The Unsung Hero of Video Games

for the Daily Telegraph - 1999

If Shigeru Miyamoto was a film maker he'd be mentioned in the same breath as Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. If he were a musician The Beatles or Beethoven. He's been responsible for some of the most innovative, ground breaking and successful work in his field, his productions having grossed billions of dollars and selling over 250 million copies worldwide. In years to come he will probably be seen as one of the most important artists and pioneers of this century. But right now there's hardly anyone who actually knows who Shigeru Miyamoto is.

Born in 1952 it's his creations that have taken the limelight. As the Japanese game designer behind legendary titles such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros and The Legend Of Zelda (to name but a few) Miyamoto has been responsible for changing not only the evolution of videogames but the entire industry as a whole. Hired in 1977 by Nintendo (a company which had, up until very recently, seen most of it's income come from manufacturing playing cards) Miyamoto, an industrial design graduate, was originally employed for his artistic capabilities.

“When I started I was often doing things like designing or painting,” explains Miyamoto, “This was around the time of Space Invaders. I would be designing the arcade game boxes and making the posters that went on the outside.”

At this time arcade titles were still very much the exclusive domain of programmers. However despite his lack of technical skills Miyamoto was eventually given the job of designing and overseeing his own game (because 'no-one else was available' he has said). Launched in 1981 Donkey Kong quickly went on to became one of Nintendo's most successful products and a milestone in videogames. Not only was it one of the most addictive games of it's time (a quality which still stands today) but it also was one of the first to feature characters, in this case a plumber called Mario. Interestingly Mario only gained his striking characteristics due to the limited graphical capabilities of the time - both his moustache and dungarees served simply to give his arms and mouth definition using the minimum amount of pixels.

“In the past, when we were only making games for the arcade it was different. Then our main concern was how many coins the customer would put in the machine - that was the primary objective in designing the game. Based on that we were trying to make it so that people felt like constantly putting more and more money in.”

The arrival of the home Nintendo system (the Famicom in Japan, the NES in the UK) in 1985 changed the principles for videogame design forever.

“With the Famicom we no longer had to consider how many coins that people were going to put in. A game could be considered a success if the player can still feel satisfaction after say twenty to thirty hours of playing. We had to make everything from new. I think one of the biggest differences today is that a designer might say 'I want to make this kind of videogame or that type'. In the past we couldn't do that.”

The first game on the new machine was the Miyamoto designed Super Mario Bros, a title that set the standard for all future videogames. Immensely playable it introduced the world to countless innovations that today are an essential part of almost every videogame designer's palette - power-ups, hidden areas, extra lives and end-of-level bosses. The game has since sold over 50 million copies (in contrast the best selling record, Michael Jackson's Thriller, hovers around the 47 million mark) and transformed the perception of the videogame from that of a passing fad to a powerful entertainment industry. Since then Miyamoto has worked on more than 60 different Nintendo titles and is regarded by many as possibly the most important game designer of all time. So what's the secret to a great game?

“I think one of the most important things is to make it carefully and kindly to the game player. I especially make sure how the players feel. My way of making games is like making crafts or tools. I take for example the save function - I would be very cautious about how the save is done so the players make no mistake and that they don't feel bad about it. I think minute finishing touches on the games are what can make the difference between a good game and a bad game.

“We are dependant on ideas, ideas that nobody else has. Something could happen to you and you think of something and it can change the future. It could just be a ten minute conversation with someone else and you hit upon something that can change your job for the next five years. That's why I never have a big plan for the future.”

However videogames have progressed dramatically since the days of Donkey Kong. Today 'Triple A' games can employ hundreds of people and cost millions of pounds. They can make or break hardware formats. With the market showing increasing signs of maturity through top-selling titles like Doom and Resident Evil there are some who say that Nintendo's chirpy brand of cutesy family orientated gaming is no longer relevant.

“When I created Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros they were never meant to be childish games. We were thinking about ourselves, but in the end children were playing for a lot longer than adults. That's why I think they're associated with a more childish image. When we look at the market place the initial gamesplayer with the 8 bit Famicom system has already become an adult and often they are the parents of children and together they play Nintendo games. I think that's a very important atmosphere for the children and at the same time it's a theme we have to tackle with now. There are some people who don't like playing Nintendo games because they seem childish. So while maintaining the atmosphere of a family orientated console machine how can we attract those people who don't like those games?”

There are many who thought the N64 would be the answer to that question. But Goldeneye aside the lack of mature titles allowed newcomers Sony to steal a large proportion of Nintendo's thunder, something gamers are hoping may be reversed with the arrival of the company's next console, codenamed Dolphin.

“Sony have proved that someone else other than Nintendo can launch a system and sell tens of millions of hardware platforms in the world. With the Nintendo 64 I had to spend so much of my time improving the old series of games. But with Dolphin hopefully I can ask many other new younger producers and designers to take on that task allowing me to take on lots of new projects.”

However despite his status and importance not only to Nintendo (whose success is probably down to Miyamoto more than any other individual) but to the game industry as a whole Miyamoto remains an extremely modest likeable person. He claims to be 'just an ordinary middle aged man' and little about him would tell you that he is one of the greatest pioneers in interactive entertainment. Strangely though his efforts still don't seem to be properly recognised - despite having overseen titles amounting to sales of over 250 million he doesn't receive any kind of royalty. You can bet Michael Jackson wouldn't put up with that.

“No, nothing! Nintendo only pays me a salary. So why don't you in your article ask everyone who has enjoyed my games to send me 10p to my account!”

Given the number of gamesplayers out there raised on Miyamoto's work I'm sure he could probably retire pretty quickly if they did.