repetition.

That good kind of repetition

Knock duplication of previous success out of the game like a KoopaTrooper

Luigi NintendoMario remains renowned for the ingenuity and reaction dependent traversing of his platforming adventures. And somehow, Nintendo have carried those flagship qualities through to these wonderfully RPG universes. The necessary repetition that runs through all Mario games like warm blood is that brand of spectacular and unique Nintendo repetition where gameplay elements are neatly rearranged to create a fresh experience. All the more impressive considering that Mario’s higher profile platformers sit side-by-side at the top of the tree with Zelda’s huge RPG adventures. Yes, this isn’t even the company’s premier RPG. And still, care and attention ensures that that its reassurance, nods and evolution knock out any duplication of previous success like a KoopaTrooper. That’s simply what you expect when you pick up a game in this series, let alone any Mario game, and Dream Team doesn’t disappoint. In fact, that’s even more acute when it comes to arguably the most complex game in the Mario roster. Later in this article comes an example from the early days, when things weren’t quite so set in comfortable stone.

Legion foes

Running jokes of what it’s like to be a jobsworth in Bowser’s crew

Nominally less complex than the handheld RPG giants now produced by Square Enix, through Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy or Bravely Default, Dream Team’s complexity lies elsewhere. The puzzles, ranging in size and scope, and the increasingly complicated battle system, offer both a satisfactory level of challenge and reward. On the way only the odd smaller puzzle, such as the famous ball jumping puzzles near the end show the only, slight misstep when it comes to a difficulty curve. With attack capabilities diversifying all the while, the foes encountered by the Mario Bros are each one a genius creation. All neatly worked out with their own characters, tells, combos and difficulty scale, there’s even time for taunts and swappable bosses alongside running jokes of what it’s like to be a jobsworth in Bowser’s crew.

Yes, of course Bowser is the bad guy, this time for the most part in league with a gloriously ‘accented’ nightmare bat Antasma. The twist with this title is inevitably that the action takes place in both the real world resort of Pi’illo Island and the not quite parallel dream world, accessed through the ever sleepy Luigi, dominated by Antasma and prison to the rather sweet pixel-like Pi’illos. It’s packed with innovative gameplay and a brilliantly developed internal world. There really isn’t a shortage of imagination when it comes to putting the ‘real’ or ‘dream’ worlds onscreen.

Two brothers stand

Employing a stack army of Luiginaries

In the dream world Mario takes the fore, with the powerful but rather intangible Dreamy Luigi variously present as co-operative help, able to meld with the environment to mould platforms, employ a stack army of Luiginaries for movement or battle or even lend HP and bonus attack to Mario himself.

The combat is the highlight of course, with incentivisation driving on fights through greater combinations of gear, weaponry (boots and hammers but of course), scattered beans and the inevitable badges… All creating an intricately stitched and balanced RPG fabric that occasionally makes you stop to ponder how you’ve picked it all up. Or indeed, where that intuition goes when you’ve finished the quest. Still, it’s never ‘too’ complicated thanks to those pitched battles with tells, habitual attacks and blocks. Gamers are left to adapt their kit or strategy to peak the difficulty to their own level – a real strength of a Nintendo game. With the inevitable rewards that come from running into, sticking with and winning a fight, it’s impossible to refuse getting stuck into every monster you come across. And that means hundreds of fights.

Island of context

A significant challenge is at hand

Sure it takes a while to get into the theme island proper, once Princess Peach has quickly accepted an invitation for Her Majesty and ever present toad and plumber entourage. But once the size of the adventure becomes clear, there’s no doubt that a significant challenge is at hand. And on the way there’s plenty of time for the nods and references we all expect.

Touchingly, wandering around Wakeport, a villa lined sea resort, particularly brings back memories of the underrated Super Mario Sunshine. A difficult entry in the Mario series it split fans by attaching a water cannon to the plumber’s back (that would prove a far better fit when converted to a vacuum and strapped to his brother in Luigi’s Mansion). But still, it arrived bright and challenging on the GameCube in the year that Iwata seized the reigns of Nintendo. Many of that game’s set-pieces remain memorable today. Perhaps some of the most impressive parts of Dream Team, and an example of how it draws out the potential of its turn-based combat, is when Luigi goes super-stomping. Reaching a point in the dream world when Dreamy Luigi’s Luginoids can combine, the 3DS is dramatically turned on its side ready for a stand-off against a huge foe in a dream landscape like any number of Godzilla’s mates. It’s odd, different and picks up from previous entry Bowser’s Inside Story to create a brilliantly thought-out strategy battle enhancement for this impressive achievement of a game. Subliminally chosen as a farewell for the original 3DS, it seemed a perfect choice before it became a tribute.

Completed, it was time to step through a time vortex and a new beginning for Mario…

Mario and Luigi Nintendo

Super Mario Land (1989, Gameboy)

Such a curio that even later sequels can’t be considered true

Much as Bowser was inevitably a villain of the piece in 2013, it wasn’t the same in the late 1980s. A lesson in diverging from the key strengths of a franchise, Super Mario Land is such a curio, that even its later sequels can’t be considered to have a true bloodline.

A strange new land

Tatanga the indescript spaceman!

There’s no prolonged build-up in this shortened game. Crossing four worlds and 12 levels, it’s a curious set-up. There’s very little dialogue – sparse in modern Mario platformers but crucially irresistible in RPGs like Dream Team – but that’s not the strangest thing.

First of all, there’s no gentle trip to a part of the Mushroom Kingdom, but an alien set of platforms, crossing Eastern, air and aquatic influences as Mario pursues Princess Daisy and her captor: Tatanga the indescript spaceman. Yes, amid the platform stages there’s are too rolling sections where Mario is inexplicably strapped into a submersible or plane – the last, featuring a final and tricky confrontation with the evil spaceman in his rapid-firing spacecraft.

Handheld changes

Mastermind Gunpei Yokoi took the reigns

What’s curious are the changes. Super Mario Land came at the request of Yamauchi himself, developed to be the flagship launch title of Nintendo’s greatest invention yet: The Gameboy. And downscaling a franchise that had reached its fourth title in so many years didn’t fall to the usual suspects. It was Gunpei Yokoi, mastermind behind the Gameboy, who took the reins while Mario’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto was strangely absent. That remains curious. It may even be a good thing that Nintendo of America’s inspiration stole a march, seizing and bundling Tetris with the new console and leaving the rest to history. Although that didn’t stop Super Mario Land topping 18 million sales near the crest of the Gameboy’s wave.

Somehow it managed to outstrip Super Mario Bros. 3’s sales while a creative team new to the plumber made some peculiar alterations. Alongside the side scrolling elements, Mario displays some rather beyond the call brotherly duty in saving a different Princess in this strange land. Later retconning suggests she’s Luigi’s girlfriend in waiting. More important was the gameplay. There may be a flower upgrade to find, but it grants some kind of strange and occasionally irritating rubber ball rather than a flaming sphere of the hand justice we’re all familiar with.

Perhaps the strangest change comes with koopas who explode rather than slide when stomped on. It was pointed out at the time that this is rather a difficult fit in the franchise. Even where there will be bob-ombs, it’s a harsh verging on mean change that tests some skill but not as cleverly as those enemy slicing and dangerously ricocheting slidey versions.

Changing of the guard

Some kind of personal progress

It’s a slight game. Still, this writer remembers trepidatiously handling an original Gameboy in the early 1990s, like man may have once handled freshly learned fire-making tools. I miserably failed to get anywhere then. Now, years on modern Mario games have in no way particularly honed the right instincts or reflexes but still, I completed it. And that is some kind of personal progress. It’s a random, enjoyable, challenging though not overly difficult, all too brief trip to a little seen part of Mario’s ‘world’.

Sadly Yokoi died in 1997 at the age of 56, another of the definitive figures of Nintendo lost all too soon. Despite his great success, of which Super Mario Land’s performance is only one small part, his role in the games development highlight where talent and longevity remain a strength in Nintendo’s future and present. Until a successor is chosen, Miyamoto and Genyo Takeda have jointly taken over Iwata’s role. It’s unlikely either will succeed Iwata, especially the former who everyone could be expected to hope will keep every part of his attention focussed game-making. Still, it’s not in doubt that Nintendo has produced many remarkable figures and it’s curious to think who’s hidden away waiting to make their mark at one of the world’s most innovative companies.

A mobile future

Soon we’ll see their vision

While the 3DS hasn’t captured quite the success of the DS, or indeed the original Gameboy, the 24 year old gap doesn’t cast doubt on Nintendo’s imminent move into mobile games. Co-producer DeNA have suggested that Nintendo’s productions may change the industry. And that’s a real hope. The first will arrive later this year on a schedule unaffected by Iwata’s passing. Most likely ensured by a well thought out agreement, strategy and process he put in place.

It won’t be an onslaught of course. Five games are promised by the end of 2017, prioritising quality as always. Soon we will see the future that Nintendo envisage on mobile, and soon after that what their vision is for their next generation step into living rooms. Whatever happens, building on the success of Iwata’s career, Nintendo will keep their wits about them.

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