Nintendo’s most acclaimed game console in years has been on the market for seven months, but it’s been missing one essential thing: a flagship Super Mario game. That changes Friday with the launch of Super Mario Odyssey, Mario’s first sandbox-style adventure since 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine. It’s a critical moment for Nintendo, considering holiday sales of the Switch could hinge on Odyssey’s success.
TIME sat down with Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé to discuss Super Mario Odyssey, the Switch, and why Nintendo is competing with more than just Sony and Microsoft’s consoles. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
TIME: Two of the Switch’s biggest games, Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, are significant re-imaginings of those franchises. Both add aspects that were never possible before and revamp core gameplay elements. Why is now the right time to be rethinking those series?
Reggie Fils-Aimé: I think what you highlight with Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey is certainly that the way those games have reimagined the intellectual property (IP) is different. I would say that Breath of the Wild is a dramatic departure from the conventions of a Zelda game. And the producer Mr. [Eiji] Aonuma said three years ago that was his vision. The fact that you could go anywhere [and] attack quests and shrines in any order you want, that was his vision.
With Odyssey, we have had other sandbox experiences for Mario in the past: Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. What’s different here is the breadth of kingdoms, the Cappy mechanic, and so yes a departure, but maybe not as radical. But with the mentality of creating an experience that the player says, ‘Wow, I’ve never done that before with a Mario game.’ That’s what we try to do. Whether it’s with a Metroid experience or a Donkey Kong experience, we’re constantly looking to push the envelope on the IP versus doing sequential small iterations with a particular franchise.
Super Mario Odyssey was clearly designed with the Switch in mind. But are there any plans to think about how this would work on the 3DS?
Our developers are constantly thinking about, ‘How do I bring new and novel experiences to our platforms?’ whether it’s the Switch, 3DS, or even a smart device. So that is just part of the way our developers think. To Super Mario Odyssey on 3DS, that’s not something I’ve heard the developers talk about. Given that the Cappy mechanic really is unique to the way the Joy-Cons operate, I wouldn’t anticipate that game showing up on a dedicated handheld system.
You mentioned Super Mario 64 earlier. Not only was it popular but it basically set the standard for what 3D games should look and feel like back then. With that in mind, did the team feel any extra pressure when developing Odyssey?
It’s interesting to hear our developers talk, because they always feel pressure. We are so fortunate that our IP has been so effective out in the marketplace that every time there’s a new iteration, our developers feel a sense of pressure. I think because their focus is so strong on unique [and] compelling experiences they’re able to deliver against that high expectation.
When looking at the Switch, the Wii U, and even the Wii, you can almost see this kind of narrative. To me, it seems obvious that the Wii and Wii U were leading up to the Switch. The Wii U, while it’s very different from the Switch, introduced the idea of gaming on a tablet. The Wii introduced motion sensitivity in the controller, which the Joy-Cons also have. How did the Wii U and Wii inform the development of the Switch?
Certainly a key differentiator for Nintendo is that you have hardware developers sitting side-by-side with the [operating system] developers, sitting with the game content creators. They’re all housed in the same building [and they] all talk to each other. So it does create this mechanic that discussions happen around, ‘Hey there’s this interesting new tech, how do we leverage it? How do we maximize the opportunity?’ All of that constantly happens.
That’s why you’re able to see this legacy of innovation and how it ties back to the content. This goes back all the way to the original Nintendo Entertainment System [NES] in terms of thinking about, ‘How do we continue to innovate? Let’s have a second controller within the system.’ So that was one of the transitions. ‘This [directional] pad is nice, but what about a joystick?’ Low and behold that shows up on Nintendo 64. There’s been this steady pace of innovation and each time it’s linked to a piece of content that leverages that.
Let’s go back to the 3DS for a minute. One of the things that differentiates the 3DS from the Switch as a handheld is that the 3DS has a giant back catalogue of content. Moving forward, how do you plan to balance the 3DS versus the Switch in terms of game development?
The Nintendo Switch, being a system that’s been in the marketplace now only seven months, certainly that’s a system that our teams will continue to develop for and bring fantastic new experiences. We have to do that to keep driving that platform forward. We view the 3DS as a very important part of our lineup, but really targeted against a different consumer. That product is really focused against new consumers in the Nintendo family, [such as] five, six, seven or 10-year olds [who want] their own dedicated system. And a system [on which] they can play all of these great games. So it’s going to have a different focus: entry consumers and consumers looking for a little bit more value.
So that’s how they’re differentiated. There will be new games for the 3DS line, so we’re not in any way stopping our activity for that platform. But it’s just focused on a different type of consumer.
There are some interesting third-party games coming out for the Switch soon, like Doom and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. What is Nintendo doing to encourage developers to get AAA titles to the Switch? Skyrim is a very expansive game, but it’s about six years old now. Are you hoping to get games like this to be available for the Switch when they initially launch?
We absolutely are. [There are] things we need to do as a platform holder first. We need to make the platform vibrant, and we’re doing that. The fact that the Nintendo Switch is the top-selling system when you look at March through September sales, we’ve created a vibrant platform that consumers want to get their hands on.
The second thing we need to do is to have a development environment that these developers can make content for. We’re doing that, whether it’s with the Unreal engine or with the Unity development platform.
Then thirdly we work hard to market this content alongside great first-party content to help consumers be aware and compelled. To create for the Nintendo Switch is different than other home consoles. And so at times that creates a small gap in time. Wolfenstein 2 is going to come out on the Switch, but a little later than on other platforms. But our goal is to shrink that gap as much as possible.
Do you see the Switch as being for the same audience as the Xbox and PlayStation? Are you hoping that the Switch will be the only console people own, or do you think they would own a Switch alongside one of these other home consoles?
When we think about competitors, we think much more broadly than the direct competitors in the video game space. That’s because our philosophy is that we’re an entertainment company. We deliver compelling, differentiated experiences. And from that perspective we compete minute by minute with other forms of entertainment, whether it’s TIME Magazine or watching TV or spending time on your personal computer or smart device. All of us are limited by time. I’m trying to get an incremental minute or five minutes spent on our devices. That’s why we have unique content [that] you can’t get anywhere else. We’re tying to steal time from consumers and have them engage on our device. When we do that, then we win.