The Mythology of Mario: Q&A With Nintendo’s Legendary Shigeru Miyamoto

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Sunday November 7th saw the 40th running of the New York City Marathon and thousands of runners journeyed through the city as fast as their feet could take them. One very special visitor to the city didn’t lace up a pair of New Balance but has nevertheless been running his own personal race for more than two decades.

2010 marks the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., a game that ushered in a new wave of financial success and creative ferment for the home video game console business. Shigeru Miyamoto is that game’s lead creator and has worked at Nintendo since 1977. Miyamoto was initially hired as a staff artist, but he now holds the titles of Senior Managing Director and General Manager, Entertainment Analysis & Development Division.

In 1981, Miyamoto’s creativity delivered Donkey Kong, one of the biggest arcade games ever and the start of a legendary character’s lifeline. We’re not talking about the big, brash ape, though he’s a great character in his own right. No, it’s Donkey Kong‘s hapless hero–known as Jumpman at first–who’s arguably become the most successful persona the video game medium’s ever produced. Jumpman got the sobriquet “Mario” when the Donkey Kong game was exported westward and has since appeared in more than 200 games.

Miyamoto came to the US to celebrate Super Mario Bros.‘ 25th anniversary, and wowed fans with a surprise appearance at the Nintendo World store in Manhattan’s Rockerfeller Center. Gamers young and old hooped and hollered when Miyamoto took the stage and it’s easy to understand why. In person, Miyamoto evinces the same impish liveliness of his best work–like this year’s excellent Super Mario Galaxy 2–and a conversation with him also makes plain the thoughtfulness that sharpens the games he works on. I spoke with him two days before his Nintendo World appearance and the 57-year-old held forth on the influence of Rene Magritte on Super Mario Bros., taking the iconic series from 2D to 3D and the importance of simplicity in game design.

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The first thing I want to say is congratulations on the anniversary of Super Mario Bros.

Thank you very much.

Nintendo is a company that’s been around for a long, long time now, and many view you as an integral part of its longevity. Do you think of your own legacy and things you’ve done before when you are creating new games? Do you use them to inspire you?

I don’t really think of things in terms of legacy or where I stand in the history of Nintendo or anything like that. The important thing for us is to make sure that we’re having fun in our job.

So I really try to focus on, again, not only myself enjoying what I’m doing, but looking at my staff, and making sure that they’re having fun in their jobs as well.

(More on Techland: Super Mario Bros. Turns 25 Today)

Especially when you’re working on a series, there are times when you’re doing some repetitions, some work that maybe you’ve done before. You really want to make sure that the people working on it are approaching the project in a way that they’re not getting bored or frustrated, and that they’re thinking of new things and new twists and new appeals. That’s something we look at as well.

Your career with Nintendo actually started a little bit before with Donkey Kong, and we all know it became a big hit. But, when Donkey Kong became popular, why shift the focus to Mario? Why make him the focus of a new series of games? Why not a new character?

Well, the first reason is that Donkey Kong is just too darn big. And because he’s so big, we actually created Donkey Kong Junior to try to come up with the same sort of character, but in a smaller, more manageable size. And as we were looking at an 8-bit size, Mario became a much easier character to use.

So that’s the first reason. My original goal was that I really wanted to use Mario in a lot of different games. So, for example, in the original Punch-Out! you’ll see Mario and Donkey Kong in the audience. You’ll see Mario is the referee in Tennis [a 1984 Nintendo Entertainment System game]. And then it became taking Mario and Luigi both and putting them in different situations in various games, and was the direction that I decided to take.

So, even from the beginning, you had envisioned Mario as a character you put in different settings, in different genres?

Exactly right. And it’s sort of common among the popular culture in Japan that a creator will take that same character and have him will appear in different manga. It’s also sort of like, maybe, Hitchcock appearing in all his movies. It’s sort of cool to have that character appearing here and there, whether or not they have a large role or not.

(More on Techland: It’s Me Mario and Friends Coming To An All-Star Party in North America)

But, Hitchcock appeared as Hitchcock. Do you see yourself as Mario?

[laughs] Yeah, I’m a little embarrassed but Mario is sort of my doppelgänger.

You started your career as an artist, not in programming but in drawing and designing. Do you think that’s informed your game design sensibilities in a particular way?

Yeah, I think, part of it has been very influential in that my industrial design background has allowed me to be able to take these concepts that I have in my head and be able to put them down on paper.

I have people on my teams do their own drawings and bring out the creation of their own ideas just to make sure that they’re true to what they have in their heads. So, in terms of thinking of design as building a structure into which we put in everything else, That’s the core for what we flow everything into. It hasn’t changed all that much.

That’s where you start, with a structure in mind, and then you fill it in with all these different concepts?

You’re right. And then you take that and look at how people will respond to this. And you try to make that structure into something that people will enjoy playing and being a part of.

Mario has become a universal character like Superman or Mickey Mouse. What does he symbolize for you? Is it a spirit of adventure? Or adaptation?

Well, as I said earlier, I start with the game system [the rules and ideas that will go into the experience] . So I’ll think of a game system and maybe that system is originally the concept for a Mario game, but we realize while we’re doing it that this is more suited to a Zelda game, and we’ll try to do that, we’ll switch characters out.

But, how I think of Mario is sort of as my go-to actor. So, when I’m creating that new system, I start by plugging Mario in to see how he will react or what we can do with Mario in this design. He’s like the trusted guy you throw in to see how the system is working.

That’s funny because, a lot of the times Mario always seems very harried or the character himself is like, “I don’t understand what is going on? I guess I just have to figure out the stuff that’s in the world.” So it’s funny that you say you just drop him in a situation for the player to control.

The player is the one who is playing the game and Mario is sort of their surrogate vehicle for enjoying that game. And because we know it’s Mario, there’s a sense of reassurance and familiarity. The player can think, “Even though I don’t know what’s going on, at least I’m Mario.”

You’re talking about fitting Mario inside new game designs. What’s the most difficult part of sustaining creativity over the last 25 years? Were there moments of doubt that you might not be able to pull off a concept or a mechanic off in a game?

I look at Mario as being equal to digital technology of the time. When we first started, we were looking at, let’s say, 8-bit limited technology. There are always limitations to what you can do.

But the fun in that, and the job for us is to take that and see what could happen, and rather than complaining and wondering about what we can’t do and wondering, “Oh, if only we could do this?”

(More on Techland: New Super Mario Bros. Wii Review: Welcome Back, Old Friend)

We create by looking at what we can do and using our energies to utilize that technology to the fullest, to maximize its potential. And of course, as technology grows and advances, that refreshes our ability to look at Mario in new ways, and to be able to do new things with him. And it’s really been for me, a very natural process in that, as technology advances, so does Mario.

On that note, it was obviously a big evolution was when Nintendo went to 3D graphics with Super Mario 64. What was the hardest part about that transition? Did you have to play-test it differently and educate the design team about how the ideas might work?

For Nintendo, Mario 64 was a big leap for us. Of course, 3D technology had been used in movies and other arenas, but not in any interactive arena. And so, our focus was “How can we take this 3D environment and implement it in a way that works in our world?” And I told people that there are other people working with these 3D environments but, as far as games, we are the pioneers. This is the frontier for us. Another thing that we considered when we were going into the 3D environment was that, of course, people were used to the familiar, side-scrolling Mario territory.

Anyone could pick it up and play [Super Mario Bros.] And everyone knew what they were getting into. But, when it moved into the 3D realm, of course, the perception was that things had changed and that it might be difficult to play. And so, it seemed that we were going to lose some customers who might just think, “I don’t know what that is.” That was too much for me to bear.

And so we really focused for many years on doing this in a way that’s accessible. We’ve always had that focus and I think the pinnacle of our efforts right now is [Super Mario] Galaxy 2. That game was the result of a lot of focusing on how can we make a game that is challenging and familiar yet accessible and playable by everyone? We did that by lots of focus testing and keeping that [accessibility] at the forefront of our minds when moving forward. And I myself played it over and over and over.

I really loved Super Mario Galaxy 2. It kept on surprising me. It felt like a theme park where you can run around and all these different ideas are there for you to explore.

It’s almost like a mixed fruit salad, too. [Everyone laughs.] Everything tastes different, but, all together, it’s also like its own separate thing. Is it weird having reached this new pinnacle to go back to the older work of Super Mario Bros. 1, 2 and 3? What does that feel like?

You know, it’s interesting. I think there are a lot of people who think that, “Wow, simple is pretty cool!” They look at the older games, and think of them as amazing. And especially if you see people who are very good at them…We got to see a very excellent player playing through [Super Mario Bros.], and it was just nice to see how much fun he had with it, regardless of whether or not it seemed simple or not. Other people watch the people who are playing, and of course, there’s entertainment in that, too. It’s another way of getting the idea that how enjoyable a game is.

(More on Techland: Jumping to a New Level: Techland Reviews Super Mario Galaxy 2)

You’re saying the play experience itself is inviting.

Exactly. Even working with some of the younger staff at Nintendo on a sample of New Super Mario Bros Wii., a lot of them, unsolicited, were saying, “One of the important things is that we can’t change this element. This is what makes this game.” So, they understand that some of that familiarity and simplicity is very important, and is excellent to see.

Do you have favorite parts about the re-mastered editions of the older games?

Well, I look back and play some of these games and there are a lot of places where, to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed. I look at Super Mario 3, and was like, “This was it?! This is what we thought was good enough?” That being said, I do have new understandings of that work. The balance in that game is what it needed to be at that time. It really was. And so, even seeing all the limitations, I’m very happy with what we created and I wouldn’t change it.

One of the things I’ve read is that the magic mushrooms in the Super Mario games come from myths about enchanted food. Is that true?

Whether or not, this is actually a factor or not, we’re not really sure. But, this whole idea of mysterious foods that have mysterious properties comes from a lot of the European folk tales. Of course, you see foods like that in Alice in Wonderland. I’m not really sure if the Japanese folk really knew what we were referencing. But that was sort of kind of where it was coming from. At least I think that’s what it came from.

(More on Techland: E3 2010: Masahiro Sakurai Makes Kid Icarus Fly Again on the Nintendo 3DS)

I think the fantasy elements in The Legend of Zelda games are obvious, but were there other folklore or mythology elements that inspired parts of Mario’s world and his universe?

Yeah, like you said, Zelda, of course, does have elements of fantasy folktales with goblins and whatnot. You can see those right away and they are easily recognizable. With Mario, however, it’s more surrealism. You’d see blocks floating in the middle of the air, doorways just appear out of nowhere. That kind of look draws on the work of Magritte.

There’s that sort of surrealistic element of just giving people the freedom to draw–where the drawing is playing the game–and not really being worried about facing it in reality. Players are artists who create their own reality within the game. So that’s sort of Mario. Creating new and surrealistic things rather than being based on anything else.

The typical structure of a Mario game is kind of a mythological journey. There’s an over-world and an underworld in all of them. And it’s interesting how the games themselves have become passed on through the generations, like old stories used to be. With that in mind, how do you feel about maybe those stories moving to another medium again? Like other TV or movie adaptations again?

When we’re creating a game, we have the world that’s there but, really, it’s up to the user to fill in the spaces of things that aren’t explained or laid out for them. Our job as the game creators or developers–the programmers, artists, and whatnot–is that we have to kind of put ourselves in the user’s shoes. We try to see what they’re seeing, and then make it, and support what we think they might think.

(More on Techland: The Princess Is In Another Freakin’ Castle?)

So, if we’re playing, we think, “Well, the players would probably want to do something like this or maybe they’re going to do something like this.” The games need to be flexible enough to hit all of the different users and support all of those possible ideas of what they think might be out there.

Whereas with a book or a movie, you’re basically explaining to people, this is what’s here, we’re showing you what’s here. And for us, it’s sort of the opposite.

Players are showing you what’s there.

Yes. It’s hard to define the exact nature of the impact on that but it’s definitely a real impact. It affects the process.

That’s interesting because there’s lore built up around the play experience of the Super Mario games themselves. Going back to mythological theme, you always heard these stories.  “I heard you can jump over the flagpole in the original games!” People didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t until just this year, I think, that the proof came out. If you hit the exact sequence, you could in fact jump over the flagpole. So, it’s interesting that your point-of-view is to let the player show you things about things you built.

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It’s really probably one of the most interesting parts of the job, trying to envision what the player wants to do and how the player wants to play. We then try to create a world that sort of answers what we think they want to do, and that interactivity is super-interesting for us.

There have been lots of homages to Super Mario Bros. over the years in games like Braid or Super Meat Boy. Super Meat Boy even has the same initials as Super Mario Bros. How does it make you feel to see that formula, that recipe being re-invented? And have you liked any of “the riffs,” the improvisations on the formula?

I haven’t actually played any of them! But I’m assuming they’re done pretty well. I think we were just lucky. Super Mario, of course, is sort of the pioneer of that side-scrolling, action-game style, and we’re just lucky to be in that position.

Right. It could have been somebody else whose game caught on and became one for the ages.

It could have been somebody else. And even when we go into 3D with Super Mario 64 or whatnot, we revert back to that side-scrolling style so often. If people like it and want to use it, that’s great, isn’t it?

It’s like a jazz musician. You write a song, and other people may not play it. But when other people do play it, you know that you must have something good there. You’re wearing Mario playing a saxophone on your shirt. I really liked Wii Music, because I like jazz a lot. I don’t know how to play an instrument, but it made me feel like I almost could play an instrument. But given that you said you always start with Mario in thinking of a game design, why wasn’t that a Mario music game? He’s kind of the base of the formula, after all.

It’s a good question. And that’s not to say if there’s another Wii Music, Mario wouldn’t make an appearance. If we get more people to understand what’s going on in the game concept, then he might appear in the game. I don’t know. But, mostly, Mario is really action-oriented.

In most of his games, it’s about the player’s actions on the screen or the player being able to experience the actions of Mario. He doesn’t seem to fit that role of a musician for us right now. With the Mii characters that players create to represent themselves appearing in different games– again, like Mario does–I thought that idea of using Miis was a good fit. And so the user could feel that they were there playing the music….

Which makes them more connected. Yeah. OK.

And there’s a lot of potential still in Wii Music, I think. Because we’re going to change it up, a new interface is coming, and all of that.

Wow, I think that’s breaking news, then. It’s funny you mentioned Mario as an action character, but he’s also been a painter. He’s also been a doctor too.

Good point. Good point. Still, he can’t play guitar with those hands.

He’s got very short fingers.

He can’t play saxophone. [Laughs]

It’s a good thing he has other talents. When I spoke to Iwata-san at E3, one of the things he stressed is that Nintendo as a company always gets driven by the interactive concept first and not the hardware. So, it’s interesting to hear you say that the hardware is kind of how you recharge your batteries and get new ideas.

(More on Techland: E3 2010: Techland Interviews Nintendo President Satoru Iwata)

Do you feel like there’s a group of designers at Nintendo who can’t wait to get on to the next thing in terms of technology? Who see new processors and things like that as they move forward and want to explore the possibilities? Do you personally feel that way?

We are always looking at and evaluating new technology. That being said, we’re pretty much looking at some of the same technologies as every other company, you know. But, rather than the technology being the only driving force, we also think about how can we use it.

What can we do with it is where we put our focus. There’s something to be said about taking an idea and the value of that idea [in conjunction with technology]. What’s important is the ability to take that idea and make it more than itself. You can use a lot of different technologies to create something that doesn’t really have a lot of value. What we try to instill and talk to our employees about is taking that core idea and creating something that’s bigger than that idea itself.

So, the idea is the seed and not the end unto itself.

Just like the seed. Yes.

How does it make you feel to know that these games you’ve helped produce are something that families connect over or that they share with each other? Not everybody who makes a game is lucky enough to be in that position. Do you feel honored? Or is there a responsibility?

Well, yeah, there’s a bit of responsibility. I’m a player too. So I’m always thinking about the player and how the player is enjoying their experience in the game. The goal is something that’s accessible to all ages, of course, and all experience levels. With New Super Mario Bros. Wii last year, we were able to bring in a bunch of new people as well as satisfy some of our existing base.

With Wii Party, that’s another game that’s going to be something that’s going to be played by a lot of different people. And so we’re always wanting them to have fun, and we’re always thinking about the user experience, and that’s a Nintendo basic concept.

How are we appealing to the consumer? Because we’re gamers as well. And personally, I want to create something that makes me look cool while I’m playing it. When I’m playing as Link in a Legend of Zelda game, that’s something where I feel like I’m cool because I’m that guy.

You’re going to celebrate the anniversary with hundreds of people here in the United States. What does their devotion to Mario mean to you personally?

(More on Techland: Japanese Dude Beatboxes Various Super Mario Themes with Aplomb)

I’m, obviously, very appreciative. A lot of things that come out of Japan are sort of segmented or taken as, “This is from the Orient. This is East Asia.”

Right, they’re looked upon as exotic.

Right. Exotic. Where Mario is different…I don’t think people need to recognize it as something out of Japan. He’s become sort of this worldwide easily accessible idea. People like it. That’s great. To learn about kids or see kids dressed up as Mario on Halloween is something  I’m very grateful for.

Seeing as how we’re at the 25th year anniversary of Super Mario Bros., what would you like to see in the next 25 years? Mario is obviously very connected to you. How would you like to see the torch passed on? Is other people creating Mario something you can think about?

Whoa, I’ll still be here in 25 years! [laughs] I mean, there are a lot of people at Nintendo who really get Mario. A lot of people I’m working with really understand who and what Mario is. Because Mario, as we’ve spoken about earlier, evolves with technology, it’s hard to say where he’s going to be in 25 years.

You may not be able to imagine what’s possible?

That’s right. I can’t imagine it. I’m confident, though, people will still be playing as Mario!

(More on Techland: E310: Nintendo Press Conference Recap)

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