During yesterday's Nintendo presentation, the developer had a real treat for gaming historians: An entire segment about Super Mario Bros.' level design, featuring Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka—the two guys behind it and several other legendary Nintendo games. (But did I really need to tell you that?)
If this had just been a simple Q&A with the two, I'd still have been delighted: If anything, it's great to see Tezuka get some time in the spotlight, since his contributions to Nintendo history are arguably just as important as Miyamoto's—the dude directed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, after all!
But this was no straightforward chat with two longtime developers. Throughout their discussion of Super Mario Bros.' creation, Miyamoto and Tezuka showed off original sketches and level designs spread across large sheets of graph paper. While I'd seen tiny, behind-the-scenes snapshots of Nintendo's 8-bit era before—mostly, a Miyamoto scribble here and there—I really wasn't expecting to see these ancient documents plastered across my video player's window. And I think you'll find my reaction was a pretty rational one.
In our modern age, there's absolutely no shortage of art and design books for video games—though you may have to pay top dollar for Japanese imports. And it isn't uncommon to see production or concept art as the lowest-tier reward within games themselves; just last night, I started up the recent Tomb Raider (2013), unlocked a few samples by going through the intro, and thought, "Neat. I'll probably never end up looking at those in my life." I think it's safe to say bonus goodies like this have become pretty ubiquitous, even in a physical format—I can name several games I purchased that shipped with mini art books I've never even flipped through.
Of course, contemporary games have the benefit of being produced in an era where everything is archived, no matter how trivial. The past is littered with countless horror stories of developers simply losing or tossing away code, documents, and other production materials—we were incredibly lucky enough of Grim Fandango survived to put together the recent remastered edition. So, seeing these 30-year-old level designs in the hands of Miyamoto and Tezuka was nothing short of incredible. As I watched those images spill across my TV, I wanted nothing more than to absorb every sketch and level design for myself. Sadly, the best I can do at this point is pause the archived video and dream of what could be.
So, I'm just going to lay it out there: Nintendo, we want a Super Mario Bros. design book, featuring every possible scrap of the game's production materials from your archives. And what better year to give it to us than 2015, Super Mario Bros.' 30th anniversary? Yes, Super Mario Maker comes with a booklet, but, from what was shown in the presentation, it seems on par with what Nintendo offered on Mario's 25th birthday: complete disappointment. And what better way to make up for it than a full dissection of Super Mario Bros., hopefully with plenty of commentary by Miyamoto and Tezuka? I know developers can be notoriously secretive, but really, I think it's safe to reveal the development secrets of a Reagan-era game without giving your competitors too much of an advantage.
Now, I could be writing this from a very specific point-of-view: I help run a classic gaming podcast, after all. And when I put together notes for a new episode, nothing frustrates me more than the continual lack of behind-the-scenes information on older—and mostly Japanese—games (that language barrier doesn't help much). Just recently, we recorded an episode about The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, perhaps one of the most acclaimed titles of the 16-bit generation—and perhaps of all time. You know how many interviews I managed to dig up? Three. Three! And they all came from the around the time of the game's original release. Industrious fans have managed to dig up past interviews from CD liner notes and the like—this Keiji Inafune one on the development of Mega Man X is particularly great—but the absence of info on some of the world's greatest games is pretty staggering. Nintendo, at the very least, seems to be in a position where they could help change this harmful status quo.
And if I could be morbid for a second, there's another major reason why I want to see more developers like them expose their history: these legendary creators aren't going to live forever. In my time on this planet, I've seen some of the earliest greats of gaming pass away—some tragically early, at that. And while it's pretty heartbreaking to think I'll most likely see Miyamoto and Tezuka pass away in my lifetime, this inevitability would go down a lot easier if Nintendo provided them a platform to seriously discuss their history with specific games.
Who knows? As these figures slowly age into retirement—Miyamoto is 62, after all—we may see them back away from development and begin to contemplate their histories in the public eye. Why wait that long, though? Patience is a virtue, but at this point, it's safe to say we've been patient enough. Nintendo, give us the Super Mario Bros. book of our dreams. And if you're unsure if the idea would fly with the mass market, why not turn to Kickstarter?
It worked for Shenmue, didn't it?