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Playing together, winning together

After discovering the works of director Nobuhiko Ōbayashi with his 1983 movie Toki o kakeru shōjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) on the video on demand service Wii no Ma: Cinema no Ma, I came to understand that his early 1980ies movies seem to be intrinsically linked with the rise of otaku culture, that has become so popular in the West, and one of their favorite media, the video game. Toki o kakeru shōjo released close to the Family Computer (Nintendo Entertainment System in the West), Nintendo’s first console, which is also the reason why this movie was the first to be chosen for relase on the above mentioned video on demand service.

Another one of Ōbayashi’s movies from two years earlier, Nerawareta Gakuen (School Under Fire, 1981), also contains at least two striking connections with Nintendo. Let’s take a look at this scene from the movie, in which the protagonist Yuka Mitamura helps her class mate Kōji Seki win a kendō tournament using psychokinesis, a power she believes to have received from god.

Nerawareta Gakuen: Tournament Scene

This reminded me of a similar scene from the 2009 game for Wii, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers. Here the male protagonist Layle helps the girl Belle win a sporting contest using psychokinesis.

Crystal Bearers

The way Yuka holds the opponents so Kōji is safe from their attacks and can strike them easily, it’s even more similar to the Co-Star Mode from Super Mario Galaxy, which released two years earlier in 2007.

Co Star Mode

Co Star ModeOf course the similarities between using the Wiimote for psychokinesis and Ōbayashi’s movie could be coincidental. It’s also been decades since the movie, who would even remember it? But then again, there is another striking resemblance1 Fußnotenauszug: This resemblance became more pronounced over time, in some early designs Mario still had a red overall and a blue shirt, opposite of Yuka’s and later Marios‘ attires: Footnote added on 2014/06/07.... between Yuka, who also acts as the mascot girl for the Daiichi High’s kendō club, and Nintendo’s Mario2 Fußnotenauszug: About Mario’s character design Wikipedia writes: By Miyamoto’s own account, Mario’s profession was chosen to fit with the game design. Since Donkey Kong was set on a construction site, Mario was made into a carpenter. When he appeared again in Mario Bros., it was decided he should be a plumber, since a lot of the game is played in underground settings.[10] Mario’s character..., who debuted in the same year 1981  in Donkey Kong.3 Fußnotenauszug: The movie’s release date (first public screening) was on July 11th and the arcade game released two days earlier, on July 9th. It could be noted that the movie likely took more time to produce than the game and surely had trailers shown before its release. In case the game design was not influenced at all by the movie, players at the time should have noticed the similarities regardless and b... Both are wearing a similar combination of cap, shirt and overall (the last of which was quite popular in Japan during that time) in red and blue colors.

Nerawareta Gakuen: Yuka as Mario

In this scene the kids went roller skating but Yuka seems downcast. She has to tell Kōji about her power and as she suspected, he doesn’t believe her. Earlier in the movie we learned that Kōji relied on Yuka showing him her math test answers to even make the grade. It is hard for him to swallow that he had to rely on her to win at the manly sport kendō as well.

Yuka on the other hand is good in school, popular, has leadership capabilities. But she is lacking confidence when it becomes necessary for her to use her gifts. She wants Kōji to be strong, to be saved by him even though she is perfectly fine by herself. Kōji needs the illusion that she relies on him, tells her to stay safe at home even when she is the only one who can save them in the movie’s final showdown.

Yuka wears kimono at home and Western clothes when going out. In the Japanese language to this day a distinction is made between these two types of clothes, traditional wafuku (Japanese clothes) and modern yōfuku (Western clothes). Despite being always shown in wafuku at home, her parents trust her to make the right decisions herself and let her decide freely. Outside she is mostly seen wearing her school uniform or other combinations of skirts, but in this scene she wears pants. And her sanity is questioned by her close friend Kōji.

The script of Nerawareta Gakuen was written by Shōko Hamura (based on Taku Mayumura’s youth novel from 1973) and does a great job at depicting the changing gender reality in early 80ies Japan. There is a lot of hilarious humor in the movie but also subtle hints at deeper themes. Females are empowered but the males often feel inadequate. Yet they need to stick together to prevail.

When Iwata describes the search of the perfect co-op mode in the interview above, this is representative of Nintendo’s aim for inclusive gameplay in general. Nintendo is always at their most successful when they reach an audience that is comprised of all genders and ages. When they fail to recreate past successes, they always go back to finding ways to include more players in their gameplay experiences. That Iwata could lead Nintendo to success with the DS and the Wii is thanks to the design philosophy described here.

In one of the more recent Mario games from 2013, in New Super Mario Wii U’s boost mode the player using the gamepad can create platforms at will to aid or deceive the other players. It’s not unlike the earlier Kirby Power Paintbrush (2005) for the DS in which the player had to lead the way for Kirby with platforms they would draw and could hit enemies to stun them for Kirby to defeat them. In these games the player’s role becomes closer to that of the designer who puts obstacles in the player’s way but also helpful items allowing them to win the game. The designer is both the villain and the helpful hand, setting the player up for frustrating defeats but also for rewarding victory at the end.

Some players prefer to be the hero for example in an action game, to be lead to victory by defeating a series of stages. Some players prefer to be the helping hand for example in an RPG, leading others to victory by telling them what to do. Nintendo aims to make games where these two types of players can play together.

  1. This resemblance became more pronounced over time, in some early designs Mario still had a red overall and a blue shirt, opposite of Yuka’s and later Marios‘ attires: Footnote added on 2014/06/07. []
  2. About Mario’s character design Wikipedia writes:

    By Miyamoto’s own account, Mario’s profession was chosen to fit with the game design. Since Donkey Kong was set on a construction site, Mario was made into a carpenter. When he appeared again in Mario Bros., it was decided he should be a plumber, since a lot of the game is played in underground settings.[10] Mario’s character design, particularly his large nose, draws on western influences; once he became a plumber, Miyamoto decided to „put him in New York“ and make him Italian,[10] lightheartedly attributing Mario’s nationality to his mustache.[11] Other sources have Mario’s profession chosen to be carpenter in an effort to depict the character as an ordinary hard worker, and make it easier for players to identify with him.[12] After a colleague suggested that Mario more closely resembled a plumber, Miyamoto changed Mario’s profession accordingly and developed Mario Bros.,[4] featuring the character in the sewers of New York City.[13]

    Due to the graphical limitations of arcade hardware at the time, Miyamoto clothed the character in red overalls and a blue shirt to contrast against each other and the background. A red cap was added to let Miyamoto avoid drawing the character’s hairstyle, forehead, and eyebrows, as well as to circumvent the issue of animating his hair as he jumped.[4][10] To make him appear human onscreen despite his small size, Mario was given distinct features, prominently a large nose and a mustache, which avoided the need to draw a mouth and facial expressions on the small onscreen character.[14] []

  3. The movie’s release date (first public screening) was on July 11th and the arcade game released two days earlier, on July 9th. It could be noted that the movie likely took more time to produce than the game and surely had trailers shown before its release. In case the game design was not influenced at all by the movie, players at the time should have noticed the similarities regardless and both works could have contributed to each other’s success. The works would also remain linked in the minds of people who experienced both at the time. Footnote added on 2014/05/28. []
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