Q&A: Shigeru Miyamoto On The Origins Of Nintendo's Famous Characters
Shigeru Miyamoto is the creator of many of Nintendo's iconic video game franchises, including Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda. NPR's Laura Sydell interviewed the 62-year-old designer at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles this week.
Miyamoto spoke, through an interpreter, about the origins of his famous characters, how his life experiences inspire his creations and why Nintendo's latest console, the Wii U, failed to take off.
Laura Sydell: There's a new version coming out of Mario. I'm sure a lot of people who have played it wonder about the origin of Mario — how you first came up with the idea of a plumber named Mario.
Shigeru Miyamoto: The gameplay of Mario games originated early on with Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong was a game where you were running on platforms and jumping over things — that came to be called a "platformer" style of video game (the genre was called "platforming"). Then it evolved from there, and we decided to try to incorporate more settings — things like the open air, the open sky, underwater and things like that. And to do that, we incorporated a side-scrolling mechanic where you scrolled sideways through the screens, and that became the base for the game that was Super Mario Bros. So that's the origin of the game play.
And so I think that Mario became so popular because the actions in the Mario game are something that are innate to humans everywhere. Everyone is afraid of falling from a great height. If there is a gap that you have to cross, everyone is going to try to run to jump across the gap. These are things that are uniquely human and are a shared experience across, really, all people. And I think because of the simplicity of these experiences as well as the interactive nature of controlling the character and seeing the response on the game screen — that's what really resonated with people and made Mario such a popular character.
The plumber role of Mario is actually a different story. In Donkey Kong, Mario was actually a carpenter, and he was working on a building, and then the next game we made after that was a game called Mario Bros., and that was a game that was set in the sewers, and the pipes were green, and there were turtles coming out of the pipes. And so we thought, in this game, it would make sense that Mario would be a plumber because of all the pipes. And so that's where the plumber came from. But my vision of Mario has always been that he's sort of representative of everyone. He's kind of a blue-collar hero. And so that's why we chose these roles for him that were things like carpenters and plumbers.
Mario, I think of as an Italian name, and you're a Japanese game maker. How did you think to name him Mario?
So that's also an interesting story. When I was younger, I used to enjoy comics and drawing comics as well. And among the comics that I read, some were Italian comics. And if you think about it, the big nose and the mustache is not a facial feature that's characteristic of Japanese people. And so I think that my connection to those Italian comics — probably I drew on that inspiration when we first drew the character.
And so when we first drew the character in Donkey Kong, he was drawn using pixel dots in a 16x16 grid. So it was a very small space in which to draw the character, and it was a very small character on the screen. And so in order to emphasize the unique characteristics of the character, we made the big nose and the mustache and the overalls to make it easy to understand what the character was doing on the screen. When we sent the game to the U.S. to sell the Donkey Kong arcade games in America, in the warehouse that the Nintendo was operating out of in America at that time, there was somebody related to that warehouse whose name was Mario. And the staff at Nintendo in America said that the character looked like the individual named Mario. So they started calling the character Mario, and when I heard that I said 'Oh, Mario's a great name — let's use that.' "
And he has a hat.
He wears a hat because as I mentioned we had very few dots available to us to draw the character, and trying to draw hair that moves while you run would've been very complicated. So we gave him a hat to make it easier to draw but make him still look realistic.
Many people always talk about how inventive your games are, and I have heard that your childhood — the sense of wonder you bring — comes from growing up in Japan. I heard a story about once you stumbled upon a lake when you were a child and that sense of wonder is what you try to bring to all of your games. Is that a true story?
That's correct. When I was younger, I grew up in the countryside of Japan. And what that meant was I spent a lot of my time playing in the rice paddies and exploring the hillsides and having fun outdoors. When I got into the upper elementary school ages — that was when I really got into hiking and mountain climbing. There's a place near Kobe where there's a mountain, and you climb the mountain, and there's a big lake near the top of it. We had gone on this hiking trip and climbed up the mountain, and I was so amazed — it was the first time I had ever experienced hiking up this mountain and seeing this big lake at the top. And I drew on that inspiration when we were working on the Legend of Zelda game and we were creating this grand outdoor adventure where you go through these narrowed confined spaces and come upon this great lake. And so it was around that time that I really began to start drawing on my experiences as a child and bringing that into game development.
When you work on updating games now, do you still bring your life experience into the game?
Yes, it happens very naturally. After I turned 40, I took up swimming and became very enthusiastic about swimming as a way of exercise. And right after that was when we made Super Mario 64, and I drew on a lot of my experience swimming in creating the underwater swimming scenes with Mario in that game.
In the latest game, you are letting people create worlds of their own. How did you come up with the idea to add this to Mario?
This is a very good question, and when people ask me what do I think makes the Mario games unique, of course there's creativity that goes into the creation of those games, but what I always answer is, the creativity of the player is what really makes the Mario games fun. And particularly with an interactive video game, what's very important is that the player thinks about, "What is it that I want to try to do?" And that I try it, and that I see that feedback and I see that reaction on screen, and that gives me an emotion and response. It's this cycle of thinking and experimenting in the gameplay and getting that reaction that is unique about the Mario games, and is the core of what makes video games and interactive games fun. And that to me is a very important part of Mario games in general.
And so we think that with this idea of creative play being such an important element of the Mario games — that having a system where the players themselves can create the levels and play the levels themselves or create a level and have someone else play it and then immediately edit the level they've just created — really ties in well to the notion of creative play. And we felt that with this being the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. and that sort of marking a delineation point in the Mario life cycle that this would be a very good time to release a product of this nature and introduce this style of creative creation alongside the creative play that's always existed in the Mario games.
How did you come up with the idea of "Super" Mario Bros.?
In the original Mario Bros., Mario and Luigi were rather small in size and they would play and battle against each other in that game. And in the Super Mario Bros. game, those same small characters are in the game, but when they get a mushroom they get big. So we decided to call the big version of them "Super Mario" and "Super Luigi" because they got super-sized.
How did you come up with the idea for the mushrooms?
Well of course getting an item and growing big is sort of a mysterious thing to have happen. And so we thought, what's the most mysterious item that we could make this so it makes sense why they're getting bigger? And if you think of stories like Alice in Wonderland and other types of fairy tales, mushrooms always seem to have a mysterious power, and so we thought the mushroom would be a good symbol for why they get it and get big.
Many people have commented on the things you've invented in video games — like the camera angle. You're not an engineer, so how did you come up with these different angles on Mario and using the camera when nobody had really done that before?
So when I was younger I used to draw my own comics, and in school I studied industrial design. So from both of those past experiences, I was always thinking about what's the right angle to draw a picture from or to view something from and was constantly thinking about perspective in that sense.
When were first making games and we were making them in 2-D, creating games in two dimensions is a lot like drawing pictures. But when 3-D technology came along, and we began to create games using polygonal models, we were no longer just creating pictures — we had objects that we were having to show. And in order to show those 3-D solid objects, you had to begin worrying about where the camera would be placed, how it would maneuver around the object. And we stopped creating pictures and we instead started creating story flows for the flow of scenes in the game and things like that. And as we were working through that process, it dawned on me that, yes there's a main character in the game, but there's also the camera. And we need people to understand why the camera is moving — so the camera itself is almost like a character.
So we came up with this idea that there was Mario, and there's a character who's carrying the camera and that they're going on an adventure together. And so then what we did — if you look up, we have a poster here, and there's a character there whose name in English is Lakitu, and he's a turtle who flies around on a cloud from the Super Mario Bros. games. We thought he was the perfect character to be holding the camera as he floats around on his cloud and follows Mario on this adventure. And then I realized that nobody in the world had hit upon this idea, and I got very excited about it and put a lot of effort into conveying this in the game, and we finalized the game with this idea attached to it.
Many game makers always mention that you were first to do this when you talk to them, so they give you credit. I read that — I think it was with Donkey Kong — you wrote the music?
Well, there are two versions of Donkey Kong, and the version on the Nintendo Entertainment System I did only a very little bit of the music. But in the arcade version, I did the opening music and then the end of it as well.
How come you did the music?
I grew up watching a lot of cartoons and anime, so I just had this image that at the beginning there's always this dramatic music to start things off — that's where the dramatic (sings tune) came from. And then for the ending, I play guitar a little bit, and so the end song I put together as a bit of a parody of a song I used to play on guitar.
You started out as an artist; you went into industrial design. Do you ever feel like you should have been an artist? Do you ever feel like video games were meant for you — like you fell into the thing that was just right for your talents?
I actually feel incredibly fortunate that I found video games because when we started, I had originally as a kid wanted to be a manga artist, a comic artist. But I gave that up because there were so many other manga artists who were at such a high quality that I felt I couldn't compete with them. And even in industrial design, I felt that there were so many industrial designers that were so talented that I wouldn't be able to compete with them. So my thought was that after studying industrial design, I would want to make toys.
But then, when I found video games, it was interesting because I kept finding that video games kept coming across all of the things that I had loved when I was younger, from drawing the comics to being very similar to industrial design from an approach perspective and then music and things like that that I've loved (having to oversee music and approve the music in the games — it tied into that). And then we came to the 3-D era of video games, and when I was younger I used to enjoy creating puppets and doing puppet shows, so this was like doing puppet shows in a 3-D video game space. So I found that even as time progressed in my career as a video game designer, I still kept encountering all the things that I loved when I was younger. So I truly feel fortunate to have found them.
Your work has a sense of inventiveness. How do you come up with ideas? Do you sort of lie around and things just emerge in your mind — like, oh, I'm going to do this now with Mario?
Well, when we first started we were starting with arcade games where you would put in a quarter and play a game — we needed to design the game in a way that you would want to put in the next quarter to keep playing. From there it changed to where we were creating worlds, and we were trying to create worlds that people would want to immerse themselves in, the way you immerse yourself in a book or in a movie.
And then, after that, as I got older I began to realize the things that I was doing in my life at that point as I was older — things like swimming or sports or when I got a dog — that these were experiences that I could take and apply the mechanics and the system of a video game and turn those experiences into something that others could enjoy and experience. So it really has been a process of how to take my experiences and find ways to apply them to video games, and that's evolved over time.
So is Nintendog your dog?
At this conference, there's a lot of virtual reality. Have you seen virtual reality? What do you think of it?
Yes, I've seen virtual reality, and we experiment with virtual reality and different technologies. We're quite interested in it, but at the same time, Nintendo's philosophy is that we create products that are going to be played with everyone in the living room. And we don't feel that virtual reality is a good fit for that philosophy. And so, while I can't say whether there will be a technology in the future that's a virtual-reality-type experience that fits with that or not, we're here at this conference to showcase the products that we're going to be selling in the next year or so. We don't have anything in the near future that fits that, and so that's why we're not showing anything in the virtual reality space this year.
One of the things about Nintendo that's always been interesting is you've never tried to make a more powerful console with better graphics, and all the stuff that the Xbox has done. Can you explain a little why you've kind of stuck with that?
So unfortunately with our latest system, the Wii U, the price point was one that ended up getting a little higher than we wanted. But what we are always striving to do is to find a way to take novel technology that we can take and offer it to people at a price that everybody can afford. And in addition to that, rather than going after the high-end tech spec race and trying to create the most powerful console, really what we want to do is try to find a console that has the best balance of features with the best interface that anyone can use.
And the reason for that is that, No. 1, we like to do things that are unique and different from other companies, but we also don't want to just end up in a race to have the highest-tech specs in a competition to try to find how we get these expensive tech specs to the lowest price of the other systems. And so there's different ways that we can approach it, and sometimes we look at it just from the sense of offering a system that consumes less power and makes less noise and generates less heat, or sometimes we may look at the size of the media and the size of the system and where it fits within the home.
But really what's most important to us is, how do we create a system that is both unique and affordable so that everyone can afford it and everyone can enjoy it.
What's the most important thing about making a successful game to you?
For us, the most important thing in making a game is that we make a game that's unique — something that no one else has created, and something that no one else can create, something that's uniquely Nintendo. That, for us, is what's most important in creating a game.
The first Wii sold really well; the Wii U, not so much. Do you think part of it is the price that the Wii has not sold so well?
So I don't think it's just price, because if the system is appealing enough, people will buy it even if the price is a little bit high. I think with Wii U, our challenge was that perhaps people didn't understand the system. But also I think that we had a system that's very unique — and, particularly with video game systems, typically it takes the game system a while to boot up. And we thought that with a tablet-type functionality connected to the system, you could have the rapid boot-up of tablet-type functionality, you could have the convenience of having that touch control with you there on the couch while you're playing on a device that's connected to the TV, and it would be a very unique system that could introduce some unique styles of play.
I think unfortunately what ended up happening was that tablets themselves appeared in the marketplace and evolved very, very rapidly, and unfortunately the Wii system launched at a time where the uniqueness of those features were perhaps not as strong as they were when we had first begun developing them. So what I think is unique about Nintendo is we're constantly trying to do unique and different things. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they're not as big of a hit as we would like to hope. After Wii U, we're hoping that next time it will be a very big hit.
So this with Super Mario Maker and being able to design levels on the touchscreen in your hand while watching on the big screen, and with games like Star Fox Zero where the big screen represents sort of a movie-like experience, but with the gamepad and the gamepad screen in your hands, you're able to play a video game simultaneously with the excitement of these cinematic scenes happening on the TV. And I think that's going to give people a lot of excitement, and I'm hoping that people will be looking forward to playing those games on Wii U in the fall.
Did I hear correctly that now some of the Nintendo characters will move to other devices?
It's not exactly that. Really what we're thinking about is, outside of Nintendo hardware, there's other media where there are opportunities for people to come in contact with Nintendo characters and Nintendo properties. So we're looking at how we can leverage those other types of media like mobile to help people encounter our characters and to develop that relationship. But what we're not going to be doing is taking the same games that are playable on our devices and making those games playable on mobile devices.
So you'll be able to do something that's designed for a mobile device that is a different game, right?
So yeah, if we were to make anything it would be a different experience design for that device.
How do you and (Nintendo's Takashi Tezuka) work together? Who comes up with the ideas?
The way that it often works is, I'll think up a unique idea, and he'll think up a crazy idea that can't possibly be turned into a video game. And together we'll massage those ideas into one that can finally be realized as a game. Over the last 30 years, one of the things I've been trying to do is help him with coming up with ideas that are still unique but can still be easily transformed into a video game.
It seems like there are a lot of international references in your game. How do you come up with those?
So it is true that both of us read not just things from Japan, but we try to read things and topics from all over the world. But what we do that's different perhaps from other creators in Japan is we don't look at what's currently popular in Japan and try to replicate that to try to make a game more popular with the Japanese market.
From the very beginning, my first job was to try to make a game for the overseas market, and since that very time I've always thought that we need to not just look at what's popular in Japan — because what's popular in Japan won't necessarily be popular overseas. So what we do instead is, if we are drawing on something that's based in Japanese tradition, we'll tend to look at, for example, Japanese folktales. Or we'll draw on things that are more innately a shared experience of all people regardless of where you're from, and draw on those types of ideas and use those to influence our games, rather than trying to look at what's popular in Japan right now.
I heard that people thought Donkey Kong was going to be a failure at the time.
Yes, we were told that everyone thought that it wouldn't succeed. But because the game did so well, even today based on that experience, when somebody tells me, "oh, that name is too strange, it won't work," I get very convinced and say: "Yes, I've thought of something that is very unique! This is going to do well."
You've been working together for over 30 years. I think about Nintendo's future — your stamp is so strong on this company. Do you feel like the company has enough of what you've taught, what you've learned over the years to keep it going after you're gone?
Before we created Super Mario Maker, what we had done is we had created these tools that allowed us to create Mario levels. And what Mr. Tezuka had done is use these tools to hold courses within the company over several months to explain his approach to course design.
And so we've had a lot of opportunity to train the staff that we have, and we have a lot of examples of new projects, like the game that we just released, called Splatoon. Splatoon is a very good example because it used to be that I had many different teams that I could go to when I had an idea for a game that I wanted to make, and I would bring that idea and they would make the game. But Splatoon was an example of one of those younger teams coming up with an idea of a game they wanted to make and the senior leadership supporting them in making the game they wanted to make. And so we're at a point where we're starting to see that transition and seeing the benefits from that.
I read that when you first came and were hired by Nintendo, they didn't think much of you at the time. You were a young kid, right out of college, and that it was kind of like, "what do I do with this kid?" Is that true? Can you tell the story of how you ended up there?
Forget that story because that's not the right one. I wanted to create things that would surprise people, so I thought that I had wanted to make toys. And so I applied to Nintendo wanting to be a designer, but what I was told is that they weren't hiring any designers at the time.
Fortunately a friend of my father's knew the president of Nintendo, Mr. [Hiroshi] Yamauchi, so my dad's friend said, "I'll at least try to get you an interview."
So I gathered together my portfolio of things that I had made and went to my interview. Mr. Yamauchi saw the things I had made and brought with me, and he seemed to like them and he seemed to like me, and so they decided to hire me, and I became the first industrial designer in Nintendo. And at the time, I think they had only three graphic designers even.
And I think the one story that may be surprising is, one of the things I had brought and shown to Mr. Yamauchi, I found out later he had submitted a patent on without me realizing it. So that's how I know that the story that you said is maybe not true. It's funny, isn't it? I found that out about three years after I joined the company. The head of our general affairs and our IP team in Japan knew me from the moment I joined the company, and I had always wondered, how did he know who I was even though I had just joined the company?
Many people consider you a rock star in the game world. You stayed in the same company for 30 years. In the U.S., people might have run off and gone elsewhere. Do you think it's been good to stay at the same company?
When I first decided to go to work for a company, I wanted to create things, so I wasn't looking for a company to work for — I was looking for a company to sponsor me so that I could create the things that I wanted. Because as an artist, that's really what you want — you want someone to sponsor you as an artist.
The best situation is, as an artist, the company gives you the freedom to create what you want, and the company is able to generate profit off of what you create, and you've got the freedom to use as much of that profit as you want to create your next thing. So I've never had a reason to leave the company.
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