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Shigeru Miyamoto Shares Nintendo Secrets

The revered video game designer on Nintendo’s history, the next wave of gaming and the ‘Year of Luigi’

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Nintendo visionary Shigeru Miyamoto, known as the "Godfather of Video Games," is one of the most influential entertainment figures of all time. He's the creator of Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, the Legend of Zelda series, Pikmin and more Nintendo classics. At 60, he still works daily at Nintendo's headquarters in Japan, leading a team of designers on new ideas. His latest project: To mark the 30th anniversary of one of his most beloved characters, Nintendo has declared 2013 the "Year of Luigi," releasing a slew of games including the recently-released Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon and future releases Mario & Luigi: Dream Team and New Super Luigi U. "Thirty years ago, we were able to create a single game with just five to six people," says Miyamoto, sitting in a boardroom on a visit to Nintendo's New York headquarters. "Nowadays, we're looking at 50 to 60 – but what's always important is the starting idea."

By Patrick Doyle

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Nintendo of America

Being Green

"There's something I've been meaning to share with somebody," Miyamoto says with a grin, letting us in on a secret of the development of the original Mario Bros. "One of those constraints was that because of memory limitations, the second character had to be identical to the first character in appearance. And so we looked at that and said, 'Well even if we have the same character, we could potentially change the color of the character.' But again we were limited in the color palettes – we didn't have much in the way of additional colors that we could use. And so we looked at the turtles in that game. Their heads are sort of skin-toned, their shells are green, so what we could do is we could use the color palette from the turtle on this character. And so from those technical limitations we said 'Okay. We have these two characters.  They look the same, other than the fact that their colors are different. Obviously they must be twins.' From there, we decided, 'Okay, they're twins and this other character [Luigi] must be the younger brother.'"

He adds, "This ultimately is the role of a designer: How do you take those constraints and create something that's unique and then layer on a story or some kind of a background that explains why those things exist? Ultimately that's the reason that Luigi is green, but it's one of those little development anecdotes that I wanted to share and is to me an important facet of designing: how you use what could be a constraint and use that to develop something new."

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A Life’s Work

Mr. Miyamoto has been at Nintendo since 1978, and rumors of retirement occasionally pop up. "I turn 61 this year," he says. "So I'm at an age where as I look around at people who work in different companies and they're all reaching an age where they're thinking about retirement, I guess people might expect me to be thinking of retiring. But at the same time, I look at the work that I'm doing, and the fun that I'm having – this is something that I can still continue to do for a long time." He smiles. "You know, possibly until I die."

Even so, Miyamoto is making sure his staff will be ready for his exit, whenever it may come. "One thing that's very important for me is to make sure that Nintendo as a company can continue to create products even if I'm not there. So one of the things that I continually say to my teams is 'Pretend like I'm not here. I'm not going help you.'"

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The Process

Miyamoto works tirelessly, creating characters for his new pre-game intros with a Nintendo DSi application called Flipnote Studio for "flipbook-style" animations. "I use that to draw kind of a rough idea of what I want the movie to be and send that to the director and then he starts working on it," he says.

Adds Miyamoto, "Over the years, games have changed quite a bit. We've seen new elements added, we've seen the addition of multiple layers of backgrounds of games and even additional characters and then we have all the production elements that go into games now from the stories and everything." But he still tries to approach creating the same way: "For me, what's important is that starting from the idea. Even if you're developing for a really large team, you still need to have maybe just one or two people who really are overseeing the entire project."

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Birth of a Legend

With Nintendo designer Takashi Tezuka, Miyamoto created the 1986 classic The Legend of Zelda, about a boy hero named Link on a quest to rescue Princess Zelda from the evil monster Ganon. The story may sound complicated, but the gameplay wasn't. "When we were first creating the original Legend of Zelda or the original Super Mario Bros., we were [creating] relatively simple games that depicted simple worlds that the user then sort of fleshed out with their own imagination," says Miyamoto. "I feel it is an important part of my job to continue to develop our games in a way that, even as we're spending more time and more energy creating these bigger more detailed worlds, we're still continuing to focus on how we can allow the user to creatively play within that space."

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Game Boy

Miyamoto's characters found new life on the Game Boy, the 8-bit handheld cartridge device first released in 1989. It pioneered future portable consoles like 1996's Game Boy Pocket, 1998's Game Boy Color and 2001's Game Boy Advance, and most recently the Nintendo 3DS. The Game Boy was invented by Miyamoto's biggest influence, late designer Gunpei Yokoi – who began working at Nintendo in 1965, when it was still a card company.

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Cast of Characters

Why does Miyamoto think his games have stood the test of time? It's pretty simple: "One common thread is that the characters themselves are appearing in games that are fun," he says. "If the character appears in a game that's not fun, people probably aren't going to like the characters as much. But the other thing that we also focus on that's important is when you create a new game and a new play structure, it's important to match that game and that play structure with the character that is best suited to it. And so by focusing on these two areas I think that's perhaps why we've been able to continue to maintain the popularity of the characters over time."

shigeru miyamoto nintendo 64

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Nintendo 64

Miyamoto was working at a furious pace when the Nintendo 64 was introduced in 1996 – a landmark, 3-D, 64-bit gaming system that could compete with Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation. The N64 went on sale in the U.S. on September 26th, 1996, selling for $199.95. Nintendo moved a record 500,000 systems in its first day. Classic Miyamoto games for N64 included Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Star Fox 64. "I think it'd be a bad move for us to drive up the number of titles we release ourselves," he said in 1997. "I think having 20 titles out and available to play at any time is enough – it's not that I'm elitist, it's just my own opinion as a consumer."

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Miyamoto and the Mau5

Mr. Miyamoto doesn't sign as many autographs as he'd like to. Superfan Deadmau5 got lucky in 2011, getting Miyamoto's signature tattooed on his arm. "Yey!" the EDM star wrote on Facebook. "Shigeru Miyamoto's signature now permanently etched on my arm! Achievement unlocked. Can die happy."

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Nintendo Land

The Wii U's Nintendo Land features 12 party-ready, multi-player mini-games including characters like Zelda, Mario, Pikmin and Donkey Kong. "If you look at a game like Nintendo Land, that's a game where we didn't focus on the realism of the graphics," says Miyamoto. "Instead, we focused our attention on the structure of play and who you can take advantage of."

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The Age of Wii

Miyamoto helped oversee the creation of 2006's Nintendo Wii, a simple, motion-controlled device that appealed to everyone from hardcore gamers to senior citizens. He worked on landmark products for the new system, including Wii Sports, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Super Paper Mario and Super Mario Galaxy. Last year, the company revamped the product with the Wii U, which also uses a GamePad touchscreen controller. "The system itself is technically a very powerful system," says Miyamoto. "It can draw very, very detailed beautiful and HD graphics. We really wanted to take what had been already a world that was depicted with a sense of realism  in the original games – and create that world in HD, leveraging the power of that system to do it."

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Super Mario Bros. Redux

The colorful The New Super Mario Bros. U hit stores in November. Like classic Super Mario Bros., you still need to fight Bowser and rescue Princess Peach – but with new power-ups like a flying squirrel suit. "At the same we were working on Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, we were working on New Super Mario Bros U," says Miyamoto. "We decided to do the downloadable content for that, which is going to feature Luigi and be new Super Luigi U."

Miyamoto sees this model as a future for the company. "We're looking not just at creating a single product, but also at how we take advantage of those distribution methods, potentially creating additional downloadable content for those games. Going forward, we've sort of moved out of simply focusing on the technology and trying to completely create the worlds that had been imagined by the user. As we go forward, we'll start to see new ways that we can leverage technology to create new structures of play or leverage new means of distribution to the consumer."

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Wii: Reloaded

In November, Nintendo followed up the Wii with the Wii U, a new high-definition system where players use a touch-screen controller, the GamePad. "It used to just be the TV screen, but now with splitting that TV screen into 4 multiplayer screens and adding the fifth screen of the GamePad, it becomes, 'How can we create these interactive systems using these different screens and find a way to design that system so that it elicits the creativity from the user? How do we find ways to leverage their imagination and creativity of play?"

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Pikmin 3

Nintendo's 3-D strategy game Pikmin debuted on GameCube in 2001: Protagonist Captain Olimar crashes on an unknown planet and needs to put his ship together with the help of a mass of pikmin creatures. Miyamoto also oversaw Wii U's Pikmin 3, which will be released this spring. "With Pikmin 3, you'll have the ability to have three different captains or leaders of Pikmin groups and you can switch between them," he says. "So it sort of allows you to approach the game from a much more strategic position. The volume of work that you can get done within the timeframe has increased dramatically. And so that in and of itself really enhances the depth of strategy that's available to you in that game."

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Luigi Finally Gets Some Respect

The Miyamoto-produced Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is Nintendo 3DS's sequel to 2001's Luigi's Mansion for GameCube, where Luigi explores creepy haunted mansions, clearing them of ghosts, which Luigi sucks up with his Poltergust 5000 vacuum. You can play with others in Nintendo's online network. "We've had many different people internally saying they want to work on Luigi projects," says Miyamoto. "And it turns out that several of those projects happen also to be launching this year, which also happens to be the 30th anniversary of the game that Luigi first appeared in. So we looked at sort of all of everything coming together and said, 'With all these Luigi games and this being the 30th year, why don't we just make it a Luigi festival?'"

As always, Miyamoto drew on real life when he dreamed up the latest game. "I've been vacuuming a lot at home lately," he says with a laugh. "Just cleaning the house, tied to Luigi's mansion."

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Dream Team

The year of Luigi will continue this summer, when Nintendo releases Mario & Luigi: Dream Team for Nintendo 3DS. The role-playing game will feature-puzzle solving and the duo fighting battles both in their real life and Luigi's dreams. Says Miyamoto, "It's almost a coincidence that this is coming out the same year as a Pikmin game, because one of the main themes of the Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is the idea of these mobs of Luigis – these big mobs of Luigis that are attacking the enemies that has sort of a Pikmin-like feel to it."

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