Interview: the minds behind Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam, Akira Otani and Shunsuke Kobayashi

It’s weird to think that Mario, one of the most influential and important action game series ever, not only has an RPG spinoff, but has multiple such spinoffs. The original Super Mario RPG felt like a unique, one-off affair back in its time, but the groundwork laid by that title has since spawned the Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi series. After years of doing their separate takes on the Mario universe – and producing some all-time classics in the process – the two series recently crossed over in the 3DS game Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam. (Can we stop and ruminate on the sheer brilliance of that title for a bit? It works beautifully on so many levels.)

I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Akira Otani of Nintendo and Mr. Shunsuke Kobayashi of Mario and Luigi series developer Alphadream about the creation of this 2D/3D adventure. Read on for some fun little tidbits about what went on behind the scenes of this game’s creation!

Please note that since this was an email-based interview, it’s a bit shorter and doesn’t have quite the same back-and-forth as the interviews I do in person or over voice/IM. There will also be minor spoilers for events about halfway through the plot. Please be aware, and I hope you enjoy it!

From Nintendo – Mr.Akira Otani, Producer of Mario and Luigi Paper Jam
From ALPHADREAM – Mr.Shunsuke Kobayashi, Director of Mario and Luigi Paper Jam

Where did the concept to create a mashup between Mario and Luigi and the Paper Mario franchises come from?

Otani: We originally started this project based on the idea that, while Mario & Luigi games were traditionally played with 2 buttons (A and B), could we deviate from that formula and create a game using 3 buttons? We were first thinking about various other characters like Bowser, but then thought, “wouldn’t it be interesting to have Mario work with another Mario character”? We also considered an action-based Mario game, and thought that if we used Paper Mario then we could create a contrast between 2D and 3D while using its unique world design and action elements. Thus, Paper Mario was the obvious choice.

The Mario universe seems very malleable from a characterization standpoint – there are lots of characters who can play either friendly or antagonistic roles depending on the situation. How did you decide what roles characters and creatures would play in Paper Jam?

Otani: Basically, we avoided having characters in roles that would feel strange to Mario fans, such as having Goomba be a friendly character. The Bowser army, including Paper Bowser and his paper minions are once again an enemy force in this game that will interfere with Mario and Friends. Toad and Paper Toads are basically helping Mario’s party. Princess Peach is getting kidnapped again, of course…
Of these characters, only “Lakitu” has been changed to be a neutral character. The Lakitus look like they’re helping Mario’s party, but they are actually only doing their jobs. (More specifically, the hidden truth is that they are secretly leaking information about Mario’s party to Bowser, and there are events in the game that hint at this.)

What would you say you enjoy most about creating elaborate stories within the Mario universe?

Kobayashi: Mario and Paper Mario, Princess Peach and Paper Princess Peach…It was fun to create interactions between different versions of the same character who come from different worlds like these examples.
For this game, we created themes for each of the interactions between the main characters. We emphasized the characters’ personalities for each of the character interactions, such as Mario being curious about Paper Mario’s special abilities and trying to see if he can use them himself (even though both Mario and Paper Mario are the heroes of their respective worlds), the two Princess Peaches talking about girl stuff, the Bowser Jrs. getting along immediately like old friends, etc.

Mario has a very long history with RPGs, going back to the first Super Mario RPG on the SNES. What particular gameplay or story elements from the previous Mario RPG series (the original, Paper Mario, Mario and Luigi) did you implement in Paper Jam and why?

Kobayashi: We retain elements that are important to the series in each installment. We retained the integral parts of the series, such as the Bros. Attacks, puzzle-solving elements, and action command combat system. We then added new elements to this formula.
For this game, we focused on bringing out the traditional feel of Mario & Luigi while using 3 buttons for dashing, actions, and combat.
Since Paper Mario was also added in this game, we also incorporated a lot of the paper-like feel and actions used in Paper Mario. For the story, we thought about having the characters traveling between the world in the book and the Mario & Luigi world, then some more elaborate ideas such as making the Mushroom Kingdom a paper world, but this was too complicated so we finally decided on the current simple story of returning the Paper Mario characters return to their original world.

I really like the amount of detail put into the sprite animations for this game – they must have taken a lot of work. Why did you opt to use 2D sprites for most of the game’s characters instead of 3D polygon models?

Kobayashi: We’re glad you like it! We made it like that because a lot of fans said they liked 2D Mario & Luigi. (laugh)
Also, one of the selling points of this game is the comedy aspect, and we used 2D because it would be easier to express the elements particular to the series in 2D. Furthermore, we created 3D models (even though they’re paper…) for the Paper Mario characters this time, so we think it makes for a nice contrast. We’d like to make Mario & Luigi with 3D polygons someday.

There are points in the game where it feels like the writers are taking comical jabs at JRPG tropes (such as Wiggler’s “tragic sacrifice” and the monologue-ing Paper Petey). Is this intentional, and if so, do you have a favorite comedic scene in the game?

Kobayashi: This is intentional. We even feel that it wouldn’t be Mario & Luigi if there were no comedy elements. This is something that has been important since the beginning of the series.
The event creation staff think about jokes every day.While there are many scenes we like, our favorite scenes are the conversations between the two Kameks and Starlow’s monologue. We can’t help but chuckle at these scenes. And while it is not dialogue, we would also encourage players to look forward to Luigi’s slapstick reactions.

How do you brainstorm the concepts for the elaborate Bros. attacks featured in-game (and were any Bros. Attacks ideas rejected before making it into the game)?

Kobayashi: We first held a meeting between Nintendo and AlphaDream while bringing in a lot of proposals and ideas.We picked out the most interesting attacks among the vast number of rejected ideas. The process was to first think about the basic controls (pressing buttons repeatedly, using the Circle Pad, etc.) and then develop attack visuals that match those controls. (There are some exceptions as well.) We verify the feel of the attacks in the test version and do repeated retakes, then incorporate those attacks that overcome the various implementation difficulties on the game screen.

What’s the most amusing incident that happened in the course of developing the title?

Otani: This was the first project directed by the director, Mr. Kobayashi, so he was very tense. He actually came to Kyoto in an unofficial capacity to communicate better with the Nintendo staff. We went to amusement parks, played games, and went out for food together. The result was, as you know, that he created a wonderful game.

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