Not many western studios have taken a swing at making an official Mario game. But, between 1995 and 1999, the now defunct UK-based developer Software Creations did exactly that.
Nintendo of America had picked Software to be a part of its Nintendo 64 “Dream Team” — a collection of studios brought together to design tools and games for the upcoming console. And so, in addition to working on the sound tools for the Nintendo 64, they also began development on a spiritual successor to Mario Paint, dubbed Creator. This wouldn’t end up being the most straightforward of productions, however.
The studio slogged away on the game for close to five years, encountering various issues: from the changing requirements of developing for the 64DD to constant disagreements over the direction for the game. When Creator finally launched as Mario Artist: Paint Studio on December 11, 1999, it ended up being a Japan-exclusive, meaning many outside of the country have never had the chance to play it. I interviewed former Software and Nintendo of America employees about the title’s long development cycle, ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor, and their thoughts on the finished product. But, before we get down to the nitty gritty of Mario Artist, it’s worth discussing how circumstances Software joined the N64 Dream Team in the first place.
N64 Dream Team, and Creator’s Origins
When Nintendo of America first revealed the N64 Dream Team in 1994, Software’s name wasn’t on the list — a decision that shocked many at the studio. Up to that point, Software had experienced a close relationship with Nintendo, dating all the way back to 1987 when its co-founder Mike Webb reverse engineered the NES, earning the company one of the earliest development contracts for a British studio. Now it had suddenly found itself out of favor, replaced by other British companies who had accepted work from Nintendo’s rival, Sega. Richard Kay, Software’s other co-founder, wouldn’t take this lying down.
“When the Dream Team was announced, and we weren’t on it, it didn’t make any sense because we had done Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball for Nintendo, and it had done really well,” says Kay. “It had sold 1.2 million units and that was the year that there was a baseball strike […] So I phoned up Howard Lincoln and said, ‘This is bang out of order’. Howard just said, ‘We make decisions on what’s best for the company’, and I said, ‘So do we.’ The very next day we got a fax saying ‘Welcome to the Dream Team, we’d like you to work on the sound tools.’ So we got invited just on the fact that I got a bit arsey with Nintendo. And rightly so.”
Kay entrusted two of his musicians, Paul Tonge and Tony Williams, with developing the sound tools for the N64 dev kit, but there was also another interesting commission included on the fax. This was for a full-package music and graphics creator for the N64. Kay gave John Pickford, one of Software’s lead designers, who was behind titles like Plok and Equinox, the responsibility of coming up with the outline for this package, nicknamed Creator. Pickford came up with an idea of having editable 3D worlds for the players to experiment and mess around in. Players would be able to edit the behavior and appearance of creatures in the environment, take photos, and create music like in the original Mario Paint. Software sound designer Chris Jojo and the programmer Amir Latif were among those responsible for this music creator.
“It was almost like Disney’s Fantasia,” says Jojo. “So you would have Mars, a prehistoric world, and an ocean level. I was asked to create a music editor with Amir targeting a younger market. Something ostensibly very kid-friendly. So it was just very basic building blocks of music. Creating a series of compositions, and then having the building blocks to create music efficiently and quickly. So it had scales and modes — diatonics for the harmony. And essentially everything was major-based, which was very much in the wheelhouse of Nintendo.”
Software put together a prototype of these ideas in action. But it soon became clear that, whereas Nintendo of America was enthusiastic about the 3D worlds, Nintendo of Japan was struggling to get onboard with the idea. As a result, Nintendo of America placed one of its producers, Henry Sterchi, on the project in order to help refine this prototype and hopefully steer it in the right direction to get the approval of Nintendo of Japan.
“When NCL [Nintendo of Japan is referred to as Nintendo Company Limited by NOA] was really struggling to honestly make anything out of Creator, they had me take a look at it and see what I thought and what could be done with it,” writes Sterchi. “I came in far after the greenlight and was only aware that the next few milestones Software Creations had were very important and probably ‘make or break’ for the game. I focused specifically on helping Software Creations show they could execute on A. Their vision. B. A Nintendo Quality experience. When we attempted to add gameplay it became a little more like a safari meets “God game” but in a fun way, editing the scene and user creativity to create fun moments or outcomes on screen.”
Pitching to Nintendo, and the 64DD
Sterchi worked with Software Creations for the next few months, before the company was to demonstrate the game to several Nintendo dignitaries including Shigeru Miyamoto, Minoru Arakawa, and Howard Lincoln at E3 1995. The Vice President of Business Development at Software Creations Lorraine Starr was responsible for presenting this demo to the bigwigs at Nintendo. But as she recalls, she almost blew the demonstration due to a sudden case of nerves.
“We went over to E3 and perhaps reading the book Game Over a few days before probably wasn’t the best idea!” Starr says via email. “All the people I had been reading about were suddenly there in a meeting in a room the size of a toilet cubicle with about 12 bodies rammed into it. Nervous is an understatement. I was doing a demo but I had to stand so close to the monitor I couldn’t actually see anything on the screen and when I tried to take a step backwards, I yanked the controller out of the back of the machine. Fortunately, our U.S. producer Henry Sterchi felt my pain and took over. Mr. Miyamoto was one of the people in the room and clearly liked what he saw.”
It was during this pitch that Nintendo of Japan saw the potential to transform Creator from a spiritual successor into the next official installment in the Mario Paint series, titled Mario Paint 64. Soon after, Nintendo of Japan installed Mario Paint’s director Hirofumi Matsuoka as a lead on the project, with Nintendo of America taking on more of a backseat liaison role.
Software was now officially working on a Mario game, which excited many within the studio, but it also meant throwing away months of work in order to achieve Nintendo of Japan’s new vision for the project. Among the changes was the removal of the AI editor, an increased focus on a more traditional 2D paint application, and the controversial decision to cut the planned sound component in the hopes of reviving it at a different studio. This last idea never happened though, and instead Amir Latif left the project, while Chris Jojo joined fellow musicians Martin Goodall and Suddi Raval to produce the soundtrack, alongside Nintendo’s Kazumi Totaka.
“The management and the focus kind of transitioned from Nintendo of America to Nintendo of Japan, and I think the design kind of coalesced,” says Jojo. “At that juncture everything kind of solidified and I knew what my remit was. So I could see the environments progressing, and I knew my responsibility was to create music for the different worlds. I think there were about 8 or 9 tracks per world. So I distinctly remember the African safari one, because there was lots of pentatonic harmony, you know African major/minor pentatonic scales. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. And for the sea world, I was doing like a Dick Dale, Ventures-like surf track. That old reverb, Fender, twangy guitar-stuff.”
In addition to requesting changes, Nintendo of Japan decided to move the project from the base N64 to the N64DD — an unfinished peripheral that used magnetic disks to expand the system’s memory in search of a killer app. This came with the added benefit of allowing Software to be able to save or write back more to the console than a typical cartridge-based N64 game, but the exact specifications and features of the peripheral were still undergoing changes, leading to Mario Paint 64 undergoing constant design revisions.
“Every time we were near completion they came up with a new feature, such as video capture and eventually the introduction of a mouse,” says Starr. “The project required a re-design to incorporate each new feature.”
Mario Artist: Paint Studio
Development on the game continued to drag on, while in the background a number of people started to leave Software for greener pastures. This included the project’s original designer John Pickford, who left the company with his brother Ste Pickford in late 1996 to start Zed-Two – another studio with its own unique history — as well as Richard Kay, the person who had landed the Dream Team gig to begin with. Inside both Software and Nintendo, there was definitely the feeling that the project was dragging on, with Shigeru Miyamoto even acknowledging the “strange” nature of Mario Paint 64 in an interview with Dengeki N64 magazine in 1997 (accessed via IGN) where he also claimed “many will say it’s not a game”.
This would be one of the last times anyone at Nintendo would publicly acknowledge Mario Paint 64 in interviews, as soon after the project underwent another reinvention, first becoming Mario Artist: Picture Maker, and then Mario Artist: Paint Studio. Nintendo’s new plan was to use the game as a tentpole for a suite of interconnected art applications, released under the Mario Artist banner.
Other applications in the suite included Mario Artist: Talent Studio, an animation production tool; Mario Artist: Communication Kit, a way of connecting to Net Studio and sharing the creations from other games; and Mario Artist: Polygon Studio, a 3D graphics creator and renderer. This new direction was apparently the push the project needed, as Mario Artist: Paint Studio finally released on December 11, 1999 as one of the launch titles for the 64DD.
In the finished game, up to four players can paint or stamp Nintendo-themed stickers together on a single canvas, while those playing alone can explore ocean, Mars, and prehistoric worlds — editing the textures of creatures, taking photographs, and generally mucking around. The finished game shares a lot of the same charm as other Nintendo products, but it also arguably suffered from poor timing as home computers and creation tools were becoming more ubiquitous at home.
In one of the rare English-language reviews at the time, Peer Schneider of IGN concluded: “Paint Studio is a well-put-together creativity tool that’s limited by the platform it’s on. If this were a PC app, I’d recommend it both as a low-cost paint program and an excellent ‘My First Photoshop’ edutainment title for kids. On the N64, it’s a dinosaur, a throwback to the SNES days — and an important reminder that there is a reason PCs and console systems are able to exist side-by-side.”
Nintendo had allegedly intended to release Mario Artist: Paint Studio in other regions at a later date, but poor sales of the 64DD scuppered these plans. The 64DD sold way below expectations, with many estimating Nintendo only managed to shift 15,000 units, based on the number of subscribers to its Randnet online service. Nintendo never released the peripheral outside of Japan, and as a result, the developers at Software never got to play the game they had spent almost five years making.
“Sadly we didn’t get to play the game after release,” says Starr. “The N64DD was only ever released in Japan. We did get sent one copy and I think some of the team were able to get them via Ebay. It was pretty gut wrenching but the experience of working with such talented people at Software Creations and Nintendo was unforgettable.”
“I never got a copy, I got a plaque,” says Jojo. “Apparently it did reasonably well with sales numbers, because I got a platinum disc or something. But to be honest, when you’re locked in a project, you kind of have tunnel vision.”
Now, with the internet and translated ROMs, it’s much easier for everyone to experience the results of Software’s labor. The end result manages to be a fun creation tool, even if it is slightly less ambitious than what Software originally set out to make. As for Software itself, it was subject to numerous buyouts, before eventually closing its doors for good in 2004 — a sad end for a studio that contributed so much to Nintendo’s consoles and history over the years.