In a very candid interview with Telegraph. Miyamoto gets real candid on the state of the industry.
When Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of the Super Mario Bros. series of video-games, celebrated his 40th birthday, he put away unchildish things. He quit smoking and pachinko, a form of gambling game that combines the brightest, noisiest parts of pinball and fruit machines, took up swimming, and vowed to spend more time in his garden.
One day, around 15 years ago, Miyamoto was relaxing on his patio and saw a line of ants marching past his feet and off into the grass, carrying leaves towards their nest. Then he imagined for a moment – because this is how the Miyamoto mind works – what the scene might look like if they were tiny people.
“Ants, as you know, always have a leader, and tend to be carrying things, and as they move they create a kind of rail,” he says. “And I started thinking about a game about lots of small people carrying things in a line, following a leader, with everyone going in the same direction.”
The idea struck him as something he’d never explored before in his work. More importantly, it also sounded like fun.
“When we think about video games, we always have the idea of a start and a goal, and it’s like a race between individual players: who can make it and who won’t?” he says. “And I thought, ‘Why does it have to be a competition? Why can’t everyone just move together in the same direction, carrying things as a team? Who made theserules in the first place, anyway?’”
The answer, of course, is Miyamoto. The 61-year-old video game designer is often called the father of modern gaming, and many of the blockbuster titles released today – the Grand Theft Autos, the Final Fantasys and their imitators – are built on the foundations laid down by Miyamoto in the Eighties, in the first iterations of his own million-selling game series, including Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.
When he joined Nintendo in 1977 as an industrial design graduate, the company made toys, from the floral playing cards that had been at the core of its business since 1889 to a new raft of novelty gadgets: the Ultra Hand, the Beam Gun and Space Fever, a clone of the wildly popular Space Invaders arcade game.
The company’s then-president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, set Miyamoto working on this new market. His breakthrough game, Donkey Kong, was the first in which a character could jump. That simple idea changed the course of video-gaming, and over the years, other equally seismic innovations followed. In 1996, he set out the rules for 3D games in Super Mario 64, and in 2006, the launch of the Wii console, which Miyamoto had helped mastermind, took gaming into the motion-control era.
In 2001, his dream of ants blossomed into a game called Pikmin, which became another hit franchise for the company – although this week, the tiny, multicoloured creatures carried their creator onto previously uncharted ground. For the first time in his life, Miyamoto has made amovie.
Or rather, three. Pikmin Short Movies, which had its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival over the weekend, is a trio of animations, ranging in length from three to 15 minutes, in which the Pikmin and their extra-terrestrial handler, a tiny astronaut called Captain Olimar, get up to various scrapes. In one short, they attempt to salvage an upended glass bottle; in another, they dismantle an abandoned digger while being menaced by local wildlife.
We meet shortly before the premiere in a suite on the 34th floor of theMandarin Oriental hotel in Tokyo’s sleek Marunouchi district, where Miyamoto is surrounded by no less than four assistants. One, Yasuhiro Minagawa, is Nintendo’s chief spokesman. A second scribbles in a notepad. A third sits smiling at a desk. The fourth lurks in an adjacent bedroom, and is occasionally glimpsed through the doorway.
Miyamoto cheerfully ignores all four. He’s smiling broadly, his eyes and cheeks contributing as much to the expression as his mouth. He’s wearing a smart navy jacket over a Pikmin t-shirt, and in front of him on the coffee table, placed where a box of cigarettes or a mobile phone would normally be, is the latest model of Nintendo 3DS. He has a teacherly quality, but the kind of teacher who would cancel a lesson on a whim and take his class out to a nearby pond to catch minnows and frogspawn.
He talks thoughtfully about the ways in which video games allow him to address certain broader issues: “In Pikmin, the characters die but they’re reborn, or new life appears in their place,” he says, “and this is how nature is. I thought trying to teach children that there’s always an end to a life but a new beginning will follow shortly was worthwhile.”
His understanding of what excites young minds comes over clearly in his work, and Miyamoto has been described so often as the Steven Spielberg or Walt Disney of video games that it’s easy to imagine him taking to filmmaking naturally. But in fact, he sees no connection between the two art-forms at all.
“I have never thought of games as a means of storytelling,” he says through a translator, “so while many people have approached me in the past and said ‘why don’t you make a movie?’, I had never been interested.”
What made him think again was the Pikmin franchise itself, and the mini-narratives, of expeditions and daring rescues, that naturally emerge while playing the game. They reminded Miyamoto of the four-cell manga – roughly equivalent to the daily comic strips in western newspapers – that he enjoyed reading as a child and sketched as a teenager.
This is Nintendo’s first foray into film since the ill-starred Super Mario Brothers movie of 1993, in which Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo skulked around a dank metropolis that bore no obvious resemblance to the Mushroom Kingdom of Miyamoto’s game. He remembers the episode with a wry smile: “Our American subsidiary was giving away a lot of our licences, and we had them stop doing that,” he grins. “But I thought after that, ‘I want to be involved with how this happens in future.’ And this particular time is a good time for me to be involved.”
After completing work on the third Pikmin video-game, he moved straight onto the project, enlisting the animation studio TK3, sketching out ideas and then overseeing their execution in the capacity of executive producer.
The fact he didn’t direct the films themselves is telling. Miyamoto doesn’t see himself as a storyteller, and worries that the video game business is now so hung up on providing film-like experiences, with grand themes and complex storylines, that the essence of play is being lost.
In films, he explains, the director and the creator are one and the same person, dictating what happens, carving out the story’s arc. But in games, he believes the director should be the player – his job as a designer is simply to equip them with the toys to direct. As a creative philosophy it’s pretty much the opposite of auteurism – though ironically, it’s one that has made him the best-known games designer on the planet.
“These younger game creators, they want to be recognised,” he sighs. “They want to tell stories that will touch people’s hearts. And while I understand that desire, the trend worries me. It should be the experience, that is touching. What I strive for is to make the person playing the game the director. All I do is help them feel that, by playing, they’re creating something that only they could create.”
While talking to Miyamoto, you realise he’s as much a discoverer as a designer. Like Newton or Einstein, he has found something fascinating out in the world – in his case, fun – and then dove in between its cogs and springs, working out the rules that govern it.
When I ask him if he thinks the games industry can learn anything from cinema, he seems mildly horrified at the thought.
“When you play a game, one moment you’re just controlling it and then suddenly you feel you’re in its world,” he says. “And that’s something you cannot experience through film or literature. It’s a completely unique experience.”
Nintendo’s Miyamotoan pursuit of uniqueness has occasionally led the company into financially choppy waters, but they have, thus far, always been vindicated. In its most recent set of financial results, posted earlier this week, Nintendo unexpectedly announced a 215 million yen operating profit for the last quarter, compared with an 18 billion yen operating loss the previous year. (The turnaround was credited to the release of Mario Kart 8.) Besides, Miyamoto isn’t paid to worry about these things, and clearly doesn’t.
“What the other companies are doing makes business sense,” he says. “But it’s boring. The same games appear on every system. At Nintendo we want an environment where game creators can collaborate and think of ideas for games that could have never happened before.”
The ebb and flow of success caused by this strategy is nothing new. Their third home console, the Nintendo 64, stuck with games on plastic cartridges while Sony and Sega embraced new CD-ROM technology. It was seen as a commercial failure, yet the games themselves, designed around the system’s unusual three-pronged controller, are held up as some of the greatest ever made. Their next machine, the Gamecube, was relatively cheap to produce and brought the company’s finances back to health. Then came the Wii, and world domination.
What next? At the mention of the rise of Oculus Rift, Miyamoto looks guarded: he likes the idea of virtual reality, and previously experimented with the technology in 1995, with the Virtual Boy, but was worried by the manner in which players hunched over the apparatus: “It didn’t look beautiful to me,” he says, “which was something of a concern.”
As to whether Nintendo are developing a more elegant version of the technology, his lips are presently sealed. “I have nothing to tell you about Nintendo’s involvement in virtual reality. We have nothing to announce yet,” he says.
Our time is up, and we make our way to the Toho Cinema complex across the road, where Pikmin Short Movies premiere is taking place. The films are bright and sweet, with an Aardman-like sense of mischief: what’s most impressive is the ingenious way in which the abandoned digger is reimagined as a sprawling, three-dimensional landscape for adventure.
Afterwards, the assembled critics and journalists give the film a warm round of applause, but for Miyamoto, who takes to the stage, it’s clear that something is missing. “You were all very quiet,” he says. “I was hoping to hear more laughter.” Then his eyes scan the crowd, sitting with notebooks on laps, and he smiles to himself, having identified the problem. “Perhaps we needed more children here,” he says.
Pikmin Short Movies will screen on Nintendo’s streaming video service later this year