Interview:Popular Mechanics December 18th 2009

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Nintendo mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto has been behind so many classic video games and characters that it's no understatement to call him the godfather of modern gaming. We sat down with the creator of Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, and scores of other Nintendo games to play the New Super Mario Bros. Wii game, and to talk about the birth of Mario, the mythological basis of Zelda, the future of video games and why blowing into your NES cartridges really does work.

Popular Mechanics: What's new about the latest Super Mario Bros game?

Shigeru Miyamoto: It's the next installment in the newer Super Mario Bros. series, which we started on Nintendo DS. The idea behind New Super Mario Bros. was originally that we wanted to create a Mario game that would really be accessible to several different kinds of game players. We wanted it to be something that people who had never played a game before could enjoy. We wanted it to be something for people who used to play games a long time ago but maybe had lapsed and hadn't played games in years. But we also wanted it to be something that more avid and more active gamers could also pick up and enjoy as well.

So when we brought it to the Wii console we had several different things we had to keep in mind. Because the Wii console is a device that is in the living room, not only is there a chance that an even broader audience than played the game on the DS might come into contact with the game, but as a device that is typically played by multiple people, you may have people with different experience levels playing at the same time. The concept for the Wii version from the outset was to make it a multiplayer game, and one thing that we considered was how do we design the game with a difficulty level that is going to be satisfying and accessible to all of those different skill levels? We found that it was very difficult to do. But instead what we looked at was, with the multiplayer ability, giving players the ability to pick up other players and carry them through the level and give novice players other ways to get through a level.

PM: Mario is obviously your most famous character creation. Who's the favorite character you ever made?

SM: I probably would have to say Mario is my favorite, but I'm also fond of the Goomba character.

PM: How was Mario created? How did he come about?

SM: The story of creating Mario goes all the way back to the Donkey Kong days. With the technology back then, you had very limited palette in which you were able to draw a character. If you look at the original Mario face, you had just 7 pixels to draw his face. My goal within that limited palette was to create a character that was as distinct as possible. Because of that, he had some of his now-distinct features such as his big nose.

PM: When was it decided that he was a plumber?

SM: When we first created Donkey Kong, I kind of looked at him as your average, everyday foolish guy. The setting of that game was a construction site, so I kind of matched him with the setting of the game, and decided in that game that he was a carpenter. And then when we made the original Mario Bros. game, that was the first game that had pipes in it, and the enemies would come out of the pipes into this dark area and Mario would try to hit them and knock them out. Looking at the setting of that game, it had the feeling of an underground New York sewer system. And so with the pipes and the idea of it being an underground New York sewer system, I thought what kind of guy would be there working on the pipes? A plumber! So rather than saying Mario was a plumber, really it was a matter of what's his role in the game and what's the setting of the game and kind of occupation would put him in the setting to be doing what he's doing.

PM: A lot of your characters started out as villainous in earlier games, such as Bowser and Donkey Kong and Wario, and in later games they became more sympathetic and almost goofy. Is there a conscience effort to "de-villainize" evil characters in later games?

SM: One thing I'm not really good at is creating truly heroic characters or truly villainous characters, with the one exception being maybe the Zelda series, where I think we did a pretty good job of defining the roles in that series. I think we never really see anything all that serious come about in the Mario series, and then we have games that fall somewhere in between the two.

PM: Speaking of Zelda games, they're obviously very popular in lots of parts of the world, and they have almost a mythological story, that resembles Greek or any old epic you look at. Was there anything particular from Japanese culture or mythology that was put into the story that might go over the heads of Americans?

SM: I don't really consciously do things like that or consciously sense those types of differences. Partly it may be because, even in Japan, we see lots of different types of movies from America where they have the types of armor and clothing that you see in a game like that. We also see a lot of Chinese movies, and Chinese armor. Ocarina, I think, maybe the visual style drifts more towards a Western fantasy style and art design, but I don't intentionally ever try to replicate a particular cultural element from a particular country.

PM: Do you create background stories to the characters that maybe aren't known to the public or presented in the games?

SM: For the most part we don't create very in-depth back stories for the characters. I think the Zelda games and Ocarina of Time, in particular, may be somewhat different in that, although I don't write the relationships myself when we created the game, but when we created Ocarina in particular, we did think heavily about who the characters are, their relationships to one another, and how that plays out in the story. But taking a game like the Super Mario Bros. games in particular, typically when we design a character it's based on their function within the interactive gameplay world. So for example characters that have spikes are characters you cannot jump on. In that sense it's not so much designing a character as it is designing their function within the world.

PM: There's a lot of people out there who take video games very seriously. There's the documentary The King of Kong that came out here about competitive Donkey Kong players. I'm wondering if you've seen this and if you've met any of the really hardcore Donkey Kong players?

SM: I think for the thing that's most amazing about those individuals is their understanding of the gameplay and the game design and the value and the regard that they hold that game in really impresses me. Unfortunately, I have not seen King of Kong yet, but my translator Bill promises me that he's going to bring me a copy, so maybe next time we meet we can talk about it.

PM: There was another movie that came out years ago about Super Mario Bros. 3 called The Wizard. How did that come about, and what are your thoughts on that movie?

SM: I'm not familiar with that movie so I think my translator will be bringing me two movies!

PM: I think that one's a little harder to find.

SM: I do watch a lot of movies!

PM: Over the years, video games have grown in popularity and acceptance. In the early years, in particular, did anybody ever villainize you for bringing video games to the masses?

SM: I don't think I've ever been villainized. There were times early in my career when I might be invited to speak at, say, an elementary school PTA board and I would often get very nervous. For the most part, the people who were inviting me I thought would be very positive and excited to hear me talk, but those always made me a little bit nervous. But what I've found really in the past four or five years--since the launch of the DS and Wii--so many more people have come into contact with video games that I think there's a much better understanding of what they have to offer and they are becoming a much greater part of everyone's daily life. And I think one other thing we may have benefited from is that kids who grew up playing video games are now parents, and what that means is that the people who are parents now have a better understanding of what it is that their kids are playing, and I think that has resulted in a better understanding of video games.

PM: This is a broad question, but where do you see the future of video games?

SM: I think originally video-game systems were viewed as a toy, and they were something you played with. Whereas now I think we're starting to see a blurring of the lines, where, obviously, the internal guts of a video-game system is essentially a computer, and we're gradually seeing video games moving beyond simply entertainment into other aspects of everyday life. And I think what video games benefit from is an intuitive interface that's easy to understand, where the controller is a little bit more familiar and easier to use than the interface of a typical computer. As time goes on, I think we're going to see how the system of the video-game console and this interactive interface is going to gradually bleed in to other elements of, say, home electronics and daily life. For example, in Japan the Wii itself has a TV guide channel that Wii owners can download to their Wii. And for a lot of people in Japan who own a Wii, that TV guide channel is a lot more convenient and easier to use than a typical TV guide service.

PM: Growing up playing the original NES, it would oftentimes be very difficult to get games to load if they were dusty or old, so kids would have various rituals for getting games to work, such as blowing on cartridges or pushing them in. To the best of your knowledge, did those things ever work? And what did you do when your games wouldn't load? What was your ritual?

SM: Surprisingly, some of those rituals do seem to help. But maybe it's kind of similar to what we say in Japan, which is if a TV stops working, whack it. Because if we hit it hard enough, those bad connections in there might be reconnected and it will work again. But I think it's important to understand the principles for why some of those things might work. For example, if you blow on something, you might get moisture in there and the moisture might help make the connection work better. Really, what I should say is that if you have cartridges that you have trouble working, you should get the official cleaning kit.

PM: The Wii uses a motion-sensing controller. Going forward, as Nintendo releases future consoles, do you view the motion-sensing controller as an integral part of the experience that's going to stay with Nintendo indefinitely?

SM: With both the Wii remote itself and Wii Motion Plus, what we've been able to do is introduce an interface that is both I think appealing and at the right price for a broad audience. And while we don't have any concrete plans for what we'll be doing with hardware in the future, what I can say is that, my guess is that because we found this interface to be so interesting, I think it would be likely that we would try to make that same functionality perhaps more compact and perhaps even more cost-efficient.

PM: After playing these games, you have to wonder: Did anybody ever throw barrels or fireballs at you when you were growing up?

SM: Nobody ever threw barrels at me, but I did read a lot of Manga comics in Japan and see a lot of cartoons and you'd often see silly things like that happening.

PM: What's your dream type of game that takes advantage of the Wii-mote?

SM: Right now I'm focusing on creating the next Zelda game.

PM: Can you tell me anything about it?

SM: Not today!