The legendary designer on his process and being open to change.
It’s late on the first day of E3, and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto looks very comfortable. In a small meeting room high above Nintendo’s booth, Miyamoto sits under a Super Mario Odyssey poster in what seems like a different, much quieter world than the chaos of the bustling show floor below.
Officially, E3 is in full swing, but Miyamoto has already made his big announcement for the week, appearing on stage with Ubisoft to reveal a new Mario crossover with Rabbids. Even as Nintendo spent the morning on its live show debuting new gameplay of Super Mario Odyssey, producer Yoshiaki Koizumi and director Kenta Motokura took the stage, giving Miyamoto the chance to watch from the sidelines. With such a long legacy behind him, he’s okay with not always being in the spotlight, and, in regard to both Rabbids and Odyssey, he’s happy to see other people making new playgrounds for Mario.
“There’s only a certain amount of things that you can create on your own,” he tells IGN. “It’s important to get young minds in, too. I think it becomes more fun if young minds are involved.”
When it comes to Mario, Miyamoto is fairly open to experiments, but still tries to make sure the designers he works with understand certain limits, telling teams, “‘You can do whatever you want up to this line, but don’t go past this point. That’s what I don’t want to change.'”
“When it’s internal teams, they really understand it, although they try to push that line a little bit further. But when it’s an external partner, I make sure that line is very clear,” he explains. “I have times where I’m actually strangely open and it’s the team that’s worrying too much. But then other times, I’m really strict in certain other points.”
Fundamentally, I think that it’s ideal if we can get old characters to do new things.
For Super Mario Odyssey specifically, he says the idea of Mario in New Donk City, a city very much like New York, was a challenge. “I was worried about how players would react to being in a world where Mario is this tall and normal people are a little bit taller. Or the fact that people don’t get mad at Mario when he’s jumping up and down all over the place,” he says, laughing. “But with all that said, I think I realized that the character Pauline has already existed, and the idea of this game taking place in the city worked out really well. And so we ran with it.”
That willingness to run with it is one reason Mario has remained popular for more than three decades. For Miyamoto, creating new characters is fun, but he doesn’t feel pressure to come up with something new. Rather than force in a new character, he’d rather see Mario dropped into new situations or using new mechanics.
“Fundamentally, I think that it’s ideal if we can get old characters to do new things,” he says. “When there is a new game mechanic introduced and there’s a new character that really, really fits well, I think it’s great. But I do have a little bit of hesitancy and resistance when someone’s trying to overbearingly bring their thoughts in, and trying to create new characters over and over again.”
“As a child I wanted to be a manga artist, and as a manga artist usually you have this symbolic character that’s yours. And you try to use that character in many different stories and episodes that you create, almost like how Hitchcock is in every one of his movies,” he continues. “For me, Mario is that, and I want to create as many different games as possible using Mario. And I still think there’s a lot of potential and possibility left.”
…almost like how Hitchcock is in every one of his movies. For me, Mario is that, and I want to create as many different games as possible using Mario.
Miyamoto says that his original vision of Mario falls somewhere in between his appearance in games 30 years ago and how he looks now. “I really feel like as a manga artist, I had this concept of Mario and he did look a lot more realistic than the 2D images that we were able to create,” he says. “But then when you come to Super Mario World, there was a Japanese artist, Yoichi Kotabe, he was able to create a more fleshed-out, evolved version of Mario. And then when you come to Super Mario 64, Mario evolved from a 2D drawing to a 3D character.”
Despite that new, more fleshed-out design for Mario, Miyamoto says he has little interest in revisiting his older games, even with new technology. “I don’t really feel like I want to remake any of them. It’s more natural to always create new mechanics and new games.”
Still, he emphasizes that technology has made a big difference, and that new tools have made it easier to get his ideas directly into the games. “Before, we only had a simple mechanic to work with, so all we could really play around with was how polished we made it,” he recalls. “But now we can have the freedom to do all different kinds of expressions, all different kinds of resource management, all those things. So I feel like we have more in our toolset than just polishing the game.”
Coming up with new ideas generally starts with a simple core concept for Miyamoto, and then he decides where it’s a good fit among Nintendo’s many characters and franchises.
I really feel like I own this talent agency and I am casting all these great talent into these games.
“I really start with the game mechanic, and then trying to make sure that the character that gets put into the game fits that mechanic,” he explains. “If you divide things into large categories, you could go the Mario route or the Zelda route. And then, for example, with a game like Luigi’s Mansion, I really thought that Luigi was the perfect fit for that game, and that’s how it manifested. And for characters like Pikmin, for the mechanic that current Pikmin games have, they were perfect.”
“In a sense, I really feel like I own this talent agency and I am casting all these great talent into these games,” he adds.
In comparing Mario and Zelda, as an example, Miyamoto says he sees the difference between the franchises as one of density. “In Mario, it really is what you can see and what you can touch and trying to build creativity there, whereas Zelda is about exploration and really going out [into the distance]. So there is that difference in density.”
As for designing the mechanics themselves, Miyamoto says the best inspiration comes from simply playing games. “I usually spend a lot of time thinking about games when I’m actually playing games, looking at something and thinking to myself, ‘Would it be more fun if this thing came at me, or if this thing was running away from me?’ Things like that.”
Miyamoto says that new technology has opened new doors for designing mechanics, but that tools are only as efficient as a designer’s ability to describe things to fellow developers. “I think it’s really essential and crucial to be able to communicate to the programmer in exact detail how you want your concept to come to life,” he explains. He says he tells directors to be well-versed in technology and to speak in specific terms, and “to always use numbers and flowcharts to make it very clear what it is you’re trying to communicate to the programmer.”
I don’t really feel like I want to remake any of them. It’s more natural to always create new mechanics and new games.
In his eyes, that line of communication continues when it comes to explaining to a player what they can or can’t do. A clear set of rules has to be laid out to make sure any given mechanic can be easily understood. “It’s important to know what happens if they do something, or what they can touch and can’t touch,” he explains. “I feel like that is a really important aspect, and I do that for everything. That’s the kind of designs and drawings that I try to create.”
In that regard, Miyamoto sees the Tox Box, a cube that is constantly moving to crush Mario but has a hole on one side he can safely hide in, as one of his best designs. “When the hole is on your side, Mario can just get into the cube and you’re safe, but if he doesn’t, you get squashed. And it’s easy to see. It’s very clear and understandable. It’s also easy to predict,” he says, smiling. “But once you actually start thinking about it, then it becomes complicated. Once you start trying to put that into action, it becomes complicated. I feel like that is probably one of my masterpieces.”
Looking to the future, Miyamoto hopes that physical input always remains part of gaming even as technology improves. “I wouldn’t want to see the world go in the direction where all you need to do is think to make things move, or all you need to do is control things with eye movement,” he muses.
What makes Mario really relatable for a lot of people is the fact that it requires creativity on the side of the player.
“I really think that movement is fun, and in that sense there’s a lot more evolution that something like movement can have within a game. For example, even with the gyro sensor that we have now, you need to calibrate it to have it work. Maybe in the future, it will somehow read the magnetic poles or axis of the Earth so you don’t need to calibrate it, or will use almost no electricity whatsoever. It would be great to see things happen in that aspect.”
In discussing how other people might design games, Miyamoto says it was fun for him seeing how players came up with stages in Super Mario Maker. Without naming specific creators, he says his favorite levels are those where players essentially create a puzzle, “and once you have the right combination, it almost completes itself.”
“It’s great that there are people who are making those creative ideas. That’s what really makes me happy,” he says. “When I think about games, for the player to be able to play creatively within a free space is important, and that’s something that I try to have in every game that we put out.”
That creativity is essential for the future of Mario, he says, and something he hopes to pass on to any future directors.
“Simply put, in Mario, you run, you jump, you fall, you bump into things. Things that people do all the time in everyday life, and that’s just inserted into the game,” he says. “Going on to future generations and iterations of Mario, I think obviously, the developer who makes these games has to be creative, but I also think the players must be creative as well. They need to think and act themselves.”
“I think what makes Mario really relatable for a lot of people is the fact that it requires creativity on the side of the player to be able to think and act and learn from those actions,” he continues. “When you look at games like Super Mario Odyssey or even Super Mario 64, that’s what they’ve been doing. That’s the key to what has made Mario so accepted and popular.”
Andrew is IGN’s executive editor of news and will cherish a drawing of Mario Miyamoto sketched during this interview forever. You can find him rambling about Persona and cute animals on Twitter.