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Super Mario's super mastermind: Shigeru Miyamoto talks about the evolution of Nintendo

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With a improved Wii on shelves, and a retro-style revived Super Mario game just out, Nintendo’s creative mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto has a lot on his plate. It’s not easy being the guy who invented everyone’s favorite videogame plumber, but someone has to do it. We sat down recently with Miyamoto to talk (sometimes via interpreter) mushrooms, mayhem, and why we all love Mario so darn much.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How has the philosophy of creating the Mario games changed over the years?

SHIGERU MIYAMOTO: Well, early on, when we were first working on the Mario games, one of the ideas that we had was that we wanted Mario to be kind of a symbol for Nintendo’s digital entertainment so that with each evolution of technology — or each evolution of hardware — we would introduce a new Mario game and that new Mario game would take advantage of the new features of the hardware. And really, the goal was to make these new Mario games…to make them fun but also we wanted Mario to symbolize a new generation of interactive entertainment.

Of course over the years, the games themselves evolved as the hardware evolved, moving into 3-D and things like that, but what we found was that the Mario games had gone from being the original Super Mario Bros. — something anybody and everybody could play — to being something that became… more complicated, so that essentially it became only people who were fans of Mario games, and kind of shrunk down the audience to a certain extent. One thing we want to do this time around is to bring the Mario series back to that point of origin, to that kind of simple gameplay that’s very accessible and anyone can enjoy.

In terms of what my philosophy is for creating the Mario games… I often say that I want the player to be creative, and it then becomes our role to try to provide as many different possible responses to what they might try to do in that interactive environment, so that they have that feeling like they’re creative with the character, feeling like they’re creative in how they explore the world. And we’re rewarding their creativity and their exploration with all these different elements.

Is that why you think people are so bonded to the Mario character, and the franchise. You think of all the fan videos…orchestras performing Mario songs, stuff like that…people dressed up as Mario characters for Halloween. Is that because they feel they have this creative ownership?

I think probably the reason people have those feelings is they must feel a certain amount of closeness to the character — but I don’t necessarily think it’s because the design of the character is cute. I think it’s more because the character within the game kind of acts as a part of the player — almost their stand-in for the game — and does what they want it to do. They feel like they have control over that, and because of it they feel close to the character.

Are there characters that you feel close to? Or that you have a similar bond with that other people have with Mario?

For me I think the Link character from The Legend of Zelda plays a very similar role, but I’m also very fond of the little Pikmin creatures.

You’ve talked in the past about how games like Pikmin or Zelda have been shaped or influenced by experiences you had in your childhood, growing up outside Kyoto…exploring caves, outdoor environments. Are there other life experiences that have seeped into your games?

…beyond my own childhood experiences, even more recent games have drawn on some of my more recent experiences. For example, Nintendogs was a game we started working on very shortly after my family got a pet dog and began to explore the fun of what it meant to raise a dog. Wii Fit is an example of a game we began after I had started weighing myself everyday and tracking my weight on a graph. Even now, some of the experiences in my daily life are giving me inspiration for new interactive entertainment.

It seems like there are two ways that games move forward. One way is evolutionary — the same kind of games get better and better — and the other is revolutionary, where it’s something really different happening. You’ve made games that moved in both of those directions. Is there something you prefer? Do you set out saying “I’m going to improve on this” or do you set out saying “I’m going to do something totally different”? Or does it happen more organically?

…[T]he more time I’ve been in the industry, the more time I’ve spent making games…the bigger demand there is for me to make the next installment in a series. From that side, I find that particularly lately we do end up doing a lot of newer installments in a series that we’ve done in the past. … In that sense, I don’t really have a preference for one over the other. To me it feels like every time we’re making a game, whether it’s an entirely new game or just a new installment, we’re always striving to do something that feels a little more revolutionary.

To that end, are there any ideas that just couldn’t get off the ground? Or seemed they were going to work and never quite made it? Best laid plans, or “if only we could have figured out a way to make that one thing work”?

Typically what happens in those cases is I find we’ve come to a point where we’ve released something and I’ll look at the product we’ve released and I can see in that, “oh, this is the work of all those other things that we tried over the years but weren’t able to finalize and now it’s taken shape in a new form.”

The best example of that is the Miis, which are now built-in and part of the Wii console. I think nowadays, particularly with the avatar system, people look at it as trying to create an avatar of yourself, when I look at it more as almost creating a caricature of yourself. I look at the Miis, and I see the work that we did starting more than 15 years ago on programs that I’d been trying to create that would allow you to create a little videogame character of yourself and interact and do different things with, and over the years of working on that, we never really were able to turn it into an actual product. But ultimately the work we did on that led greatly to something that’s now part of the Wii system.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii is another example of that. In the past…the first Mario Bros. game was a simultaneous two-player game where you were fighting for coins. After that it evolved into the Super Mario Bros. series. But the Super Mario Bros. series has always been a single-player game — one at a time. With each new installment we’ve always done some experiments, trying to find a way to make it a multiplayer experience, but up until now we really haven’t been able to do it…until this Wii version, when we were finally able to get what we needed out of the experiments we were doing and turn it into a simultaneous four-player experience of the Mario universe. That’s probably another example of projects that we’ve worked on in the past that maybe didn’t come to fruition later down the road would end up contributing…

What have you not done yet in the Super Mario series that maybe new technology would allow? Maybe in the next 5-10 years…?

It’s very hard to say. As we’ve seen, the interface itself can change. It’s hard to know where it might be 5-10 years down the road knowing there could be big changes in store.

I mean… you sort of get to pick what those changes are, don’t you?

[Laughter] Yeah, but I don’t know what they’ll be right now!

Additional reporting by Henning Fog

Photo: Tina Fineberg/AP Images

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