A week ago today, Nintendo unveiled the Wii U, the successor home console to the widely popular Wii, and a clear attempt by the venerable videogame company at bringing more hardcore gamers into its fold. (You can read our full report of the HD-enabled, motion sensitive, touch-screen controller-based Wii U here.) While the success of the Wii U to bring in serious gamers mostly depends on whether companies like Ubisoft and EA will, you know, make games for it, everyone knows that the ultimate success or failure of a new Nintendo system rests on the shoulders of a mustachioed plumber and a green-suited, elven-like warrior. So what does the creator of the Mario and Zelda franchises, Shigeru Miyamoto, make of the Wii U? How does he keep those games fresh? And will we ever see another Mario movie? The guru of Nintendo’s game development spoke with EW, through a company translator, about all these questions and more:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first get the impression that the Wii U was the direction Nintendo would be going, especially with the controller and what it offers?
SHIGERU MIYAMOTO: When we were able to sit back and see how Wii was being used in people’s living rooms and in their homes, we sort of got a general direction for where to go with our next system. One of the things we determined right away was that with Wii, we didn’t implement any HD graphics. We thought it was too early at the time. However, of course, with the Wii successor, we determined that obviously we would have to be implementing HD graphics.
We wanted to put a machine that would be in the living room that of course like Wii was used by the entire family. But one thing we immediately determined, in addition to HD graphics, we wanted to improve that performance. We have some of these new TVs [that] take a long time to start up, your TV’s not always on, it’s a home console but it’s dependent upon the TV. Your Wii is never sleeping, but your television is. We really thought that’s not a complete system. We thought with this new system, what we really need, we need a separate monitor, that doesn’t have to rely on these big TVs to take a long time to turn on.
Reactions to Wii U have focused on that it seems to be designed to attract more serious gamers. The Wii certainly brought in a wider audience of casual gamers, but the knock has been that hardcore gamers don’t take the Wii seriously. How conscious were you in designing the Wii U with that audience in mind?
[Smiles] The folks at Nintendo, we consider ourselves to be that core audience. We play lots of games, we make games. One of the things of course as you’ve mentioned with DS and with Wii, one of our rules was to reach out to a broader and expanded audience. Appealing to that group was something very intentional for us. That being said, we understand the need to provide for those folks who consider themselves more veteran, more core to the gaming audience, so we thought with HD and the new controller — called a sub-monitor for the time being — would bring a new play style for them. It’s reaching out to them, but it’s also bringing a fresh new experience. And with the touch screen and the motion controls, we are also not scaring away that casual first-time gamer who wants to come in and be part of the experience. I think we’ve come up with a combination that will appeal to both groups without alienating one or the other. It’s not just, “Hey, here’s some hardcore style controls.” It’s bringing them all together and combining them in different ways. You’ve heard from EA and Ubisoft that they’ve liked what they’ve seen so far and we’re looking forward to that collaboration.
Were there things you wanted to do on a console system that when the Wii U was being designed, you wanted to make possible?
Five years ago, there was a Pac-Man connectivity demo that basically had different players on different machines, playing together but not seeing what the other person was doing. Based on experience we’ve got “Chase Mii” [a demonstration game in which the chasers use the TV and the person being chased uses the sub-monitor controller]. You’ve got the handheld screen versus the big screen. That’s something I wanted to do. Also, with a gyroscope, you hold the [controller] up, you look up. Previously, with an analog stick and analog pad, some people press up to look up, some people press down to look up.
There’s some things that I think make the video game experience more convenient. For example, if you’re playing a traditional Mario game, one of the first things you do before you get in the game is you select the number of players, you select which character you’re going to use, there’s that whole menu set up. Now, there’s really no need for everybody in the room to have to sit through that. If one player can just get all of that set up on the small screen, you can still be having your TV up doing something different. When you’re ready, you’re boom ready to go.
With every new Nintendo system, there’s a new Mario game, a new Zelda game, and so forth. And with all due respect, there’s a sameness to these experiences — you’ve always got to save the princess and defeat Bowser, or find the slingshot and a better sword. That familiarity can be comforting, but how do you try to keep Mario and Link fresh?
This is a little but esoteric. But you’re born, you experience things, you learn things, you have emotional reactions to things and after a certain number of years, your life is over. Human existence is a repetition of that [pattern], and I think one of the keystones of entertainment is that the things we have an emotional reaction to and the things that we respond to really don’t change that much. It’s the medium that we use to convey those changes. We start with novels to stage to TV to movies to video games — the messages have remained constant for the most part. It’s the way in which we deliver that content to the user that makes it fresh for them. So we’re constantly looking at new technologies that are out there, how can we improve on or change up the interface so that we’re delivering what we understand to be an emotionally impactful experience in new and interesting ways.
Okay. But specifically, when you say to yourself, “I’m going to tackle the new Mario or Link game,” how do you balance the fact that you’re bringing something familiar, but also making sure that it feels fresh?
[Smiles] That’s difficult. We’re looking at the people who have experienced our games previously and we want to add new things for them, but we also have people who haven’t played these games before. We need to provide that first-time experience in every game for those first-time gamers. If we’re just adding stuff on to the previous experience, then we’re creating a hurdle for first-time people who are coming new to the franchise. So if we come up with a new interface or implement the technologies in a way that brings a fresh experience, the existing gamers have something new and the first time gamers don’t have that introductory hurdle. But how do you balance that? That’s a problem we face constantly.
Have you considered creating a completely new character?
I think that’s really what my intention was with Pikmin [from 2001]. And of course we have Nintendogs and Wii Fit, and while these aren’t new characters, I really focus on bringing new experiences into video games.
If you look at television broadcasting, the times are determined. We know when it starts, we know when it ends. [It’s] the same when you go to a movie theater. What you can do on film is fairly constricted, fairly limited, it’s within a certain box but with video games really there is no limit. It’s really just how we take all this technology and how we implement it. I just want to make sure that we, to the best of our ability, don’t miss any chances out there and that’s one of our biggest responsibilities.
Speaking of movies, other than the unfortunate 1993 live-action movie Super Mario Bros. — which I’m sure everyone at Nintendo would just as soon forget…
…have you ever seriously entertained the notion to adapt any Nintendo characters as feature film adaptations?
Well, to be honest, it’s very flattering. We’ve had a lot of offers, from a lot of different areas, to take our characters into the realm of broader entertainment. The problem is that the influence of whatever adaptation you have can be so great, we want people to use Mario in the way they want to, not being influenced by, oh, this is what happened in the movie, so I’ve got to do it this way. We really don’t want Mario’s future sort of swayed or dictated by a movie representation. Another thing is that I would want to check every single [detail]. [Smiles] So if there was someone that suddenly appeared, [and] I felt extremely confident this person will do exactly the right thing with every element and every property we have, maybe? But right now, I just don’t feel brave enough to just let go and have somebody else do that.
Finally, in the last few years, an entirely new ecosystem of gaming has emerged on smart phones and tablets. What are your impressions? Going forward, how does Nintendo plan to compete?
You look at the world of video games and it’s no longer the traditional console or handheld — video games are on PCs and tablets and phones. That’s a fact and you can’t ignore that. That being said, I remember when people first started playing video games on cell phones, we were told by many different places, “Oh, that’s the death of handhelds. You guys are done.” But for us as an entertainment company, if we provide content that you can only play on [our] handheld, then we’re going to be fine. We don’t need to have a phone in our handheld system. Just the way that we’ve seen that environment sort of evolve, I think people do understand and it’s not only with handhelds, but with everything — whatever media you’re using, if we’re providing content that is only available here that people enjoy and want to play, then that’s our answer to how we compete. We just keep providing things that people want to play with.