This is a very special piece of gaming history: the first ever interview with former Sega/Nintendo rivals Yuji Naka and Shigeru Miyamoto. It took place in December 2001, right around the release of Sonic Advance for the GBA, a milestone in its own right. This interview has Miyamoto and Naka looking back on their rivalry, discussing their development philosophies, and exchanging jokes, jabs, and compliments.

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Shigeru Miyamoto x Yuji Naka – 2001 Developer Interview

Originally featured in the 12/28/2001 edition of Famitsu

—When did you first meet?

Miyamoto: We’ve talked several times before, but I think this is the first time we’ve had a proper face-to-face discussion like this. I’ve known all about Naka for a long time, though. (laughs) We first met about 10 years ago, I believe. I think it was right after the first Sonic was released, at a game show?

Naka: I remember it well. You could say it was the very first “near miss” encounter between myself and Miyamoto. I was standing there in the event hall, listening to that famous creator Lord British explaining his new game, Ultima Underworld. Then all of a sudden a voice came from behind me, “Do you find this interesting?” I turned around and it was none other than Miyamoto. That moment was our very first exchange, though I wouldn’t exactly call it a conversation. (laughs)

—Naka, what was your impression of Miyamoto?

Naka: Hmm, well, this is true even now, but I feel like Miyamoto is someone I’m always trying to catch up to.

Miyamoto: Well, I am older. (laughs)

Naka: Since the beginning, Sega has been saying “we need to beat Nintendo!” But my intention wasn’t really to “beat” Nintendo, but to make games that could stand shoulder to shoulder with theirs. If you try to make the exact same thing you’ll never win; you’ve got to pursue a different path. That was our thinking when we made Sonic… but of course, when Miyamoto showed me new games like Mario 64, I realized we were lagging behind again! Just when I thought we were on par, he goes and puts out an amazing game like that.

Miyamoto: Well, whether you’re leading or trying to play catch up, I think that’s ultimately something that the players decide. We’re not exactly sitting cross-legged in some zen pose either; we’re diligently trying to stay ahead! (laughs) You overtook us in a big way in America, after all.

Naka: But Mario has sold 100 million copies. We can’t compete with that!

—Miyamoto, what did you think when you first saw Sonic?

Miyamoto: After we made Mario, a lot of games came out with characters imitating that jump-action platformer system, right? Of all those I think Sonic had a certain uniqueness. “This game has real personality,” I thought. “The creators are young and it’s a little rough around the edges, but I can tell it was made by people who understand what the joy of games is all about.” Although I was pretty young too, back then. (laughs)

—Why did you feel like you couldn’t “catch” Miyamoto?

Naka: Hmmm….. well, at Sega, as soon as we finished a game, it was kind of like “Alright, we’re done! Now let’s release it!” We would only spend a scant few weeks on balancing and fine-tuning. Later I looked back on it and really wished we had spent more time on that. Had we been more careful and thoughtful there, we might have made better games, I think. I get the feeling your approach to that, Miyamoto, was different.

Miyamoto: Our thinking about that is the same as Namco’s. In their development process, they always spend a lot of time in the final tune-up phase. They’re very smart about programming there. So, in our own way, we too take a lot of time with game balancing: it’s like, “ok everyone, time for the tune-up!” That thinking derives from a saying we have at Nintendo: “it takes 5 years to build your brand, but only 2 to ruin it.”

Naka: I would love to work with Miyamoto on a game, at least once. I’m really interested in the details of your development process.

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Naka and Miyamoto at
a DS promotional event.

Miyamoto: I work till midnight!

Naka: Oh, I see. (laughs) Nintendo doesn’t look like the kind of company that makes its developers work late into the night like that. I always got the sense that you worked normal hours, on a normal schedule, just humming along until you’ve created a good game. At Sega you can find people working late into the night, yelling out ARGHH!! in the midnight hour. (laughs)

Miyamoto: I think every game company is like that. (laughs) That reminds me—you know, my team at Nintendo, people are always saying we’re late with deadlines. But that’s because the company hands down impossible deadlines! The idea is to get people to think, “well, if we’re going to make this deadline, we’ve all got to pull together and work as a team.”

Naka: Right, and that means setting the release date in advance. “December.” (laughs)

Miyamoto: Yeah. So everyone ends up thinking that I’m really slow at my work, but that’s wrong! If I had to say, I’m actually pretty fast. (laughs) But in any event, you know, I think the same way as you, Naka. I’d like to get started on the bug-checking and fine-tuning process a lot earlier.

Naka: Towards the very end of a development, you just keep getting more and more ideas you want to add. (laughs) “If we only had one more hour, we could make this part so good!” That moment comes over and over at the end.

Miyamoto: When you get a hint of some great idea, everyone wants to work hard on making it a reality. In those situations, my role is to reassure all the employees who come to me directly asking, “do we really have the time for this…?” (laughs) But you know, it’s really vital that the staff comes together like that and gets into that mindset. I have a phrase for that, “staff zenin ga creative”, 1 which I realize is a pretty vague way to express what I mean. The entire staff starts to feel like “If I let the game be released in this state, I will be ashamed.” Because if the development team doesn’t end up feeling like craftsmen, artisans… then it won’t be a good game.

—What do you feel has changed now that things have gone to 3D?

Miyamoto: Making games has become a lot easier recently, hasn’t it? A lot of the initial groundwork is done before you even begin. I felt that when we were making Mario 64… for example, in the planning documents, one of the ideas was that Mario would climb a flag pole and then do a handstand and wave his hand at the top. Until recently, animating that hand would have taken several weeks of work, but now it can be done in about 4 days. I was amazed at how fast it went! Did you also experience that with Sonic, where certain parts went much more quickly now?

Naka: It was the gameplay, more than the animation, that was time-consuming for us. I think with 2D it’s easier to for the player to know where he’s moving his character, where to hit things, etc. But in 3D, the depth of field makes all the gameplay adjustments and fine-tuning take forever.

Miyamoto: Yeah, in a 2D game, you can judge everything pixel by pixel. If you’re used to doing it that way, I can see how 3D would be a big change. In my case, I try to make a 3D game that is fun for the players even if some of those controls are a little vague and not perfectly defined.

Naka: For action games, though, my fear is that if the controls are too vague and approximate, then much of the appeal will be lost.

Miyamoto: That is true.

Naka: In that sense, Sonic Advance was very fun for me to make. I want to try making games in the future that take the fun aspects of 2D and try to implement them in a 3D context.

Miyamoto: Yeah, but the way I see it, 2D is more about a game per se, while 3D is more of a tactile, sensory experience. In a 3D game, that feeling of “I was there!” is so strong. That’s why I wanted to make a 3D Zelda, actually, to see that world in 3D. For Mario as well, I really just wanted to see him rendered in three dimensions—I made Mario 64 because I wanted to see little Mario bobbing up and down as he walked. And that’s also partly why we didn’t release a sequel to Mario 64 right away; I felt that I made and saw what I wanted to.

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“For Mario as well, I just wanted to see him rendered in
three dimensions—I made Mario 64 because I wanted to see
little Mario bobbing up and down as he walked.”

—Sonic Advance is the first Sonic made for a Nintendo system. Naka, did that have any special significance for you?

Naka: Because we’ve been hardware rivals for so long, I’ve often wondered to myself, “what if I could make a Sonic for Nintendo…” You know, Nintendo has been really consistent over the years with their “toy ethos” approach to game development. I saw that and didn’t feel any personal jealousy, it was more like, “good for them.” Sega was always a little weaker than Nintendo when it came to making games for kids.

Our image in the past was “High Tech Sega!”, and so I think we appealed more to an adult market. I think it’s very important for a company to understand their unique color or appeal; you can release the same game, but if you misunderstand that appeal, you won’t reach the users you were hoping to target. Despite that, Sega would tell us “We’ve got to steal Nintendo’s userbase!”, and my team worked hard at that too…. but in the end, it never really worked out, as you know.

But with the work I’m doing now, I don’t have to be concerned with all that. (laughs) I’m very excited, but also very anxious, to be releasing games on Nintendo’s hardware. For better or for worse, in the past I think we sold a lot of games on the strength of our reputation and brand: it’s Sega, it’s the Dreamcast. Now things are different…. so yeah, I’m filled with trepidation about how the end-of-year sales will look. (laughs)

Miyamoto: Right, because there’s no Mario game coming out this year. We purposely delayed its release for Sonic Advance. (laughs)

Naka: When Miyamoto told me it was actually a Luigi game that was coming out, I thought, “This is my chance! I’ve got to release Sonic this year!” (laughs)

Miyamoto: Yeah, the old pattern was that the new Sonic game always came out after the new Mario game.

—Naka, what were your thoughts when you tried out the new connectivity feature of the Gamecube and Gameboy Advance?

Naka: When Nintendo first announced it, I immediately thought, “I want to make something for this!”, and rushed to get it added to Sonic Advance. In fact, it turned out to be much more difficult than I expected. (laughs)

Miyamoto: Making sure everything works right with new hardware is really tough. Naka was very proactive with testing the connectivity feature, and it really spurred us on.

Neat retrospective interview
with Naka and others about Sonic.

Naka: I’ve always loved hardware, as you know. All the moreso now that Sega has stopped doing hardware. I saw the GBA link and was like, “let me use that!” (laughs)

Miyamoto: Should I have them make a limited edition GBA?

Naka: Well, a “Sonic Colored” GBA would look pretty cool. (laughs)

—Naka, do you have any thoughts on Nintendo’s recent games?

Naka: I was really jealous of Pikmin. I had wanted to make something like that someday. Actually, I love Lemmings, and I wanted to make a game like that, updated in a more modern style. But of course, the minute I think that, Miyamoto comes along and beats me to the punch again with Pikmin. (laughs)

Miyamoto: Well, you made ChuChu Rocket!, and that game had a lot of little characters moving all around.

Naka: ChuChu Rocket came about because I said “Let’s use the next-gen hardware to make a game where 100 sprites are moving at once.” One trend with evolving hardware is increasingly beautiful graphics, but another path you can take is trying to squeeze the most processing power out of the hardware and using it to its fullest. I wanted to do more stuff like that, and then Miyamoto had to go and release Pikmin. (laughs)

—Naka, do you have any message for Miyamoto?

Naka: I want him to release Zelda soon. (laughs) And another Mario too, of course.

Miyamoto: Zelda and Mario are now being made in a way where I’m not directly involved. I walk away, and well, you can see what they did with Zelda. 2 (laughs) Naturally I have my points of disagreement, but overall I like the new direction. I’m not really interested in hearing a bunch of opinions about how the new art looks; I want people to play it first, then tell me what they think of it.

—Miyamoto, you’re now fighting on the same side with your former nemesis Naka. As his senior, what are you feeling right now?

Miyamoto: If one of Naka’s games is successful, he immediately wants to get started on the next project. That kind of work ethic is great. All I wish from our game developers is that they work hard and enjoy their work. That’s all. The more good studios we have, the more the industry itself will be invigorated.

There’s one other thing I want to say about Naka. If you think of games as fashion, then 10 years from now, what is popular today will be outdated. But if you think of the inherent value and quality of a game—that doesn’t change much in 10 years. When a high-quality game is made, it sets a standard, and I think Naka is one of those rare people who can create the standards by which other games are judged.

Naka: That really means a lot to me, to hear you say that.

Miyamoto: Of course, as a creator myself, I don’t intend to stop competing with him! If people start thinking “Sega makes better games than Nintendo!” I’ll have gotten us into quite a mess! (laughs)

Naka: I’d like to see Sonic in a Smash Bros. game someday. (laughs) Actually, I talked about it at Space World with the director of the last Smash Bros. He said “I wish you’d have said something sooner!” (laughs)

Miyamoto: Well, if Sega is ok with it, we can add him anytime. I like that idea! (laughs)