Friday, December 23, 2016

Nintendo's Universal Worlds

I grew up with video games. If you asked me at age seven what my favorite place was, after Walt Disney World I would have told you it was the Mushroom Kingdom. Video games are dreamscapes, fantasy worlds that invite us in to escape. Along with cinema and amusement parks, video games are the third pillar of 20th century escapism - unapologetically popular entertainments which were created to amuse and distract the working classes.

If you dig into game design books, you'll see those links made again and again. The best games are said to aspire to be cinematic, and often are themselves pastiches of popular cinema - Die Hard on a spaceship, James Bond in an ancient pyramid. Disneyland is often brought up by game designers as a key inspirational space, a fully manufactured setting which is also clean, clear, and coherent across generations and cultures. Theme parks are just one other way to achieve immersion and escape.

And so, as a longtime Nintendo kid and a fan of the oeneric dreamscapes of theme parks, one would think that I would be preparing the paper streamers and rolling out the red carpet in advance of the announcement of the wonderfully titled Super Nintendo World - a mouthwatering expansion coming soon to Universal parks. And let's be clear here: I am. Having not been a fan of Cars, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, I finally feel like here's something elaborate that's aimed at me. As beautifully done as those areas have been or promise to be, my heart did not soar at my first sight of Hogwarts. But put a gold coin on a stick and have it spin around behind somebody's head, and I'm going to need to sit down.

So yes, I'm an easy mark. Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, Metroid, Mega Man, and Legend of Zelda were my 'galaxy far, far away' growing up, and I'm going to have a strong reaction no matter what ends up getting done. But that doesn't mean I can't have concerns about what's going to happen, and thoughts on the dividing lines between how video games, theme parks, and films create meaning.

So here's our chance to take a quick overview of Nintendo and theme parks. I've stated before on this site that I think Disney has so far failed to do justice to both games and immersive theming at the same time, and perhaps we can dig under that a little. Not a lot. It's a huge topic, and the year is almost up.

Super Mario Disneyland

So what exactly did Universal get themselves into here?

Super Mario is series which as of late has largely confined itself to the Mushroom Kingdom, but in its early years often took bizarre and irrational detours to lands abroad - the middle eastern Sub-Con, the Asian Sarasaland, the expansive Dinosaur Land. The visual style of each game was often totally different than the ones before it - the ghostly, abandoned open planes of Super Mario Brothers that gave way to a landscape strewn with multicolored blocks and checkerboard tile floors in Super Mario Brothers 3. Yoshi's Island, a prequel set in Dinosaur Land, is manifestly lush and tropical in a way no other game is.

Yet the games have a sense of continuity not so much through their settings and gameplay, as their sense of otherworldliness. The Mushroom Kingdom is filled with bizarre and inexplicable threats. In Super Mario Brothers, there is a palpable loneliness and danger to Mario's mission - only compounded if you read the manual and discover that those plants and blocks are supposed to be the transformed citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom! Morbid. No other Mario game feels as lonely and haunted until you get to Super Mario 64, where the echoing, stone clad interior of Princess Peach's castle leads to some truly heart-stopping moments where Mario is suddenly no longer alone.

The Mario series, like all video games of their era, exist in a world of easily comprehensible symbols. Just as nobody needs an explanation of why you're whipping monsters and ghosts in Castlevania, everyone knows to avoid roaming evil-eyed chestnuts, falling rocks, and leaping fire. In the Mushroom Kingdom, anything that can potentially help you has cute eyes, and everything else has a fierce (or at least dumb) expression. You don't need a language to understand these signifiers.

Super Mario, and the Nintendo Entertainment System generally, was a Japanese import which was wildly successful in an era otherwise terrified of Japan's economic ascendancy. Think of the Tokyo-inflected urban decay of Blade Runner, or potboiler crime pictures like Black Rain or Rising Sun. Super Mario crossed a threshold that Godzilla, Speed Racer, Ultraman and Astro-Boy could not. Even today, Godzilla is still made fun of by a certain generation for being a Japanese import. But Super Mario? That guy was an Italian from Brooklyn. He was pure kawaii nonsense delivered in an Americana candy coating.

Mario's world, with its bipedal turtles, swooping clouds, mobile cacti and cheerful hillsides, is a world of symbols not dissimilar to the fevered imagery incubator of Disneyland. Disneyland is also a place of inexplicable dangers, except Walt Disney used ghosts, dinosaurs, pirates and cannibals instead of mushrooms and man eating plants. They come to roughly the same end: we see these things and know that there's danger up ahead.

Magic Kingdom and Disneyland controlled visitor's experiences by intentionally limiting the number of options available at any time; you can either stop in this shop or this attraction, or keep walking. There's usually only one or two options available at any one time. The linearity of the experience is the defining quality of a theme park, compared to the open grid favored by traditional amusement parks like Kennywood or Cedar Point.

This too is basically similar to the structure of many Mario games - levels must be traversed from left to right, and in a specific order, to reach a specific goal. The most logical way to lay out a Super Mario area for a theme park would be on the pattern of Magic Kingdom's Adventureland - a themed corridor leading to a specific destination.

This imagery-heavy abstraction is the key to understanding why both Disneyland and Nintendo worked so well across generations and ages - both the classic theme parks and early video games created a pressure cooker atmosphere of heated symbolic interpretation, and clawed their way into immortality for their efforts.

Disneyland sticks out in America's literal-minded chronology obsessed pop culture, but I don't think it's coincidental that the Japanese recognized this quality in Disneyland and wanted one of their own badly. After years of rejections, Walt Disney Productions finally relented in the mid-70s - and then, only as a way to get a quick cash infusion due to spiraling costs on EPCOT Center. Tokyo Disneyland opened in April 1983 - just three months to the day before the release of the Nintendo Famicom in Japan. There's a family resemblance between the aesthetics of the Famicom and the Tomorrowland section of Tokyo Disneyland, as if one influenced the other.

In the Mario games of my youth, Mario was a cypher, almost mysterious. He wasn't cuddly - his game sprites made him look stoic, serious. It required a certain degree of interpretation if you wanted to know why this Italian guy was murdering large numbers of turtles. What his personality was like was up to your imagination.

On television, as portrayed by wrestler Lou Albano, the New York aspects of Mario were emphasized - his goofy accent, his constant need for pizza. One of the only other American depictions of Mario produced before the current Mario character debuted in Super Mario 64 may be found in the Phillips CDi game Hotel Mario, where Mario is voiced by actor Marc Graue in a style very similar to Albano's Mario.

In this sense it's easy to see how Americans adopted Mario as one of their own, and it's no wonder that many of us were taken aback by the voice and childlike attitude of Mario in Super Mario 64. Until that seminal game, although you played as Mario, there was no insight into what Mario was thinking or how he would sound, if he could speak. This actually isn't all that different than the abstraction of a WED classic like The Jungle Cruise. What does Trader Sam sound like? It's up to you to decide.

And it isn't WED Enterprises that's building Super Nintendo World, nor is it 1983. The Mario of today is as different from the Mario of 1985 as WED Enterprises is different from Walt Disney Imagineering. And therein lies some of my concerns.

The Difficulty of Complexity

Games grew up quick in the 80s. By the time Nintendo had premiered the Famicom Disk System in 1986, a new breed of interactive narrative was being carved out by innovative hybrid games like Castlevania 3 and Metroid. With the move from 8 to 16 bit consoles in 1988 and 1990, hardware and social forces were in place to give rise to the sort of epic adventure stories that Square Soft and Enix were pioneering. Video games began to resemble the sort of lengthy narratives best contained in novels.

But Mario did not change. Super Mario World may justifiably be called one of the most gorgeous video games ever produced, but mechanically it was very much like the 8 bit games which had preceded it. The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past more or less hit reset on the Zelda series, offering up a hugely expanded take on the concepts behind the original game. But if we really want to dig into the strengths and weaknesses of the expanding scope video games, we really don't have to look much further than Sonic the Hedgehog.

A sort of stepping stone between the pared down, symbolic creations seem on the Famicom and the hugely elaborate spectacles offered on the Playstation and Nintendo 64, Sonic oh so briefly stole the crown from Mario. Sonic may have been built for speed, but he wasn't really built to last.

In 1991, Sonic was something new from the world go - his sarcastic expression and waggling finger taunting you from the load screen. But the first game was actually an awkward series of jumps presented in a glossy, promising package. Through 4 subsequent installments, the series improved bit by bit, before coalescing into the exhilarating Sonic 3  / Sonic & Knuckles.

These are games of surface pleasures - the smooth controls, the buzzing rock soundtracks, the cool looks of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Dr. Robotnik. But the release of Sonic & Knuckles in 1995 was also the end: SEGA was never again able to leverage the blue hedgehog to a widely successful game. Part of this is due to the failure of four SEGA hardware launches in a row, but part of it is because Sonic never convincingly adapted to a new kind of game - a game that didn't just zip from left to right.

And it was when Sonic was down for the count that Super Mario 64 landed and went off like a bomb in the industry - reshaping conceptions of what these kinds of video game characters could do. Today, Sonic is a beloved character, but experienced best and most often in games where he races, or jousts, or fights Nintendo characters. More young kids have probably played as Sonic in Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games than they have in Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

There's no longer any kind of brand expectation from Sonic. And the reason is because maybe Sonic never really was about being in excellent games - maybe it always was that Sonic is always just Sonic; a better design, a better idea, than an actual character. Maybe the most compelling Sonic product in years has been the cartoon Sonic Boom, a ludicrous weekly excursion into weird humor and lame puns. People like the idea of Sonic more than they do the phenomenon of Sonic.

Sonic briefly represented the future, but in the end he was no more than a fresh coat of paint on the same old problem: people liked these characters because they were simple and relatable. Sonic and Knuckles exist barely more as figures in a silent serial: the cool guy who taps his foot, the evil guy who laughs. Mario is barely more than an abstract vessel to carry viewers through his games.

But isn't this very close to how theme park operate, too? If we're being rushed through a set at 3 feet a second, we don't have time for anything but clear, unambiguous images. Where Sonic failed is when he had to be more than that - to carry a compelling narrative about anything more than smashing robots and being cool.

We could also look at Capcom's Mega Man. Originally about little more than an Astroboy knockoff defeating a mad scientist, Mega Man presented a surprisingly bright, upbeat future of whimsical but aggressive robots. Being an early game, it was not properly translated and released with little fanfare - leaving the door open for American kids to discover and speculate on what exactly the deal with Mega Man was. Was he a soldier? A police officer? A human on an alien world? Early video games on the NES, PC and Atari were imaginatively stimulating experiences because of what they left out, offering players an opportunity to fill in the gaps in their own way.

Capcom eventually rebooted Mega Man into an elaborate and dystopian technology parable, heavily inflected by Blade Runner and The Terminator. And while several of those games are terrific, the flagship Mega Man series was sputtering out. By the early 2000s it had been rebooted yet again - into a form that little resembled its bright, cheerful, side scrolling roots. Today Mega Man is relegated to cameos and nostalgia pieces, even less relevant than Sonic is.

But compared to SEGA and Capcom's efforts to grow their signature game series, Nintendo went and doubled down on Mario's essential abstraction.

By the time Nintendo was selling copies of Super Mario 64, Mario was up against competitors like Solid Snake and Cloud from Final Fantasy VII - games that could shock or emotionally involve players in ways they had never imagined while pushing buttons on their NES. Mario was an abnormality - a cheerful but basically inaccessible fellow, eternally bubbly, in a world of bright colors and happy endings. And he stayed that way. Like Mickey Mouse, attempts to update Mario inevitably failed - and unlike Disney, Nintendo actually recognized this. Even while they branched Mario out into elaborate new genres like racing and RPG, Mario always was just Mario - he only required that players accept him as himself, a sort of mascot.

The Paper Mario series is an interesting case study in this. Hugely immersive and unapologetically long, Paper Mario expanded the intricacy and mythology of the Mushroom Kingdom in ways impossible to do in 16 bits - and they did it without even requiring Mario to speak. The cheerful, red-hatted avatar was the eye of the storm while his presence allowed Nintendo to draw on larger and larger canvases around him.

And yet, strictly speaking in terms of market share, the Mario series had been on a downslide since 1996. Mario 64 had sold less than Yoshi's Island before it, and Super Mario Sunshine sold less than Mario 64. Reissues of Mario's 2D adventures continued to do well on new formats like the Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo eventually gave up and launched a new series of 2D Mario games: New Super Mario Brothers, which has become the staple of Nintendo's portfolio. New Nintendo systems now tout 2D, retro-style Mario adventures.

Yes, that's right. The buying public voted with their dollars in favor of 1980s style abstractions, and Nintendo gave them what they wanted. Disney would've buried their heads in the sand.

Simple Mario Super Show

Which brings us back to Universal, Disney's greatest competitor. As I've claimed elsewhere on this site, Universal's most salient characteristic is their insistence on constructing their attractions based on actual linear narratives. Disney has copied the attitude, but almost none of the specifics - troweling  elaborate narrative justifications on top of random events. Universal actually sets up plot points in their queues that they expect you to keep track of and understand they're paying off later, down the line.

The thing is that I'm not at all sure that theme parks are actually any good at telling those kind of stories, and audiences don't seem to care. It's nice if they're there for the kind of people who go to blogs like this, but it isn't necessary - the kind of simple storytelling represented by a falling rock in Super Mario Brothers 3 or a floating candle in The Haunted Mansion works just as well.

Directly compare two recent Universal extravaganzas: their Harry Potter rides Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts. Despite a typically elaborate narrative setup, nothing that happens in Forbidden Journey makes any sense at all - what you're doing, why it's happening, or why Harry is tolerating it. He even shouts at you in one scene thanks to your inexplicable adventure through Spiderville. Compared to this, Gringotts actually makes a lot of sense - it's well paced, it has setups and payoffs, it actually rewards an attentive rider.

But none of that matters all that much because Forbidden Journey does things that work in the narrative environment that rides create, whereas Gringotts is telling you the kind of story better told in a movie. The strengths of Forbidden Journey are themed design strengths - crazy action, immediate dangers, weird illusions. People get off Forbidden Journey excited and inspired. The ride where you bop around in a mine car and characters on IMAX screens shout exposition at you cannot compare, and guests leave somewhat underwhelmed.

Nintendo games are about mysteries, things left unexplained, unpredictable explorations of bizarre worlds. They aren't about, and they don't tell, linear, comprehensible narratives in anything but the simplest way. They're about experiences and emotions, not about writing and plot points.

I don't know if the charm of the best Nintendo games will translate to a physical medium. While Nintendo's nostalgic appeals and retro-style product help convince me that the folks at Nintendo at least know where their strengths are, I've got less hope that the American themed design industry, so obsessed with minutae and specific storytelling techniques, will be able to make the jump.

In Super Mario Brothers 3, there's a room in a World 5 fortress that's empty. There's no secrets to discover in it. It's only there for atmosphere - to make you think about where you are and what you're doing, and to feel the dark and lonely atmosphere. To me it signifies all that's compelling about old school video games - the creation of compelling spaces without explanations or finger pointing. These things aren't all jumping and shooting, or at least they don't need to be. That's the magic of Nintendo. That's what Universal needs to aim at.

The eye of the storm.

Do you enjoy long, carefully written essays on the ideas behind theme parks, like this one? Hop on over to the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Theory Hub Page for even more!


Unknown said...

I was raised on the NES and maintain a fierce nostalgia for it (just like Disney World), so I'm right in the same boat. What I love about this post is how much thought you put into the comparisons between theme parks and video games. The line about how when you're moving at three feet per second, you don't have time for anything but clear, unambiguous images is a perfect description of how designers should approach theme parks, as well as demonstrating why the classic attractions are so successful.

Berimon said...

Merry Christmas Foxxfur, I hope the universe brings you all the happiness you can stand. You deserve it for the work you do on this blog. Thank you.

Chris said...

Wow, excellent blog post! I wonder how many of us theme park fans are also video game fans. I think you draw a lot of nice conclusions about the relationship of the two art forms. For me, I think the link is twofold - both are more experiential, and both use music for more aggressive moodsetting/storytelling. I'm hugely musically driven, and I feel like because games and theme parks both place a premium on just "being" somewhere, and don't have anything else going on (no dialog to drown out like in films), music can actually rise to the forefront, and really effective, melodic music can really make a huge impact (I still have Tomorrow's Child stuck in my head :P). It's kind of sad that with the rise of voice acting and cinematic cut scenes that games have gotten away from anthemic/hook-driven music.

I remain a little wary of Universal's Nintendo world, though, because I fear that Harry Potter set a bad precedent (unwittingly) - instead of learning the lesson that theme parks generate vast interest when they organically bring fantasies to life, I worry that executives learned that lines get longer when you slap a franchise on a theme park ride, and dump a lot of money into the surrounding land/themed beverages. Personally, I don't want a ride that just has Mario and Peach in it. I want to be able to fly like Mario in Mario 64, or collect inventory items like Link or Samus (and get stronger and be able to go places I couldn't before!). I want to play Pokemon Snap for real, or fly an Arwing individually! I haven't been following, though, so I don't know what the plans are, or if we know yet.

Anyway, thanks so much for your blog!

Unknown said...

Great read, both due to its quality, and because it touches on something I've been thinking about a lot lately as I've gotten older and drifted a bit away from my gaming past. As an 80s/90s kids I too grew up on the NES, Genesis, and Super Nintendo, and while I certainly enjoyed the generations that came later, it always felt like something changed as games fully crossed the threshold into 3D and fully immersive, more realistic (or in the case of more fantastical games, at least more detailed) environments: abstraction gave way to detail, and while that's created some masterful gaming experiences, it took that air of mystery away, the "fill in the gaps" aspect that the player's mind had to handle while imagining what characters like Mario, Sonic, Link, Samus, and Mega Man might've sounded like (high pitched and innocent? Gritty and cool? Younger? Older?), how they might've felt while dealing with a challenge (afraid? Confident?), how they regarded their enemies (a nuisance? Mortal nemesis?), and various other character features that the games largely left to the player to imagine and feel for his or herself.

I was in the sweet spot age-wise among the kids who enjoyed Sonic for awhile more than Mario (I was 6 when the first Sonic hit the Genesis), but it's interesting to note that, for awhile, Sonic was a much bigger hit in the US, Europe, and Australia than he initially was in his native Japan. During that time, Sega of America and Sega of Europe commissioned Sonic comic books and cartoons, resulting in regionally-based interpretations of Sonic's character, the world he existed in, and multiple versions of each (the Sonic Saturday morning, or SatAM cartoon, the goofier Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, then the Archie Comics Sonic series and the British Sonic the comic)...this allowed each region, like in the case of Lou Albano's Mario (whose favorite food was spaghetti, I must nitpick), to kind of adopt Sonic and friends and make them their own. When Sega of Japan swooped in during the Dreamcast era and streamlined the series into one continuity under their oversight and umbrella, a lot of that room for interpretation was lost, and it coincided with the era where Sonic could not keep up with the changing game world around him and fell from the dizzying heights he had known in the early-to-mid 90s.

So Mario truly does stick out as the survivor of that era, in large part due to how quiet he's kept, the "eye of the storm" you mention. Link and Samus kind of fit here, too, as they remain largely silent protagonists (though Samus has had some major exceptions in recent years) even as the game worlds around them evolve and grow. Meantime, so many old school series have never regained those retro highs in part because they tried to take on the trappings of the types of games Square and others began making - it's sad, but Mega Man, Castlevania, and so many others have just never been quite the same since the 16 bit era.

Regarding theme parks, yeah...I think it's the stuff of dreams to imagine a Nintendo theme park designed by WED. There's that perfect connection there with the emphasis on experiences over narratives, on musical hooks over simple atmospheres (great point up there, Chris), on making the feelings of the rider/player paramount over nearly any other detail. Really fascinating to consider. I'm still excited at the ideas presented for Super Nintendo World, which seem like they may include a Donkey Kong Country mine cart ride and a possible Mario Kart Double Dash go-kart ride, if rumors are true, but we'll have to wait and see, I suppose. It really does open up into the larger, endlessly fascinating topic of this current "evolution" in theme parks since Potter world opened, and how it's different from the older more WED-inspired methods.

Cory Gross said...

I too was a child when Nintendo was more of a lifestyle choice than a video game system... I was the kid with the full NES set that included R.O.B., with the subscription to Nintendo Power (back when video games journalism was helpful maps and tips rather than bullying accusations of racism and misogyny), who watched the Super Mario Bros. Super Show every morning and traded stickers for his Panini Nintendo sticker album with his friends at school. And now I managed to pull myself away from the NES Classic Edition we got for Christmas to read your wonderful article.

In your parallels between Nintendo and Disney, I couldn't help but be reminded of Adventures in the Magic Kingdom for NES and Mickey no Tokyo Disneyland Daibōken for Super Famicom (which, in my opinion, is the best Disney-themed video game ever made). The images from the parks translates very well, and easily, into objects in a game. I'm also recalling how modern games I enjoy echo things about the Disney parks, not even counting Kinect Disneyland Adventures which is eerie for how accurately it maps the park. Bioshock Infinite appeals to the same aesthetic as Main St. USA (and even nods to it in one part of the game), and Red Dead Redemption always makes me think of Frontierland. Oh yeah... then the much missed VMK...

One of the reasons I love classic video game characters, besides having grown up with them, is that much the same principle was used in designing them that was used in designing classic cartoon characters. In the original graphic material, Pac-Man even has the same pie-eyes as Mickey. Mario, Mega-Man, the original Donkey Kong and DK Jr., Q-Bert, etc. have that same simplicity, easy recognition, and charm. Maturing a bit, it's also why I've always preferred Street Fighter to Mortal Kombat... Ryu, Chun-Li, and co. are extraordinarily designed, charismatic anime characters. Our household has Street Fighters 2 and 4 for our XBox 360. In fact, pretty much the first thing I did when I bought it was pick up the Namco, Capcom, and Midway archive discs. The comparison of the 8-bit era to silent films is apt, if we compare modern games to the unaesthetic messes that pass for current Disney character design in the CGI era. But I suppose it's also telling that Nintendo has largely given up on original games and is mostly repackaging nostalgic call-outs in the Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. series, leaving it to other studios to make the involved, cinematic, critical hits.

I'm curious to see how they'll translate Nintendo into the theme park environment, keeping in mind that it is Universal which just means sitting in carts to watch a movie and then buying stuff. If they miss out on real life Mario Kart, then they'll manage to confirm my Yakity Sax opinion of them. If there was ANY franchise which suggested the current video game idea of immersion, ala. Toy Story Mania and Buzz Lightyear, then Super Nintendo World has to be it. Given that video games are defined by their interactivity, it would almost feel like a step backwards just to to be sitting in a cart and seeing things happen to Mario.

Unknown said...

C'Mon! How do u do it?! Perfectly said! All the places that I remember most about disney and love are the places that just exist for no other reason than it was cool. It wasn't a ride or an event. It just was and it was special.

Unknown said...

Please post again!

Smiddimizer said...

Where did you go?! Please come back!!

Geoff Carter said...

Terrific deep dive, as always. Waiting for that inevitable Breath of the Wild review with bated, er, breath. I'm guessing that Public Domain Newspaper Comics Land is not long for this world.

Drago has said...

Thank you for clearly articulating the difference between Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts. It's been something I've always felt but never been able to describe.