At one point, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team was going to have a volcano. It'd have been quite the spectacle: hundreds of little Luigis would gather together and morph into volcanic form, then erupt into a trickle of Luigis that would strike enemies. But it didn't work — not quite as well as the ball of Luigis, or the hammer of Luigis. So the team at AlphaDream — and their parent company, Nintendo — decided to scrap it. No more volcano.
"It was something that once we came up with the prototype for, played around a little bit," said Dream Team's director, Hiroyuki Kubota. "We realised it looked cool, but it wasn't going to control very well, so that was something we had to strike out."
That's just one of many ideas that were formed, forged, and left on the cutting room floor. It's not unusual, while making a video game, for developers to toss ideas that never quite fit. And Nintendo games, known for their polish and general high-quality, are surely the result of lots of iteration and developers who are unafraid to get rid of the stuff that doesn't work.
But the story behind Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is especially fascinating: for AlphaDream and Nintendo, making the game was so gruelling that they had to coin a new phase — gamma — to illustrate the process. It took them four years, two platforms, and, according to their producer, what could have been as many as seven different overhauls. Total reboots. Seven.
I guess the eighth time's a charm.
A few weeks ago, Nintendo invited me to their New York City offices for a video conference with the folks at AlphaDream, the game studio behind all of the Mario & Luigi games so far, including Dream Team, which came out on August 11 for the 3DS.
This is what I saw:
On the top left is Nate Bihldorff (grey shirt), who wrote the English script for Dream Team. Sitting next to him are two translators that helped me communicate with the Japanese developers on the call. They're at Nintendo of America's headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
On the bottom left is Nintendo producer Akira Otani, along with someone else off-screen who didn't identify himself, conferencing in from Nintendo's HQ in Kyoto, Japan.
The top right gives you a glimpse at an AlphaDream conference room in Tokyo. On the left side of the room is Yoshihiko Maekawa, a producer on Dream Team. Kubota is the one in the orange shirt. They're two of AlphaDream's top people, and they helped make Dream Team what it is.
We talked about Mario & Luigi: Dream Team's long development process, about its challenges, about its strengths and what some consider its weaknesses. I even snuck in a question about Super Mario RPG. (Don't count on a sequel.)
Making Dream Team, they told me, was something of an ordeal.
"I guess one way I can sort of encapsulate the journey on production of this game was thinking about all the different iteration we did for ideas with Luigi," said Kubota. "This is something that changed as the platform that we were developing for changed. You know we moved to new hardware over the course of the project, and suddenly found ourselves able to express ourselves with a greater level of richness and detail and processing power."
It's a big shift — the 3DS is significantly more powerful than the DS — and the results are pretty impressive. Dream Team looks great.
There have been four Mario-and-Luigi-helmed role-playing games so far, all made by the folks at AlphaDream. Each has some sort of big hook or gameplay gimmick: the last time around, the adventurous plumbers found themselves inside of Bowser, where they could manipulate his body by clearing enemies out of his various passages. On the top screen, you'd control Bowser; on the bottom screen, you'd control Mario and Luigi.
Dream Team has a new type of gimmick: you, as Mario, get to explore Luigi's dreams. When Luigi is snoozing, he can do all sorts of insane things that mostly involve splitting into multiple Luigis and combining to form shapes and weapons.
"When we hit upon the idea of having a lot of the gameplay action set in a dream, I think that's when it all came together and started to make sense for us," Kubota said. "But that was quite the process — it was a journey."
The team started working on the game in 2009, just after releasing Bowser's Inside Story. It was a long, excruciating process, they say.
"I think we had quite a few restarts with this game — maybe as many as seven," said Otani. "But I think that is what brought us to the wonderful product that we have."
It is wonderful — one of my favourite Mario RPGs to date. But the handholding can get a little out of control, as many smart reviewers (like USGamer's Jeremy Parish) have pointed out. So I had to ask: what's up with all the tutorials?
"The way that we think about tutorials is that they really are essential for new players who would be lost without them," Otani said. "But we also have to be cognisant of the needs of longtime fans who may find this sort of information and its presentation a little... repetitive. Ideally we would find a way to give longtime fans the option to skip some of these tutorials, whereas still making them available for new players who are just getting into the games."
That's what they did for Dream Team — some of the time. Often, when entering a new dungeon or screen on the map, you are accosted by someone and explicitly told what to do next. It can get a little grating.
"It's certainly something we are thinking about, and struggling to find new ideas for constantly," Otani said. "We want to see how this current iteration goes and make sure we're always making the effort to present game systems to players in a way that's easy to understand. The real danger here is that people find the game difficult and as a result start to wander — that's when you lose players as well."
Like Pulling A Moustache
It's interesting, watching Nintendo's Otani interact with the AlphaDream folks — even from our brief conversation, I could tell that there's something of a tug-of-war there. I asked what the collaboration process was like: does AlphaDream ever want to do things that are rejected by the folks who pay the bills?
"Of course these guys come up with all sorts of very interesting ideas," said Otani, "and at some point someone at Nintendo has to express a judgement on them one way or another."
In other words, AlphaDream is the freewheeling loose spirit, and Nintendo has to pull the reins every once in a while.
"Since this is such a long-running series and we have such a deep working relationship with Nintendo at this point, we've gotten to the point where we have almost an intuitive sense of how they will react to certain ideas that we propose," said Kubota, laughing, "and exactly how far we can push forward the outer boundary of those ideas every single time. And I like to think that we are always testing them a little bit with each new project and its new set of ideas. We want to slowly tickle and expand the area that we are given to work with these characters."
"Yes, I want to emphasise that working together is the important part of that sentence," added Otani, laughing.
"It's a little bit like the way that we are teasing Luigi's moustache," said Maekawa, referring to the way you can yank and prod at the green plumber's facial hair while he's asleep in Dream Team.
"You have to know exactly how much you can get away with. And that for us is the trial each time."
It was like I was in my very own Iwata Asks.
Nintendo should let me do this every week.
"Can you give me an example of something [AlphaDream has] tried to get away with?" I asked.
"I guess the biggest example of a rule that I can give is the one concerning vulgarity," said Otani. "Any time we have something suggested that is just too vulgar for our concept of the Mario character, we have to throw that right out, because we don't want to invite those kind of perceptions of our characters that way."
Perhaps a Wario RPG would allow for more vulgarity? The idea made me curious: after four RPGs about Mario and Luigi, would the team at AlphaDream be interested in making an RPG starring different Nintendo characters? Say, a Princess Peach RPG... or a Kirby RPG?
They wouldn't answer. "I don't think that's something we're currently discussing," said Otani.
Maekawa chimed in. "Mm, I should probably defer to Mr Otani's answer then," he said, laughing.
"I mean, it's certainly fun to think about sort of original characters, absolutely completely different characters and worlds that you can incorporate into a game," Otani said.
Sure. Otani's comments made me think of a question that Kotaku bossman Stephen Totilo suggested.
"We've seen Mario and Luigi in normal time, and we've seen them as babies [in Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time] — will we ever see them as old men?" I asked.
"Grandpa Mario?" asked Maekawa, laughing.
"Well," said Kubota. "Since Mario doesn't age, it's not actually an idea that we may have the opportunity to explore."
"Wait a minute," I said. "He must have aged if he was a baby, right?"
"You just blew my mind," said Bihldorff.
"Sure, if we had some really good ideas along those lines," said Otani. "I'm not sure if ageing is really fun, especially considering the older you get, starring in an action game would probably be pretty rough."
He makes a good point. Sadly, I don't know if we'll ever get to see Mario & Luigi: Geriatric Ward, no matter how many times we ask. Dream Team — the excellent product of what seems to be a great deal of hard work — will have to suffice.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.