The Golden Touch of Miyamoto: Part 1
This series will look at the many different franchises and series of games that Shigeru Miyamoto has had an influence on throughout his illustrious career. But, we will let a bit of history lead us into the gaming series.
Miyamoto wasn’t a good student in school. He would often miss classes– instead, providing exemplary attendance to his favorite activities and interests. As a child, he would explore the surrounding areas of his town and get lost in nature. He once entered a dark cave in Kyoto with a lantern in hand and explored all the hidden areas within. This experience would be the foundation for the Legend of Zelda. He loved many others activities such as drawing and painting, playing baseball, swimming, reading, playing piano and guitar, and partaking in puppet shows. A few times a year, he would go into the city and watch Walt Disney movies, which he loved. In middle school he developed a fascination with manga and anime. While attending the Kanazawa Munici College of Industrial Art & Design, he was mostly interested in playing the banjo with his band and performing at various venues across Japan.
Somehow he scraped by in college and after five years Miyamoto managed to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Art & Design. His father was a friend of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the former president of Nintendo, and succeeded in getting an interview for Shigeru. At the interview, Miyamoto showed off some simple toy ideas he had designed such as a three-way seesaw, children’s clothes hangers with animal designs on them (in the shape of birds and elephants), and a clock designed to be used at an amusement park. Miyamoto liked dabbling in all sorts of creative designs. He was hired and given the position of Concept Artist, where he would design new products for Nintendo to manufacture. He only took the job because it allowed him the freedom to try out all the different ideas he had in his head for his creations.
The first project he was involved in was the housing design for the casing of the Color TV Racing 112. From there he stepped up to a character design role for Space Fever, Sheriff, and Space Firebird. At last, Miyamoto was given the opportunity to work on the actual design of a game. And it was a…
FAIL: Radar Scope
Nintendo, at the time, was very into making clones of popular games. Who would have thought Nintendo’s early entry into the video game industry would have been full of clones? Miyamoto would soon change that, but first they had to hit failure. The truth is that Radar Scope did have a small gimmick that tried to separate it from the rest of the arcade games of the time. But, it was essentially a recycled Space Invaders with an angled psuedo-3D perspective. Nintendo was hoping Radar Scope would herald their entry into the North American market. Instead, it flopped. Nintendo was left with thousands of extra Radar Scope cabinets. They had to something about it if they wanted to stay afloat. Without making a turnaround of the situation it spelled financial collapse for Nintendo. Luckily, Nintendo demonstrated a quality that they would carry with them for the next three decades: the ability to learn from their mistakes and improve.
President Yamauchi trusted the skills of Shigeru Miyamoto and decided to place the weight on his shoulders. He paired the young mind with Gunpei Yokoi, another creative mind in the field of hardware (having already found success with the Game and Watch franchise.) Together, they would convert the existing Radar Scope cabinets into a new game and give the housing a fresh coat of paint. Miyamoto put on his unfettered and unfiltered video-game-thinking-cap for the first time. He thought out of the box and came up with a vision that would become the pioneer of the ‘platformer’ game. Lucky for Nintendo, it was a…
WIN: Donkey Kong
Imagine if Radar Scope would have been a moderate success. Miyamoto might never have gone on to change all of gaming. However, fate was on our side, and Radar Scope’s failure led to the brilliant comeback of Miyamoto with Donkey Kong. In coming up with the premise behind the game, Miyamoto did a bit of thinking that probably would not have gone over very well in this day and age. He decided he would make a game that revolved around the love triangle between a man, a woman… and an ape. Miyamoto felt that video games didn’t try hard enough to tell a story or give you an emotional motivation for playing the game. Until then, most games revolved around space shooting, sports, or mazes (Pac-Man). So, Miyamoto tried out something completely different. You were respresented by an actual character, Jumpman, who was out to save the girl from the evil ape, Donkey Kong, who would throw barrels at Jumpman as obstacles. The gameplay was new and the premise of the story was new. The game was much more personal because you felt like you were actually controlling an on-screen avatar and helping him run, climb, and jump around the screen. Another innovation in the game were the multiple levels, each looking completely different than the rest. This was a sharp departure from games such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man, which consisted of the reuse of a single screen layout.
The motivation of “saving the damsel in distress” and the gameplay of running and jumping would both become staples of the entire future of gaming. And Miyamoto was very taken with the characters he created: Jumpman, Donkey Kong, and Pauline. He would use them as the prototypes for our modern day Mario, DK, and Princess Peach. When he got the chance, he would revisit these characters and try to evolve the gameplay once again. Lucky for Nintendo, Miyamoto had save the company. Donkey Kong got shipped to America and the old Radar Scope systems were gutted and replaced with the new hardware. Word got out very quickly about this new type of game and Nintendo soon had to send over thousands more of the Donkey Kong units.
Nintendo then put Miyamoto to work on a sequel. That game was Donkey Kong Jr. What was interesting in this case was how Miyamoto sympathized with the apes and decided to put Donkey Kong’s son in the role of the protagonist. Mario became the new villain, as he had locked up Donkey Kong in a cage. DK Jr.’s job was to rescue his dad by swinging across vines and overcoming other obstacles. The game was also a big success and even became a new breakfast cereal at one point.
Before moving on to games that deal with Jumpman, who would turn into Mario, I first want to look at this original series of Miyamoto, Donkey Kong. It was clear that although Miyamoto had made Donkey Kong the villain in the first game, he had begun to take the series in a different direction with the sequel. Miyamoto placed the monkeys in the starring role and also gave DK a younger partner. This would eventually spawn a completely different series: Donkey Kong Country.
So, we all know that Miyamoto created certain series, but we often forget about his impact and influence on other gaming series that he oversees. That’s what I call the Golden Touch of Miyamoto. Miyamoto sometimes sits at the helm other times he mentors another team- but in both cases, the games turn into something special. Later in this series we’ll take a look at how Miyamoto had this effect on Eternal Darkness and Metroid Prime. But, for now, we’ll talk about how Miyamoto had a hand in the series which he started, Donkey Kong. Since EAD was mostly working with Mario and Co., Nintendo decided to give Rareware a try at bringing the Donkey Kong series to the SNES. That project became a very special series called Donkey Kong Country. The Stamper Brothers were the heads of Rareware and they too sat in the director’s chair of Donkey Kong Country. However, Miyamoto didn’t abandon his baby entirely. In an interview with IGN, Miyamoto said:
The first point that I want to make is that I actually worked very closely with Rare on the original Donkey Kong Country. And apparently recently some rumor got out that I didn’t really like that game? I just want to clarify that that’s not the case, because I was very involved in that. And even emailing almost daily with Tim Stamper right up until the end.
And with [Donkey Kong Country Returns] too, I’ll be involved on a check/confirmation level, looking over the game and checking the content. So it’ll probably be a similar role to what I played in the development of Donkey Kong Jungle Beat.
In Donkey Kong Country, you were given the opportunity to play as either Donkey Kong or Diddy Kong, who is obviously the spiritual successor of DK Jr. But, this time, they have a new enemy called the Kremlings led by King K. Rool. The game was praised for its pre-rendered 3D graphic and its excellent platforming gameplay. The series prospered under Rare’s leadership and Miyamoto left them to their own devices in developing three more sequels: Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, and Donkey Kong 64.
Sadly, Nintendo fans had to say goodbye as Rare parted ways with Nintendo and were bought out by Microsoft instead. This didn’t end Donkey Kong Country’s legacy though. During the Wii’s lifetime, Miyamoto kept on thinking about how he wanted to see the revival of DKC. He just didn’t know which team would be right for the job. Producer Kensuke Tanabe recommended giving it to Michael Kelbaugh, the CEO of Retro Studios, who had worked on Donkey Kong Country while he was employed by Nintendo of America. Kelbaugh called the game Project F8 at the beginning, because he looked at it as “fate” that he had been hooked back up with the series at a new company. Miyamoto helped decide which of the original qualities of DKC should be brought back into Donkey Kong Country Returns. Under Miyamoto’s close tutelage, the game was a success, offering up tons of nostalgia and an incredible balance of difficulty, that made it challenging, yet doable.
No one outside of Nintendo knows the future of the series, but I can imagine the franchise would make a great fit on the 3DS. Let’s hope it isn’t too long before Miyamoto decides we’re due for another installment of Donkey Kong Country
In Part 2 of this series we will look at Miyamoto’s golden touch with the Super Mario series and the Excitebike series.
A Gallery of Miyamoto in his Early Years of Game Development