CNET sat down to chat with legendary Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and iconic Mario music maestro Koji Kondo.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is out today, 40 years after the iconic plumbers first debuted in 1983's arcade classic Mario Bros. game. The animated film, created in partnership with Nintendo and studio Illumination, is a bright and joyful romp designed to please fans of all ages. It's a testament to Mario's enduring place as the most famous video game character of all time.
Yet the two people most responsible for his place in the hearts of gamers worldwide remain humble. Shigeru Miyamoto helped create Mario alongside Nintendo veteran Gunpei Yokoi and has a hand in Mario games to this day, while Koji Kondo created the audio for the NES mega-hit Super Mario Bros. and dozens of Nintendo classics thereafter, inventing some of the most iconic soundtrack themes and sound effects in modern culture.
Together, their influence shaped much of the new animated movie that carries the Mario franchise to new heights, from the beloved cast of characters including Peach, Toad, Bowser and Donkey Kong to all the audio cues and soundtrack melodies that yank viewers back in time to when they first heard Mario pop open a question block.
I was lucky enough to sit down with both of these gaming legends to chat through interpreters about the new Super Mario Bros. film -- the culmination of 40 years of their careers -- and what it means for the future of Nintendo. Spoiler: More animated films might be on the way.
Nintendo first hit the big screen when it licensed out its beloved characters for the 1993 Super Mario Bros. live-action film, an infamously bizarre sci-fi-tinged adaptation that confused fans and casual moviegoers alike. Nintendo was, understandably, much more hands-on with the new Mario film. The company creatively collaborated with studio Illumination -- which made the popular Despicable Me and Minions films -- throughout production.
The new Super Mario Bros. movie is a bright and delightful romp filled with familiar enemies, mushrooms, item blocks and warp pipes. Alongside some side-scrolling shots that echo classic Mario platforming action, the movie is loaded with audio effects and sound themes lifted straight from the games, which their original composer Kondo picked out for the film's composer Brian Tyler to implement.
Nintendo made sure the characters acted how fans expect after years of playing Mario games: Mario is plucky, Bowser is villainous and Peach is caring -- but also heroic. From Miyamoto's first discussions with Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri, who produced the film alongside Miyamoto, he impressed the need to tweak the characters for more dramatic roles to suit the medium of film. Peach couldn't be a damsel, and the villainous Bowser had to be malevolent enough to fit the silver screen.
"We talked about the need to separate out what these characters' roles are in the game versus what their roles are in the drama," Miyamoto said. "I wanted to relay through their role in the drama, it really brought out the more human side of these characters."
And Nintendo also took the opportunity to build out Mario lore -- something that could only happen in a new medium.
Around 10 years ago, Nintendo had just released the Wii U console and was charting its own path after decades of competing toe-to-toe with Sega, Microsoft and Sony to make the most powerful console.
"We were out of that and at a point where we're really focused on providing uniquely Nintendo experiences," Miyamoto said. "It was about that time that we thought, we can perhaps go beyond games and really put Nintendo out as a brand for people to enjoy and love."
That's when Nintendo started exploring branching into new areas like mobile games, theme parks and now movies. That finally shifted paradigms Nintendo had operated under while it was only making games. Specifically, each new Mario game started with essentially a new take on the iconic plumber, and they made sure not to flesh out the character lest they limit the freedom of the Mario in the next game.
"Ideas like does Mario have a family, what kind of food does he like?" Miyamoto said. "Those are all not necessary for the game and hence we didn't flesh out those details."
That's out the window now: The new Super Mario Bros. film starts with our favorite brothers in our world, specifically in New York City's borough of Brooklyn (which is canonically the setting of the 1983 Mario Bros. game), trying to keep their fledgling plumbing business alive.
Mario and Luigi return to their large and boisterous Italian family for a dinner of pasta and mushrooms (which Mario hates, foreshadowing some fun gags later on), and get teased for their failure -- especially by their dad. Yes, Mario has daddy issues, and it's a plot point.
In fact, other characters have backstories now, like Peach and Donkey Kong. Bowser has his own issues (you'll see!).
Among the many Mario themes Kondo has created over the decades, he sent a curated list to composer Brian Tyler, who drew on them to make melodies and compositions for the film that pleased Nintendo's greatest sound artist. Kondo also created the original iconic sound effects that end up in the film (after being adapted by Skywalker Sound), but there was one part of the audio that he didn't work on: the song Jack Black's Bowser sings in forlorn love.
"I wasn't involved at all with the creation of the music for the project, but I do think [Jack Black's] got a great singing style and a great voice," Kondo said. "Every time he was singing [the song] it made me laugh."
In prior interviews, Kondo has noted that he had to manually program sounds into the original Super Mario Bros. game. Technology has come a long way since, which he credits with improving his own creations.
"If you look at the evolution of game music as it coincides with the evolution of hardware and the tools we have available, and then of course if I looked at my own compositions and how that has improved over the years, I do think there is a parallel there," Kondo said.
Not that that's changed his goal, which "has always been to enhance the gameplay experience for the player," Kondo said.
The Super Mario Bros. movie squeezes plenty of jokes in among the fast-paced plot developments, which are a mix of slapstick and good visual gags. Having humor in the film was crucial, and personally so to Miyamoto. For him it dates back to his career dreams before working in video games.
"I myself at one point wanted to be a manga artist, so humor is very important," Miyamoto said.
To make sure the humor landed as well as the conversations between characters, Nintendo had lots of back-and-forth with the filmmakers while the screenplay was being written. That meant writing both English and Japanese dialogue at the same time as Nintendo and Illumination hammered out how the characters would interact. Miyamoto didn't know if the jokes would land with audiences until hearing them react in the preview screenings last week.
"It was the first time we showed it to a larger audience, and hearing laughter where we're hoping the joke would land was a really big relief to hear and observe," Miyamoto said.
Sorry, 1993's Super Mario Bros. -- Nintendo has been sold on using animation for its films for quite awhile now. Once the company launched its first 3D game console in 1997, the Nintendo 64, which launched with the landmark game Super Mario 64, it was pretty clear which medium the company was sold on.
"It was at that point that we really felt animation is probably the best approach to bringing Mario to the big screen," Miyamoto said.
Unlike Mario's foray into live-action, Nintendo seems pleased with the animated Super Mario Bros. film, and they've left plenty of room at the end of the film for more adventures (including a mid-credits scene with a favorite Mario side character). What does that mean for future films?
"There's a lot that I can't say, so I want to focus on this film," Miyamoto said. "We'd love to continue to work with Illumination."
Part of making a Mario movie is choosing what to adapt from the games, and how to do it. Nintendo used soundtrack cues and effects to bring back audience memories of the Mario games they've played -- in my case, it was the Mario Kart music that delightfully immersed me in the film. They wanted viewers to feel the same thrill as they would watching people play a Mario game.
"When you look at a Mario game, the way it's designed is really pure and simple in that even if you're not actually playing the game and just sitting next to it, you understand what's going on," Miyamoto said.
While Nintendo expressly avoided jokes meant only for older audiences, adults will still have a good time watching Super Mario Bros., especially for the myriad references to classic games (and perhaps a legendary voice actor). Nintendo wanted the film to be for everyone from kids all the way up to people in their 50s who had grown up with the games, and Mario's creator didn't know how the film would land until they sat with fans to watch the films. "Seeing the reactions that were coming out of the screening, I felt a lot of relief," Miyamoto said.
Given Nintendo's ventures into mobile gaming, I was curious what both Miyamoto and Kondo felt about smartphones -- and it turns out that they're both using the iPhone 13 Pro. In fact, Mario's creator is firmly in the Apple ecosystem.
"I have an iPhone for work and an iPhone for personal use, I have an iPad for work and I have an iPad for my personal use," Miyamoto says, laughing. But he's more interested in Apple than just as a purveyor of attractive personal tech -- he sees similarities between the company he's spent most of his career at and the biggest tech company in the world.
"I really feel like the way that Apple thinks of things and the way Nintendo approaches things has a commonality," Miyamoto said. He cited experiences they'd developed for the Nintendo DS handheld console, including an audio guide to the Louvre Museum in Paris, but said the capabilities of smartphones convinced Nintendo to try releasing new games on iPhones. "Another example is Pikmin Bloom that provides a gameplay experience you can only do with a device you have on you at all times."
Miyamoto conceded that it's possible to get that kind of gameplay on his company's latest mobile console, the Nintendo Switch, but said the communication possibilities and sheer number of smartphones in circulation make it worth Nintendo's attention to develop for mobile devices.
"When you look at it from an install base perspective, there's just no comparing the number of install base of smart devices compared to gaming devices," Miyamoto said.