When Super Mario Odyssey was first announced, the very first thing we saw was a realistic city. It could have been New York with its yellow cabs and bright billboards strewn across the skyline. People of real, believable human proportions walked around this town. Then our favorite Italian plumber jumps out of a manhole cover, and we knew we were in for something special.
Super Mario Odyssey is a game where Mario is thrown into a plethora of different worlds, from a prehistoric island, a crimson sand desert, a kingdom made entirely of colored food, and even the moon. We’re being selective here, but what we mean is that the worlds of Super Mario Odyssey are creative, bizarre, and combine several different art styles. seamlessly.
One person we have to thank for this is lead VFX artist Junki Ikeuchi, who also worked on The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, ARMS, and the Nintendo Lab. In a post on Nintendo’s Japanese recruiting site, Ikeuchi explained how he managed to make all of these designs work, especially given Mario’s more cartoonish look.
The piece was translated by the folks at Nintendo Everything, and in it, Ikeuchi talks about that first promotional trailer – which came out before the Switch even launched!
Prior to the release of Super Mario Odyssey, we made a trailer for the game where Mario jumped out of a manhole and ran through a town resembling CG New York. The concept for the video was to have an animated Mario contrasted with a gritty, realistic cityscape. As the effects designer on the project, this posed many challenges for me.
When Mario runs in Super Mario Odyssey, a small white cloud of smoke appears below him. My senior colleagues often say “effects are like glue” which also holds things together when game elements interact with each other. When Mario throws his hat and hits an enemy, things like stars appear to visually let you know you’ve hit the target.
When Mario interacted with the “real” world, the big problem was choosing which of the two art styles the visual effects should look like. Should we choose an effect that resembles the animated Mario? If so, it wouldn’t match the realistic city, and the same could be said for the reverse. To solve this problem, ideas were taken from both themes and mixed together.
Even though Mario clearly stands out from most designs in the world (remember this boss fight towards the end of the game), there had to be some form of cohesion. Recognizable details like Mario’s cloud of smoke as he runs and the stars as he hits enemies helped make it look like a Mario game even though it’s set in a huge city or castle Japanese.
But Ikeuchi was aware and didn’t want one “style” to override the other, so he faced many challenges while developing the game. The team felt that as the effects got closer to Mario, they could become more “Mario” and that each character would need different effects. Ikeuchi also focuses on Cappy’s abilities and how Mario transforms into whatever he captures. The team needed a lot of help developing a game for the new Nintendo console, and these transformations were made possible with that help.
Take for example a waterfall in the middle of the wilderness, which has a realistic splash effect. But when Mario hits something, cute stars appear instead. We didn’t want all characters in the game to have the same effects. If a dragon breathes fire, the fire becomes more realistic the farther it gets from Mario, and we kept this design choice in mind when creating all effects throughout all stages of the game.
Effect design may seem simple compared to character design, but technology allows for more unique expression. Implementing technology, however, is not something a designer can do alone. You need help from programmers to help you apply the ever-changing technology to effects, and we’ve had plenty of help with that in Super Mario Odyssey.
An example of this is the disintegration effect when Mario captures an enemy. It was a joint effort with programmers and is an example of how technology can be used successfully.
One of the best things about this job is that we can add a single effect to let what’s happening on screen take center stage. In a forest step, adding mist creates a more natural look. Or if from the outside you see a picture of a cherry blossom tree – that’s beautiful in itself, but what if you add a wind effect to it? The context of the image changes and it represents the progression of time. Effects not only glue things in the game together, but they are something that adds to the world. The job of the effects designer is not just to create effects, but to make the game more “real”.
The mix of environments and art styles allowed for a lot of freedom, and the variety meant that VFX artists had a lot of flexibility on how to make these places feel “real”. It made Odyssey cohesive even though each world looked different and helped propel the game to magical status.
Super Mario Odyssey is almost five years old and it still makes our eyes shine every time we see it. From exploring the galaxy to vacationing, the one thing we know about Mario’s 3D adventures is that we never know where he’ll go next, and Odyssey has proven that even if we think the galaxy is the limit , she can break through this and create many fantastical worlds we never thought possible.
What’s next, Mario?