Universal Design and Paper Mario

If you’ve been around the disability community for a while, you’ve probably heard about a concept called “universal design.” This is the idea that things we use can be designed so that the thing is usable by everyone. Most of the time, this is used in the context of curb cuts or grab bars in bathrooms. But it also applies to gaming.

We talk a lot about the options that we want in games. We’d like scalable text, remappable controls, and assist modes. Universal design isn’t an option that we can select, though. It’s about what comes standard. Subtitles should automatically be on. Font sizes should automatically be large. Controls should automatically be simple and intuitive.

Over the years, Nintendo has shown us that they understand principles that make game design accessible to wide swaths of players. They think about designing for intergenerational play more than most companies, and correspondingly, their games are some of the most accessible. They design font sizes large as a default, they design controls that primarily use two buttons, and they subtitle their characters’ speech (probably because it would be weird to hear Bowser talking in a human voice…). But, the point is that these mechanics are useful to young and old, disabled or not.

While most of the industry is making leaps forward in the area of giving us options, Nintendo is sitting pretty on their pool of existing games that incorporate aspects of universal design. Mario, Yoshi, Pokémon, Animal Crossing… These are large franchises that haven’t had to change much at all because Nintendo designs games thinking about entire families playing together.

This approach doesn’t work for everything, though. Nintendo has become complacent in many ways when it comes to accessibility. Their games don’t ship with the extensive options menus that are becoming standard. I’ll be the first to say that not all Nintendo games need as much customization because of the universal design. However, Nintendo needs to learn from others just as much as they lead the way.

If Nintendo wants Paper Mario Origami King to be an accessibility success, they must both leverage their history of universal design AND draw from other successful RPG franchises. Paper Mario is a fundamentally more complicated game than traditional Mario. Focusing more on story and turn-based combat necessitates more text than simple platformers. The Origami King reveal trailer is incredibly exciting in terms of both story and combat, but the text was difficult to read, further emphasized by the size of the text boxes used. Of course, small, squirrelly font could be fixed if there’s an options menu that includes text scaling and font options. The trailer also shows the character using motion controls, which is nearly impossible in handheld mode (and handheld mode is preferred by many visually impaired players).

Mario pulls down a perforated tab on the side of a paper building. An instructional bubble shows an image of two Nintendo joycons with an arrow pointing down and the word pull.

Those aspects are fixable. And I’ll also point out that the game shows some of that Nintendo universal design we’re familiar with. Take the opening sequence below.

Mario stands across from Origami Peach. A large text box holds smaller text reading "Will you crease yourself and be reborn, like me?" Smaller text boxes appear below with options yes and no.

Notice that the option selected shows both a highlighted outline, a bolder outline, corner markers, and instructions to select it. There is no doubt about which option you are selecting or how to move forward. The text also shows us that it must be acknowledged before the game continues. In a text-heavy game, those design choices are necessary for accessibility.

The game includes a new combat system that looks innovative, intriguing, and accessible. The HP meter and battle text look huge. Paper Mario has always come with outlines that are helpful to low-vision folks, but did you notice the green outlines under the koopas that help indicate which cell they are in? Nintendo has said that this combat system will involve turning rings of the circle to line up attacks. Turn-based games are generally more accessible because they remove QTEs, but you then have to worry about having an accessible interface for preparing attacks. Adding in the excellent outlines and giant text makes this combat system look like a great addition to the game.

Mario stands in the middle of a dartboard-like area containing concentric circles. Koopas stand in various places on the circle. Large text reads "Great Line-Up! Attack power up!" A large HP meter in the upper left corner reads 150/150.

Nintendo has already done the hard part of incorporating universal design elements. With the addition of a few options that are becoming standard in other RPGs like text-scaling, font options, and control customization, Origami King could be both a return to the best of Paper Mario games and a step forward for RPG and Nintendo accessibility.

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Christy Smith

Christy Smith is a visually impaired gamer whose main goal in life is to snag a seat on the metro instead of having to stand so that she can play Switch on her commute. She/her/hers or They/them/theirs