clock menu more-arrow no yes
Graphic featuring six images from movies featuring Nintendo characters and stories Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: various

Filed under:

Inside Nintendo’s weird attempts at making movies and TV shows

Things have come a long way since The Super Mario Bros. Super Show

In the mid-1980s, as Nintendo broke into the American market with the likes of the NES and Super Mario Bros., syndicated Nintendo TV wasn’t an obvious move. How, for instance, could a TV series spawn from a pixelated Italian plumber gorging on mushrooms and bumping his head into blocks?

Things were not so homogeneous between games and TV then, in part because the games themselves were so simplistic, and show creators needed to take liberties with the source. After all, in 1982, Pac-Man became an animated series, and that game was nothing more than a yellow circle traveling around a maze, eating dots. According to those who worked on Nintendo’s early shows, producing these cartoons was a learning process on both sides.

Decades later, with the internet’s influence, greater technology behind the games, and expanding storylines, the whole process changed.

Below are stories of what happened before the switch — stories of figuring out how to adapt to other formats, the occasional missteps, and ultimately, what led Nintendo to seek worldwide continuity. We’ve come a long way since pro wrestler Lou Albano and actor Bob Hoskins starred as Mario.

The Super Mario Bros. Super Show & follow-ups

In September 1989, four years after the NES made it to Western shores, prolific cartoon production company DIC Entertainment (responsible for Inspector Gadget, Captain Planet, and others) debuted two Nintendo TV shows. One was Captain N: The Game Master, which featured a kid who got sucked into his television while playing the NES, then went on adventures with a multitude of game characters. Alongside that, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! featured a cartoon in each half-hour block, with live-action segments (and occasional celebrity guests) filling in remaining time.

Work on Super Show ran into an early problem. Nintendo was new to this, but DIC’s team sought to closely mirror the in-game content — things like the sounds of Mario grabbing a coin or sliding down a pipe — to capture the authentic Mushroom Kingdom aesthetic. The issue?

Super Show creators couldn’t use the game’s direct audio because Nintendo provided it in a digital form meant for the NES. “[The sound effects] were not compatible with any other format, so we couldn’t play them,” says John Grusd, a producer at DIC Entertainment.

The Super Show team went on to tape some sound effects while playing the games, and cleaned them up afterward. Others came from musical instruments or techniques such as foley, in an effort to best match the distinctive 8-bit tones; either way, it required more work for DIC.

Back then, the adaptation rules weren’t strict, but something like Super Show was still a balance between what the network syndicators wanted, what Nintendo wanted, and the stories the team at DIC wanted to tell. The storylines were up to the writers, and people like Grusd became the middlemen. “We are giving these characters a personality [and in the games they] are just cutouts that you move around on screen,” says Grusd. “So there’s a lot that goes into developing that and doing the voices. And after that, we have to have the networks sign off on it. And we also have to have the rights holder sign off on it.”

Nintendo provided art from its own Super Mario Bros. game production, but that style didn’t always fit the new medium, Grusd says. Complicating things, Nintendo wanted the show to mirror the upcoming Super Mario Bros. 3 in terms of characters and design. “I had to learn the game in the Japanese version because the American version wasn’t out yet,” says Grusd. “[Nintendo] wanted to incorporate some of the new characters, some of the newer environments, and be more faithful to whatever that new iteration was.”

The process was trial and error as Nintendo tried adapting to DIC’s TV production time frame and vice versa. There was a learning curve, and if Nintendo altered something in the game design but the show was already being animated, it was likely too late to change. But the show went on.

Some back-and-forth between the animation side and Nintendo would turn out small corrections, but Grusd’s push came in casting the live-action segments, in which Mario and Luigi delivered moral lessons from their small Brooklyn plumbing office. Grusd felt Lou Albano was the right guy for the job. “I kept going back to what a really nice guy he was,” says Grusd. “And he was just a fish out of water. He wasn’t an actor, but he was a personality. He actually offered to legally change his name to Mario.”

There were two follow-ups to Super Show: shows titled Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. Grusd says the process didn’t change much, other than excising the live-action parts.

The next screen for Nintendo would be significantly larger.

Kids play video games on stage in a tournament
The Wizard
Image: Shout Factory

The Wizard

With the help of the DIC shows, Nintendo was now taking over TV time in both interactive and noninteractive forms. Movie theaters were next, but the idea came from Hollywood. “[Universal Pictures] basically wanted to do The Karate Kid, but they wanted Nintendo instead of karate,” says writer David Chisholm. His response after being asked to pen the script to what became The Wizard was, “What’s Nintendo?”

In gearing up for production, producer Ken Topolsky joined Universal president Tom Pollock on a trip to Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, to pitch Nintendo on The Wizard. Nintendo and Universal were involved in a legal spat over Donkey Kong and King Kong copyrights earlier in the ’80s, brought by Universal, yet here the company was, approaching Nintendo with an offer to work together.

It wasn’t so simple, but that wasn’t because of the lawsuit. According to Topolsky, Nintendo didn’t see the benefit. At the time, the company was beginning its handheld Game Boy push, Super Mario Bros. 3 was near, and the Nintendo World Championships were on the horizon. That’s what Pollock seized on. “[The Wizard] would be released before [the Nintendo World Championships],” says Topolsky. It would motivate people to go there.”

After the meeting and a briefing on Nintendo, Chisholm got to work. What he came up with was surprisingly dour, a story about a broken family and their traumatized young son, Jimmy (Luke Edwards), distraught after seeing his sister drown. Running from home, Jimmy’s brother Corey (Fred Savage) and the young girl joining them, Haley (Jenny Lewis), discover Jimmy’s talents at video games. The trio reach California, and sign Jimmy up to play in a Nintendo World Championships-like tournament.

The Wizard’s infamy comes from its product placement, including one scene where the villain retorts, “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.” The line was meant in the sense of ’90s slang, though it’s truthful in retrospect when speaking of the wireless glove controller. “They decided doing a movie about gaming and featuring Nintendo products would be the way to go, which of course caused a lot of product placement concerns, but nevertheless, you couldn’t do the story without showing Nintendo,” says Chisholm.

As for the story’s darker, dramatic elements, Chisholm received no pushback from Nintendo, and Pollock quickly gave the script his approval.

Nintendo had little to no involvement once the crew was on the road. Without guidance, Chisholm was on his own. “This is how my research went: I would call a friend and go, ‘Can I talk to your 12-year-old son?’ And I get the kid on the phone. I go, ‘What’s a good score on this game?’ And he’d go, ‘Like, 50,000.’ I go, ‘Cool. Thank you,’” says Chisholm, explaining some of the gameplay inaccuracies in the film.

Chisholm’s probes for accuracy were not the only concern; the crew had theirs too. For instance, the refresh rate of TVs and arcade monitors did not sync with the film speed, causing a problem known as a “roll bar,” where a dark line seems to move across the screen in the finished film. The crew needed to replace monitors before filming, or where necessary, custom-build cabinets to fit the new screens. Game footage was all pre-taped, and games needed to be individually licensed. “There were approved vendors by Nintendo and a list of do-not-use vendors,” says Topolsky, although he can’t recall specific names. And originally, the final game was to be fictional, but Nintendo asked to include Super Mario Bros. 3 to kick off its marketing blitz.

Although multiple prototype Game Boys were given to the crew, Nintendo requested they not be shown in the film. “I think we were trying to go with the Power Glove at the time,” says Topolsky.

“[The Power Glove] was a mess technically, but it was a dream for a writer to have a glove like that,” says Chisholm. “I could put it on this kid and turn him into Darth Vader. It was great.”

During the three decades following its holiday 1989 release, The Wizard reached cult status, earning a special-edition Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory in March 2020. The Mario 3 debut was memorable, and Nintendo’s needs were met with little involvement. Nintendo stayed the course for its next Hollywood project, hands-off, and the results were ... unique.

Super Mario Bros.: The Movie

Roland Joffé and Jake Eberts, both producers, were the first pair to win Nintendo over in pitching a live-action Mario Bros. movie. According to the duo, speaking to Luke Owen for his book Lights, Camera, Game Over!, Nintendo’s American side appreciated the pitch that skewed darker, more akin to Tim Burton’s Batman only a few years prior.

For the gig, they brought in Rain Man writer Barry Morrow, who came up with a road trip movie, similar to Rain Man. “It was jokingly referred to as ‘Drain Man’ around the production office,” screenwriter Parker Bennett told Owen. Nintendo didn’t care for the idea, but believed the Mario brand was strong enough to withstand these decisions, and didn’t interfere further. “I think they looked at the movie as some sort of strange creature that was kind of rather intriguing to see if we could walk or not,” Joffé earlier told Wired.

Dissatisfied, the movie’s producers brought in a new writing duo, Jim Jennewein and Tom S. Parker. Their take sent Mario and Luigi down a drain pipe into a magical world on a quest to rescue a princess (not that different from the Super Show’s basic premise). According to Owen’s book, the script was “received well” by the producers and Nintendo. But it was tossed when the producers sought a director; after multiple failed attempts to reach the likes of Harold Ramis, in stepped Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. They preferred the darker style, and with yet another writing team, came up with the basic outline that defined the movie. Numerous script rewrites from various writers followed (more coming in the midst of production), leading to a chaotic shoot and the finished film being released in 1993. Speaking to The Guardian in 2007, star Bob Hoskins called it a “fucking nightmare.”

The end result is infamous for straying far from the source material. Yet Joffé told Wired that he never heard complaints: “They never phoned up to complain. They were very polite, Nintendo.”

Donkey Kong Country

Things were quiet for a few years for Nintendo adaptations following the Mario Bros. movie. But in 1997, a partnership between Nintendo and French-Canadian animation company Medialab Technology led to a computer-animated TV series based on the Super Nintendo franchise Donkey Kong Country. In the U.S., the series came over as a “movie” — a few episodes cut together under the title The Legend of the Crystal Coconut. In Canada, the series ran for 40 episodes.

Writer Simon Racioppa says the show had a “bible” with basic rules. “I don’t remember any Nintendo-led story restrictions, but many of those would have been covered by the fact that it was a kids’ show, and had a lot of necessary standards to it just because of that fact. E.g., Donkey Kong was never gonna strangle anyone because no kids’ show character ever strangles anyone,” says Racioppa.

The greater issue for Racioppa was writing around the early digital animation. Consider that the TV series Donkey Kong Country came out only two years after Toy Story, and three years after the first CG-animated TV series, ReBoot. “Characters couldn’t pick up objects (they could hold objects, just not pick them up), new locations or new characters beyond the main cast were strongly discouraged, water was next to impossible, etc. This meant writers and directors had to be clever to work around these problems and still make the series feel big and inventive,” says Racioppa.

Partway through the early production process, director Mike Fallows came on to, as Fallows writes in an email, “salvage it.” Scripts were discarded after direction and scheduling became an issue. Fallows says his memory is limited, but he can’t recall any specific input from Nintendo, and he says the show’s issues were largely tech-related, such as the team having to work with a crude motion capture system.

Afterward, with the internet growing and fans able to communicate worldwide about their entertainment, Donkey Kong Country became the last of its kind. No more would Nintendo distance itself from these cross-media productions, seeking instead to bring everything together under its own banner, ensuring that the games, the movies, and the TV shows shared universes as much as possible.

Enter Gail Tilden.

A large Pikachu balloon floats above a city in a parade
Detective Pikachu
Image: Warner Bros.

The Pokémon era

While more kid-friendly properties like Sonic the Hedgehog also saw cartoons and comics based on those properties throughout the years, Sony’s PlayStation brought edgier heroes, often designed with cinematic influences and cross-media possibilities. Some failed (the short-lived Polygon Man, a spiky face meant to be PlayStation’s mascot), but marketing penetration began to grow. Sony’s own pro-licensed sports games were made in-house. Some properties associated with PlayStation, like fighting game Tekken, were given the anime treatment. Nintendo followed that trend, if in a more complete, considered way that benefited its core brands.

Gail Tilden had a history with Nintendo, working in various parts of the company, including the publications division when Nintendo Power magazine was still in its infancy and known as the Nintendo Fun Club Newsletter. In 1998, she became vice president of brand management, overseeing a new strategy in how Nintendo handled its properties. Unlike efforts of the past such as the Super Mario Bros. movie, Nintendo’s expanding game storylines and consistent branding became a focus for the company, with Tilden leading this push.

“Like the Super Mario Super Show, that type of thing, even the original movie, it was much easier [for Nintendo] to have it only impact what was going on in the U.S. market,” says Tilden. “It was OK that the U.S. was doing something that was really for the U.S. market. It wasn’t so much seen as something that would need to fit directly with the IP, or be something that globally meshed with where the content storylines were going.”

“But later came the idea that simultaneously, the whole world knew what was going on,” she says.

Rather than continue creating divergent shows for various markets, Nintendo’s approach became to import Japanese anime, including Pokémon, Kirby, and F-Zero. This allowed continuity, although a middleman company, 4Kids Entertainment, handled the international transition. “The script would be translated by 4Kids and then reviewed and kind of approved by Nintendo of America,” says Tilden. “If there was something that was going to impact the IP or the glossary of the entire franchise, we would have to run it by [Nintendo of Japan].”

Although the goal was consistency, changes still happened, but now with the creator’s (and Nintendo’s) input for future consideration. If a name was changed, it was handled in a way that could match animated mouth movements, making dubbing easier.

“[We made sure] that there’s a consistency not just of what the name is in writing, but the way those characters say their name in audio, because later when those games technologically became more sophisticated […] they actually had to be saying the sound the same way,” Tilden says.

With the Pokémon anime, other changes were made to suit American sensibilities and attention spans. “We had a lot of walking through the forest in Pokémon, especially in the first season or so [...] We would just go up the road walking through the forest and they’d have no soundtrack, maybe a bird tweeting or something like that. But here we really filled the background sound a lot more,” says Tilden.

While Pokémon took on a life of its own in pop culture, Kirby and F-Zero seem like unusual choices to bring stateside at the time, comparing the relative success of those franchises to something like Mario. “From my perspective, I would have taken anything I could get […] people were very thirsty and are still for Nintendo content,” says Tilden when asked how the shows were chosen. It’s worth noting that 4Kids purchased a four-hour programming block called FoxBox on the Fox broadcast network, and it needed content, which wasn’t limited to Nintendo.

F-Zero required more tinkering than usual. “Kids sitting, watching something going around a racetrack over and over, wasn’t going to fly,” says Tilden. “So it really took heavy editing. And it wasn’t on for very long, but editing that to make it work or be interesting never did gain any great ratings.”

“Video games, even in the last 15 years, are in a much different place than they were in terms of exploding and being cross-medium, and having the fandom so dedicated to knowing every single thing about every single property and debating it on things like Reddit,” says Tilden, summing up Nintendo’s approach until her departure in 2007.

Looking back, Nintendo wasn’t the first. A few were ahead of it — Hanna-Barbera’s Pac-Man and a series based on racing game Pole Position, for example — yet Nintendo’s synergy grew alongside its customers. There was hesitation, too: Rather than go ahead with a live-action Metroid movie (with John Woo directing), Nintendo grew concerned about adapting its properties, and the project died. Where Pokémon kept its child-friendly veneer, a shift came with the mystery noir Detective Pikachu in 2019, following Pokémon Go’s all-ages appeal.

It’s not only games anymore with Nintendo, so much as it is a consideration of the wider franchise in each media type. That push to create a cross-branding umbrella set a standard that, when not followed by others (see: director Uwe Boll’s film library), called back to Super Mario Bros.: The Movie’s missteps. Lessons learned, for the better of Nintendo’s properties and fans.