Summer with Shigeru, Part 2: The Inspired Mad Scientist

It’s no secret that Miyamoto has a reputation for coming up with unique and unexpected ideas for a game. He’s not just an inventor, he’s a reinventor. In a way, you can still see Miyamoto’s attitude from Nintendo’s early arcade days showing through, for better or worse.

Miyamoto was famously inspired from Popeye to make Doney Kong, and The Legend of Zelda got a lot of inspiration from early Role-Playing Games. More often, though, Miyamoto used to his life experiences and Nintendo’s controllers to invent new games and their mechanics. Unlike Sakurai, who looks inward at other games for inspiration, Miaymoto looks outward.

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Miyamoto grew up in the Japanese countryside, and as a child he frequently explored around nearby rice patties, caves, and mountinsides. When he began developing The Legend of Zelda, he wanted to capture that feeling of discovery and freedom that he experienced. Therefore, the overworld was designed to be an open space, where Link can find secrets, caves, and enemies, some of which can be extremely intimidating for a new player to stumble across. I think that element of surprise and discovery makes Hyrule feel like a living place, despite the NES’s graphical limitations.

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When developing Super Mario Bros., Miyamoto wanted to convey a similar feeling of adventure, filled with mountains, clouds, and castles. And since a top-town view wouldn’t work well for platforming, Miyamoto decided to use the scrolling mechanic from Excitebike, and in the process, crystallized Super Mario Bros. as the blueprint for side-scrolling platformers. Like The Legend of Zelda, this mechanic also works well to create a sense of progression and freedom, though there isn’t much discovery involved. It’s almost like a person’s natural fear of heights plays into the tension of a level, particularly when there isn’t any solid ground.

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Having established two series (and genre) conventions, Miyamoto iterated and perfected those concepts in the sequels. But even then, Miyamoto couldn’t help but reconsider and rework design choices. When making Super Mario Bros. 3, Miyamoto almost went with an isometric view, but changed his mind and stuck with the side view (thank goodness).

In Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Miyamoto blended more traditional RPG world traversal with side-scrolling sections. His result was one of the world’s first Action RPGs. It was certainly an unexpected departure, and while it brings its own merits to the table, it’s considered the black sheep of the Zelda series for a reason.

Both Zelda games on the NES show that Miyamoto’s rigorous experimenting was a double-edged sword throughout his career: on one hand, it created unique games and creative iterations on his IPs. And on the other, it pushed gimmicks that alienated several players.

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The fact that a Super Nintendo is rendering this is nothing short of technological wizardry. Hats off to Argonaut Games for making this happen.

Let’s take Miyamoto’s handling of the Star Fox series. In the early ’90s Miyamoto started to make a space-opera shooter loosely based on the show Thunderbirds, and enlisted the up-and-coming studio Argonaut Games to help with their 3D polygonal technology. Despite being one of the first games ever to use polygons, Miyamoto still wanted to make Star Fox stand out from the typical Sci-Fi affair of robots and monsters. As he visited the nearby shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha, the Torii gates reminded him of the arches they were designing in the game. Miyamoto took the fox folklore associated with the shrine and based the story around a fox and his animal companions. Star Fox was born.

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Moving on to Star Fox 64, Miyamoto decided to remake the original Star Fox in order to fully accomplish his initial vision for the game. Not only did he completely revamp the original’s design with branching paths, he included voice-acting, which was still a nascent feature for video games at the time, and debuted a new peripheral to the N64: the rumble pack. Rumble feedback has now been used to some extent in almost every console game since.

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The Star Fox Zero trailer from E3 2015

However, on the Wii U, Miyamoto decided to retell Star Fox for the 3rd time with the intent of using the Wii U Game Pad’s unique features. The new game required looking back and forth from the Game Pad screen to the TV screen, as well as using gryo controls. The reception was mixed. It was much more difficult for players to get used to this control scheme, especially when traditional controls worked fine for Star Fox in the past. Star Fox Zero’s controls proved to be the biggest barrier-of-entry for players, and consequently its largest point of criticism. A series that was once groundbreaking for the industry became a poster child for when Miyamoto’s inventiveness goes a bit too far.

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Miyamoto discussing the development of Pikmin 3 during E3 2012.

Out of all his successes and failures, I feel like Miyamoto’s best wacky endeavor was Pikmin. As Miyamoto got older, he quit smoking and gambling and took up gardening instead. In classic Miyamoto style, he noticed the ants in his garden and imagined them as people. From that initial spark came one of the strangest games to ever release. On one hand, it’s a Survival game with time management always on your mind; and on the other, it’s a Real-Time Strategy game where you manage several groups of Pikmin, each with their own abilities. The game soothes you with Mother Nature’s calm atmosphere, then abruptly reminds you of Her eat-or-be-eaten indifference. It’s both cute with its smaller-than-life characters and unnerving with its grim premise. This dichotomy is hinted at in other Miyamoto games, but it’s nowhere near as pronounced as in Pikmin. It’s probably why it’s not as popular as his other works, but to me, it’s one of his best ideas.

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From the Pikmin 3 video shorts.

Miyamoto’s ruthless need to experiment continues to be both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness. Even now, he recently stated that he would like to keep reinventing how people interact with games, and that simultaneously excites me and worries me. As groundbreaking as this man was to the industry, it’s important to note that even he had a few duds.

All the same, I’d rather take the duds and the hits together over something safe and bland.

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