17 Fascinating Facts About Nintendo Legend Shigeru Miyamoto
By Jake Rossen
When industrial design major Shigeru Miyamoto went to work designing arcade cabinets for Nintendo in 1976, there was little indication he would become what TIME would later call the “Steven Spielberg of video games.” Moving into content development, Miyamoto’s creations (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong) helped revitalize the gaming industry and made Nintendo synonymous with fun. With Miyamoto celebrating his 63rd birthday on November 16, check out some facts on the man who made Mario jump.
1. HE ORIGINALLY WANTED TO DRAW COMICS.
Born in the rural Japanese town of Sonobe in 1952, Miyamoto loved Japanese comic books (manga) and aspired to become an illustrator when he got older. “I gave that up because there were so many other manga artists who were at such a high quality that I felt I couldn't compete with them,” he told NPR earlier this year. He eventually gravitated toward industrial design in college, where he again considered the talent pool too deep. By the time he discovered video games, he felt the genre combined everything he appreciated growing up.
2. NINTENDO INTERVIEWED HIM BECAUSE HIS DAD KNEW THE BOSS.
Shortly after graduating from the Kanawaza College of Municipal Industrial Arts, Miyamoto landed a job interview at Nintendo in 1976 because his father knew company boss Hiroshi Yamauchi through a mutual friend. He showed Yamauchi some wooden toys he’d made—two clothes hangers in the shape of a crow and elephant. After being assigned an apprentice job as a staff artist, Miyamoto began designing cabinet artwork for arcade games like Sheriff and Space Fever.
3. DONKEY KONG HAPPENED BECAUSE OF LEFTOVER CABINETS.
Miyamoto’s big break came at the age of 27, after Nintendo had misjudged the potential popularity of a shoot-‘em-up game called Radar Scope. The title failed to catch on in North America and the company found itself with over two thousand cabinets that needed to be renovated with something new. Miyamoto was charged with coming up with a replacement title. After Nintendo failed to secure the rights to Popeye, he imagined a riff on Beauty and the Beast, where a noble hero rescues a princess from the clutches of a snarling monster. Released in 1981, Donkey Kong became a staggering success, pulling in $200 million in quarters; Nintendo quickly put Miyamoto in charge of game development.
4. HE WANTED MARIO IN EVERY GAME HE MADE.
Taking a cue from Alfred Hitchcock, who made a cameo in most every film he directed, Miyamoto wanted Mario (formerly known as "Mr. Video" and "Jumpman" before Nintendo of America named him after their warehouse landlord) to pop up in every game he designed. While he hasn’t quite managed it, Mario has become something of a Nintendo staple, appearing as a referee, doctor, plumber, and more in dozens of titles. Miyamoto, however, originally created him as a carpenter—he became a plumber only after Super Mario Bros. introduced sewer pipes as a mode of transportation.
5. ZELDA WAS MODELED AFTER A CAVE FROM HIS CHILDHOOD.
Miyamoto’s next breakthrough, The Legend of Zelda, came from some local expeditions he had undertaken as a child—a possible result of not having a television to divert his attention. Once, when he discovered a cave, he needed to work up the nerve to explore it. Fetching a lantern, he progressed deeper into the opening, which led to another cave. “The spirit of the state of mind when one kid enters a cave alone must be realized in the game," he told Rolling Stone. “Going in, he must feel the cold air around him. He must discover a branch off to one side and decide whether to explore it or not.”
6. HE DIDN’T THINK ZELDA WOULD BE SUCCESSFUL.
Miyamoto and his design team worked on both Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda simultaneously—but he didn’t have high hopes for the latter. “When I was making The Legend of Zelda, it was very plain,” he said in an interview. “I didn't think that genre would be seen as something so mainstream. I really didn't expect the response I got…a world of swords and magic really wasn't considered mainstream at the time.” The game went on to sell over seven million copies.
7. HE GETS HIS INSPIRATION FROM EVERYWHERE.
Miyamoto is famous for letting otherwise mundane experiences inform his gaming design. The razor-toothed Chain Chomp adversaries in Super Mario Bros. 3 were modeled after a neighborhood dog from his youth that once chased him around the neighborhood; the underwater scenes in Super Mario 64 were a result of his newfound devotion to swimming; Nintendogs, a popular pet-care game for the DSi, happened after Miyamoto brought home a Shetland sheepdog.
8. WII FIT WAS MIYAMOTO’S MIDLIFE CRISIS.
When he turned 40, Miyamoto decided to give up smoking and an unhealthy diet to get in better shape. Each day, he’d weigh himself and write down the result on a graph he kept on his bathroom wall. When his family took an interest in his progress, he decided that a competitive, fitness-oriented game would be appealing for players. Wii Fit went on to sell over 22 million copies.
9. HE LIKES TO GUESS THE MEASUREMENTS OF RANDOM OBJECTS.
Miyamoto’s curiosity about the world around him extends to dimensions. He’s been known to look at objects and try to guess how long, wide, and tall they are, then confirm his estimates by using a tape measure that he carries around with him.
10. ONE OF HIS GAMES WAS BANNED IN THE U.S.
After finishing Mario and Zelda, Miyamoto turned his attention to a Pac-Man homage he called Devil World. The maze-focused game featured a dragon named Tamagon who goes into the depths of Hell and has to collect crosses and Bibles in order to feed on pellets that will assist him in defeating Satan. If that religious iconography sounds like a little too much for Nintendo’s young American audience, the company agreed. The game was released in Japan and Europe but never arrived stateside.
11. HE WAS DISAPPOINTED BY ZELDA II.
When gaming site Kotaku asked Miyamoto if he’s ever made a bad game, the designer responded that Zelda II: The Adventure of Link didn’t live up to his expectations. “We could have done more with [Link],” he said. “It would have been nice to have had bigger enemies in the game, but the [NES] hardware wasn't capable of doing that.”
12. HE LOVES GEORGE LUCAS.
It’s probably not all that surprising that one myth-maker has a lot of admiration for another, but Miyamoto considers Star Wars creator George Lucas to be his singular idol. Like Lucas, he eventually evolved into a producer who oversees multiple projects at a time, focusing on broad strokes like design and script work before delegating responsibility to his employees. It's been estimated Miyamoto has had a hand in over 100 Nintendo titles.
13. HE LIKES COUNTRY AND BLUEGRASS MUSIC.
Among Miyamoto’s eclectic interests is bluegrass music. The designer formed a bluegrass band in college and believes there’s a close relationship between learning to play a game and learning to play an instrument. He once likened learning the F chord on a guitar to mastering a complex game move: once it’s done, you become more invested in the music (or game). Longtime coworker Takashi Tezuka and late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata once speculated that Mario riding Yoshi was born out of Miyamoto’s appreciation of Old West iconography like horse-riding.
14. HE’S A KNIGHT.
In 2006, Miyamoto became one of the first game designers to ever be honored with knighthood in France’s Order of Arts and Letters. French Minister of Culture Renard Donnedieu de Vabre performed the ceremony; sadly, the induction did not allow Miyamoto to add “Sir” to his name.
15. HE DOESN’T THINK OF HIMSELF AS VERY JAPANESE.
When asked by Time for Kids in 2013 how Japanese culture has influenced the gaming industry, Miyamoto had a surprising response. “I don’t think of myself as being very Japanese,” he said. "Ever since I was a kid I’ve always liked America and American culture…What’s also interesting is that Nintendo’s headquarters is located in Kyoto. People typically focus on Japan’s capital city of Tokyo but the people of Kyoto don’t focus much on Tokyo. The people of Kyoto love their city and are somewhat more individualistic. That is probably why the games we created have a more universal appeal.”
16. HE’S NEVER SEEN THE WIZARD.
As of 2009, anyway. The 1990 movie featuring Fred Savage as the older brother to a video game prodigy who gets a sneak peek at Super Mario Bros. 3 has become something of a Nintendo footnote, but Miyamoto told Popular Mechanics that he’s never seen it. He did, however, make time for Super Mario Bros., the disappointing 1993 live-action adaptation of the game. He called it a “very fun project that [the filmmakers] put a lot of effort into.”
17. NINTENDO WON’T ALLOW HIM TO BIKE TO WORK.
As Miyamoto’s role at Nintendo evolved and became increasingly important to the company’s bottom line, they began to grow more protective of him. He used to walk or ride a bicycle to work—but they eventually insisted he ride in a car to offset the potential for being clipped by a passing motorist.