Shigeru Miyamoto – Mario 20th Anniversary Interview
originally featured in 10/05 Nintendo Online Monthly
—This year we welcome the 20th anniversary of Super Mario Brothers. How does it feel?
Miyamoto: Honestly, I don’t have any really big feelings about it. (laughs) Through all the years, even when we’ve been on the verge of crisis, I haven’t paid much heed—I just kept at it. Then, as now, I didn’t have any special feelings. It’s all very matter-of-fact to me: this is simply the result of persevering, a house built one brick at a time. If I had to say, more than anything I think I’ve been very lucky.
—How do you think Mario has become such a big phenomenon?
Miyamoto: I think it was fortuitous that we didn’t put any restrictions on Mario as a character. Normally when you create a character and present him to the world, all the details get filled in: what’s his favorite color? what kind of food does he like to eat? But with Mario, aside from the fact that he’s about 24-25 years old, we didn’t define anything else. The reason why is that we wanted to be able to use Mario in later games, and that wouldn’t work so well if he had characteristics that interfered with a given game’s story. When we make a game we take care not to add incongruencies to that game’s world. With that caveat in mind, I’d like to keep using Mario in future games.
Shigeru Miyamoto in 2005.
—Today Mario games have been opened up the third-party developers, too.
Miyamoto: Yes, they have. In the beginning my thinking was more like, “Baseball? That doesn’t fit Mario.” But when we tried it, it worked surprisingly well. He’s a video game character, so it’s good that he can be used freely. I’m glad it’s turned out this way.
We plan to keep putting out Mario games, both in-house and third-party developed. That way the next generation of players gets a chance to meet Mario, too.
—Have the third-party games matched up with your own image of Mario?
Miyamoto: When it comes to what Mario should and shouldn’t do, all the third-party employees involved in the developments have had both great affection and strict regulations about what’s appropriate for Mario. They actually make me look lenient! I’ve felt very secure about the finished products they’ve brought us. However, we do have a team that oversees the character art and visuals, and they perform very stringent checks.
Originally Mario was a 2D sprite, and the supervisors would look through every single one of the many sprite patterns to find any inconsistencies. But since the N64, Mario has become 3D. Thankfully, we can now use a single model, and the third-party developers simply have to animate and provide movement for him. It’s become much easier. It’s also allowed us to really expand the range of games Mario can appear in, I think. Of course, I’m not saying that we’ve relinquished our oversight or quality control.
—There are certain standards you maintain, then?
Miyamoto: Yeah, there’s lines that must not be crossed, in terms of his design. I mean, for some things, like Mario Tennis for example, we’re fine with the developers giving Mario exciting new moves. The more standard platforming games get a lot of scrutiny, though.
—Seeing as it’s Mario’s 20th anniversary, can you tell us any stories surrounding his creation?
Miyamoto: When we were first making Super Mario Brothers, the staff at Nintendo were saying “What? Another Mario game?” He had appeared in a lot of different games before that, you see. It had been 2 years since the Famicom was first released, and we were trying to transition to the Famicom Disk System. Super Mario Bros. was actually going to be the final game that we developed for both cart and disk before switching to Disk System development entirely. This is true. (laughs)
—Who would have guessed that Mario would end up such a core part of Nintendo, even today!
Miyamoto: As creators, we first need a fun game system, but then we have to add some kind of character to it. Mario provides an easy vessel for our ideas; when we use him, it’s easy to come up with stuff.
—The supporting cast of Mario have begun starring in their own feature games, too.
Miyamoto: I think Yoshi’s Island was the first? I wanted a game that featured mechanics like the flutter jump and grabbing things with Yoshi’s tongue. Recently, following the example of Wario, we’ve added Waluigi. If Mario had never played Tennis, there would have been no Waluigi! We usually design things that way, according to the necessities of the moment. Actually, you’d be surprised at how many people in our staff tell me, “Mario’s always the main star, poor Luigi!” In fact, if I had to say, it feels like Luigi is more loved than Mario at Nintendo! And so we made Luigi’s Mansion for them. (laughs)
—This October, Princess Peach finally gets to star in her own game, Super Princess Peach.
Miyamoto: It was important to us in Super Princess Peach for Peach to be Peach-like. We were very particular about designing things like her umbrella, trying to evoke her special charms. As for what “Peach-like” means, it’s that free optimism of a Princess. She has never seen herself as “protected” by Mario. Our image of her is one of strength. Many of the developers came from homes where the Mother wears the boots, you know. (laughs)
As for Peach, we hope to keep using her in different games in the future.
—I would imagine you have certain standards for using characters, what it’s ok for them to do, what goes too far…
Miyamoto: For their visual depiction, there are lots of rules. Visually confusing design is the number one no-no. Other than that, though, the main standard we seek and uphold is, “is this fun to play?” For example, in Yoshi Topsy-Turvy, the idea for it came from wanting to make a game with that tilt sensor. Had it just been a standard scrolling platformer, the initial design plans would have been rejected. We actively seek out challenges like that.
—I’d like to change the subject and ask some questions about you and your personal life…
Miyamoto: Oh, that’s simple. I love game design! It’s a dream job! I can’t believe they pay me to do such fun and easy “work” … ! (laughs)
—Hah, no, seriously though. (laughs) It seems like your life must be super busy.
Miyamoto: Human life is inherently busy, so I make sure to find spaces in which to take breaks. Plus, when I do have a lot on my plate, I have people helping me. Really it’s the people in charge of the individual developments that do almost all the work there, and I want them to have that freedom. I may not have that image, but I’m actually quite reasonable! (laughs)
However, in the final 2-3 months before a development is complete, life does get crazy. I was very involved in the Mario 64 DS production (the design specs, as well as the finishing touches), and I worked late many nights—I even outlasted many of the younger employees sometimes! But no matter how busy I am, I always rest on the weekends. As you’d expect, since getting married I make a point to spend time with my family. I relax with them, and we have a tri-color sheltie that I take on walks. In the last 5 years I’ve had fun tooling around in my garden and doing DIY projects around the house, too. Bluegrass music is another hobby of mine, and I also play guitar in my free time.
Miyamoto: It’s something of a niche genre, but originally it was an Irish form of music that was developed in America. It features guitar and banjo, mandolin, fiddle. The chord structures from song to song are very similar, so it’s easy for people to get together and jam. I go to bluegress festivals, where musicians gather at a camp and anyone can play together. Over 100 people will get into a circle and everyone jams together. It’s one of the absolute highlights of my life.
—Have you been playing for a long time?
Miyamoto: I was in a bluegrass band in college, and although I’ve had blank periods, I’ve been playing for about 30 years now. The technology of bluegrass music hasn’t changed a bit… using my hands for music and game design helps keep me young too. If I can just keep doing these two things, I’ll never get senile!
Coming soon to a bluegrass festival near you.
—I think many of the readers of N.O.M would like to become game creators. Do you have any advice for them?
Miyamoto: Games are created via technology, so naturally you’ll want to equip yourself with some technical skills. In truth, there’s no such job as “game creator” per se. There’s programming, sound, graphics, and so forth… you must become proficient at one of these.
Also, although you should of course play games, it’s absolutely critical that you do other things too. You need to know what people find fun and interesting in life generally. And to do that, you’ve got to try a lot of things yourself. Sports, music, anything is ok, just so long as you expand your own horizons.
I think it’s also important to have many friends, and have people you can talk with. Most people, by the time they get to college, know the kind of people they like to be with and are inclined to hang out with them all the time, but I think it’s important to actively seek people outside of your own circle and experience, so you can see more of the world. Being able to focus in and really get absorbed in the things you love is also important.
—It sounds like you need a very open mind.
Miyamoto: I’m speaking from experience… even today I regret that I didn’t interact more with different people in college. I had to repeat a year in college too, which I think was actually good for me. My parents were angry though. (laughs) I was able to play music and hang out with people outside of my school, and the friendships I made were invaluable. I met some other musicians and we played some live shows at these country music places… the people I met there were really into Westerns, they were real characters. I got mixed up with that crowd and traveled around with them, it was like some kind of crazy circus. The “normal” work-a-day me would be totally out of place there. (laughs)
—When you’re developing a game, when and how do ideas come to you?
Miyamoto: It’s very ordinary, but the most common time is during staff meetings. Really. At meetings you get a variety of different team members assembled, and that’s very important. There will be some people there who don’t understand what’s going on, and it gives you a chance to explain things to them—and in doing so, you clarify many things for yourself. So I like to have a diverse group at meetings. And I think it’s very important to have people there who can frankly speak their minds, too.
Ideas also come together for me when I’m taking baths. The ideas I get when I’m taking a bath are usually correct… in contrast, the ideas I get when I’m lying in bed are very unreliable. I’m not the kind of person who takes scrupulous notes when I get an idea, either. I usually dash off a few keywords on sticky notes, maybe draw a couple sketches to give some order to the ideas… that kind of stuff.
—Do you have any new plans or prospects for Mario?
Miyamoto: No, nothing at the moment. (laughs) But as advances in digital media open up new doors, we’re always looking for new places to use Mario. I think of Mario as a character belonging to digital media. 15 or 16 years ago, there was a survey in America that asked what popular characters Americans recognized. For the first time, Mario beat Mickey Mouse. Of course I think it’s nonsense to compare the newly-born Mario with a character of such longevity and history as Mickey Mouse. The character of Mario has been around for 25 years now, and I’m very thankful for that. But characters grow old too, and to prevent that from happening, they must be incorporated into new technology. That is Mario’s future.
—What is Mario, ultimately, to Nintendo?
Miyamoto: In an era when there was no such thing as a “game designer”, he created and validated that role for me, so to me personally, he’s my lucky star. In the Donkey Kong days, games were things made by programmers; I wanted to design a game that could stand toe-to-toe with them. After Super Mario Bros. was created, the term “game creator” started being used. So as a game designer too, Mario is my “fortune character.” 1 Satoshi Tajiri, you know, first created Pokemon as a game that could “sell more copies than Mario!” I’ve created many characters in my career, but when I go to sign my name, it’s always Mario’s face I scrawl beside it.
—In so many different ways, Mario truly was a “fortune character.”
Miyamoto: Another thing I can never forget is that my eldest son was born in the final stages of the Super Mario Bros. development. People were saying, “Are you going to name him Mario?” …thankfully, I didn’t take that suggestion. (laughs) My son would probably have resented it considering how well-known Super Mario later became.
You know, people often look at Mario’s design and wonder, “how did this character, some weird old man, become so popular?” The reason is that games are ultimately all about fun, so a character like Mario was bound to be accepted by players. If we had named him “Herio” (“ヘリオ”) instead, I think the result would have been the same. (laughs) Mario has been a loyal partner for Nintendo, and maybe someday, a goal for us to surpass.