Personalities in Gaming: Shigeru Miyamoto

By Jacob Toman

At Gospel & Gaming, we like to think of ourselves as a bridge between gaming culture, and the church. With regularly repeated content like featured series, gaming reviews, interviews with Christians involved in gaming (called Gamer Stories), and topical pieces, our content strives to inform and inspire to involvement in gaming culture.

This piece starts a new series where one of our content contributors will shed a bit of educational light onto a personality that has greatly impacted, innovated, or inspired gaming culture. Today’s first personality is Shigeru Miyamoto.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Shigeru Miyamoto

Like Moses

Chances are If you’ve never heard the name Shigeru Miyamoto up until now, this one man’s name means little to you. He grew up with his mother and father in the rural village of Sonobe in Japan. The village is located about 30 miles northwest of Kyoto, bordered by a river and wooded mountains.

Miyamoto's hometown of Sonobe

Miyamoto's hometown of Sonobe

As a boy, no one could have known that this curious, inventive, and creative youth would grow up to be the same person who made Nintendo the household name that it is today. Miyamoto is to gaming what Moses is to the Old Testament: a highly recognizable name that played a foundational role in what was to come over many years.

At this point you may be doubting whether this is an accurate comparison; Moses is, after all, a huge personality, with reknown in not only Christianity, but also within Judaism, and Islam.  But Shigeru Miyamoto is revered not only in the company (Nintendo) where he has worked since 1977; he is well-regarded throughout the entirety of the gaming community. Furthermore, he is responsible for, among other series, Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Pikmin and Wii Fit.  With that many iconic franchises that have influenced multiple generations to his name, and that much recognition in gaming, a comparison to any mortal figure of the Bible other than Moses simply falls short.

Rise to Greatness

Today he is widely regarded as a genius in his field, with homage and deference paid to Miyamoto wherever he is recognized. Despite his current status as Da Vinci of Nintendo video games, he didn’t begun his illustrious career at the top.

Miyamoto’s career as a game designer didn’t start as a designer or developer. He graduated from Kanazawa Municipal College of Industrial Arts with a degree in industrial design, and like many graduates today, Miyamoto didn’t have a post graduation job lined up. He wanted to enter the video game industry due to his interest in the 1978 arcade hit Space Invaders.

Space Invaders

Space Invaders

The old cliche “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” proved true for Miyamoto when he began working for the small company of Nintendo in 1977. He didn’t walk into a board room and blow away the company's leadership with intrepid vision casting, authentic salesmanship, or a multi-page pitch for Mario. First hired through of friend of his father, Miyamoto began as an apprentice in the planning department.

When Miyamoto was hired Nintendo as a company was nearing its centennial (Nintendo was originally founded in 1889) and had only recently changed its identity as a business to electronics. Originally Nintendo had produced trading cards, then dabbled as a company in toy manufacturing, then shifted to electronics and ultimately came into being as the company we know of as the video game giant in 1978. Many credit Miyamoto’s hiring and innovation as the catalyst for the success Nintendo has achieved in the last 39 years.

Hired on as a designer Miyamoto’s first job wasn’t to design video games, but the cases they came in. In the late 1970’s the arcade industry was taking off in Asia and in North America and Nintendo was poised to score big. Nintendo’s first game was EVR Race, designed by Genyo Takeda. It’s forgivable If you’ve never heard of EVR Race, as it was met with limited success. Most of Nintendo’s early projects were met with reservation. It was in 1980 that Nintendo released the first of a line of portable handheld LCD devices called Game & Watch (which would later give rise to the wildly successful gameboy).

But not even the portable handheld LCD is responsible for Nintendo’s success. That honor belongs to the first game that Miyamoto’s designed: Donkey Kong.

Donkey Kong advertisement

Donkey Kong advertisement

Miyamoto wanted to form a love triangle between a damsel in distress, a monstrous homage to Beauty and the Beast, and a white-knight styled hero. The concept didn’t originally give rise to a unique character as the hero; instead Miyamoto experimented with several brands and recognizable  franchise figures (most notably Popeye the Sailor). When Popeye couldn’t be secured as the main protagonist, Miyamoto moved on to create a cool and relatable character that would seek to rescue the aforementioned damsel in distress.

The heroic character originally had a hat because it was easier to program a hat in the limited pixel space than moving hair. This project of Miyamoto’s, Donkey Kong, became the first video game to introduce story building prior to programming. Up until 1981, programming architecture was developed before a narrative. This new workflow brought a level of depth to Miyamoto’s games that can still be appreciated in his ongoing works.

Miyamoto’s design and story concept didn’t simply change Nintendo, it changed the way how programmers and artists conceptualized their work. Narrative became a part of gaming in a way that had previously been unrealized.

A Living Legend

His series success with Donkey Kong led to sequels Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3. Revamping his “Jumpman” character from the Donkey Kong series, Miyamoto continued with the heroic character, but changed his immediate context. This change in context for Jumpman, along with the release of the Famicom (more popularly known as Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES) gave rise to the beloved plumber and brothers of gaming: Mario and Luigi.

Mario and Luigi

Mario and Luigi

With the release of the NES and the success of Miyamoto in both the Donkey Kong and Mario series, Miyamoto was able to originate another iconic character in gaming with the release of the Legend of Zelda in 1986. Zelda was more than just another successful release for the Nintendo brand; it created a genre of non-linear gameplay.

Boxart for the original Legend of Zelda

Boxart for the original Legend of Zelda

Up until the release of 1986 Zelda, the Donkey Kong and Mario franchises were limited in their options and choices to players. These games demanded certain skills from it’s players to overcome obstacles through a level. The development of player choice and the obstacles of riddles and puzzles opened the door to a seemingly endless opportunity for exploration and replayability.

By this point Miyamoto was more than a mere game designer or one-hit-wonder; Miyamoto was the golden goose of the Nintendo Entertainment platform. His success continued through the 1980’s and into the 1990’s with more sequels in the Mario and Zelda franchise. With each release Miyamoto and Nintendo sought to push the boundaries and find new ways of incorporating gameplay mechanics into story driven games.

As Nintendo was heading into the 1990s they prepared a new console to succeed the wildly popular NES, one that would use new technology capable of rendering 3D graphics.  Miyamoto worked on a new title that would be a headlining game for the new system and would take advantage of the 3D tech.  This game became known as Star Fox, and it once again demonstrated that Nintendo and Miyamoto were committed to pushing the boundary of what was imaginable using video technology (in addition to becoming yet another beloved Nintendo franchise that has continued to this day).

Star Fox for the Super Nintendo

Star Fox for the Super Nintendo

Miyamoto’s success continued throughout the 2000’s and into the present with the development of the franchises of Mario, Zelda, Star Fox, Metroid, and Pikmin; at one point he even collaborated with Konami on their world-renowned franchise Metal Gear Solid. With each new console generation Miyamoto has continued to display a tangible, intuitive desire to play and enjoy his own creations. He personally credits this youthful desire to enjoy his own games as fuel his success.

Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes

Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes

Miyamoto currently still works at Nintendo and held the prestigious position of representative director when Nintendo president Satoru Iwata passed away in 2015.

The future is still before Shigeru Miyamoto. He will undoubtedly be remembered in history along with the great heroes that are a credit to his name: Mario, Link, DK, Zelda, Star Fox, and more.