The brains behind Mario, Donkey Kong, and Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto has created some of gaming's most iconic heroes. Now he's fast becoming one himself. Illustration by eBoyGazing across the table at living legend Shigeru Miyamoto in a closed-door meeting room at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), I get the impression that I might as well be enjoying an audience with the pope. And it's not because of the four hour-long lines of enthusiastic fans queued up to sample the legendary software designer's latest creation - the new motion-sensitive video-game console Wii (pronounced "wee," see "The Wii Revolution," page 70). Nor, for that matter, is it because of the ever-vigilant security guards standing watch over a special roped-off section behind employer Nintendo's public booth, where pedestrian-choked product kiosks and blaring loudspeakers ostentatiously trumpet the company's latest wares.
Even the site of our sit-down - a nondescript conference area located next to a bar and, somewhat incongruously for a bustling convention floor, an ice cream machine - isn't entirely responsible for the effect. Rather, it's due to the subtle lines that now mar the familiar visage of my companion, adding a hint of unexpected sadness to his ever-smiling face and mischievous eyes.
Surrounded by translators, official handlers, and a host of underlings, the visionary whose life's work has come to define so many millions of people's childhoods no longer seems so impish as he does outright exhausted. At age 54, having worked on more than 70 individual titles, the man Time magazine called "the Spielberg of video games" looks like he'd rather be anywhere (e.g., in his beloved garden) than here, surrounded by 60,000-plus admirers.
Or, as he puts it, half directly and half through an intermediary (Miyamoto's fluent in English but still uncomfortable with the language): "[All this attention] is embarrassing. I find it quite awkward. Looking back, it's fair to say fame was never supposed to be part of the deal."
INDEED YOU WOULDN'T find a less likely candidate for superstardom than this former bohemian, who spent his childhood days in a rural community near his current home of Kyoto, Japan, painting, drawing pictures, and dreaming of imaginary worlds. His explorations of the territory surrounding his home - of rivers, rice fields, and caverns - provided fertile inspiration for later games such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.
But in 1977, the long-haired romantic and former bandleader, fresh out of college after a five-year stint, was just another naive idealist desperately seeking work. His father, a friend of Hiroshi Yamauchi, head of the then playing-card and toy manufacturer Nintendo, arranged an interview for Miyamoto, which eventually led to a job as Nintendo's first staff artist.
Come 1980, after three years of producing art for use in coin-operated arcade games, Yamauchi assigned Miyamoto a monumental task: to revamp Radarscope, a failed title he'd staked the company on. Miyamoto's response: He scrapped Radarscope's design entirely, citing cinematic inspiration and the need to employ moviemaking characterization techniques.
In its place, the legendary Donkey Kong was born. Released in 1981, the title (whose name came from a humorously misguided search through a Japanese/English dictionary) went on to storm arcades around the globe and save the firm. It also introduced the world to the mustached hero Jumpman, who eventually evolved into the character we recognize today as Mario.
Over the next 25 years, Miyamoto's design philosophy led to a string of breakthrough hits, including 1985's Super Mario Bros., the most successful video game ever (and one that set the archetype for countless platform-hopping romps to come); 1987's The Legend of Zelda, stemming from Miyamoto's youthful ventures into the pitch-black caves near his home and which sees players exploring forests, mountains, and dungeons while fighting fearsome beasts; and, of course, 1996's seminal Super Mario 64, heralded by critics and consumers alike as the first game in which 3-D gaming showed its true potential. Even his less historically renowned outings, including Duck Hunt, Hogan's Alley, PilotWings 64, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, F-Zero, and Luigi's Mansion, still rank among the biz's best.
Miyamoto attributes his ongoing triumphs to a simple design philosophy. "Most important is that a game be fun to play and that its environment be used to effectively capture an audience's attention," he says. "Players can't be forced into activity … they have to voluntarily want to enter the interactive space and explore. Flashy graphics and fancy sound effects aren't the answer - interactivity is. Encouraging players to immerse themselves within virtual universes is crucial."
HENCE THE THINKING behind the just-released Wii, which aims to speak to the entire family, not just to tech-savvy teens and 20-somethings, as its chief competitors PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are prone to doing. "[Microsoft and Sony] have done little to expand their core market," explains Miyamoto. "They continue to play to the same general users. At Nintendo, we believe in speaking to people of all ages and interests, whether you're five years old or 95. There's a new, ever-growing audience for video games out there. We're leading by example and hope to inspire generations of developers to come."