While promoting Nintendo's 'Super Mario Run' mobile game, the legendary game designer opened up about his career, his team and his regrets
At the Soho Apple Store in New York last night, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto made a rare public appearance to discuss in detail the company’s highly-anticipated Super Mario Run on iOS. The game, which launches December 15, is a landmark of sorts for the Kyoto-based company, as it's the first real Nintendo title to appear on a non-Nintendo platform (not counting this year's strange Miitomo social app, Niantic's Pokémon Go, or Zelda on the CD-i). Here are the Top 5 takeaways straight from the mouth of the original Mario maker.
Nintendo Almost Didn’t Hire Miyamoto
Pretty much anyone who’s made a game in the past 30 years owes some level of debt to Miyamoto. Whether it’s the invention of a 3D camera system or analog controls, or entire genres that exist purely because Miyamoto was there first. Of course, none of this would have happened if Nintendo hadn’t hired him in the first place – and they almost didn’t.
“I called up a recruiter [and asked] “Are you looking for any designers?” I studied industrial design in college, but [Nintendo] told me they weren’t looking for any industrial designers, and yet I somehow forced them to give me an interview, " he says. "Then I went to the department head of one of the design teams, and I showed him one of the things I had created for my portfolio and that’s how I got the job."
Space Invaders Paved The Way For Donkey Kong
Space Invaders and Donkey Kong are both iconic video games associated with the golden age of arcades. They're all over Eighties movies, from Tron to Terminator 2 to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but one came before the other, and if it weren’t for Tomohiro Nishikado’s landmark shooter, Miyamoto may never have had a shot at designing games at all.
“About a year or two after I joined Nintendo,” he says, “Space Invaders came out and became a huge hit, and so Nintendo decided to go into the video game business, and that’s how I got my start, designing graphics.”
He Wishes Pikmin and StarFox Were More Popular
When asked if there were any characters he was passionate about, but which didn’t succeed at the level he would have liked, Miyamoto offered up not only one, but two examples: pilot Fox McCloud from 1993's StarFox and those purveyors of garden feng shui, the Pikmin, who first appeared on the Gamecube in 2001.
“I always wanted Fox McCloud to be a bit more popular than he is, " Miyamoto says. "But I think [another example] would be Pikmin. So I think these two I’ll need to put more energy into. The Pikmin are very unique characters that I worked directly with the designer to create, so I like them quite a bit. But I do think they’re not particularly well-suited to Halloween costumes, which is unfortunate. They’re a little too plain.”
As Nintendo's Development Teams Grow, Miyamoto Has to Remind Everyone Why He's There
Back in the 8-bit era of game development, Miyamoto worked with small teams, where he could influence every detail. Today, with even small teams needing more than 30 people, he admits it’s much harder for him to do that.
“[In] the 8-bit days, the technology was simpler, the graphics were simpler, so it was easier to focus directly on the gameplay itself and making it fun, " he says. "And now of course the graphics are much more impressive. Back in the 8-bit days there would be five of us working on a game, and we could say with pride “We made this.” And now just to make something small it takes 30 people, and you don’t really know who was responsible for which elements that were created, so it’s hard to have that clarity. So the battle I’m always fighting is we have all of these talented programmers and artists, and I have to keep reminding them why I’m important in the process, " he adds, laughing.
He's Been Working With the Same Two People for 30 Years
He’s a legend, and legends usually roll with a tight-knit crew of collaborators. Miyamoto still does his best collaboration with two of his long-running Nintendo teammates – director Takashi Tezuka and programming director Toshihiko Nakago – and nothing gets a green light until all three agree. According to Miyamoto, rather than congratulating each other on the finer points of the games they create, their working method is all about constantly zeroing in on what doesn't work.
“What’s interesting is when we’re making a game, we never tell each other what’s fun about the game, " Miyamoto says. "All we ever do is say “This part is no fun!” or “That’s not fun, this isn’t any good!” And we go through this process all the way through to completion until we master up the ROM before we ever have a chance to sit down and think about what’s fun about the game. So we kind of have fun talking about what’s not fun about it.”
"The three of us never make anything until we all decide that it’s time, " he says. "We’d been experimenting with ideas around a one-button control scheme with Mario where all you do is jump, and when we tried this out on iPhone, we found a great way to make an accessible Mario game and bring it to iPhone. That’s when we decided to make Super Mario Run."