For some gamers, November 2005 hasn't been a time to see if the new Xbox trumps the old one or if this year's "Tony Hawk" beats last year's. It's been about pondering whether anything can top "the mustard of your doom."
That phrase — uttered by the seldom ferocious villain Fawful in 2003's Game Boy adventure "Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga" — is about as celebrated a line as video games have had in recent years.
It comes early in the game, as Fawful attempts to terrify Nintendo's famous brothers. Endorsing the villainous Cackletta's plot to replace Princess Peach's vocal cords with explosives, he issues a barrage of threats: "Princess Peach's sweet voice will soon be the bread that makes the sandwich of Cackletta's desires! And this battle shall be the delicious mustard on that bread! The mustard of your doom!"
The line may not exactly be gaming's "I'll be back," "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" or "Bond — James Bond," but it was quoted with uncommon frequency in the title's reviews in 2003. Fans anticipating this week's Nintendo DS sequel, "Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time," have discussed the new game's script with a fervor usually reserved for discussions of graphics and gameplay, further evidence that scriptwriting for video games is slowly coming of age.
The responsibility for that script and the mind behind the doom-bringing mustard is Nate Bihldorff, 31, a writer at Nintendo's American offices near Seattle. Bihldorff has written scripts for some 30 games since he started working for Nintendo in the late 90s.
He's handled recent versions of the "F-Zero" and "Metroid" franchises as well as the plot-heavy "Mario" role-playing games as part of a 20-person translating and scripting team at Nintendo called the Treehouse. He cites influences as disparate as Gabriel García Márquez and "Lonesome Dove." Elmore Leonard is his king of dialogue.
Bihldorff calls his Nintendo gig a dream assignment, but it took not just a lifetime of playing Mario games but a near-death snowboarding accident to convince him to take the job.
He had earned an English degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998 and went on to complete a part-time job testing the first "Zelda" game for the Nintendo 64 near Seattle. But some issues in his personal life had put him at a crossroads. "I was a young guy," Bhildorff said, "and sort of horrified by the turn my life had taken." Resigned to leave the West Coast, he decided not to take a full-time job at Nintendo.
Instead he soon found himself taking a jump on his snowboard, somewhere alone in the woods of Vermont. During one unplanned jump he spotted a slender broken stump jutting out from below, ready to skewer him as he landed. He was able, just barely, to make a small mid-air correction. "I landed with my arm around it like I was dating it," he said. This was his wake-up call. "I was sitting by myself and it was very, very quiet in the woods. I was like, 'Wow, what am I doing here?' "
Picking himself up, he called Nintendo that day and took the job.
The story-heavy "Mario" role-playing adventures Bihldorff works on are created in Japan. He can't speak the language, so he works with a translator. For "Partners in Time" his Treehouse colleague Tim O'Leary put the original script — penned by the game's developer, Alphadream — into English.
They started working on it in earnest in August, tending to more than 3,000 primarily text-based messages that encompassed everything from menu information to character dialogue. Bihldorff's job wasn't just to rewrite the script for an American audience but to guarantee that each line of text fit in the game's word balloons, to help produce the voice-acting session where Charles Martinet — Nintendo's voice of Mario, Luigi and Wario — provided the few lines of voice in the game, and to help figure out the names of any new characters.
In the course of revising the script, he estimates that he played through the 20-hour game seven or eight times.
For "Partners in Time," Bihldorff focused on turning up the humor, relishing any work involving the game's sentient suitcase, Stuffwell. The game's villains, the Shroobs, speak in a symbol-based language, which left him without one of his favorite options. "I was kind of bummed out that I wasn't getting to write villains in this one," he said. "Villains are always the most fun to write. They always have the best lines."
He also didn't get to write much for the Mario brothers themselves, though he said that is hardly unusual. Nintendo's brain trust likes to keep their heroes quiet, allowing players to use their imagination to give those characters voice.
That philosophy probably makes Bihldorff's job easier, because dialogue even just involving the brothers is closely scrutinized at Nintendo. A scene in "Partners in Time" in which a star-shaped gatekeeper peers into Mario and Luigi's souls got particularly close attention. In the scene, the gatekeeper seems alarmed at whatever he hints at seeing in Luigi. "I remember that this text changed more than any other text in the game," Bihldorff said.
The point of the scene, Bihldorff said, was to build Luigi up "as a guy who was always living in the shadow of his older brother and that he needs to break out of that mold sometimes. But the way the text was originally phrased it definitely made him sound like he had some deep dark secret that was awful. I think the powers that be were looking at it like, 'We don't want to paint Luigi as a bad guy here.' "
Though he steers clear of messing with the icons, Bihldorff said he can't resist throwing an inside joke into the mix whenever there's room. Several hours into the game, a character implores Mario to save Princess Peach. "You will save her, won't you?" he says. "I assure you she is not in another castle."
It's a joke Bihldorff knew would be lost by anyone who didn't eat, sleep and drink the original "Super Mario Brothers." But he couldn't resist: "I have 20 years of Mario stuffed in my head, and it's just going to pop out here and there."