The Artist Who Helped Bring Super Mario to Life
by Ryan Lambie
If there's one designer who has shaped Nintendo into the video game juggernaut we know today, it's Shigeru Miyamoto. His seminal 1981 game Donkey Kong gave the company its first arcade hit, establishing a light, cartoon-like tone and a pixel-perfect level of polish that later games would follow.
When Nintendo made the move from arcades to home consoles with the Family Computer (or Nintendo Entertainment System) in 1983, Miyamoto created some of its most popular games, including Super Mario Bros. and The Legend Of Zelda. That so many of his creations are still so familiar to us over 30 years later is a testament to the strength of Miyamoto's vision.
But there's another Nintendo employee who made a massive contribution to the company's history: artist, animator, and character designer Yōichi Kotabe.
Unlike Miyamoto, Kotabe isn't a name that comes up all that often—even among dedicated gamers. But even if you've never heard of him, you've certainly seen something he has designed or drawn: he is, among other things, the artist we have to thank for the look of many of the most recognizable characters in the Super Mario Bros. series. But beyond that, Kotabe was one of the most talented animators in the medium's post-war boom in Japan. He worked on some of Japan's most popular anime shows and feature films, and was a regular collaborator of both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Had he remained in animation, a highly successful career at Studio Ghibli might have beckoned.
Instead, fate chose a different path.
By the mid-1980s, Kotabe was growing weary of the punishingly long hours and hard work required by the animation industry. By then well into his forties, Kotabe had spent many years working at Toei Animation, where he worked as a storyboard animator. He'd served as animator on Wolf Boy Ken, Toei's first animated television series, and the directorial debut of Isao Takahata. He worked with Takahata and Miyazaki on the 1968 film Horus: Prince Of The Sun.
When Takahata and Miyazaki left Toei in the 1970s, Kotabe followed, and continued to work as an animator on their Panda! Go Panda! short films. He also provided character designs for their TV shows Heidi, Girl Of The Alps and 3000 Leagues In Search Of Mother, and even animated a couple of key scenes in Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The success of Nausicaä led Miyazaki and Takahata to establish Studio Ghibli in 1985.
After 30 years in the animation industry, Kotabe felt that his work had begun to stagnate, so he began to search for a new artistic path. But having slaved away in high-pressure animation studios for so long, he suddenly found himself with a lot of free time—it was, he said, "a dull period."
While sitting in a coffee shop one day, Kotabe happened to meet an old work colleague, Hiroshi Ikeda. Ikeda, who was two years older than Kotabe, was also a veteran of the animation industry. The two had worked together at Toei Animation, with Ikeda having rapidly ascended from assistant to director and later company president in the anime boom years of the 1960s and 1970s. But Ikeda had since made the move into the burgeoning video game market, joining Nintendo in 1983 as the general manager of its new games division. Ikeda had seen that games were becoming more sophisticated, and that the medium needed the skills of seasoned animators like him and Kotabe.
Though he had heard of Space Invaders, Kotabe had little interest in games. But with little else to do, he accepted Ikeda's offer to join Nintendo, thinking he'd only remain at the company for a year or two.
It was when Kotabe arrived at Nintendo that he saw Super Mario Bros., the latest game designed by Miyamoto. "When I first saw all the movements Mario was performing in Super Mario Bros.," Kotabe said, "I thought that video games were now doing what the original animation industry was forgetting."
— Nintendo of America (@NintendoAmerica) March 10, 2017
Miyamoto had been so hands-on with Super Mario Bros. that he had even designed the game box—his image of Mario, leaping through the air with a cheerful expression, did much to cement the image of a character who'd previously amounted to a handful of pixels. But in Kotabe's experienced hands, the characters in Super Mario Bros. began to acquire greater personality details and clarity. He gave Princess Peach more distinctive proportions. He completely overhauled Bowser, crystallizing Miyamoto's ideas of a half-ox, half-turtle creature into something more coherent.
What's more, Kotabe's confident, bold early illustrations fed back into the games, as the sprites (and later 3D models) took on the personality of the animation veteran's drawings. Kotabe's work at Nintendo didn't end with Super Mario Bros., either; he worked on the character designs for The Legend Of Zelda: Link's Awakening, and helped to create the classic Mario Kart. He contributed extensively to the Pokemon franchise, designing the 3D models for Pokemon Stadium on the N64, and working as animation supervisor on a string of Pokemon movies throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Kotabe retired from Nintendo in 2007 after 21 years, but has still contributed to the company's games from time to time; in 2011's Super Mario 3D Land, Princess Peach occasionally sends you illustrated letters as you progress. Those illustrations were provided by Kotabe.
When describing the universal appeal of Nintendo's games, they're often compared in style to Disney or Studio Ghibli. What many don't realize is that Nintendo understood the importance of animation and character design in its games almost from the very beginning. Without the work of artists like Yōichi Kotabe, Nintendo's games simply wouldn't have been the same.