The fanboys making the next Mario game
“I thought that this is impossible. I can't possibly write music for this game. I'm just not good enough”
On his flight out to E3, Davide Soliani turned to his team and told them to prepare for the worst.
Ubisoft Milan's creative director was attending the LA show to unveil a game he had spent the last three and a half years building: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle for Nintendo Switch. And he feared a fan backlash.
The game sounds utterly bonkers. Aside from combining the Rabbids and Mario universes together, it's a turn-based strategy game, with guns, mixed with some action adventure gameplay. Think Mario meets Rabbids meets XCOM.
Yet Ubisoft's management loved it and the team were given the chance to pitch the project to Nintendo legend (and Mario's father) Shigeru Miyamoto.
This was a dream scenario for Soliani. "Miyamoto-san is the main reason why I do this," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. So he and the team worked day and night for three weeks to build a prototype, and even re-created Mario and Luigi from scratch, in a bid to impress the Mario designer.
Soliani met Miyamoto at E3 2014, although this wasn't their first meeting.
"My first project was Rayman for Game Boy. My second game was Jungle Book: Mowgli's Wild Adventure, also on Game Boy.
"I was super proud of it. I remember a review saying that it seemed like a Nintendo game. So the first time I went to E3, I brought my Jungle Book game and I met Miyamoto. But I was so shy, like a little kid, that I just gave him the game and asked him to sign it, without even saying hello, presenting myself and explaining that this was my game. So, Miyamoto-san looked at the box like: 'Hmmm, this isn't my game.' But he signed it anyway because he is such a gentle guy. When he gave me the signed game, which of course I still have, I went out of E3 and cried like a baby."
The second time Soliani met Miyamoto was when the Nintendo legend visited Milan on a press tour for The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker in 2002.
"I called up every four or five-star hotel in Milan, pretending to be part of the team, to find out where he was staying," Soliani admits. "It was a Saturday, it was raining, I had a fever, but I didn't care. I waited there for eight or ten hours. I had brought with me all the games from Ubisoft Milan and I gave them to him. He said goodnight to us in Italian. It was a magical moment.
"I'm clearly quite crazy. I am a fan. I recognise that it's not super rational."
Soliani's clear enthusiasm at E3 2014 paid off. Miyamoto was impressed with the game, but doubly impressed with Soliani. "I fell in love with his passion," he says in a behind-the-scenes video.
The development legend then reassured the rest of Nintendo about the project, despite some initial concerns about the use of weapons.
"This was one of the first things internally at Nintendo that they asked themselves about, but Miyamoto-san said that he was totally ok with it, so we can proceed," Soliani explains. "It was a huge moment for me because I was aware it could have been one of the show stoppers. But you can see that this game is very joyful, colourful and humorous."
Miyamoto wasn't the only gaming hero that Soliani would find himself working with. A year into the project, and he was eager to secure the services of Grant Kirkhope to score the game's soundtrack - the man behind the music for Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64.
"It struck me... how on earth was I going to write music for Mario after Koji Kondo, who is the greatest games composer in the world? I thought this is impossible"Grant Kirkhope
"The first time I met with Grant was in Paris," Soliani remembers. "I was showing him the prototype and he was completely absent of any emotion, to the point where I thought that maybe he doesn't like this at all."
Kirkhope cuts in: "I was scared. I got an email from Gian Marco, the producer in Milan in November 2014. He said that he had a game that I might like to do. So I got the NDA all signed up and it was called Rabbids Kingdom Battle. I thought it was a Rabbids game.
"It took them a while to fly me out to Paris to meet with Davide [Kirkhope is based in LA]. I remember they took me to the studio and into this backroom. It was all big security, no-one could get in, it had secret keys and all that. I thought it was a bit strange for a Rabbids game. I sat down, and Davide turned on the TV and Mario was there. I thought they'd just been playing a Mario game. And then he started to move Mario. And I was like, 'What are you doing'? And he said: 'This is the game, it's a Mario game'. That was the first I heard about it. It struck me... how on earth was I going to write music for Mario after Koji Kondo, who is the greatest games composer in the world? I thought this is impossible. I can't possibly write music for this game, I'm just not good enough. So I had this blank expression because the fear had gone from 0 to 60 in one second flat."
After Kirkhope managed to calm down, he agreed to work on the game and a unique friendship formed between him and Soliani.
"The relationship between me and Grant was harder for me at the beginning compared to the relationship I had with Miyamoto-san," Soliani begins. "With Miyamoto we were receiving feedback, and with Grant I had to give him feedback. And for the first month I was completely shy to do it. I called Grant to come on-board because he was my idol. I was in love with what he did during the N64 era, so it was very strange for me on the few occasions I had to give Grant feedback. Although for the majority of time, I was just amazed. Working with Grant was so easy. It's like having him on the team. So where I could expect him to behave like a superstar, he doesn't do that at all. He's a little bit of a princess, but apart from that..."
Grant laughs: "It was super exciting, but it was massively scary. Getting to touch Mario in any capacity... it's the holy grail. And Davide is a really fussy, hard, bossy, taskmaster, turns down every tune every time, tells me to do it again 100 times. It's terrible."
Soliani again: "You know, we've spent two years working together. That's why I was crying during the Ubisoft press conference. Because finally, finally, it was over with Grant [laughs].
"At times, I had to explain to Grant that between LA and Milan there's a seven-hour time difference. Sometimes he was calling me in the middle of the night and asking me to listen to this piece. So I would be like 'Ok, let me turn on the computer'. Grant is quite pushy if you don't answer him back."
Back to Kirkhope: "Seriously though, working with Davide has been brilliant. Sometimes you work for people that don't really know what they want, and that's when it is hard. But Davide knows what he wants from the start. The only thing that was challenging was the quantity. I had to write two and a half hours' worth of music. That's such a lot of music."
Considering Soliani's embarrassing Miyamoto stories, we had to ask if Kirkhope had any similar ones from his time working for Nintendo at Rare.
"Yeah... my Miyamoto story is a bit worse," he admits. "It was when E3 had moved to Atlanta . Nintendo had a party in a museum, and we all got hideously drunk. I saw [Rare founder] Tim Stamper talking to Miyamoto, and I introduced myself as the composer of Banjo-Kazooie, totally drunk. He just looked at me with the blankest expression, he couldn't tell what I was saying. A while later, I was in the bathroom - and this is embarrassing - I was trying to pull down [Donkey Kong 64 designer] George Andreas' trousers for a joke. I was on my knees and I looked up to see Miyamoto staring down at me. That was the last time I spoke to him."
Fortunately for Kirkhope, Miyamoto seems to have forgotten all about that, because the composer is clearly excited to be working on Mario. And that's true of the whole team split across Ubisoft Milan and Paris.
Between them they've created 1,500 different character animations to make the game feel like a cartoon. There's almost three hours of music, with the background animation bobbing along to the sounds - it's a project built with love.
"You are trying to make it great because our childhood was spent playing Mario," Kirkhope says. "I feel like pinching myself everyday, because I can't believe I'm working on this.
"No-one would let anything go that was slightly below par. It was always pushing, pushing, pushing all the time. That passion level was up there for the entire time, and not once did anyone slack off."
He continues: "We decided to try and re-do some of the classic Mario ditties that we've all heard down the years. I listened to Koji Kondo's clips to work out what was going on and did it. I sent it to Davide, who sent it to Nintendo. I got one of the notes wrong, so they sent back the sheet music to this little ditty. I was like: 'Oh my god, I've just received the sheet music to this thing that I've heard like a gazillion times'. It was so special, even if it was a little thing. They were so polite about it. That was a moment that I will never forget."
Davide adds: "Nintendo is polite, but also very precise. We received loads of comments on all the details. Things like the reflection in Mario's eyes, or how Mario is posing... super small details."
One of Kirkhope's biggest fanboy moments came when he started scoring the music for the Peach Castle level.
"Davide said that it would be great if we could use the castle theme from Mario 64," Kirkhope recalls. "That's my favourite piece. I started at Rare in 1995 and that was one of the first games I got when I started. For me to get to play with that tune was just breathtaking. I did this thing where I cut it into little bits and used it with my own tune. I sent it to Davide and he was in tears. He's always in tears."
Internally, Ubisoft was happy with the project. But then, three years in, things started to go awry.
"Let's be honest, the reaction at the beginning was not 'sceptical' - it was a little bit worse than that"Davide Soliani
Late last year, reports began to circulate in the press about Mario + Rabbids, but with little additional information. Then in the build-up to its full reveal, a piece of retail marketing emerged with some artwork and a few sentences explaining the gameplay. It was scant, but the fans were sceptical, and Soliani's team started to worry.
"When the game leaks, no one is happy," Soliani says. "Also, let's be honest, the reaction at the beginning was not 'sceptical' - it was a little bit worse than that. It was quite hard on the team morale to read some of those comments. I asked for Grant's opinion, [since he] has way more experience than me. 'Do you think they will love it? Do you think they will hate us? Do you think that we've done everything wrong?' I was very, very worried. Because, you know, people on the internet can be very, very, very harsh."
Grant continues: "Davide was completely panicking. I kept saying to him not to worry and that everyone was going to love it."
That's why Soliani had warned his team to prepare for the worst at E3. His best hope, he tells us, was that someone would think, "It's OK for a strategy game". A good result would be to come away with one E3 Award nomination.
Yet from the moment Miyamoto took to the stage, it became clear that Soliani need not have feared. The reception was strong, and when the Nintendo legend called out Soliani's name on stage, the camera panned towards the tearful Ubisoft creator. People liked the game after all, and Soliani's emotional reaction turned him into a meme.
"When the conference finished, Davide and I went for a sandwich across the street," Kirkhope says. "We sat in this little cafe and we were both in shock. It had gone so well. We couldn't believe it. We were drinking our glasses of water and shaking. We were there for half an hour, not saying anything, just staring at each other. We knew that Miyamoto was going to be on stage, but seeing him there, with the gun, and saying such nice words, and mentioning Davide by name... all of that was so surreal."
Soliani continues: "It took me like two weeks to process what had happened. After the conference, we were walking the streets and people were stopping us and congratulating us.
"I was amazed by the player reaction. We had a queue that was six hours long, and at the end of the waiting time, they were still happy. That was the best reward we could have received. When I arrived back in Milan, the team felt like a new team. It was the same for Paris. They were completely aware of how it did."
"We went from completely worrying ourselves sick that people might not like it, to all of a sudden everybody going doolally over it"Grant Kirkhope
As for that one E3 Award nomination, Mario + Rabbids ended up with 37, including a GamesIndustry.biz E3 Award.
"We went from completely worrying ourselves sick that people might not like it, to all of a sudden everybody going doolally over it," Kirkhope says. "And it goes everywhere. Davide becomes a meme on the internet. I couldn't even find Davide the next day. I tried to get on the Ubisoft booth, I tried calling him... he just ignored me. He was thinking he was a superstar all of a sudden [laughing]."
The previews were glowing, and another surreal moment came when XCOM designer Jake Solomon commented on the game. Journalists had made comparisons between Mario + Rabbids and 2K's strategy series, and Solomon spoke out in favour of it.
"When we started brainstorming, XCOM was not part of the conversation," Soliani says. "We thought it might be cool to make our combat as frenzied and economical as Mario Kart. We wanted to see how Mario Kart without karts would be. That was our first reference.
"Our second reference was Worms, and also several other action games. Later on, of course, XCOM. I'm a huge XCOM fan, starting from the original game. Five or six years ago I did a workshop in London with Julian Gollop [creator of XCOM], and I love the new games by Jake Solomon. I saw a YouTube video of Jake's reaction to Mario + Rabbids. The whole team was amazed, because he was happy. And as soon as we can, we will send a copy of Mario + Rabbids to him and Julian."
It's clearly been an emotional and surprising few months. What started out as just the next step in that strengthening relationship between Nintendo and Ubisoft, has blossomed into a personal passion project for Soliani, Kirkhope and the teams at Ubisoft Milan and Paris.
I hope it's fantastic.