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Japanese developers are falling behind, according to former Capcom boss and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune. At this year's Game Developers Conference he accused his colleagues of "trading on past glories" and doing little more than "maintaining and sustaining brands" while the west embraces innovative designs.
Harsh words, but countered by two superb talks on 3DS games that followed at the same event. First, Nintendo's own Koichi Hayashida gave a presentation about the making of Super Mario 3D Land; then Masachika Kawata spoke about Capcom's new approach to Resident Evil Mercenaries and Revelations for 3DS.
Hayashida dismissed Inafune's criticism, not verbally, but by example. Though Nintendo are reusing old characters and worlds rather than coming up with new ones, they're proving endlessly experimental, in the old spirit of Mr Miyamoto. Kawata, on the other hand, showed how technical innovation and tighter budgets led to design innovation in the making of the two Resi 3DS games.
MANY MISSING MARIOS
Worried about a lack of Japanese innovation? Hayashida's joke ideas for 3D Land, illustrated by his own hand-drawn sketches, hardly stem from the conservative thinking Inafune describes. First, there was Huge Mario - or "Huuuuuge Mario", as Hayashida pronounced it: "He's so huge you can only see the lower half of his body on the screen." Then there was the uncomfortably spidery Long Mario, with gangly legs and arms, (Hayashida joked about giving him over to the Luigi's Mansion 2 team). Finally, there was Pro Skater Mario.
And it wasn't all variations on a plumber. Hayashida also showed an idea for a 3D cockroach, threatening to jump out of the screen at you unless you quickly slammed the lid to splat it. The final wacky idea he offered was a Princess Peach replacement tool, enabling you to swap out Peach's in-game face for your girlfriend's. "We always consider ideas outside the normal range of what people expect from a Mario game," said Hayashida, "to make others laugh and keep a feeling of joyin the process."
Contrary to Inafune's doom-mongering, Hayashida's design ethos seems more focused on keeping in step with hardware than honouring brand prerequisites. Early in development, Hayashida realised he had an opportunity to do a complete reset for the 3D Mario games, which previously hadn't been able to cope with objects floating freely in 3D space. But as with the earlier games, the move to stereoscopic 3D presented problems. Hayashida demonstrated how short-sightedness blurs the 3D effect, making depth differences harder to spot. Similarly, if objects get too close to the player's viewpoint, they cause a headache-inducing "stereo window violation."
THE LEGEND OF MARIO
Hayashida's solution drew from Miyamoto's point that the entire development staff - design, sound, director, programmer - needs to know the specifications and limitations of the hardware they're working on. Thinking about this, the team removed the player's ability to rotate the camera at certain points to prevent objects getting too close, and reduced the strength of the 3D effect. As a bonus, this also stopped players getting lost in the levels so easily.