Time magazine has called him “The Spielberg of video games”. The creator of Mario is detail oriented, a huge manga fan and seriously influenced by Space Invaders. Shigeru Miyamoto is the heart and soul of Nintendo.
Text: José Francisco Hurtado @jfhurtado ilustration: felipe raveau
“There are big lines between those who play video games and those who do not. For those who don’t, video games are irrelevant. They think all video games must be too difficult. We want to remove that barrier.” With these words, Shigeru Miyamoto launched one of the most seductive consoles in gaming history: the Nintendo Wii. With its motion-sensor control, this gaming platform marked a milestone in the way we control the action on our screens.
Nearly ten years after Nintendo’s new console broke the historic sales record of the first Super Mario cartridge with Wii Sports – and unscathed from the 1990s console war with Sega and its popular character Sonic the Hedgehog – the 63-year-old, still fresh-faced Miyamoto remains by far the most recognizable figure in digital entertainment.
The Princess & the Gorilla
After joining Nintendo as a game designer in 1977, Shigeru Miyamoto’s winning streak began when the company asked him to “recycle” the unsuccessful arcade game Radar Scope. Miyamoto took advantage of the hardware for a game that had not done well in North American markets and worked with a team of developers to transform the shoot-‘em-up outer-space theme into Donkey Kong, which debuted in arcades in 1981.
The concept was simple: Kong, a giant gorilla, has kidnapped Pauline, the girlfriend of a working-class hero, who must ascend a series of platforms in order to save her, dodging barrels, climbing ladders and wielding his hammer. With a love triangle as the backstory, this original game became the foundation for an entire genre.
In the years that followed, Atari and Commodore were on their way out due to market saturation and lack of consumer confidence in the quality of their consoles. The stage was set for the Nintendo Entertainment System to win the hearts of the many fans who had felt let down.
Genius at the Helm
From the golden age of Nintendo’s 8-bit system to the present day, Super Mario Bros. has endured at the top of a pantheon of characters from the massive Japanese company. From 1986 to 1988, the start of the Mario series set the standard for platform video games, introducing a variety of power-ups, like boosts that took the form of mushrooms, flowers and stars.
“I think that Mario became so popular because the actions in the Mario game are something that are innate to humans everywhere. Everyone is afraid of falling from a great height. If there is a gap that you have to cross, everyone is going to try to run to jump across the gap,” Miyamoto explained at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. He suggested that the interactive nature of the character and the response on screen were “what really resonated with people and made Mario such a popular character.” It’s no wonder that Miyamoto created a game based on the famous red-suited plumber while he was traveling by train from Sonobe (his hometown) to Kyoto, imagining himself leaping across those landscapes.
Although countless interviews paint Miyamoto as a simple artist who composes the games’ music and takes inspiration from nature, he’s also very much in his element in industrial design. His products take things like ergonomics, psychology and engineering into account. “I’ve been involved in the design of every Nintendo controller on every console since the NES,” said Miyamoto at his conference “A Creative Vision.” One illustrative example: when there were disagreements among the designers of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Miyamoto took it upon himself to resolve the problem as project director, giving his creative team their share of stress headaches in the process.
The Miyamoto methodology dictates that game launches shouldn’t be rushed if improvements are still needed. For example, he decided to double the number of songs that Link, the game’s protagonist, could play on his ocarina. With this expanded feature, the story of swordplay and exploration took on an added depth and offered players an enriched experience.
Friends & Rivals
Miyamoto’s influence is very noticeable in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the 1998 version of the adventures of Link, which began in parallel with Mario, and which is still considered the best video game ever made. It was also the game that brought him closer to his daughter, who played it so much she became a Zelda fan. “I remember Ocarina of Time as the game that allowed my daughter and I to start having a lot of conversations about video games,” Miyamoto told the video game blog Kotaku.
The launch of the final game in the saga was set for this year but has been postponed until 2016. The company also announced much sadder news this past July when Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s president, died of cancer at age 55.
Iwata, who had started as a programmer and climbed the ranks, originally saw Miyamoto as a competitor who gave him hell. In time, however, he recognized his competition’s genius talent and admired his outstanding problem-solving abilities.
“Miyamoto says that when a problem just can’t be solved no matter what, someone is lying. He doesn’t mean lying in a bad way, but that the person’s thought-process is mistaken, or they’re looking at the problem the wrong way,” explained Iwata, who often shared the screen with Miyamoto on the Nintendo site’s Web series Iwata Asks.
The show shared perspectives on and criticisms of its games with humor and warmth. Using the forum to discuss narrative versus game experience, Iwata once asked Miyamoto, “You would rather spend your energy making game elements rather than the story?”.
With his attention to detail and the knowledge that the sum of its parts is what makes a game truly good, Miyamoto simply responded, “That’s right.” in