“If you don’t know who has the answer, then simply make the answer yourself. I have a lot more fun when we’re making the rules as we go along.” – Shigeru Miyamoto

Arguably the most important person in gaming history. His brilliant games on the NES saved the industry and ushered in a new golden age that has grown into a worldwide force that continues to innovate entertainment as we know it.

Miyamoto was born November 16, 1952, in Sonobe, Kyoto, Japan. Sonobe doesn’t exist anymore – joining three other small cities to create Nantan – but the legend of Miyamoto’s birthplace lives on.

His first inspirations came from exploring nature as a child. A wonderful story tells of a cave in Kyoto that Miyamoto was too frightened to enter. One day however, he took a trusty lantern and faced his fears, exploring the terrifying cave. I can’t help but think of Zelda when I hear that story.

Nature would continue to influence Miyamoto into his adult years. 2001’s Pikmin came from Miyamoto’s study of his garden and the creatures living within.

Miyamoto didn’t consider himself an astute student, and instead preferred other activities, taking up the banjo. He was still talented enough though to land a spot with Nintendo after graduating with a Bachelor’s in Industrial Art & Design.

First years at Nintendo

In the early ’80s, Nintendo was focused on making nearly identical versions of popular games, rather than their own unique projects: Space Fever copied Space Invaders for example. At this time, Miyamoto was working on character designs for Space Fever and others, before he’d get his lucky break.

Miyamoto’s big chance came from a Nintendo mistake and the ensuing damage control.

Radar Scope

Nintendo wanted to break into North American gaming and created the small team of Nintendo of America to do so. Their plan was to have a team in Japan come up with a hug hit and send it overseas. The game they came up with was Radar Scope, of which Miyamoto worked on the cabinet design.

Nintendo bet big and shipped 3,000 units, but technology moved too fast and Radar Scope was already old news.

With 2,000 Radar Scope cabinets unsold, Nintendo scrounged for someone to fill them with a new game. With the most talented members working on their own projects, Miyamoto was miraculously given the golden chance.

Miyamoto was teamed with Gunpei Yokoi (Game & Watch) to help with the technical side.

His first innovation was adding a story of some kind. There were text-based RPGS long before, but mainstream arcade games were usually shallow action games like Space Invaders or Pac-Man.

Donkey Kong

Miyamoto’s first ever game was the landmark title Donkey Kong. He originally wanted to create a licensed Popeye game, but Nintendo couldn’t secure the rights. Donkey Kong’s characters were born from this inspiration.

DK was an instant hit, and Miyamoto would create the follow-up Donkey Kong Jr (playing as Kong’s son in a quest to free his father from Mario’s cage), and DK 3.

Mario Bros.

Miyamoto’s first attempt at a game franchise singlehandedly established Nintendo in the North American game industry. His second would create the company’s mascot for the next several decades.

Mario Bros. was also an instant success and earned Miyamoto the promotion to oversee Nintendo’s game development for their new console: The Famicom (NES).

Miyamoto worked on Excitebike and Ice Climber, but it was Super Mario Bros. that shocked the world, redefining what a platformer could be. A gigantic game bursting with personality and creativity. It raised the bar and made both Mario and Nintendo household names (felt today whenever your old aunt calls a PS4 ‘Nintendo’).

A deeper adventure

Miyamoto used the extra power of the Famicom Disk system to add the ability to save. This allowed him to create a much larger adventure. One designed specifically for weeks/months/years of play at home rather than the ‘lives’ and ‘continues’ of Mario that mimicked quarter-fueled arcades.

Even on primitive hardware, Miyamoto was able to convey his love of nature and exploration with Zelda. While Mario ran to the right, Link was given the freedom to choose his own path, with intuitive level and world design that offered guidance without restricting.

The Zelda franchise grew with each new Nintendo console’s increased power, but just recently, Breath of the Wild circled back to the very first formula. Miyamoto knew the sense of exploration and wonder is the true magic

Gonna fly now

With the momentum of the NES and Mario, the third entry in the series was heavily anticipated. Super Mario Bros 3 crossed to the mainstream in a big way, featuring in the feature film The Wizard and building hype with great commercials such as the one above.

SMB3 blew minds once again, bursting with creativity and remaining one of the greatest games ever made.

Now he’s playing with (super) power

To help launch the SNES, Miyamoto worked on Super Mario World, but this time as a Producer, rather than Director. The biggest addition had to be Mario’s loyal pal Yoshi, a feature Miyamoto wanted to include years before, but lacked the hardware to do so.

“We wanted Mario to ride a dinosaur ever since we finished the original Super Mario Bros. but it was technically impossible at that time. We were finally able to get Yoshi off the drawing boards with the Super NES.”

As Nintendo expanded, Miyamoto maintained a role as producer on nearly every major release (Pilotwings, Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart, Mario Paint, Link’s Awakening, Star Fox, Killer Instinct, Kirby’s Dream Course, SMW2: Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario RPG and others).

Chasing the bunny

The shift from SNES to N64 was more drastic than any other generational jump. Home consoles could now produce 3D visuals and environments, radically changing the way players interacted with games. Side-scrollers and platforming were no longer the go-to. Platforming in 3D felt clumsier and would begin the change towards first-person we see so often today.

Many developers struggled to adapt, but somehow Miyamoto knew exactly what to do. Back in the Director’s chair, he spent the first several months of development focused purely on Mario catching a bunny. Their primary goal was to make the process of chasing said bunny entertaining. Mario games had always felt wonderful to control, and Miyamoto knew he would have to learn an entirely new set of fundamentals to make it just as pleasing.

Even tiny changes to movement can have a drastic effect.

“When I was working on Super Mario 64, I realised halfway through that it was getting boring. I don’t remember if it was when I watched someone playing it, but I was like, “Wait, a minute…” So I went around and asked everyone, “This game was really fun in the beginning, but now it doesn’t feel fun anymore, does it?” And just as I’d expected, they all said, “We agree.” “

“In the beginning, we had Mario turning really slowly, so that it was really overemphasized. But at some point he’d started turning really quickly. He kind of zipped around. So then we changed it so that he went back to turning really slowly. And well, I’m not sure if that was the right change to make, but it was really important to me. Because Super Mario 64 was a project that started from that turning movement.”

Hero of Time

Nintendo’s biggest project yet had four co-Directors, with Miyamoto officially a Producer. However, reports have suggested he was much more hands-on than a typical Producer. Like Yoshi in SMW, Miyamoto’s most radical suggestion had to be the inclusion of Epona, Link’s trusty steed.

“The moment that we saw you could ride around on a horse in 3D, we instantly realized that we needed a giant field that people could ride through.”

The same team also worked on Mario 64, allowing them to take many ideas that didn’t fit in the Mushroom Kingdom, and apply them to Hyrule.

“As we were developing Mario 64 we were experimenting with what was possible within that space. We tried to apply what we had learned to the next big franchise for us, which was going to be Zelda.”

Experiencing a Zelda in 3D for the first time was an incredibly immersive experience for gamers in the late ’90s.

“We really wanted to create a very distinctive world of Hyrule, with changes in weather and things like that. We eventually found what the N64 was able to do. It was a system that felt really well designed to bring Hyrule to life.”

A huge part of OoT is the ability to play as both young and old Link.

“We started off creating the more grown up model of Link. After creating that model we then asked, ‘well, what if we were to create a younger Link?’ Then we asked, ‘which one should we go with?’

“When we created the younger Link, that’s when we realised we could use both versions of Link and have him grow from being a child to being a grown up.”

Like Dolphins can swim

” I think players are generally bored with games these days. I think that means developers are also somewhat bored. The GameCube has the potential to break everyone out of that cycle. We created the demo’s shown on August 24th in just a few days, meanwhile we were working on other projects. Some of my co-workers told me to focus on actual games and not produce the GameCube demo’s. But they were finished quickly, and they were a lot of fun.”

The Gamecube/PS2/Xbox era was an interesting time for game development. It refined the 3D concepts revolutionized by the previous generation, but we wouldn’t see another large leap until the PS3/360 gen took consoles to HD land.

This meant developers had begun to master 3D gaming and could focus on new experiences like GTA III and Knights of the Old Republic.

“This is a job where you have a plan and you polish it endlessly while getting help from others. If Nintendo’s games fail to stand out as games that aren’t made that way proliferate, then it shows that the creation process is for nothing, which made me very sad.”

“That was especially obvious during the GameCube era; Nintendo titles were hardly even discussed by the general public back then.”

Miyamoto felt Nintendo was trying too hard to mimic the industry standards Sony and Microsoft were setting, losing their identity in the process.

“There was an era when Nintendo was going in the direction of doing the same things other companies did. The more we competed with new companies entering the market, the more we started acting similar to them. But is being number one in that competition the same as being number one with the general public? That’s the question we had.”

Finding inspiration elsewhere

While the Gamecube didn’t light Miyamoto’s creative fire, a new creation certainly did.

“In the end we didn’t want a new game system, but a product that would make the entire world go crazy. And so Yamauchi said ‘two screens’. That turned the development lab upside down!”

…”we went through some trial-and-error work which ultimately connected to the touch pen, something I had wanted to have for a while. I didn’t think two screens was enough to make the DS a success, but the touch pen is what puts it all together, both in terms of cost and design.”

The DS certainly caught the attention of the mainstream world. I remember being surprised at the wide variety of people that would whip out a DS on their lunch break. Miyamoto was right about the touch interface. It broke the barriers down for non-gamers. it became something they could even play one-handed.

Getting everyone to play

The DS paved the way for more physical ways to control games. The Wii was Nintendo’s least powerful console (compared relatively to the competition) and also their all-time best

“We saw the same games, and we were seeing a drop in the number of people who were interested in coming into games because it was so complicated.”

“So we sat back and said to ourselves, how can we make this more accessible to a wider range of people? What sort of things can we do? And that’s where [the motion controls] conversation began.”

The final frontier

Again, Miyamoto was not the official Director, but again, he contributed the most radical ideas: Spherical levels and gravity. He had these ideas since before Sunshine, but could now fully realize them.

Satoru Iwata (President of Nintendo) :

“I had heard about the spherical platforms from Miyamoto-san more than five years ago, though at the time, I didn’t quite understand why having spherical platforms would be so ground-breaking. However, as Mario Galaxy began to take shape, I finally started to understand. “

Yoshiaki Koizumi (Director/Designer Mario Galaxy) :

“At the time, I felt the same way. It sounded interesting, but I wasn’t sure whether or not it would be worth the effort. Thinking back, this probably was a thought that was shared by everyone on the staff. But Miyamoto-san kept saying over and over again that he wanted to make it happen.”

This is a great example of the strong influence Miyamoto can have on Nintendo games no matter his official position.

A step back

“Inside our office, I’ve been recently declaring, ‘I’m going to retire, I’m going to retire. I’m not saying that I’m going to retire from game development altogether. What I mean by retiring is, retiring from my current position.”

A step sideways

 

Towards the end of the Wii’s life, MIyamoto began to step back from contributing to massive titles, and instead wanted to focus on smaller projects with more direct input.

“Inside our office, I’ve been recently declaring, ‘I’m going to retire, I’m going to retire. I’m not saying that I’m going to retire from game development altogether. What I mean by retiring is, retiring from my current position.”

“What I really want to do is be in the forefront of game development once again myself. Probably working on a smaller project with even younger developers. Or I might be interested in making something that I can make myself, by myself. Something really small.”

Nintendo’s mistep

Nintendo wanted to embrace the tablet craze of the time but also needed to capitalize on their massive install-base of Wii owners. The result was a confusing message. The Wii-era was full of peripherals and many thought the Wii U was just another add-on.

The hardcore market saw another under-powered Nintendo console with a distinct lack of games. The tablet itself was quite primitive compared to the popular iPads and other brands so prevalent.

“I feel like people never really understood the concept behind Wii U and what we were trying to do…what we were trying to do was create a game system that gave you tablet-like functionality for controlling that system and give you two screens that would allow different people in the living room to play in different ways. …. Unfortunately, because tablets, at the time, were adding more and more functionality and becoming more and more prominent, this system and this approach didn’t mesh well with the period in which we released it.”

A beautiful hybrid

Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U finally saw Mario and his friends truly shine in HD. It went away from the open sandboxes started with 64, instead embracing the linear nature of 2D Mario.

Miyamoto however, had stepped further away by this point. He spoke to Iwata during an ‘Iwata Asks’ segment about his different levels of involvement, comparing Galaxy to 3D World.

“…When we were making Galaxy, even if it were things like adjusting the maps I would stay a few nights in Tokyo to help them out, but from around the time between 3D Land to 3D World, I only needed to be involved with occasional spot-checks in areas where I wanted to take a closer look. My role now mainly centers on verifying whether the game still follows the overarching concept. When we made Super Mario 3D Land, we thoroughly discussed what the definitive difference was with the 2D New Super Mario series4, and what they shared in common. This time, we pushed ahead further with that concept-the concept of making a 3D home console Super Mario game that people who like the New Super Mario games can also enjoy. It was an ambition of mine! (laughs)”.

Today, Miyamoto is 64 years old, but still continues to work on games (Pikmin 4 is still on the way) as well as spread his influence, inspiration, and contagious sense of fun everywhere he goes. 

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