In the summer of 1995, we flew to Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters to interview Shigeru Miyamoto, the man overseeing all firstparty software for what was then known as the Ultra 64. We spoke at length about the console’s forthcoming launch, the viability of CD-ROM as a format and his verdict on Sega and Sony. Today, interviews with Nintendo executives are rather guarded and relentlessly pleasant; that wasn’t the case in 1995 as Miyamoto was candid in his assessment of Sega’s business practices and its mascot Sonic (“Among Mario’s imitations, Sonic is a good one”), PlayStation games (“when you watch them in action they’re not finished”) and the mistakes his fellow game designers make. Here, we publish the interview in full online for the first time.
He is arguably the best known and most admired games designer in the world. It has been said that he has the same talent for videogames as The Beatles had for popular music. Of his own success he says, simply, ‘I think it is nothing more than destiny’. He is Shigeru Miyamoto, the man without whom Nintendo may have remained the moderately successful videogame manufacturer is was when he joined it.
Born in 1953, Miyamoto demonstrated an appetite for creativity from an early age. During his formative years, his passion lay with puppet making, leisurely sketching of his surroundings and cartoons – both Disney features and his own efforts.
While still believing deep down that a career as a performer or artists beckoned, he began a degree in industrial design, taking five years to pass the course – spent much of his time playing guitar or pursuing art interests rather than engaging on coursework. Certain that he could not bear the strict regimen of a typical Japanese firm, he joined the relatively unconventional Nintendo in 1977 as its first staff artist, even though the company had no need for one – such was president Hiroshi Yamauchi’s belief in the young Miyamoto’s potential.
18 years (and around 70 million cartridge sales) later, the father of Mario is heading Nintendo’s push into the next generation via Ultra 64 software project management. It is widely felt that if anyone can rebuild Nintendo’s success in the face of intense competition from 3DO, Sega and Sony, it’s this man. Edge joined him at Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters to discuss 3D games, Kansai humour and French serenades…
The original design of the Mario character was partly the result of hardware limitations. So what can we expect him to look like on the Ultra 64?
I can’t really say too much about it…Mario is very easy to draw using dots. Now, with polygons, it will be possible to draw his image with more precision. Mario will certainly have a more complex design – his moustache hat and nose will be drawn more clearly.
What do you think of the current vogue for 3D games?
When Space Invaders was written, nobody at that time was able to imagine what the actual technology was capable of, or where it would go – they would have been very surprised. Games became more and more complex, and the consequence was that lots of games appeared that were very different. And 3D gives games even more complexity, so essentially it’s just about making games wider in scope. From a 2D game as a basis it’s possible to make a 3D game by adding some new points made possible by 3D. Personally, I’m very interested in making some new 3D titles based on old 2D ones. The additional complexity offered by 3D gives more possibilities to creators and that in turn is good for players.
When you design a game, what aspect do you work on first?
The game system. More precisely, I’m thinking about what a player would like to play. I try to make a game for the players’ point of view and imagine what kind of character the would like to be. The move onto building up the game, adding a scenario, deciding on a setting, the characters and the events that will take place. So I try to meet the customer’s wishes first. I haven’t had much experience in developing RPGs but it is very important for that type of game in particular.
Do you prefer working on your own, creating original games from scratch, or are you happier adding the final touches to semi-completed projects, as you did with Starwing and Donkey Kong Country?
If you ask me which is easier, I should answer semi-completed projects, as I can just add whatever new exciting aspects I can think of without experiencing a birth pang. It’s always fun to improve a game by supplementing other people’s skills on half-completed projects (providing that the project is a good one). Making wonderful interactive entertainment from scratch always requires hardship, time, energy and a lot of other resources. However, you’ll never improve you skills without feeling the birth pang.
What’s the secret of a good game?
Well, to make a game you must put in a lot of effort [laughs]. I’ll put my neck out and say that PlayStation games sound good, but when you watch them in action they’re not finished at all in my opinion. A game is finished when a creator decides it is. There are lots of games developed for Nintendo that have to be refused release because they are not finished. When you are making a game the creator must not allow it to be release because he is satisfied, he must always think about the player’s feelings and wishes. Self-satisfaction is not conducive to creativity. I think that European painters – like the impressionist Cezanne, for example – were always thinking about how to surprise the customer – to impress them in a gallery. It is very important.
Most of your games have a unique feel – do you think this is your own personality stamp or simply a Japanese style of game design?
I believe that we are not making Japanese games but Kyoto games, if you follow me. The sensibilities of a Kyoto game are different to those of a Tokyo game, although both are obviously Japanese cities. We Kyoyoites hate to follow fashion but rather love to set the fashion. The thing we must always keep in our mind is that we should always make better games than ever so that gamesplayers all over the world will praise us.
Nintendo games often have an element of humour. Do you regard humour as an important part of your games?
I don’t know if our games are humourous. If you think so, it’s probably because of the nature of us Kansaiites. Kansai is the region covering Osaka, Kyoto and several other cities. The Kansaiites make much of wit and explicit jokes, and are proud of making people laugh. Kansaiites feel like cracking a joke or two even during very serious conversation.
What is your favourite kind of game?
I don’t actually play many games. I like to play around with them, but I don’t really spend much time doing it. If you want to play role-playing games you have to play for at least five hours to enjoy them and I don’t go for that kind of obligation. I like things like Tetris, for example, which are enjoyable in a shorter period of time. Outside of my own productions, my favourite videogame is maybe Pac-Man.
How did your career at Nintendo develop – how did you get to the position you’re in now?
When I joined the company I was working in product planning. We had to choose new ideas to put into production and just about anything was under consideration: toys, new types of motors…it was then that I discovered videogames, and I realised that was the kind of product I wanted to make. So I didn’t join Nintendo with the intention of making videogames – I discovered that later on.
What do you think about Sonic, Sega’s reply to Mario?
I’ve never really played Sonic games much. The character itself is nice and I think Sega succeeded in making a good, strong character. There are lots of games that try to imitate Mario but Sega did especially well with Sonic. Despite his resemblance to Mario, there are some special points that make him different: the energy, for example. Among Mario’s imitations, Sonic is a good one.
What about Earthworn Jim, Shiny Entertainment’s popular new character?
Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to play it much. But I liked his expression when he fired the gun. That kind of expression is one I was thinking about incorporating in my own game. It conveys the idea of shooting without actually showing the flying bullets and could be exhilarating for the player.
What common mistakes do you think are made by your competitors when they imitate your work?
Unfortunately, our competitors seem to simple try to imitate the surface and just end up making very badly balanced games. They never understand why and how we have done what we have done to achieve each game’s content.
Do Nintendo and Sega have the same approach to games?
I think Sega is trying to imitate Nintendo’s way of business, but it makes some modifications. Perhaps Sega’s particular strengths are its arcade business and its capacity to produce new hardware. Nintendo’s strategy is different from Sega’s – Nintendo get involved in research and development and markets the results of its research. Sega proceeds in another way – it imitates Nintendo and tries to produce research and development on products that Nintendo is going to sell. It researches only the products that it knows it wants to sell. The results are the same for both companies but Sega is always thinking in terms of the market.
You’re now working in America. What specifically are you doing there?
Right now I’m working with Paradigm Simulations. There are lots of companies involved in 3D and of course Nintendo wants to use the new techniques being made available. My overseas job is linked specifically to product quality. As you know, the quality of products is very important to Nintendo, so I evaluate products to decide whether they’re suitable for us. I’m always thinking in terms of the Nintendo brand, and ultimately I decide if the product is fit for production.
How easy are you finding dealing with teams based overseas?
Communication with foreign teams is not always easy – our way of thinking is often different – but I have to decide whether each product is suitable for Nintendo. There are some enjoyable times but there are also some difficult ones. I think that I shouldn’t force myself too much upon outside teams as it would be harmful to the products they’re working on. So instead I play, and we discuss ideas together. I think a producer has to be removed enough so as not to influence the team too much – the less the producer gets involved, the better the product is. If I get involved too much, we start having trouble….[laughs]
Did you take your NCL team with you to the US?
I’m working with NOA staff right now, as I went to the States on my own. This month things will change and I’ll be in charge of a team of young NCL designers.
Do Japanese and American productions styles differ? And how do they compare with European developers?
I like the way English way of working very much. I’ve worked a few times with English developers and everything was perfect. I’m a little worried about the American way of working, because in America I worked from more of a business position, whereas in England I worked with development teams. I say that I like the English approach because they work the same way as me, I don’t know exactly about America…
But like Japanese, American producers – movie producers, for example – need to be involved very deeply in their work; they put in a lot of effort and sometimes there’s nothing left for a private life. I’m sure that Americans work very efficiently, but sometimes when I work with then they are careless. I prefer working with English because their way is more Japanese.
And the French?
Oh, I don’t really know at all…I can imagine the French on a veranda listening to a serenade, but for games…[laughs] Seriously, they are doing some very good games. Infogrames’ Alone In The Dark is the sort of game I would like to make.
What is your actual role in the Ultra 64 project?
I’m responsible for the software. There are certain companies based outside Japan who have been working with Nintendo for a long time, and I’m in charge of the quality of their games, and I also provide ideas.
Are you working on a sequel to Pilotwings with Paradigm?
I can’t really talk about it. Generally speaking, though, we want to use the experience and technology that lies in Paradigm’s field, like the flight simulaton experience, for example…
What do you think of the next-generation machines?
If we look at it simply, or from a pro-user point of view, these machines obviously have certain capabilities. If we look at it more deeply, 32bit and 64but machines are the same, the programming and development is done in the same way. To master these new technologies will take three to five years. It’s the same in the arcades – from the very beginning, three to five years were necessary in order for the newly discovered technology to be mastered.
Of course, Nintendo has more than five years’ experience in this area. This year, for instance, we don’t have any programmers mastering next-gen technology. We think programmers will begin to master it from around spring next year to the same period the year after, and the products released during that period will reflect that. However, Nintendo has already decided what the themes of these games will be and we also know the Ultra 64 will not use CD-ROM.
So what do you think about CD-ROM?
I shouldn’t talk about it…Okay, CD-ROM has a big capacity but is very slow. For interactive games, a media format this slow is not so good. People want games with large amounts of data, at a cheap price. For manufacturers of CD-ROM products it’s also a good medium because it’s not easy to copy. But while production cost in unit terms is very low, the cost of developing the data to fill a CD-ROM is increasing regularly. Thirdparties are not encouraged to make certain types of software on CD-ROM and can be reluctant to develop for it. You do not need high storage support in order to make good games.
Your game styles seem mostly aimed at children, but the videogame market is changing – more and more games are being targeted at adult audiences. Are you going to change your approach?
It’s difficult to say. First I want to make games easy to play. I want to make different kinds of games, for adults as well as children. Mario was of course primarily aimed at children but I think the understanding of a game is the same for a child, a specialist in videogames, an old person or even a person who has never played a videogame. A game must appeal to all these types of people, and that’s what ultimately the kind of game I want to to do.
How do you set the difficulty level in a game?
As I said, everybody must be able to play it, from the total beginner to the game specialist. This rule is true even if you make a difficult simulation game. The making of a series is the most difficult thing to do. I think the designer of Dragon Quest thinks the same way as me. Even a person who has never played Dragon Quest must be able to play Dragon Quest 3. The producer must think first about the player.
Why are there so few titles available that use the Super FX?
The chips are obviously expensive but speed is the main problem. We have developed games but couldn’t release them because of lack of speed, but now we are making progress and this year many SFX games will be released. We haven’t experienced many problems during the five years that we have been working with the SFX concept.
32bit machines are widely available in Japan but many consumers seem to be waiting for Ultra 64. Why do you think they should wait?
Are they waiting? Well, I think the Ultra 64 will be the cheapest hardware available in the next-generation market. And the Ultra 64 will be the most powerful new system. I think it’s down to software, really. If the system does not have five or six good games available at launch – and if I don’t put in my contribution – consumers will buy other hardware.
It’s interesting, but I don’t know if people really want to play on the Ultra 64, in the same way that I don’t know whether existing 16bit hardware isn’t sufficient for the player anyway. Sony and Sega are insisting that the market exists but historically Nintendo is the only company that has sold more than ten million units of hardware. The claim that Sony or Sega would be able to sell as much hardware as Nintendo is uncertain. With these ten million units we gained much experience and saying that another company will be able to talk on the same terms seems strange to me. The main problems for Sega and Sony are in actually identifying that the market exists, and in believing that they can reach the ten million mark. The mass media analysis also amuses me – they say that history always repeats itself, but it is simply too early to say whether it is yet right for a 16bit owner to go out and buy a 64bit machine.