The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time -- released in the U.S. last week -- is perhaps the most perfect video game ever made: Immersive, balanced and beautiful. The game procured raves from journalists with advance copies, and Nintendo expects it to sell 2.5 million copies by Christmas. For most designers, such a hit would be a career-topping feat; for Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, it's just the latest in a long line of groundbreaking video games.
In his off hours, Miyamoto may prefer playing bluegrass banjo to playing video games, but there is no doubt he has one of the keenest senses around of what makes a video game fun. A short list of titles he has created for Nintendo in his 20 years there includes Donkey Kong, all the Mario games and all the Zelda games. And as general manager of Nintendo's Entertainment Analysis and Development Department in Kyoto, Japan, Miyamoto has had a hand in dozens of other games, like F-Zero X and Yoshi's Story. But The Legend of Zelda is his baby, and it, like all his games, has two all-important video-game characteristics: replayability and balance.
Replayability means, simply, that players don't tire of the game: After finishing it once, they still want to go back and play again and again. Zelda has so many secrets that once you finish it, you'll be sure to want to go back not only for the sheer pleasure of it, but also to see what you missed the first time around. Balance is the delicate art of creating challenge in game play without making it so difficult that it's frustrating -- something that Zelda excels in. There are some tricky puzzles, but you never feel cheated when you solve them, never feel the solution was implausible. Miyamoto is a master of both replayability and balance -- an extraordinary feat, and one that has brought him fame in Japan and among American gamers.
Though Miyamoto himself may not be well known in the United States outside gaming circles, his characters are. And given how famous they are -- Mario is a household name, Donkey Kong's not far behind -- it's surprising to hear Miyamoto say that the characters are actually of secondary importance in creating a game.
"We first set up the rules," Miyamoto explains, "and then we make the best character to appear on the game system. And then finally we think about the whole game story which will be best suited to the game system and the game character," he says through his translator.
For example, he says, "In the case of a Mario game, you can see a tortoise character. I didn't intend to make a tortoise character from the beginning, but I thought it would be nice if there was one enemy character which would be in trouble once flipped." From that came the speckled turtle who, once you jump on it, is flipped upside down and can't move for a short period of time (then it rights itself and becomes a threat once more).
In the gaming industry, Miyamoto is better known for his innovations than for his characters -- and with good reason. He has been responsible for some of the most critical developments and changes in video-game design over the years.
"Before Donkey Kong," which debuted in 1981, explains Miyamoto, "those who were making the video games were the programmers and engineers, not the character designers and other artists." Miyamoto himself was trained in industrial design, not engineering. When he was put in charge of his first game ("because no one else was available," he adds self-deprecatingly), he couldn't program. What he could do was conceptualize and design the game, then pass his ideas on to programmers to actually build it. And so the concept of a game artist, or game designer, was born -- of necessity.
"I was not an engineer. I was not a programmer. All I was doing was making the designs, and I asked the programmer to cooperate with me to make the game. Probably I was the first, or I was one of the first, game designers to have the discretion to make the game as a whole. So in those days I sometimes joked that I was one of the five greatest game designers in the world -- simply because there were no other game designers in the world."
It's a funny thought, because in truth Miyamoto is one of the best game designers in the world. Zelda excels on every level, music and sound among them. Miyamoto is ultimately responsible for just how good that music is -- and in many ways, for how much video-game music has improved over the years.
"The music -- or sounds -- in [the old] days was just terrible. Because the pure engineers and programmers -- who had no knowledge at all of music composition -- had to make music and sounds for the games. They were just terrible, incredible, unthinkable in those days," he says -- and anyone familiar with Pong can attest to that. "I think I was one of the first to ask music composers to master this basic programming of the music and sound," he says with a modest glance away.
While Miyamoto may joke about being the world's best game designer, among his peers his skill is no laughing matter. Nor is his influence.
"Miyamoto is probably perceived as one of (if not THE) best game designers," says Benoit Arribart, the project manager for Mission: Impossible, a popular Nintendo 64 game from the French company Infogrames. "The legend says that the release of the Nintendo 64 was delayed until [Miyamoto] was fully satisfied with [Super] Mario 64 [one of the launch titles for the Nintendo 64], and that some of the features of the Nintendo 64 were added because he wanted them in Mario 64."
Miyamoto is certainly a powerful man at Nintendo. At a conference at Nintendo's headquarters earlier this year, Nintendo of America chairman Howard Lincoln was fielding questions from unhappy journalists -- all of whom wanted to know why the release of The Legend of Zelda, which had been delayed numerous times, was being postponed again. Lincoln's response was clear: Mr. Miyamoto is not yet satisfied with it, and who are we to question his judgment?
It's difficult to overestimate Miyamoto's influence in the industry. Says Arribart, "Even if Mission: Impossible is really different from Mario 64, Mario really influenced us. It somewhat set up a standard for 3-D third-person games ... The camera, and the main character handling, in Mission: Impossible were really inspired by Mario 64. The outdoor camera mode was internally called the 'Mario mode' by the Mission: Impossible development team."
And his influence is felt even in the PC games world, where John Romero (Quake, Doom) is reputed to be a big fan and legendary PC game designer Peter Molyneux (Populous, Dungeon Keeper) glows with admiration: "He is without doubt the greatest games designer in the world," Molyneux says of Miyamoto. "No one else comes close."
But mention this to Miyamoto and he'll smile and nod, taking it all in with good grace. As he smiles, his eyes will wander over to the TV screen in the corner where a Team Nintendo member is playing Zelda. It's as if, charming though he may be, the interview is distracting him from what's really important.