Nintendo’s Frustrations with 3D Mario


super mario 64

During early development of Super Mario 64, the initial concept was to have a fixed path similar to isometric games like Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.  The team later settled on a free-roaming 3D design that we’ve all come to love today.  Edge believed the game raised our expectations for how good 3D movement could be.  Nintendo Power said the game blazed trails into the 3D era, and GameSpot listed it as one of the most influential games of all time.  Everyone from Rockstar Game’s Dan Houser to Warren Spector has showered the game with praise for it’s revolutionary gameplay.

Although Super Mario 64 had received widespread critical acclaim, Satoru Iwata believed that Super Mario 64 had divided up the fanbase that enjoyed 2D Mario games from the NES/SNES generations.

In a 2007 Iwata Asks, Satoru Iwata said, “Eleven years ago, when you released Super Mario 64, it felt like it had brought on the dawn of a new era. It was celebrated by people across the globe.  But at the same time, the game had created a group of people who felt 3D games were something distant, as if it weren’t suited for them.  But on the flip side, the game did increase the demand for us to make great Mario games that can surprise the world.”

Fast forward to late 2011, and Iwata’s opinion on Super Mario 64 would remain pretty much the same.

“Super Mario 64, which Koizumi-san was a part of the development team, was a game that was praised highly. But at the same time, it created a group of players that felt 3D games were too difficult for them,” said Satoru Iwata.  Later in the interview, Iwata adds the following, “Wandering all around provides a lot of freedom but carries with it the problem of not knowing where to go and getting lost.  In a 2D Super Mario game, you just keep going toward the right and the goal pole is sure to be there. You don’t have to worry about whether you should keep heading in a certain direction.”

Although Super Mario 64 was revolutionary for it’s time (and still considered a classic even by today’s standards), Nintendo did not believe Super Mario 64 was a totally perfect 3D game.  In fact, in a 2008 issue of Nintendo Power magazine, Nintendo’s Eiji Aonuma says Super Mario 64’s problems inspired the creation of the ‘Z-targeting’ mechanic for “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”.

Aonuma explained,“Everyone has probably experienced how hard it can be to go where you want to go when moving your character around in 3-D space. When an opponent is approaching, in order to attack with your sword, you’ve got to position yourself in such a way as to hit it, and that can be quite difficult.  Another problem in games with a third-person perspective is that the camera must follow around the player character. Opponents with a large range of movement soon fall outside the frame. Losing track of your opponent’s location happens much too often. That was one obvious problem with Super Mario 64, so when it came to Zelda, which features a lot of sword fights, we introduced ‘Z-targeting,’ by which the player could lock on to an opponent. The opponent would stay in front of the player, all the player’s attacks would converge on the opponent, and the camera would always capture both the opponent and the player onscreen.”


In 2003, Shigeru Miyamoto was being interviewed about his game “Super Mario Sunshine,” the sequel to Super Mario 64.  One of the goals behind the game was to fix the issues with Super Mario 64’s camera system by giving players more ways to control the camera.  During the interview, Miyamoto was asked why Mario Sunshine didn’t sell well, and Shigeru Miyamoto explained that creating deeper, more complex sequels to Super Mario 64 shrinks the audience for Mario games.  The lukewarm reception from the mass media toward “Sunshine” would change the direction of future 3D Mario games.

“[Super Mario Sunshine] is an authentic sequel to Super Mario 64.  I regret this somewhat — not because of the quality of Super Mario Sunshine, but rather because this Mario game may not attract players who are returning to gaming after some time.” said Miyamoto.

Miyamoto continued, “One thing that has hurt the Mario games…Taking them into 3D, while it has expanded the worlds, has shrunk the user base.  By going into 3D, the games have become more complicated.  Before that, the Mario games were the type of thing that anybody could pick up and play very easily.  By going into the 3D world, we have limited who that game is accessible to.  After Super Mario 64, making a game that those 3D Mario fans can enjoy further requires shrinking the audience even more because you need to go more in depth.  What we did with Mario Sunshine to make it more accessible is that we tried to create it so that you could control the camera any way that you wanted it.  That was how we started development on the game.”

Years later, Yoshiaki Koizuma would reflect on the issues of giving players much more control over the camera system in Super Mario Sunshine.

Koizumi says, “Actually, there was a time when I thought it might be impossible to make a 3D action game that would be so accessible, anybody could easily pick it up and enjoy the experience. When you’re playing on a 3D plain, it’s so easy to lose track of where you are in the field.  And if the camera moves automatically, there are people that would get 3D sickness.   So during the development of Super Mario Sunshine, we prepared several different camera modes that the players can choose from.  However, this burdened the players with an additional task; they had to decide on the camera angle before they could go into gameplay.”

Satory Iwatu responded to Koizumi, “Aside from people who get motion sickness, with 3D action games, there are quite a few people who get lost within the playing field because they can’t figure out which way to go next. And there are also a good number of people who feel like 3D games aren’t made for them.”

Unfortunately, Miyamoto received criticism over Sunshine’s difficulty, and it forced him to re-evaluate the future for 3D Mario games.

According to CNN in 2003, “Nintendo’s chief gaming architect Shigeru Miyamoto agreed with criticism that the Mario game [Mario Sunshine] was too hard. And, in a decision that might anger the hardcore crowd, the word has since come from up high to make games less challenging.”

At Nintendo’s E3 2003 press conference, Satoru Iwata would specifically point out Super Mario Sunshine as a game that didn’t sell to Nintendo’s expectations.

The Register spoke to Satoru Iwata that same year and reported the following: “Iwata blamed falling games sales on overly complex titles that are too tough for newcomers and casual gamers. They’re also bad for the business, [Iwata] added – gamers can spend months playing them, and while they’re doing so, they’re not buying other titles. Those who find they can’t win get so fed up with the experience, they don’t feel inclined to buy an alternative title. Nintendo’s message to the industry seems to be: forget about discs jam packed with ever more complex levels and involving gameplay, and give the punters something they can complete quicky – and get out to buy more of the stuff.  Iwata wants Nintendo to focus on games that have a broader appeal.”

Ken Lobb, who worked at Nintendo of America between 1994 through 2002, would end up joining Microsoft.  Lobb would have some pretty critical words for “Super Mario Sunshine”.

“Infinite respect to Miyamoto-san but Mario Sunshine wasn’t Mario 64. It was a great game, but when a Mario game comes out I expect certain things out of it. Maybe I have unrealistic expectations, but those expectations have always been exceeded until Mario Sunshine. So, it’s not like it’s a bad game, but it didn’t do what I wanted a Mario game to do,” said Lobb.

mario galaxy


Nintendo went back to the drawing board.  After the realization that exploration was turning away 2D Mario fans from playing 3D Mario, they switched to more linear level design with “Super Mario Galaxy”.  To create a game where players wouldn’t feel lost running around a 3D plain, many of the worlds would be designed around the concept of running around spheres or linear obstacle courses.

Satoru Iwata explains, “Being able to visualize the planet where you should be going to gives you the impression that even if you just keep running around for the time being, you’ll be able to get there when you need to without getting lost.”

Koichi Hayashida agreed with Iwata by saying, “I think that another good point about this game is that, although it’s a 3D game, it’s never difficult for the player to figure out where they should go next. I think the way it feels traveling from one planet to another is similar to the worlds in a 2D Mario game.”

Mario Galaxy would soon become the best selling 3D Mario game worldwide, but Nintendo wasn’t completely ready to celebrate.  In 2010, Satoru Iwata stated that based on Japan’s sales for Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo wasn’t able to effectively convince Japanese 2D Mario fans to buy a 3D Mario game.

“As we see it, one reason why a number of people who love 2D Mario do not want to play 3D Mario appears to be because they are afraid to be lost in the 3D world by not knowing the exact directions, while they feel that they can play with 2D Mario with no such issues. One of the development themes of the original Super Mario Galaxy was to create a 3D world where people may not be easily lost, and the spherical shape was adopted as the game play theme for this reason. However, when we look at the Japanese sales, I do not think that we were able to effectively tackle this challenge with the original.” said Satoru Iwata.

With the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2, Satoru Iwata hoped that Miyamoto would fix some of the ‘problems’ with the original Mario Galaxy.

Iwata asked Miyamoto about Mario Galaxy 2’s development,”It seems a lot of people are saying things like “Unlike 2D Mario, I get lost in 3D Mario” and “3D Mario is more difficult than 2D Mario, so I can’t do it,” and I had a feeling that you were determined to do something about that sometime. ”

Super Mario Galaxy 2 would release on the same year that Satoru Iwata made those statements about the sales of the original “Galaxy”. The sequel, Super Mario Galaxy 2, would only sell a little more than half of what the original Mario Galaxy sold.



super mario 3d land


Nintendo would once again go back to the drawing board in trying to make 3D Mario games more appealing to 2D Mario fans.  This time, they would tackle the issue head on with Super Mario 3D Land by merging elements (like the flag pole) from 2D Mario into a 3D Mario game.

Koichi Hayashida would explain in an Iwata Asks, “I think there is a missing link between 2D and 3D Super Mario. To go back in the history of Super Mario, I feel like there is a chasm between Super Mario World and Super Mario 64.  I wanted to make something that would bridge that gulf, and what did that was the goal pole.”  He further added,  “…we started to think about “how we can establish the game world” as we apply the original 2D Super Mario rules for 3D.  In other words, we tried to imagine how we should make the courses.”

“I analyzed Miyamoto-san’s way of making games and tried to make Super Mario 3D Land the way he made 2D games,” said Hayashida.

In an 2012 interview with Edge, Hayashida said “3D Land” doesn’t just build off of the past games, but it also sets a new standard in how Nintendo can make future 3D Mario games more accessible to 2D Mario fans.

“We made 3D Land standing on the shoulders of every Mario game that came before it,” says Hayashida. While it was built around a brand new technology, it’s steeped in a long tradition, and strives to reach at least as broad an audience as any of the Marios before it. It sets a clear standard for the games that follow, too, presenting a novelty that doesn’t diminish accessibility.” said Hayashida.

It wasn’t just level design that made past 3D Mario games less accessible to 2D Mario fans.  After Super Mario 64 was released, Nintendo discovered that people had difficulty jumping  in a 3D space, and this is why all future 3D Mario games now have “jump support” like the FLUDD in “Mario Sunshine” or the Tanooki suit in “Super Mario 3D Land”.

Nintendo’s Koichi Hayashida explained to GameSpot, “The idea for Tanooki Mario arose when we asked ourselves how we could supplement Mario’s jumping ability. When you jump in a 3D space, it can be difficult to tell exactly where you are. When you find you can’t reach the next foothold after a jump, jump support comes in. In Super Mario Sunshine, there was FLUDD hovering; in Super Mario Galaxy, there was spinning; and in Super Mario Galaxy 2 there was Yoshi’s flutter jump.”

3d world


At E3 2013, Nintendo would reveal an HD sequel to Super Mario 3D World with four player multi-player, something that had never appeared in a 3D Mario game before.

Koichi Hayashida described Super Mario 3D World as “the grand culmination of all the best ideas from past 3D Mario games”.  This would mean filtering out ideas from past 3D Mario games (getting lost in giant worlds, complex camera systems) that kept Nintendo from reaching the broadest audience possible.  Eliminating anything that pushed 2D Mario fans away from 3D Mario was a priority for Nintendo.

Shigeru Miyamoto explained the reasoning behind creating Super Mario 3D World instead of a new Galaxy/Super Mario 64 type game.

“I think there may an impression that Mario 3D Land did well, so that’s why we decided to bring that to Wii U. But, in fact, what we really try to do is look at, “What is the easiest way for people to play the Mario games?” And certainly we have the new Super Mario Bros. series, which is the new side-scrolling games, and those are particularly easy to play for people who are more novice gamers,” said Miyamoto.  You’ve got four-player multiplayer. And then we have games like the Galaxy series.”

Miyamoto continues, ““What we tried to do with Super Mario 3D Land, was try to create a Mario game that was set in a 3D world that fell somewhere between the openness of the Galaxy games and the sidescrolling of the new Super Mario Bros. games to create a 3D Mario game that a wider array of people could play. And we felt that, with Super Mario 3D Land, we managed to achieve that. So, what we wanted to do was extend that broader appealing 3D Mario game to Wii U in a way that allow more people to experience it. That’s what we chose for Super Mario 3D World this time. But we still have, obviously, the Galaxy series, and there’s a possibility that in the future we may look to explore what else we can do with the Galaxy series.  For us, it was really about trying to find the right 3D Mario space in which we’re going to allow the widest audience to play.”

It’s not a question of whether Nintendo would be interested in making another “Galaxy”.  The question is, would Nintendo ever have interest in a less linear, open world 3D Mario game like Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine again?  Let’s never forget that Mario Galaxy was designed around the idea that Super Mario 64/Super Mario Sunshine didn’t appeal to a large audience of 2D Mario fans.


Final Thoughts


When the film “Skyfall” came out, I remember some people saying, “I wish they would keep Jason Bourne out of my James Bond”.  Some people complained that Skyfall, although a very good movie, felt more like a Bourne film than a Bond film.

When the trailer for the film, “Man of Steel” released, I remember people saying, “Oh God.  They’re trying to turn Superman into Batman by making it all dark, gritty, and philosophical.  Superman isn’t suppose to be like Batman.”

When “Family Guy” became popular for its pop culture jokes, flashbacks, and random humor, it seemed like the writers of The Simpsons were pushing more of Family Guy’s style of humor into their scripts.  Why?  To keep The Simpsons more relevant and competitive with Family Guy’s popularity.  Fans of The Simpsons protested, “Keep that Family Guy humor out of The Simpsons!”

My final example is when Paramount announced J.J. Abrams as the director of the first Star Trek film. He told an interviewer that he preferred Star Wars over Star Trek as a kid because Star Trek’s characters didn’t go on enough adventures like those in Star Wars.  This sent Star Trek fanboys into a rage.  “Don’t turn Star Trek into Star Wars!  They want to make Star Trek more like Star Wars so it makes more money!”

This is all very similar to people’s disappointment of Nintendo trying to make 3D Mario more accessible and popular with fans of 2D Mario.  I’ve heard some people say, “Keep 2D Mario out of my 3D Mario!  They should be totally separate!  If people really want 2D Mario, then they’ll buy the real 2D side-scrolling games from the New Super Mario Bros series!”

Months ago, I asked people on Twitter how they felt about Super Mario 3D World.  I received very mixed reactions.  Some tweets were very optimistic for the game while other tweets seemed very disappointed.

Which side of the fence are you on?

tweets 1


tweets 2



Are you happy with the direction that Nintendo is moving with their 3D Mario games?  Do you care that Nintendo has been pushing 2D Mario gameplay elements into 3D Mario more and more with each new installment?

Sound off in the comments.  I’d love to hear your opinions.


10 Replies to “Nintendo’s Frustrations with 3D Mario”

  1. Good article but this also leaves out that the DS launched with Super Mario 64 DS and barely moved the needle for the system. When the DS took off,  New Super Mario Bros. skyrocketed. I think Nintendo would rather have a good Mario game that sells amazingly than an incredible Mario games that does alright. And considering I see my family members pick up a 2D Mario easily and need help with a 3D Mario, that speaks volumes. Nintendo has long knew that 3D Marios are bit hardcore and a hardcore market can only carry it so far. And not every gamer who played Mario on the SNES or NES turned into a hardcore gamer. Some people just loved the simplicity a Mario level brings.

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  3. Very interesting article, congratulations for all this research.
    I’ve started to notice this, too, while reading Sean Malstrom’s blog (the man has grown slightly paranoid since) : people didn’t seem to care as much as game critics about 3D Mario. To me, this fact alone highlights the truly experimental nature of Mario 64. Actually, while those are less ground-breaking than SM64, you could argue that Sunshine, the Galaxies and even 3D Land are also highly experimental games, in the way they’re trying to redefine 3D platforming again and again.
    Picture this : at the beginning, we had either Crash Bandicoot, which started as a 2,5D game because the dev team couldn’t work out how to make the 3D stages fun, at least when the development began (highly recommended reading : Andy Gavin’s ; and SM64, which has gone quite the opposite way. Then, some years after SM64, you had either Crash clones (Rayman 2 and Sonic Adventure both qualify, to some extent) or wide open collect-a-thons, although some of those were great games in spite of relying on this already-tired game design trope (Jak & Daxter, Munch’s Oddysee).
    Then Mario Sunshine came along, trying to evoke some SM64 memories, while also trying to be different. A reviewer called Sunshine “” : I couldn’t agree more, as everyone can see by checking what elements of Sunshine were carefully removed from its sequels (i.e. : chatty NPCs, “realistic” settings, and what speaks volumes to my opinion : fully-voiced GC cutscenes). From there, it’s practically the same question Nintendo is asking itself again and again : how to make 3D Mario more 2D-esque ? See how much praise the “bonus stages” from Sunshine got, and how it greatly influenced Galaxy’s level design ; see also how the relative blandness of NSMB’s setting weighted over 3D Land artistic direction.
    To me, that’s my main issue with this evolution : I don’t mind 3D Mario being more Crash Bandicoot and less Mario 64 (as long as you don’t have to break all those crates). I’m more worried about how Nintendo is more and more afraid to take aesthetic risks and prone to keep Mario firmly enclosed to this saccharine safe-zone of a universe. Galaxy took a risk, tried (and succeeded at) something evocative, bold and visually striking, even if it sometimes veered into something that looked (and sounded) more like Star Fox territory. Nintendo – and especially Koizumi, the man who engineered Yoshi’s Island marvelous scenery – need not to forget that, in their quest to appeal to hurried people who cannot figure out the more tedious aspects of 3D Mario.
    And then they can let Zelda have the giant 3D worlds to get lost in.

  4. Excellent piece.  It was enlightening to read and follow the transition from Super Mario 64 to 3D World.  Especially the part involving Sunshine (which is the one Mario game I haven’t played from those mentioned).  I am particularly excited for Super Mario 3D World.  And I love the old school avatar icons on the top left of the screen while playing.  Brings an awesome retro flare to the game.

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