April 11, 2007 - Shigeru Miyamoto. If the name sounds familiar, it's likely because he's considered amongst critics, gamers, and artists alike to be the father of modern video games. Mario. Zelda. Donkey Kong. Star Fox. Not only are these aforementioned videogame franchises synonymous with Nintendo's unrelenting success in the video game industry, but they all originated inside this one man's head. While not exactly starting off in the mail room or grabbing lattes for big wig Japanese execs, Miyamoto got his foot in the door while commissioned to design - as a "mere" artist and planner - one of Nintendo's first coin-operated arcade games. The resulting Donkey Kong - and its hero Mario - would set the pace for modern gaming.
Be it Van Gogh realizing landscapes, Beethoven arranging concertos, or Michelangelo capturing the essence of man, Shigeru Miyamoto's name may appear unquestioned amongst these prodigies, for he is an artist in his own right. Whether ambidextrously playing the banjo, planting tulips in his quaint garden, or recalling upon childhood memories as his muse, the Japanese legend has revolutionized the industry, and set the standard for true, deep, and inspired gaming.
So why does this man have a shrine on the internet? Why do people hang onto every uttered syllable cast forth from the humble, 54 year-old's mouth? Or more importantly, why are the games he creates among the greatest, if not the greatest, of all time? From an entry level planner to the front man of one of the world's leading innovators in game design, Miyamoto is not a genius because he can compute complex mathematical equations or decipher the human genome; rather, it's his inherent tendency to relate to the basic human condition. People play games to have fun, but also to escape reality. He creates a reality like no other - his games are life, his life even, but also wonderful, magical, and surreal. And it is his brand of reality that has transformed the industry into what you see today.
Born in Kyoto, Japan, Miyamoto-san appeared to experience a typical childhood, but his penchant for curiosity and imagination led him off the typical path. The beautiful, lustrous, and enigmatic nature of Kyoto's landscape drew the young, impressionable boy into the delightful world of adolescent discovery and epiphany. As he set out upon his many journeys - without giving the destination the slightest consideration - the curious boy would be forever impacted by - and rewarded for - his inherent fascination with the unknown. Stumbling upon seemingly clandestine lakes, alcoves, caves and other wonders of nature, doubtless countless sunsets permeated his soul and would leave him forever inspired. It was likely in these formative years that he developed his appreciation for the natural, unadulterated and striking works of natural art that he witnessed on his treks - and ultimately drove him to actualize his perception of the world onto his own unique canvas. At the time they may have been simple drawings, sketches, and paintings, but they would eventually turn into some of the greatest video games of all time.
"Video games are bad for you? That's what they said about rock-n-roll."
It's easy enough to call Miyamoto a genius, a trailblazer, a revolutionary - but one must qualify this acclaim. What makes his formula for drawing in gamers so compelling and unique is the man's connection with what is fun, with what is intuitive, and with what is engaging. Games had stagnated to the point where players might have felt like donkeys, hoping to ingest the delicious carrot a mere six inches before him - games were too simplistic and linear. Being led from point A to point B, with no reward but having the opportunity to be presented with point C, simply did not make for compelling gaming. Miyamoto offered gamers simple, yet responsive controls, intelligent and rewarding puzzles, and the feeling that the player was in control of his or her own destiny - much like he felt as a young boy, traversing through a dark cave with a makeshift lantern - let the players become the (bright, charismatic, lovable) characters, and they'll always come back for more.
Without diminishing any of Miyamoto's obvious attributes, the spawning of his expansive career was in large part the result of being in the right place at the right time. Not only was Hiroshi Yamauchi (then and current Nintendo head-honcho) a friend of Miyamoto's father, but even once getting the apprenticeship as a low level planner, luck struck Miyamoto once again. The majority of the company's top designers, engineers, and programmers were far too busy with another project, Radarscope, and Nintendo was in dire need of a new hit to help offset the already diminishing anticipation for the game. The responsibility fell to Miyamoto's shoulders, and despite the enormous pressure, he was certainly up to the task. In a recent interview with Time, Miyamoto admits that when he first joined Nintendo, there was no motive as of yet within the company for video game design; Nintendo's dedication to games and entertainment were exclusive of the digital realm.
After overcoming various technological constraints, Miyamoto created a simple storyline with its hero and villain just as much caricatures as characters - the hero, a carpenter hoping to save his girlfriend from the clutches of an evil gorilla, was made distinguishable to the point of brand recognition; bright red overalls, puffy white gloves, and arms that swung as fast as baseball bats. He had a matching red cap, giant nose, and bushy moustache. Using a simple keyboard and cassette recorder, Miyamoto even composed and recorded the background music. The name Donkey Kong was chosen, 2,000 units were sold, and thousands more orders were placed. Miyamoto had created his first game, but his imagination and aspirations far exceeded one arcade title. It was 1981, and he was only getting started. Game design and planning were finally getting the recognition they deserved as mandatory facets of successful game development.
After two popular and profitable sequels to Donkey Kong, the revelation passed that the hero from the series, Jumpman, looked more like a plumber than a carpenter and was also in desperate need of a name change - if he was to star in his own game. The honor befell the man who happened to rent warehouse space to Nintendo, and his name was Mario. Miyamoto then set forth to create a game starring two dueling plumber brothers (Luigi, the green-clad, taller, more slender brother was thrown into the mix simply for the sake of gameplay) whose battlegrounds were the sewers of New York City, and the subsequent result was the viral arcade success, Mario Bros., appearing in 1983. Miyamoto had begun to realize his dreams of fun gameplay, intuitive controls, and characters that were far more than generic.
1984 saw the release of Nintendo's new home computer, the Famicom, or "Family Computer" (later released in the U.S. as the NES) and Yamauchi needed the necessary software to propel the system's success. More than up to the task Miyamoto was entrusted with the responsibility of heading up a brand new entertainment division, known today as EAD. The division, deftly and efficiently run by Miyamoto, was responsible for hits such as Excitebike, Wild Gunman, and Duck Hunt. But gaming was forever revolutionized when Miyamoto brought Mario and Luigi to the forefront with Super Mario Bros. The game was the first smooth-scrolling platform game, as each screen need not be individually loaded; the entire level was one smooth experience. The story was simple, but the characters were discernable and memorable, from the damsel in distress, Princess Toadstool, to the villainous spike-shelled giant, ruler over all the turtles, King Koopa.
"I wanted to make something very unique, something very different."
With a brand new development team at his disposal, and the faith of his employers a foregone conclusion, Miyamoto created The Legend of Zelda. Released in 1987, it was the first stand-alone game to push more than one million copies into gamers' eager hands. This game was unique, however, for aside from his artistic and musical ambitions as a youngster, he had yet to create a game that fully exploited and drew upon his wonderful imagination and childhood experiences as inspiration.