Father of Donkey Kong, Mario, Zelda and, most recently, the Wii, Nintendo's Miyamoto still approaches his work like a humble craftsman
It's OK to liken Shigeru Miyamoto to Walt Disney.
When Disney died in 1966, Miyamoto was a 14-year-old schoolteacher's son living near Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital. An aspiring cartoonist, he adored the classic Disney characters. When he wasn't drawing, he made his own toys, carving wooden puppets with his grandfathers' tools or devising a car race from a spare motor, string and tin cans.
Even as he has become the world's most famous and influential video-game designer - the father of Donkey Kong, Mario, Zelda and, most recently, the Wii - Miyamoto still approaches his work like a humble craftsman, not as the celebrity he is to gamers around the world.
Perched on the end of a chair in a hotel suite a few dozen stories above Midtown Manhattan, the preternaturally cherubic 55-year-old Miyamoto radiated the contentment of someone who has always wanted to make fun. And he has. As the creative mastermind at Nintendo for almost three decades, Miyamoto has unleashed mass entertainment with a global breadth, cultural endurance and financial success unsurpassed since Disney's fabled career.
In the West, chances are that Miyamoto would have started his own company a long time ago. He could have made billions and established himself as a staple of entertainment celebrity. Instead, despite being royalty at Nintendo and a cult figure, he almost comes across as just another salaryman (though a particularly creative and happy one) with a wife and two school-age children at home near Kyoto. He is not tabloid fodder, and he seems to maintain a relatively nondescript lifestyle.
Mario, the mustached Italian plumber he created almost 30 years ago, has become by some measures the planet's most recognized fictional character, rivaled only by Mickey Mouse. As the creator of the Donkey Kong, Mario and Zelda series (which have collectively sold more than 350 million copies) and the person who ultimately oversees every Nintendo game, Miyamoto may be personally responsible for the consumption of more billions of hours of human time than anyone around. In the Time 100 online poll conducted this spring, Miyamoto was voted the most influential person in the world.
But it isn't just traditional gamers who are flocking to Miyamoto's latest creation, the Wii. Eighteen months ago, just when video games were in danger of disappearing into the niche world of fanatics, Miyamoto and Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's chief executive, practically reinvented the industry. Their idea was revolutionary in its simplicity: rather than create a new generation of games that would titillate hard-core players, they developed the Wii as an easy-to-use, inexpensive diversion for families (with a particular appeal to women, an audience generally immune to the pull of traditional video games). So far the Wii has sold more than 25 million units, besting the competition from Sony and Microsoft.
In an effort to build on this success, Nintendo released its Wii Fit system in North America May 19. It is a device that hopes to make doing yoga in front of a television screen almost as much fun as driving, throwing, jumping or shooting in a traditional game.
In a global media culture dominated by American faces, tastes and brands, video games are Japan's most successful cultural export. And on the strength of the Wii and the DS hand-held game system, Nintendo has become one of the most valuable companies in Japan. With a net worth of around $8 billion, Nintendo's former chairman, Hiroshi Yamauchi, is now the richest man in Japan, according to Forbes magazine. (Nintendo does not disclose Miyamoto's compensation, but it appears that he has not joined the ranks of the superrich.)
"Without Miyamoto, Nintendo would be back making playing cards," said Andy McNamara, editor in chief of Game Informer, the No. 1 game magazine, referring to Nintendo's original business in 1889. "He probably inspires 99 percent of the developers out there today. You can even say there wouldn't be video games today if it wasn't for Miyamoto and Nintendo. He's the granddad of all game developers, but the funny thing is that for all of his legacy, for all of the mainstay iconic characters he's designed and created, he is still pushing the limits with things like Wii Fit."
Started as a staff artist
Miyamoto graduated from the Kanazawa College of Art in 1975 and joined Nintendo two years later as a staff artist. The original Donkey Kong was a prime force in gaming's early surge of popularity, along with arcade classics like Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man.
He rose quickly at the company, and his name has been synonymous with Nintendo since the 1980s, when the original "Mario Bros." games helped save the industry after the collapse of Atari, maker of the first broadly popular home console. When Atari failed amid a slew of unpopular games, Nintendo rekindled faith in home gaming systems; the Nintendo Entertainment System, released in the West in 1985, became the best-selling console of its era.
Since then Miyamoto has been directly involved in the production of at least 70 games, including recent hits like Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Super Mario Galaxy and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Miyamoto supervises about 400 people, including contractors, almost entirely in Japan. The popular new installments in classic game franchises have maintained his credibility among core gamers even as he has reached out to new audiences with mass-market products like the Wii.
Through all his games, his designs are marked by an accumulation of care and detail. There is nothing objective about why a goofy guy in blue overalls like Mario should appeal to so many, just as there is nothing objective in how Disney could have built a company on talking animals. Rather, the reason I stood in line at a pizzeria more than 20 years ago to play Super Mario Bros., the reason Miyamoto is almost a living god in the game world, is that his games have some ineffable lure that inspires you to drop just one more quarter (or, these days, to stay on the couch just one more hour).
Just as a film is not measured by the quality of its special effects, a game is not measured merely by its graphics. This concept is lost on many designers, but not on Miyamoto. And just as a film buff might prefer to watch an old black-and-white movie instead of, say, "Iron Man," even Miyamoto's earliest games hold up as worthy diversions. (The story of two men battling for the world record in Donkey Kong was made into a film, "The King of Kong," last year.)
"There are very few people in the video game industry who have managed to succeed time after time at a world-class level, and Miyamoto-san is one of them," Graham Hopper, a Disney veteran and executive vice president and general manager of Disney Interactive Studios, said in a telephone interview. "The level of creative success that he has achieved over a sustained period is probably unparalleled."
Given that its roster of characters includes not only Mario and Donkey Kong but also Princess Peach, Zelda, Bowser and Link, it's easy to imagine that Miyamoto designs his games around those characters.
The truth is exactly the opposite. According to Miyamoto, gameplay systems and mechanics have always come first, while the characters are created and deployed in the service of the overall design. That means a focus on the seemingly prosaic basic elements of game design: movement, setting, goals to accomplish and obstacles to overcome.
"I feel that people like Mario and people like Link and the other characters we've created not for the characters themselves, but because the games they appear in are fun," he said. "And because people enjoy playing those games first, they come to love the characters as well."
Moving into realism
Miyamoto's work is evolving from a reliance on invented characters and fanciful, outlandish settings like Mario's Mushroom Kingdom or Zelda's mythical Hyrule. With games like Nintendogs (inspired by his pet Shetland sheepdog), Wii Sports, Wii Fit and coming next, Wii Music, Miyamoto is gravitating toward everyday hobbies: pets, bowling, yoga, Hula-Hoop, music. It is as if an artist who had mastered the abstract had finally moved into realism.
It has proved the perfect strategy as Nintendo reaches out to nongamers who may not care to understand why this frantic plumber keeps jumping on top of turtles, or why that gallant fellow in green has to keep rescuing the same princess over and over. At this moment, when consumers crave the ability to shape and become a part of their entertainment, whether through MySpace or "American Idol," the latest star in Nintendo's stable of characters is you - or rather Mii, the whimsical avatar Wii users create of themselves.
With a track record like his, it would be foolish to bet against him. When it comes to the Walt Disney of the digital generation, no one knows fun better.