The Life and Times of Shigeru Miyamoto

Welcome to this year’s Developer Analysis Mini-series! Last year we analyzed Masahiro Sakurai’s works and game design philosophy. While he’s certainly an important developer to the industry, and has created widely popular games, I mostly conducted that mini-series out of sheer devotion for Super Smash Bros.. Working on Shigeru Miyamoto is a whole other beast entirely. Miyamoto has created some of the biggest icons in gaming history, and his contributions have become interwoven into the industry’s DNA. For the game design student, Sakurai may be an interesting case study, but Miyamoto is required reading.

Miyamoto
Miyamoto during the opening event of Super Mario Maker on the Wii U.

Plenty has been said about Shigeru Miyamoto’s biography and works, so I won’t bother you much with that here. To put it simply, Shigeru Miyamoto has over four decades of game dev experience, and has directed or produced dozens upon dozens of games. His influence in the industry, and at Nintendo especially, is beyond massive. In fact, it’s neigh impossible to separate Miyamoto from the design philosophy of Nintendo in general. Miyamoto is Nintendo; Nintendo is Miyamoto.

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Takashi Tezuka (right) is perhaps the most criminally unrecognized person in the entire Nintendo company.

When I analyzed Sakurai, I felt I did a disservice by not mentioning the people he collaborated with. So in this one I wanted to talk about Miyamoto’s coworkers, because it’s never just a one-man show. As far as co-directing games, Takashi Tezuka is an overlooked genius of a partner. Satoru Iwata and Eiji Aonuma have also produced with him on many projects. Koji Kondo has given iconic soundtracks to Miyamoto’s biggest works. And finally, Gunpei Yokoi and Genyo Takeda worked closely with Miyamoto on hardware and controller designs, with Yokoi becoming a mentor figure for Miyamoto.

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A young Miyamoto showing off the N64 analog stick. Miyamoto had a heavy hand in designing the controllers for all Nintendo consoles.

Throughout his career, Miyamoto has had his share of both successes and failures. While he created Super Mario Bros., he also designed Wii Music. Most of his successful contributions were before the year 2000, while many of his recent endeavors have received a mixed reception. From 2010 onwards, it’s plain to see that Miyamoto has moved on to mostly an advisory role. And I mean, that’s by no means a bad thing. The man is 67 years old, after all.

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While I could give you an exhaustive list of everything he’s worked on, instead I’m just going to give a list of the essentials:

  • Donkey Kong (1981)
  • Super Mario Bros. (1985)
  • The Legend of Zelda (1986)
  • Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)
  • Super Mario World (1990)
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
  • Super Mario Kart (1992)
  • Star Fox (1993)
  • Super Mario 64 (1996)
  • Star Fox 64 (1997)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
  • Pikmin (2001)
  • Nintendogs (2005)
  • Wii Sports (2006)
  • Super Mario Galaxy (2006)

Again, these are just the essentials. There are certainly other more recent games that continue Miyamoto’s design philosophy, such as Super Mario Maker, Super Mario Odyssey, and Breath of the Wild, but in my research he did not really work on these titles; he mostly just oversaw their general production. All the same, it’s a testament to his legacy that even games he hasn’t closely worked on still have his trademark philosophies baked inside them.

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Miyamoto’s design methodology boils down to the term kyokan, which according to Miyamoto, involves putting himself in the player’s shoes and imaging their reactions to his game. He aims to evoke several emotions, but the one he shoots for the most is Joy. And he tries to make this feeling as universal as he can, trying to appeal to stay-at-home-parents, children, teens, and business people. If he can see that Joy in everyone, then he knows he’s on the right track.

Kyokan is a bit too vague for us to work with, though. Are his games fun? Well, yes. But then I wouldn’t have much of an essay, would I? So while he says he tries to avoid creating a definitive list of core elements, I have nevertheless found some reocurring ideas. These are what I call the Three Essential Pillars to Miyamoto Design:

  1. A focus on the player avatar and the way they interact with the world
  2. Seeking inspiration from the outside world and reinventing gameplay
  3. Telling a story through gameplay; player action becomes the narrative

Like with Sakurai, we will be going through each one of Miyamoto’s design approaches and using his greatest works as examples.

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