Summer with Shigeru, Part 1: Your Window Into the Game

Nintendo hired Shigeru Miyamoto in 1977, back when the company was still making toys. A year later, Space Invaders caused hundreds to flock to arcade machines across Japan, and Nintendo decided to branch out into making arcade games as well. In those days, most video games used simple mechanics with even simpler visuals. In Asteroids you controlled a triangle that represented a ship. In Pong you controlled a rectangle that represented a tennis racket. In Pac-Man you controlled a yellow pizza that represented the insatiable gluttony of mankind.

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Image courtesy of The International Arcade Museum

Each arcade machine had their own methods of control, though most defaulted to a knobby stick and a few buttons. These initial games aimed at replicating movement, action, and physics in a way that a player could easily learn and use to plan their next actions. Asteroids used shooting and piloting a ship. Pac-Man used eating. Space Invaders used shooting and hiding.

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In 1980 Nintendo assigned Miyamoto to design a new game in order to repurpose unused arcade machines. Miyamoto ended up with Donkey Kong. The titular ape kidnaps Pauline, and Jumpman comes to her rescue. You control Jumpman as he runs up the magenta scaffolding and jumps over Donkey Kong’s lethal barrels.

Jumpman marks a distinct point in video games – Jumpman has recognizable human features, and he makes recognizable human actions. It’s the first of Miyamoto’s 1:1 player avatars.

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Jumpman went on to become Mario, and with each iteration Mario acquired more distinct characteristics, tighter controls, and more predictable physics. Even though he’s a middle-aged Italian man, Mario is a video game character that people not only like, but identify with. A special kind of magic happens where the distance between you the Player and Mario the avatar shortens, until you don’t feel any difference at all — you are Mario; Mario is you. Mario feels like a special old friend because he’s often the first time someone gets to have that special kind of connection in a video game.

Miyamoto did the same thing again in the mid-1980s. This time he set out to create an adventure game for the Famicom (Japan’s NES) focusing on exploration and swordplay. He created another player character that highlighted that special player-avatar link — and so he named him Link.

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What made The Legend of Zelda unique for its time was Link had a moveset attached to several different items. Not only do you explore, you explode things with bombs, shoot things with arrows, light things on fire, and float on a raft. Miyamoto designed the entire world around this moveset — secrets, enemies, bosses, and dungeons become a place for the player to test, experiment, and overcome challenges with the tools they have at their disposal.

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And here we come to Pillar 1 of Miyamoto Game Design: start with the player character, fine-tune that character’s actions and limitations, and then design the environment around that character. The game world becomes a massive playground / obstacle course where the player is free to try out moves and techniques. In a way, the game world is an extension of the character, a kind of outward reflection.

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It’s easier to see this when Nintendo made the jump to 3D. Both Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time highlight that same philosophy. Mario’s moveset is all given to the player at the beginning — you are left to experiment in the opening area around Princess Peach’s castle and Bomb-omb Battlefield with how his moves interact with each other and in the environment. Then later levels expect the player to use those moves in more challenging ways. In Ocarina of Time, your moveset (via items) is given to you gradually by completing quests and dungeons, but the principle is the same – you learn what your items can do, and the more you experiment, the more secrets you can find. There is no Bomb-omb Battlefield without Mario; there is no Hyrule without Link. Put Link into Peach’s Castle, and you’d find a mismatch.

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Our final example of Miyamoto’s harmony between player, avatar, and game environment is Pikmin. Olimar is designed for a Real-Time Strategy game, which is completely different gameplay from Mario’s and Link’s games. He controls and manages various groups of pikmin. His first move is a throw, which assigns individual pikmin to a task (which they then complete automatically based on AI and context). His secondary move is a whistle to recall and move pikmin as a group. It works remarkably well. Because his moveset revolves around throwing and managing, each environment is a massive sprawling area filled with sub-areas and some limited verticality. Such an environment would make for a boring Mario level, but it works perfectly for Olimar and his skill set.

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It doesn’t end there, though. You remember Miis? They’re also designed by Miyamoto — he wanted the player to make an avatar to resemble themselves for using in a variety of games. The Mii, while it may have some visual personality, is mostly made to be a clean, open window for the player to immerse themselves into the game.

The next time you hear about Nintendo’s philosophy of “gameplay first,” this formula is exactly how they make that work. It’s such an obvious principle that everyone takes for granted, but it’s thanks to Miyamoto that this philosophy has become textbook game design in the first place. Next week we’ll be talking about how Miyamoto gets his inspiration for making his games, and the way he experiments to make new methods of playing a game.

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