On Shigeru Miyamoto

A profile of Mario’s creator and all-round hero of the digital world Shigeru Miyamoto, first published in the Sunday Times, February 2010

Look at the lists of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed video games of all time and you will notice something surprising: almost half the games are on both lists. Look closer, and you will see something still more surprising: almost every one of those games credits one man as either its director, designer, producer, or all three.

His name is Shigeru Miyamoto, and in the three decades he has worked in and around video games, this 57-year-old has revolutionised gaming with an uneasy regularity. It’s a little like rolling the careers of Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and George Lucas into one ball: sales of more than 500m units, more awards than you can shake several sticks at, and, of course, the creation of that most recognisable icon, Mario.

Born in 1952 in Sonebe, just outside Kyoto, Miyamoto has had a refreshingly antithetical career to the serial entrepreneurship of so many modern innovators. In 1977, fresh from the Kanazawa Municipal College of Industrial Arts and Crafts, he joined a local toy company. It was called Nintendo, and he has worked there ever since. Founded in 1889 as a manufacturer of playing cards, it had recently begun branching out into the emerging realm of electronic toys. Three years after joining, Miyamoto, an apprentice in the planning department, stumbled upon his great professional opportunity when a new game was needed for the arcade machines Nintendo had begun to sell in America.

Bored by the crude shooting and ball-bouncing games that dominated the early arcades, Miyamoto decided something entirely different was needed: a game anybody could relate to, telling the archetypal story of a man saving a woman from a wild beast. Or, this being 1980, a bunch of blue and red pixels saving a bunch of pink pixels from a giant monkey. The game and its four levels of increasingly excruciating jumping and dodging were a huge hit. Entitled Donkey Kong, it was released in 1981; within a year, it had sold more than 50,000 units. Nintendo made millions, and the gaming world had had its first glimpse of the unique sensibility that was to transform it.

Asked today what he does in his spare time, Miyamoto tends to talk about playing the banjo, spending time with his family or going for walks — much the same activities he enjoyed when growing up without a car or television in a small town. It’s an ordinariness that is reflected in the kind of fun his games aspire to, something universal rather than merely thrilling, and rooted in the components of childhood play: exploration, experimentation, learning and sheer delight. After Donkey Kong’s triumph, Miyamoto’s hero was named Mario (after the landlord of Nintendo’s American warehouse) and given his own series.

On its own, this would constitute one of the most remarkable CVs in any creative industry, but Miyamoto kept pushing the boundaries, not only of what games machines could do, but of the kinds of emotional experience games could provide: the thrill of futuristic hover-car racing (F-Zero), the peace of a gliding simulator (Pilotwings), the chance to play a hero exploring a vast fantasy kingdom (The Legend of Zelda) or a fox flying a spaceship (Star Fox).

By the late 1990s, however, cracks had begun to appear in Nintendo’s triumph. In 1994, Sony released its PlayStation console, using cutting-edge graphics and sounds to sell to a whole new demographic of older gamers. The Miyamoto approach — rooted in childhood wonder and universal appeal — looked, to some observers, like increasingly old news. By the time Sony released its successor to the PlayStation in 2000, Nintendo had lost its console crown.

Miyamoto was at the heart of the company’s response, and it came, typically, not from discarding his beliefs, but from persuading the firm to push them still further. In 2006, Nintendo released the Wii. Unlike any console before it, this was a machine that rejected the idea of progress as synonymous with building everything bigger, brighter and faster. Instead, the Wii put the idea of play first. The system was inexpensive, had a motion-sensitive controller and appealed to anyone yet to be seduced by electronic games: older people, women, parents and children playing together, those who are turned off by ultra-realistic visuals. The result has been sales of almost 70m units and the emergence of Nintendo, in 2008, as the world’s most profitable company per employee.

Miyamoto’s role in the Wii revolution has been driven not only by the updating of his existing ideas, but by his creation of something entirely new: games based around physical activities such as yoga, jogging, sports and balance. Wii Sports and Wii Fit have shifted more than 80m copies between them. Even the harshest critics of gaming have found it hard not to be won over, perhaps because, as ever with a Miyamoto game, the machine running it seems almost incidental to what is being created: play of an exquisitely crafted kind.

On March 19, Miyamoto will receive a Bafta fellowship at the academy’s video-games awards, where Mario’s latest incarnations have also been nominated in three categories.

He has already been made a Chevalier of the French order of arts and letters, and in 2008 topped Time’s list of “the most influential people in the world”, a title that, at first glance, seems like wild hyperbole. Consider the millions upon millions of human hours that his creations have commanded, however, and it begins to sound more like an empirical observation — that the man who most delights the world may just matter more than anyone else.