Icons of Gaming: Shigeru Miyamoto

Notable works: Donkey Kong series, Mario series, Zelda series, Pikmin series, Nintendo Wii (and countless other Nintendo releases!)

Referred to by some as “the father of modern video games”, Shigeru Miyamoto is often considered one of the pioneers of the industry with a career spanning over 40 years. Combining his love for art with a sense of fun, the video game designer and producer has introduced to the world several iconic Nintendo game franchises, including Donkey Kong, Mario, and Zelda, as well as being instrumental in the development of the Wii.

Miyamoto was born in Sonobe, Kyoto in Japan

Shigeru Miyamoto was born in 1952, in the town of Sonobe, just North of the city of Kyoto, Japan. In his youth, Miyamoto would develop a love for comic books and enjoyed doodling and sketching, a hobby that would eventually lead him to briefly contemplating a career as an illustrator or manga artist. He would also often enjoy venturing through Kyoto’s surrounding countryside, where he would explore woods, fields and caves. Memories of these childhood adventures would remain with the designer and reportedly influence him when later crafting the 1986 game, The Legend of Zelda.

Although Miyamoto would later graduate from the Kanazawa Municipal College of Industrial Arts’ with a degree in industrial design, he was still uncertain what career path to take. It was at this time that he started to consider a career in video games. In a 2010 interview with Eurogamer, Miyamoto would share, “I still recall that when Space Invaders became a phenomenon in the marketplace I thought this might present me with some potential for a future career.” Via a mutual friend of Miyamoto’s father, he would later secure an interview with Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of a company called Nintendo.

It would be after witnessing the success of the 1978 arcade phenomenon Miyamoto would begin considering a career in videogames

Nintendo, at this time, manufactured playing cards, toys and other novelties. After being impressed by a selection of toys Miyamoto had made and brought with him, Yamauchi offered the aspiring designer an apprentice role within the company. Miyamoto soon became the company’s first dedicated artist, designing the artwork for the early Nintendo arcade game, Sheriff. The next game he would work on would be Radar Scope.

A Radar Scope arcade cabinet next to the Donkey Kong cabinet they would be later repurposed into

Radar Scope had been a huge success in Japan, prompting Nintendo to release the game in the US. Unfortunately, the title simply did not resonate with North American audiences and would be an enormous commercial failure with approximately 2000 unsold Radar Scope arcade cabinets remaining in Nintendo’s US warehouse. Nintendo of America faced a financial crisis. In response, the suggestion was made to salvage the unsold machines by converting them into an entirely new game. Yamauchi soon tasked Miyamoto with the creation of this replacement. Drawing inspiration from the film, King Kong and the fairytale Beauty and the Beast, as well as Popeye (who Nintendo were coincidentally attempting to gain the video game rights to at the time), Miyamoto designed a game with a plot involving a carpenter rescuing his girlfriend from a giant ape. The game was Donkey Kong. All the unsold Rader Scope machines were hurriedly converted and Donkey Kong would release in 1981. The game was a monumental success for Nintendo, going on to regularly sell over 4000 machines a month with total sales reaching $180 million a year later. Miyamoto would go on to work on the game’s two sequels, Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3.

Mario and Luigi would make their first appearance together in the arcade game, Mario Bros. released in 1983

A few months before the release of Donkey Kong 3, Miyamoto would introduce a new platform game that saw the reappearance of the main playable character from Donkey Kong. No longer a carpenter called Jumpman, this character would become a plumber named Mario, now accompanied by his brother, Luigi. Known as ‘Mario Bros.’, the game would see Mario and Luigi defeating a collection of creatures emerging from the sewers. Gunpei Yokoi, an engineer with whom Miyamoto had collaborated on numerous projects (and eventual creator of the Game Boy), suggested giving Mario superhuman abilities such as being able to fall from a great height unharmed. Miyamoto would work on several further titles during this period including Excitebike, Devil World, Golf, Tennis and Ice Climber.

The Japanese box art for 1985’s Super Mario Bros.

In 1985, the Mario Bros. successor, Super Mario Bros, would be released. Co-designed by Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, it is arguably one of the most significant and influential video game releases ever. A side-scrolling platformer, the game saw Mario (or Luigi in multiplayer mode) venture across the Mushroom Kingdom to rescue Princess Toadstool from the evil Bowser. The original NES release of the game would go on to sell over 40 million copies. Super Mario Bros.’ success spawned numerous sequels and kick-started an entire franchise. Mario would become a video game icon. A 1990 US study would later discover that more American children were familiar with Mario than they were with Mickey Mouse.

Just like Mario, The Legend of Zelda too would go on to become one of Nintendo’s largest franchises

A year later, Miyamoto and Tezuka, would release The Legend of Zelda, a sprawling fantasy adventure title that tasked the player with retrieving eight pieces of a mystical relic in order to rescue Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganon. Drawing upon his childhood experiences exploring the Kyoto countryside, the game featured a vast open-world for the player to explore, with mountains, rivers and forests. The game would be another huge success for Nintendo, praised by both critics and gamers; again, creating a much-loved franchise that has endured for over 30 years.

Super Mario 64, Miyamoto’s last as director

Miyamoto would continue to work on countless titles including F-Zero, Star Fox, Pilotwings and Wave Race, as well as several Mario and Zelda sequels. Although 1996’s Super Mario 64 would be Miyamoto’s last title as a director, he would continue to produce and assist in the creation of countless further Nintendo releases and even go on to mastermind the Pikmin and Nintendogs series.

What next for Miyamoto? On November 3rd, 2019, Miyamoto was awarded the Person of Cultural Merit by the Japanese government. Not only is this the highest honour a person in a creative field can receive in Japan, but Miyamoto was the first person from within the video games industry to receive it. In an interview with Japanese news site, Sankei, Miyamoto hinted that he isn’t quite ready to retire just yet. “I’m going to do my best to keep doing new things so I don’t get asked if I’m about to retire,” Miyamoto said. “I want people all over the world to smile.”

🕹Which of Miyamoto’s games do you remember most fondly? Which has been your favourite? Which series would you like to see make a comeback?🕹

Twitter: @wleigh85