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Shigeru Miyamoto, the visionary behind Nintendo's designs, stated that his intention was to create something unconventional.
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Shigeru Miyamoto, the visionary behind Nintendo’s designs, stated that his intention was to create something unconventional.


You can identify a Nintendo game not only by its gameplay, but also by its distinctive visuals. The colorful and vibrant graphics, as well as the unique characters, are trademarks of the game-maker’s most recent hit series, Splatoon. In this game, players control transforming squids who battle in arenas by splattering them with glossy paint. The iconic red cap and blue overalls worn by Mario, originally designed for the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong, have become a signature style for Nintendo – even their logo is the same shade of red. When browsing through Nintendo’s department store outlets in Japan, you will find a variety of merchandise featuring colorful characters, such as Animal Crossing cookware, Super Mario gloves, Zelda wallets and ties, and Pikmin vases.

Adjacent to the vibrant and colorful nature of its well-known games, the headquarters of Nintendo stands out for its mundane appearance. Consisting of two white mid-rise buildings located a thirty-minute walk from Kyoto’s central station, each building is adorned with a simple grey Nintendo logo. The only hint of the company’s products is a small basket of Mario plush toys on the receptionist’s desk. It is unknown what the upper floors may hold, as it remains a mystery to those who do not work there. Despite inquiring about the possibility of a tour, I am politely informed that no one is allowed to access those areas.

I am here to meet Shigeru Miyamoto, the influential game designer known for creating iconic characters such as Mario and Link in popular Nintendo games. Miyamoto has been involved in the design of all of Nintendo’s consoles since 1983, including the recent successful Nintendo Switch. His creations have sold over 1 billion copies worldwide, making him a key figure in shaping childhood memories for multiple generations. He is also responsible for the highly acclaimed game series The Legend of Zelda, which received numerous accolades in 2023.

Miyamoto is frequently referred to as the Spielberg of the gaming world and Nintendo is often equated to the animation studio Pixar. However, he does not appreciate these comparisons. In a February 2023 interview, he stated, “Miyamoto is Miyamoto and Nintendo is Nintendo.” As a Nintendo fan, I often envision him with his trademark charming smile on stage at various gaming conventions and in promotional videos. However, in recent years, he has stepped away from the limelight and rarely grants interviews. It took over a year to arrange our meeting today. From speaking with other Nintendo creators over the years, it seems that Miyamoto is highly respected as a creative elder who is not afraid to critique or offer rare praise. This image is quite different from the cheerful persona we see on stage.

Miyamoto and Steven Spielberg playing Wii Tennis in 2006.

However, when meeting in person, Miyamoto is friendly and enthusiastic, though not as outgoing as one might expect from the most renowned game designer in the world. He is not fond of being in the spotlight. After posing enthusiastically with a Mario stuffed animal during a photoshoot, he admits that he has never enjoyed being in front of a camera, despite his skill at performing for one. Wearing a Mario t-shirt under a black blazer, he joins me in a plain meeting room at Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto, accompanied by three Nintendo PR representatives from different regions who seem somewhat starstruck to be near him. Miyamoto is feeling a bit reflective a few days after celebrating his 71st birthday. “If you ask me to talk about the early days, it’ll take some time,” he cautions when I inquire about his memories from his first years at the company. Miyamoto had completed his studies in industrial design at Kanazawa College of Art in the 1970s, having dreamed since his school days of becoming a manga artist. “Many of my classmates were going into car or electronics manufacturing,” he recalls, “but I wanted to create something unique, something interesting, and that’s how I ended up at Nintendo.”

1981’s Donkey Kong.

During the 1970s, Nintendo was led by Hiroshi Yamauchi, a formidable businessman and the great-grandson of founder Fusajiro Yamauchi. Under his leadership, the company shifted from manufacturing playing cards to producing electronic toys. It was during this time that Miyamoto was hired, at the start of the video game era. He recalls, “The year after I joined, Space Invaders was a huge success. As a student, I spent a lot of time in arcades playing games, so I was very interested in them.” After two or three years, he was given the opportunity to create Donkey Kong, solidifying his role as a game designer.

Donkey Kong achieved immense success in the global arcade scene, introducing iconic characters that remain widely recognized to this day: the titular gorilla and his rival Jumpman, now known as Mario. This game served as a pivotal platform for Nintendo’s growth and evolution into the prominent international gaming corporation it is today. In 1985, the Famicom’s release in the US coincided with the launch of the first Super Mario Bros game, which was designed by Miyamoto and co-designer Takashi Tezuka using graph paper. By the release of the Super Famicom (also known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System) in 1992, Nintendo had become the leading video game company in the world, with Miyamoto at the forefront as the leading video game designer.

Miyamoto, unlike many game designers, was involved in the design of Nintendo’s consoles. This approach has resulted in consoles that feel personalized for the games we play on them, such as petting virtual dogs on the Nintendo DS touchscreen in Nintendogs, exploring a 3D world as Link in Ocarina of Time, or playing motion-sensor bowling in Wii Sports. Miyamoto’s face lights up when discussing even the smallest aspects of designing these games and consoles, his wide grin returning. He is known for his big ideas, but also takes pleasure in perfecting the fun: “I begin by focusing on the overall concept and ensuring it is innovative, and then continue to refine the details until the very end – sometimes even after things have been sent to production. They often have to tell me, ‘That’s enough!'”

Challenging you to a dual … Miyamoto with the two-screen Nintendo DS in 2004.

Nintendo is renowned for its meticulousness. While other video game companies prioritize meeting shareholder expectations and release games quickly, Nintendo has always been willing to invest time in their creations. They may only release a new Mario or Zelda game every five years, but these games are of exceptional quality. As Miyamoto notes, a great product can be sold indefinitely – the original Super Mario Bros from 1985 has been re-released multiple times and has sold over 60 million copies. It is still available to play on the Switch.

Miyamoto is driven by the thrill of innovation. He becomes particularly animated when reminiscing about pivotal moments in Nintendo’s history. Despite his 45-year tenure at the company, he never stops moving forward. In recent years, he has been heavily involved in expanding Nintendo’s ventures beyond video games, such as with the Super Nintendo World theme parks at Universal Studios and the highly successful Super Mario Bros Movie released this year. According to him, he no longer sees himself solely as a game designer, but rather as someone who seeks out new and unique opportunities for Nintendo. The company operates by stumbling upon unexpected ideas and then forging a new path forward. Miyamoto is eager to see the organic results that will come from these ventures, and although he is still new to the movie industry, he is actively learning and reading scripts to understand their development process and how they can be adapted into distinctly Nintendo-style films.

Miyamoto has entrusted the development of the game series that brought him fame to others, although he still supervises many of the games at Nintendo, especially during the conceptualization stage. The development process at Nintendo now involves multiple generations, with individuals who grew up playing Mario, Zelda, or Animal Crossing now collaborating with their original designers on these games. It is rare for top minds at Nintendo to leave the company. In a conversation with long-time Nintendo creative Shinya Takahashi in 2019, he conveyed that Miyamoto’s role primarily involves evaluating new prototypes. “He is not deeply involved in the nitty-gritty of development, but oversees entire projects and identifies major issues: ‘This part is bad, this part is bad, THIS part is bad!'”, he shared with a smile. “If he says something is good, it’s quite rare. He’s actually a reserved person; even when he believes something is well-done, he may not express it directly to the person responsible.”


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“I am not one to give excessive praise, but upon reading that interview, I became aware of this fact,” agrees Miyamoto. “However, I believe that collaborating on our next project is the ultimate form of praise I can offer.” When asked about the types of ideas that impress him, he responds, “Ideas that are unique and not being explored by others. Original concepts.” He adds, “These are the types of ideas that are worth refining and testing to see if they are feasible.”

At the beginning of Miyamoto’s time with Nintendo, video games had not yet been clearly defined. Arcades and early home consoles were experimenting with the potential of virtual worlds. Fast forward to 2023, and the majority of people around the world are playing video games. The definition of a game is once again becoming blurred as the corporate world is entering the realm of play that gamers have long occupied, labeling it as “the metaverse”. Activities such as shopping, learning a language, and even exercising are being turned into games through various apps.

Miyamoto states that even people of his generation are knowledgeable about games now. With the prevalence of PCs and smartphones, these devices have taken on the role that pen and paper used to have. The boundaries of video games are becoming more flexible and people are becoming more open-minded and inclusive when it comes to the definition of a video game.

Miyamoto at the opening ceremony of Super Nintendo World.

I believe I have an idea of how Miyamoto will respond to my question about retirement. As expected, he has no intention of retiring as he still has a passion for his work. He mentions that instead of contemplating retirement, he thinks about the possibility of suddenly passing away. In today’s world, it’s important to plan for the future, so he does consider who he can entrust his work to in case of unforeseen circumstances.

I am grateful for the enthusiasm surrounding the projects I have contributed to. They have been released and nurtured by others, so I no longer feel a strong sense of ownership over them.

Mario, Link, and other characters created by Shigeru Miyamoto have taken on lives of their own within and outside of Nintendo. Miyamoto is still closely associated with the company and its focus on creating fun games. Even if he were to retire, his influence would not be forgotten, although he does not see himself that way. He compares himself to a scene in “Iron Man” where the president is denied entry to his own company, but points to a portrait and says, “That’s me!” Miyamoto hopes that the teams he works with will remember him as the creator of their beloved games.

Source: theguardian.com