Feature

Miyamoto Talks Wii U, Zelda, And Nintendo's Past

by Tim Turi on Jun 17, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Last week at E3 2011 I had the fortunate opportunity to sit down and chat with Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Donkey Kong, Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and countless other magical projects. We mined Miyamoto's mind for information on the Wii U, Nintendo's history, and the 25th anniversary of Zelda.

Why is now the right time for Nintendo to release a high definition console?

Shigeru Miyamoto: It was something we were considering even when we were first working on the original Wii. For a variety of reasons at the time we opted not to include the HD functionality. In the years since we’ve seen the penetration rate of HD increase much more rapidly than we had anticipated. Probably because some of the TV manufacturers thought they could sell TVs without needing to make a profit. We’ve seen the increase in HD TVs be very dramatic, so we felt this time is was important for us to include HD functionality in the system.

Nintendo attempted handheld/console connectivity in 2001 with the GBA/Gamecube link cable. Sony is going for something similar with the Vita. Why is Nintendo now choosing to make the highlight of its console a controller with a screen built in?

We’ve tried connectivity in the past, and we have a lot of different game ideas based on the experiments that we’ve done before. Even looking at the connectivity that we did back then -- even if all you needed was a single cable to connect -- you’d have people who had that cable, but you’d have people who didn’t have it. Of course, we were looking at connectivity in the sense of having a home console and then a portable, and having to have both of those. What that ends up doing is limiting the audience that you’re able to reach with the content that you’re providing because you have to own both and not everybody would.

So really what we were looking at this time was more how can we create this stable environment both for Nintendo itself and for third-party developers so that there’s one target environment that they’re developing for that allows them to create an experience that leverages the full capacity of that environment without having to worry about whether or not everybody has everything they need in order to enjoy that experience. So that’s why when you look at Wii U we’re offering that as a set structure where you have the new controller with the screen, you have the console, and everybody who buys the console is going to have that. It makes it easier for development teams to ensure that they’re creating content that everyone can enjoy.

Speaking of third-party development teams, with the Wii it seemed very few games were released for the console which included no motion control. Will Nintendo set a standard that requires all games on the Wii U to use the controller’s screen functionality?

We’re not going to set any requirements in terms of how developers have to adapt the functionality of the controller to their games. I think what we saw most with Wii was that because the number of buttons on the controller was somewhat limited compared to what developers were used to developing for, that they felt that they needed to implement motion controls to allow for the variety of gameplay and the variety of actions that they would normally want. This time, if you take a look at the Wii U controller, what you’ll see is, yes, it does have motion control and it does have a touch screen, but it also has a full complement of buttons to go alongside that. So it’s really going to be up to the development teams to decide if they want to take advantage of button control, motion control, the touch screen, and they’ll be able to leverage their own creativity and find the gameplay style that’s going to be best suited to the games they’re developing.

The original design of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was originally rejected by Nintendo and sent back for revision, which prompted you to overhaul the game with it’s trademark pastel, crayon art style. Do you, a video game luminary, still ever have ideas that are sent back to the drawing board?

Yes, that’s pretty common, actually. Part of the development research process is running different experiments and looking at them and trying to decide which ones are strong enough to be turned into retail products. The ones that aren’t are shelved and we may come back to them later and look at ways to bring them to life. It’s not just limited to art styles, but entire gameplay structures and gameplay systems.

Skyward Sword is another good example of that. That’s a game where we started the experiment based on the Twilight Princess game that really focused in on what the new gameplay styles are going to be, and those new interactions that we’re going to focus on in this game. We worked on a number of those and figured out which are the ones that we’re going to bring to life in a new game. In that process the games evolved. It wasn’t until we got to the point where we were able to evaluate those and really make a final decision. I was a little nervous about the game early on, but now it’s come along quite nicely.

Do you own an iPad or iPhone? It seems like quick, digestible games like Angry Birds would be a good fit for the Wii U controller. Are there plans to offer those popular, smaller types of games via the Wii U?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an iPad or an iPhone myself. But at work I am often checking out what’s going on on those platforms.

Essentially when Nintendo is looking at creating games we’re really looking at it from that final quality standpoint and what that entertainment experience is. I think where one of the challenges lies is now sometimes we’ll look at a system and try to figure out the best game that we can create within that interface. Sometimes we may have an idea that we want to bring to life and we may build a piece of hardware around it that allows us to turn that idea into a true entertainment experience. I think where the challenge then lies is in terms of looking at games that have appeared on other platforms, finding any that when you bring them to a new platform, or to our platform, are there ways that the new platform can make them more intuitive or bring a new element of fun to them that can make them more unique? If there were examples of that then we would have no qualms about bringing them to the platform. That would be regardless of whether they where deeper experiences or even the more simple, intuitive, but very short experiences that you mentioned.

What I think is very appealing about Wii U is that you have this controller, and I guess to some people’s eyes it looks somewhat like a tablet, but really it’s not about just what that experience is with that individual controller, but really it’s about how you interact with that controller and the TV together, and the dynamic that can occur between those two devices that I think opens up a lot of possibilities.

Shigeru Miyamoto and translator Bill Trinen

Nintendo has made clear that the Wii U controller is not a portable gaming device. Were there ever plans for it to be its own self-contained system that you could take with you?

That’s a tough question. I guess what I should do is explain where the idea started from. The concept for Wii U came from, “where do we want to take the future of home console gaming?” Particularly with the thinking that the home console is something that’s connected to the TV, we started to think about how we can leverage the TV and interact with it in different ways and use that to change the living room entertainment experience. What we didn’t do is look at in terms of how can we connect a portable gaming device to a console.

One of the challenges with the home console is that up until now for the home console to function is it has to be connected to the TV. Particularly now when turning on the TV doesn’t instantly bring up an image, it takes time for the picture to come up, or someone else is using the TV, that then creates barriers for people to use the home console. What we thought was what can we do to make this device that anyone can access instantly at any time regardless of what’s happening on the TV? How can they use this controller to very quickly turn on the system, see what’s new there, see what their friends have been playing, and have instant access to that. What we decided is that in addition to the TV screen that the console is going to use, we needed an additional screen that is quick, easy access to everything that the system has to offer.

Tell me more about the decision to put more focus on showing off the Wii U’s controller rather than spotlighting the console.

In terms of what we’re going to be doing is we’re going to be releasing Wii U, it’s a new console. The consumers will ultimately be buying a new console. In terms of what they’re going to be experiencing, it’s less about the console itself and it’s more about the experience you have with that controller and your interaction with the TV. In terms of trying to convey the concept of what the console is capable of, showing the console itself wasn’t important at this point in time.

At the Nintendo E3 press conference you announced regional orchestral concerts that will be playing Zelda music to celebrate the franchise’s 25th anniversary. The Final Fantasy Distant Worlds concerts have been going on for years. Did you hold off on these concerts in order to coincide with the anniversary?

We were never at point early on in thinking we want to do a concert but let’s just wait until the 25th anniversary. Really what happened is Nintendo is a video game company, and we don’t put on concerts and we don’t really expand beyond the video game realm. But when we started thinking about the 25th anniversary and what we could do to let the fans appreciate and celebrate that, one thing we looked at is the connection the Zelda series has to music. In recent years as we’ve moved towards orchestrated music, and the music has taken on even greater importance in that sense, we felt that the idea of holding a concert to celebrate the 25th anniversary was something that meshed really well and made a lot of sense.

The Zelda series is widely loved. But there are some criticisms that the series hasn’t evolved over the years. Now that we’re at the 25th anniversary, are you happy with what the series has become?

The thing that we think is valued the most in the Zelda series is that the player isn’t just playing a game. The player is in that world and part of that adventure and using their own abilities to solve the puzzles and fight the enemies that are there. I think that’s really where we’ve put our focus on that series over the years. Possibly as a result of that there’s the tendency for the gameplay to feel a little bit more linear. Really what’s important for us is that satisfaction that you get from sitting down and thinking your way through those puzzles and finally solve them.

So the idea is that the player grows and matures over the course of the adventure, and one way to strengthen that feeling for the player is to have the adventure follow along with a flow and be very connected to a story that progresses as the play progresses through it. I think that’s where the structure or the order of the game comes from.

Of course, as the games evolved into the full 3D worlds, and more recently with the implementation of motion control, I think that sense that you’re the one in that adventure experiencing it has strengthened greatly. I think in that sense the Zelda series has really evolved.

The other thing that we did with the Zelda series is we intend to create the game in way that the player has a tremendous amount of freedom in terms of the things that they’re able to do. As they explore the world and discover things and try to play the game in different ways, there are little thing sprinkled throughout the world that will reward them for that. I do think that the notion of following a story perhaps pushes people towards that normal progression of the game. What I’ll say about Skyward Sword is that there’s a tremendous amount of places you can go and things you can do in that game. It’s very open world, and I would encourage everyone to go and explore every nook and cranny of that game as well.

The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures is being given away for free on the 3DS’s eShop. Are you giving away the game for free because you’re not satisfied with how few people have played the game? Why give it away?

I think Four Swords is a very fun game.

Yes, I agree!

[laughter]

Obviously, because you needed so many Gameboy Advance link cables to play the game when we released it on Gameboy Advance, not many people played the game. So from my perspective it’s very fun and I want many people to play it as well. But our sales team is worried that it’s a tough thing to sell. Now with the Nintendo 3DS and the more recent systems, the communication and multiplayer doesn’t require a cable anymore - it can be wireless. For many years we’ve been talking about how we wanted to take advantage of that and remake Four Swords. Particularly this year, being the 25th anniversary of Zelda, we wanted to offer people something that would allow them to play Zelda together very quickly. So we decided to take the original and make it available for people to play via their DSi.

Bill [Trinen, Miyamoto’s translator] was also asking us to make Four Swords Adventures and Tetra’s Trackers for Wii.

How similar is the hardware of the Wii U’s circle pads with the 3DS’s?

The circle pads that we’re using for the Wii U controllers are of a more advanced state than the one we created for Nintendo 3DS. They will perhaps have a bit more precision. The mechanism that allows those circle pads to work is still very different from, for example, the mechanism we used for the control stick on the Gamecube controller. In that sense it’s very tough to compare the precision or how the circle pads will work in that sense, but personally I feel that we’ve gotten them to a point that when you sit down and play with them you get used to them very quickly and they feel very nice.

Why didn’t Nintendo promote the fantastic-looking new Kirby Wii and Kirby: Mass Attack games during its E3 2011 press conference?

We really streamlined the conference this year to focus on a few things, being the Zelda 25th anniversary, the 3DS, and the Wii U. The Kirby games didn’t fall into any of those big buckets. Also, in terms of E3 being an industry show and a business show, we look at the presentation as being one way of being able to talk about our products. Particularly with the two Kirby games you speak of, we still feel there are a lot of ways we can deliver the message of those games to consumers.

I’ve heard rumors that Kirby was named after attorney John Kirby, the lawyer who defended Nintendo in a lawsuit by Universal during the 80s. Is it true?

Yes, it is a fact that I met John Kirby and got to know him when he was defending us during the lawsuit against Universal. And it is a fact that the Kirby name was partially chosen in connection to him, but it wasn’t named after him. Instead, we had a list of names that we were looking at and Kirby was one of the names on the list. As we were going through the list and narrowing down the selections we saw that Kirby was there and we thought John Kirby’s name is Kirby, and started thinking that if those two had a connection that would be kind of funny.

The other element to the naming is that the character is very cute. Kirby is this soft and fluffy character and he’s very cute. In Japan, for cute characters they use very soft names with soft sounds in them. I thought the name Kirby had these harsh sounds to it, and I thought the juxtaposition of this cute character with this harsh-sounding name was very funny.

I’ve read that friendly internal rivalries have existed between Nintendo’s development teams in the past. Are rivalries like this still in place to spur on creativity?

It’s not something that people are consciously thinking of internally. Even in the past I don’t know that it was a very competitive environment. If you have one team of people that works together all the time, then gradually they’re going to drift into a particular area of development or continually focus on the same types of things. So I do think it’s important to have different groups set up with different individuals in those groups who are responsible for doing the creative thinking and ensuring that each of the different teams are continuing to maintain their creativity.

You’ve said in the past that Super Mario World is your favorite Mario game. I was surprised then when I picked up Super Mario 3DS and found it has a lot in common with Super Mario Bros. 3.

It’s true that from a design standpoint the development team has drawn a lot from Super Mario 3, but the overall intention is not to focus just on Super Mario Bros. 3, but really to look at what we’ve done in the Mario franchise overall and look at how we can evolve the Mario gameplay in new ways in order to create this new 3D Super Mario Bros. I think that you’ll find it becomes sort of a Mario 64-esque Super Mario World type of game.

The appearance of Mario in the Tanooki suit during the E3 press conference was met with a very strong positive reaction from the crowd. Why do you think fans seem to love the Tanooki suit above all Mario power-ups?

This is maybe not necessarily related to why it’s so popular, but a couple things about the Tanooki suit is when first worked on it we had a lot of freedom and came up with this whimsical suit that Mario could use. In Japan there are a lot of folktales about the Tanooki, which is an actual animal in Japan. But the folktale talks about how the Tanooki can grab a leaf, hold it to its head, and transform. We had a lot of fun with that idea and bringing it into the game. From a functional standpoint what the Tanooki suit does is Mario jumps in the air and whips his tail back and forth so that he floats down very slowly. The slow floating is something that I think is very fun, but it also has very strong meaning, particularly when you’re playing in a 3D game in terms of having that ability to float down slowly and glide through the environment. Again, not related to why it’s so popular, but those are some of the elements of the Tanooki suit that I really like.

Whether it was the SNES’s buttons, the N64’s multi-colored controllers, or the variety of Gameboy hues, in the past Nintendo was about colorful hardware. The Wii, the Wii U, and their corresponding peripherals are primarily colored a very sterile white. Why the shift away from color?

Based on my background as an industrial designer and Nintendo and my background in creating entertainment, I’ve always wanted to make greater use of color in our hardware. If you look back at things like the Famicom and the original Super Nintendo, they were a lot more colorful from a hardware perspective. What we found over the years when we included a lot of different colors in our hardware is people would kind of point to that and use it to paint us as more kid-oriented. So really what we looked at is what are some ways from a design perspective that we can make the system appeal to all ages? One of the ways that we found to best do that is to minimize the use of color. In that process we asked if we’re going to do that, what’s the best way to go? We found that rather than going all black - all white seems to have a broader appeal to people.