Mario: Why Yoshi Is A Dinosaur

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Super Mario World's Yoshi is one of Nintendo's most recognizable characters. An archived interview with Satoru Iwata reveals how Yoshi was designed.

Super Mario World was the first Nintendo game to introduce Mario's dinosaur companion, Yoshi, who assisted the plumber in rescuing Princess Toadstool from the clutches of Bowser and his minions. The 1990 SNES title is often considered one of the greatest games ever made and has cemented Yoshi as a mainstay character in the Super Mario universe. Despite Yoshi's beloved debut, the shell-eating dinosaur's original design was actually born out of necessity.

Super Mario World was one of the SNES's two launch games in Japan (alongside racing game F-Zero), and Nintendo wanted to push its hardware to its limits. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto, lead director Takashi Tezuka, and Nintendo's late Global President Satoru Iwata had conceptualized Yoshi during the development of the Super Mario Bros. series on the NES but had to wait until the 16-bit processor of the SNES to bring him to life. Even with this new hardware, Yoshi's character model was not a stylistic choice. It was created purely so it could function on the SNES.

The English translation of Ask Iwata - a collection of interviews with Nintendo's former president - revealed that Yoshi looks like he does today because that's all Nintendo could muster out of the SNES's hardware. Retro consoles had exponentially fewer places to store information compared to modern-day gaming systems. This limited the sprites, or bitmap graphics, that could be displayed on the screen at once. Nintendo knew that it wanted to give Mario a sidekick, but it hadn't determined that it would be a bright green dinosaur with a shell on its back until developers began cobbling pixels together.

Super Mario World: Why Is Yoshi A Dinosaur?

Yoshi's early concepts show that Nintendo was experimenting with more realistic designs for the friendly dinosaur. One Yoshi prototype even shows that the company wanted to make Yoshi into something akin to a bipedal pterodactyl. A passage from Ask Iwata explains that his final design was decided not because Nintendo wanted him to look like he does today, but because that's all the SNES could support.

"Miyamoto's have Mario ride on Yoshi's back in Super Mario World sprang from a place of functionality. To be specific, the [SNES] did not allow for us to display a large number of a row. Yoshi is shaped the way he is in order to limit the number of sprites in a row when Mario is riding him. If you look at the diagrams of Yoshi, it's easy to see that he was designed purely from a place of functionality. We made Yoshi a dinosaur not because we wanted Mario to ride a dinosaur, but because the space we had, in terms of functionality, was shaped much like a dinosaur."

Much like Yoshi, the retro aesthetic of iconic 8-bit and 16-bit games were all spawned out of necessity instead of stylistic choice. The developers of yesteryear essentially had to master how to operate within the confines of the limited technological capabilities available to them. This essentially birthed a game art style that's primary focus wasn't expression and beauty but entirely efficiency.

Today, game developers can choose if they want their creations to take on the appearance of retro, 16-bit games. Modern titles like Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight and Nexile's Jump King might look like they could run on a SNES, but their developers had far more influence over how they wanted their designs' colors and shapes. All the while, Iwata and the Super Mario World team crafted Yoshi and the entirety of the Mushroom Kingdom with their figurative hands tied behind their backs.