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Profile: Shigeru Miyamoto

Monday, October 9, 2000

Profile: Shigeru Miyamoto
Chronicles of a Visionary

Shigeru MiyamotoShigeru Miyamoto is generally regarded as one of the greatest game designers of all time. His works are among the most widely popular and influential in the industry of interactive entertainment, including such acknowledged masterpieces as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros, and The Legend of Zelda. While he uses the word "Kai-shain," which is the equivalent to a simple worker, when describing his status at Nintendo, there is no doubt that Miyamoto's superb intellect, mastery of the noble art of game design, and unique powers of imagination has made him one of the company's most valuable assets.

As the general manager of Entertainment, Analysis and Development (EAD), Miyamoto is responsible for most of Nintendo Co., Ltd.'s (NCL's) internal products. Also, at any one time, he is supervising about 30 games from Nintendo's vast array of developers. Recently, Nintendo of America's president Minoru Arakawa relinquished his position on NCL's board of directors, letting Shigeru Miyamoto assume the vacant position. This move was prompted by NCL's decision to assign technically proficient executives to the board in preparation for the launches of its next-generation systems, Gamecube and Game Boy Advance.

The Legend Begins

Shigeru Miyamoto was born on November 16th, 1952, in the small town of Sonebe on the countryside outside of Kyoto, Japan. The young Miyamoto grew up among grassy hillsides, sodden rice fields, small canyons, and a river full of fish. After school, when not reading books, drawing, or painting, he would often join other children from the neighborhood to play baseball and other games, and in the evenings arrange heroic dance dramas and puppet shows.

One of Miyamoto's most exciting memories was when he discovered a cave in the surrounding landscape where he lived as a child. While playing on the hillsides, young Miyamoto stumbled upon an opening of a cave. Not until he had returned several times did he build up enough courage to enter it. Equipped with only a homemade lantern, he climbed through. Miyamoto still remembers the exhilaration he felt as he discovered a small hole leading to yet another cave.

As the Miyamoto family had no car and no television, Shigeru was overjoyed when they got to travel to Kyoto by train every few months to explore the city, shop, and watch movies. Some of his favorites were the Disney classics, such as Peter Pan and Snow White. Eventually, the family moved to Kyoto, where Miyamoto met new friends with whom he formed a secret club in the family's attic where secret codes were traded.

Miyamoto wanted to be an artist when he grew up, be it a performer, a puppeteer, or a painter. When he was not studying, he used to draw nature scenes and make plastic models and wooden contraptions. He was also very fond of cartoons and organized a cartoon club at school that had yearly exhibitions. Miyamoto would soon get to play many video games and loved them. Through video games, the nature of cartoons which Miyamoto cherished came to life.

Kanazawa College of ArtWhen he was eighteen years old, Miyamoto entered Kanazawa Munici College of Industrial Arts and Crafts. He would only attend class about half the time and instead spent his time drawing comics, listening to music, and playing in a band, it took him five years to graduate. He learned to play the guitar and performed at coffeehouses and parties together with a banjo player he met in Kyoto.

After graduating in 1977, Miyamoto asked his father to contact an old friend to find out if he could work for his toy company called Nintendo. The old friend was Hiroshi Yamauchi who ran Nintendo even back then, and although his company didn't need any painters, he agreed to meet up with young Miyamoto as a favor to his friend. Yamauchi met Shigeru Miyamoto and he liked him enough to ask him to return for another meeting.

This time, Miyamoto returned bearing a portfolio with some ideas for toys. Among those were a clothes hanger designed for children, a whimsical clock for an amusement park, and a swing within a seesaw enabling three children to play at once. Yamauchi was impressed by Miyamoto's ingenuity and hired him to be Nintendo's first staff artist. Miyamoto was assigned to be an apprentice in the planning department where he had to evaluate new ideas that would go into production. Although he didn't work with video games initially, he worked with everything from toys to motors.

Silent Radars and Goofy Apes

In 1980, the US arcade industry had slowed and the Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa needed a big hit to survive. The game that would turn things around was a simple shooter called Radarscope. By ordering three thousand units, Arakawa committed almost all of NOA's resources. Unfortunately, it took the cabinets four months to ship from Japan to New York, and by the time they arrived, the excitement for the game seemed to be evaporating in the few test locations NOA had set up.

Of the three thousand units, NOA managed to sell only one third, and Arakawa desperately needed a new game quickly. He pleaded with Yamauchi until the NCL president agreed to put someone on the project. All the top designers, engineers, and programmers were too busy with other things, but because the US market represented a small portion of NCL's business, Yamauchi didn't want to take one of them away from their important work. Instead, he decided to assign the project to a young apprentice in the planning department. This young man was Shigeru Miyamoto.

Gunpei Yokoi, one of Yamauchi's top designers and chief of R&D1, would oversee Miyamoto's project, but the young apprentice was very much on his own. Miyamoto had some interesting ideas about the way video games should be designed. He thought the shooters and tennis-like games he had played in the arcades were uninteresting and wondered why the games couldn't have great stories like King Kong and Jason and the Argonauts. As Miyamoto saw Radarscope, he found it simplistic and unimaginative. He decided to throw it away completely and start on a new game.

After consulting with the technicians about the limitations of the arcade machine, Miyamoto returned to his desk and started brainstorming. He decided for a story similar to Beauty and the Beast but simplified it. He came up with his own beast, a giant gorilla which was the pet of a mean, little man. Donkey Kong The man, who was a carpenter, wasn't especially nice to the ape, and at his first opportunity, the ape escaped and kidnapped the man's beautiful girlfriend.

The carpenter's mission was to climb up an unfinished foundation of a building in order to reach the gorilla, who was at the top with his girlfriend. The ape would make the main character's way up hard by throwing down barrels and cement tubs. The chubby man would need to climb ladders and ride conveyor belts and elevators to reach the top. When he finally reached the top of the building, the gorilla would escape and the man had to follow him to the next level. The player had to beat four levels in order to finally rescue the girl.

Miyamoto had been taught that it was important to distinguish the different parts of the main character's body for them to be visible on the arcade screen. He clothed the carpenter in bright-colored overalls. To make the character's arms more visible, the carpenter was given white gloves and his arms swung back and forth. Miyamoto added a big nose, a dark moustache, and a red cap, since it was difficult to accurately represent hair in the early video games.

Miyamoto also wrote the background music himself by using a keyboard attached to a computer and cassette deck. As he completed the game, he needed a title. After consulting the export manager, they decided to name it Donkey Kong, where donkey meant stupid or goofy according to their Japanese/English dictionary, and kong would be understood to suggest a gorilla.

Not only did Arakawa manage to sell all two thousand Donkey Kong units, but he placed orders for thousands more. Released in 1981, the game was an instant phenomenon and became Nintendo's first super-smash hit. In the darkly lit and smoky hangouts where greasy hamburgers, tasty french fries, and cold beer were served, a legend was being born.

Two Heroic Plumbers

After the success with Donkey Kong, Miyamoto would make a sequel in which Donkey Kong's son would climb vines to rescue his old dad from the mean, little man who had played the starring role in the predecessor. The game, called Donkey Kong Junior, was released in 1982 and was followed by Donkey Kong 3 one year later.

Miyamoto had called the carpenter Jumpman, but the people at NOA had renamed him after the owner of the warehouse they had rented. The landlord's name was Mario Segali and thus the character was called Mario. Futhermore, someone had mentioned that he looked more like a plumber than a carpenter, so Miyamoto decided to make a new game starring Mario in the sewers of New York.

Since Miyamoto wanted the game to enable two players to battle each other, he created a new brother for Mario who he called Luigi. The objective was to be the first one to collect five golden coins. This was done by knocking down creeping critters and angry crabs. Mario Bros was released in 1983 and took the arcades by storm, just like the Donkey Kong games had done before it.

Super MiyamotoIn 1984, Yamauchi needed games for Nintendo's new home computer, called Famicom (NES in the Western countries), so he told Miyamoto he was to head up a new division, named Joho Kaihatsu, or the entertainment division (this group would later be referred to as EAD). Miyamoto's team was assigned to come up with the most original and innovative games ever.

Among the games the group developed were Wild Gunman, Duck Hunt, and Hogan's Alley, all utilizing NCL's Zapper lightgun. Other classic Famicom games were Popeye the Sailor Man and Excitebike, an off-road motorcycle game in which the players could create their own tracks. Still, the game that would turn out to be Famicom's flagship title and sell millions of hardware units was Super Mario Bros, the Mario brothers' latest adventure where they had to save the princess from the claws of the wily Bowser Koopa.

Courageous Adventurer

Miyamoto has said that he likes to wander around the streets of a new city without a map, because something unexpected would always happen; it makes him feel like he is on an adventure. He would pass through a tunnel and the scene would be totally different on the other side. As a child, he once discovered a lake while hiking, which was a pleasant surprise for him. Another childhood memory for Miyamoto was a maze of sliding doors in his family home back in Sonebe. The curious youngster would often find himself lost in the doorways.

Princess ZeldaAll those memories and experiences are recreated in Miyamoto's games. He wants the players to feel like they are in the game, feeling the cold air around them and the exhilaration of finding something new and unexpected. One such game was The Legend of Zelda, in which Link, a brave adventurer, would explore vast areas, dark caves, and strange cities in his quest to save his country Hyrule and rescue the lovely princess, Zelda, from the king of thieves, Ganon. The Legend of Zelda was released in mid-1987 for Nintendo's 8-bit wonder machine and was the first stand-alone game to sell one million units (it would end up selling more than 6.5 million copies worldwide).

Miyamoto's status soon increased, and after being made the director of his first games, he was promoted to a producer. This meant a lot to him, as he now had the same title as his idol, George Lucas, who had produced Raiders of the Lost Ark, Miyamoto's favorite movie. His new role meant that instead of working on one game at a time, he oversaw the production of several of NCL's titles.

When a game was approaching its completion, Miyamoto would spread out the game's maps across a room full of tables and live with them for days, traveling through the game in his mind. After editing the game, he would talk to the directors, artists, and programmers to incorporate his new ideas.

As a producer, Miyamoto worked closely with the teams responsible for sports games like Volley Ball and Ice Hockey as well as sequels to two of the Famicom's most successful games___Super Mario Bros 2 and The Legend of Zelda II - The Adventure of Link. Released in 1990, Super Mario Bros 3 would turn out to be one of Nintendo's most commercially successful stand-alone games ever. The game has grossed more than $500 million in the US alone, back then topped only by the movie E.T. in the entertainment field.

Playing with Super Power

After completing Super Mario Bros 3, Miyamoto's team worked with Nintendo's new top-secret 16-bit system for fifteen months, exploring the outer reaches of the machine that would be called the Super Famicom (SNES in the Western market). He was assigned to create games for the console as Yamauchi needed some killer-apps to counter the competition's 16-bit hardware. Miyamoto and his thirty-person team worked for months and came up with Super Famicom's first titles: the Mario brothers' fourth adventure named Super Mario World, the futuristic racer F-Zero, and a hang-gliding game called Pilotwings, all released in 1991.

A year later, the masterpiece The Legend of Zelda - A Link to the Past was released and was acknowledged as the greatest videogame of all time by numerous gaming magazines. Miyamoto's EAD team produced some original games like Super Mario Kart, in which Mario and his friends raced each other on go-karts, and in collaboration with Argonaut, Star Fox, a space shooter that was the first SNES game to use polygons with the help of the Super FX chip. Later on, another game to use the graphics-enhancing chip was the excellent Yoshi's Island, albeit in a different way; it used the extra power for stretching and scaling enemies in a unique way.

These Miyamoto-produced games, along with many others, helped sell millions upon millions of SNES units, and when it was time to launch Nintendo's next system Nintendo 64, Yamauchi knew who to assign to develop the flagship titles.

Even before creating games on the SNES, Miyamoto wanted to make a game using polygons, and with the Super FX chip, he got the chance to do so. Still, it wasn't powerful enough to match Miyamoto's vision. With the Nintendo 64, he was finally able to create the games he had in mind. It took EAD three years to learn the power of the new hardware and another two years to translate that data into what would become Super Mario 64, the first game to have been directed by Shigeru Miyamoto since he got promoted to a producer back in the mid eighties.

Throughout the second half of the nineties, Miyamoto continued to produce million-sellers. Along with Mario's 3D debut, the Nintendo 64 launched with the sequel to Nintendo's hang-glider, Pilotwings 64. Soon after launch, Nintendo released Wave Race 64, a jet-ski racer with realistic water physics, and Mario Kart 64 along with Star Fox 64, the sequels to the SNES classics. Ghosts chasing Luigi In 1998, three more Miyamoto-produced games were released: the cool 1080 Snowboarding, blazing F-Zero X, and fabulous The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time.

Since then, Miyamoto's team has been busy exploring Nintendo's next-generation hardware. At the Spaceworld 2000 show we got to see a glimpse of some of Miyamoto's future products. Among the demonstrations shown were Luigi being chased by ghosts in a spooky house and Link sword-fighting his nemesis Ganondorf in a beautiful castle interior. While games in the Mario and Zelda series are a given, expect Nintendo Gamecube to launch with entirely original products as well.

Surprising the World

During Miyamoto's early years at Nintendo, he met a woman named Yasuko, who worked in the general administration department. The two would fall in love and wed. As they married, the Miyamotos moved into a small house near the NCL headquarters. To this day, Miyamoto walks or rides a bike to work everyday. When the couple's first baby was born, Yasuko stopped working. Miyamoto often plays games like Mario Kart 64 with his two children, and although they've asked more than once for a PlayStation, he doesn't think they need one.

By looking at him, Shigeru Miyamoto seems quite ordinary. Standing a mere 5'5" in height and in his late forties, his trademark dark Beatles-styled hair-do and regular clothing aren't what one would expect from a man often called a genius. Even Miyamoto's watch isn't the standard Rolex one would expect from a man with a generous salary, but a playful plastic yellow watch sold in toy stores. Still, his appearances are deceptive, as Miyamoto is no ordinary man. According to Yamauchi, "an ordinary man cannot develop good games no matter how hard he tries. A handful of people in this world can develop games that everybody wants. Those are the people we want at Nintendo."

Yamauchi wanted that one genius that would drive Nintendo to success, and that man would turn out to be Miyamoto. While Miyamoto humbly says he thinks it was nothing more than destiny that made him successful, most people agree that it was because of Miyamoto's talents and devotion to games. He has said that he loves making games so much, he would do it for free, and while it's meant to be a joke, there is probably some truth in those words, as he really seems to find pleasure in his work.

Ever since he was a little kid, Miyamoto has always had an ambition to make something that would astonish the world. He has the desire to do something others haven't, and it appears Yamauchi has the same philosophy. Whenever Miyamoto proposes a new kind of game idea the NCL president has never heard of, Yamauchi gives his top designer the green light. Miyamoto wants his games to entertain the players in a fresh and surprising way. He wants the games to encourage them to think of alternatives that lead to different results, rather than rewarding them for a single answer. Consequently, the players will become more creative and actively involved.

Miyamoto in the seventh heavenWhen asked what game character would represent him best, Miyamoto responded: "Lakitu in the Super Mario series. He seems to be very free, floating in the air, going anywhere. And that's me, that is." That certainly is a good description of the mastermind that made Nintendo into what it is today. Miyamoto has gone from goofy gorillas, chubby plumbers, and green elves to long-tongued dinosaurs and flying foxes. Although no one knows where he will go next, one thing is certain: whatever Miyamoto comes up with in the future, it will take the world by surprise.

Jeton Grajqevci


Artwork copyright Kevin Freitas 2000 - 2001.

Thanks to the numerous magazines and online publications for providing us with Miyamoto interviews, among those (in alphabetical order) Arcade, Daily Radar UK, Famitsu, GameSpot, IGN, MSNBC, N64 Magazine, Nintendo Power, Super PLAY, and Time Digital.

Special thanks to David Sheff for writing Game Over - Press Start to Continue, a fascinating book about the history of Nintendo and its rise to dominance of the gaming industry.

And last but not least, thank you Miyamoto-sensei for making the games we love!