Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario, is considered one of the greatest game designers that has ever lived. But what I’ve always found fascinating about Miyamoto is his love and appreciation for films and animation. It’s well documented that Donkey Kong took some inspiration from “Beauty and the Beast”, “Popeye”, and “King Kong”. Another example, it was reported that Shigeru Miyamoto originally proposed a story for Link’s Crossbow Training that was similar to Terminator where Link gets a gun from a space time warp. But the scope of the project would have been too large so they scaled back on the idea to something smaller.
Perhaps analyzing Mr. Miyamoto’s film tastes would give us a deeper look into one of the world’s greatest game designers? The question is, what film should we start with?
“Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite movie! I take my hat off to Steven Spielberg!” said Shigeru Miyamoto in a 1993 interview with People magazine.
As he lists his favorite directors, you begin to realize how diverse his tastes in films really are. His tastes include a variety of directors and genres ranging from adventure to comedy to suspense.
“I think movies work when they are very well organized, like Raiders of the Lost Ark by Steven Spielberg. I like a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, because you can see the theme of the movie very clearly. I think for creating movies, novels, games and other works of entertainment, the theme has to be clearly understood by the audience. I also like Tim Burton and John Waters. In John Waters’ works, for example, you can see how the comedy and quirks are being developed throughout his films,” said Shigeru Miyamoto in an interview with Nintendo Power.
But why should Miyamoto’s film influences stop at comedies and suspense? Would you believe that “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” took inspiration from western (cowboy) films?
“Even though Cowboy movies had somewhat of an influence, I brought some personal elements in as well,” said Miyamoto in a 1997 Japanese magazine called Famimaga 64.
Before making the transition into becoming a game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto was known to be a manga artist. He was also a big fan of Hayoa Miyazaki’s animated films which have inspired many Japanese game developers over the years.
“My Neighbor Totoro” impressed me with what they did with the style,” says Miyamoto. “That’s something I like to look at, to see something within an existing media that is creative and different. That’s what we try to do with our products, to take something people have seen and try to do something new with it. It’s when you’re really able to do something revolutionary within a media that’s existed for some time that I think you’re able to shock and startle people. That’s usually how it is for me. “Laputa” [Castle in the Sky] was another one that impressed me.”
It’s not just Japanese animation that Miyamoto was a fan of. He was a big fan of western animation as well, and he was surprised to see Super Mario becoming just as iconic as his favorite cartoon characters.
“As someone who really grew up with Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry and Warner Brothers characters, having admired them and looked up at them, it is very flattering. I am thankful that we are able reach that same level,” said Miyamoto.
Being also the father of Star Fox, Miyamoto took much of his inspiration from science fiction films and television shows that were popular among children his age. He was quite familiar with both Star Trek and Star Wars, and he fully understood the appeal of adventuring off into space and exploring distant planets.
“Our generation grew up with science fiction movies, so there was a time when I thought I wanted to enter into science fiction movies and run around doing stuff. My generation grew up with Star Trek on television and totally got into science fiction with Star Wars.” said Miyamoto. “I wanted a video game to enjoy scenes like you see in those television programs and movies in which all sorts or objects are flying through space and a fighter craft dodges and weaves through them or a large fleet of starships is approaching to you.”
During Miyamoto’s spare time, he crafted wooden puppets and put on puppet shows for children in his community. “Thunderbirds”, a 1960’s television show featuring marionettes, would help influence the character designs of “Star Fox”.
“”I always loved English puppet drama, like the Thunderbirds. It was produced in England in 1965 and broadcast the same year in Japan on NHK. Back when we released it, I imagined Star Fox selling a lot and the company that produced Thunderbirds coming all the way from England for negotiations to adapt it into a puppet drama.” said Miyamoto during an Iwata Asks interview. “And then I would say, “To be honest, I’ve always loved Thunderbirds.” Licensing it out by saying so was a dream of mine. And that’s all it ever was! (laughs) Some people back then said it would have been cooler with robots. But at the time, since lots of representative hit sci-fi works like Star Wars and Mobile Suit Gundam had already come out, what was most important to me was creating our own original science fiction. I didn’t want to just make a video game version of existing sci-fi. So a fox was the only way to go! (laughs)”
But the most surprising revelation was when Miyamoto revealed how much influence the film “Easy Rider” had on him and an entire generation.
“When it comes to the pop culture in general, the movie Easy Rider was kind of a bible for our generation,” Miyamoto told website CVG. “A writer or director like Peter Fonda, who made Easy Rider, must have had a great influence upon myself when I was young.”
While Miyamoto’s deep appreciation for films and animation may have influenced his life, he always stuck by his beliefs that video games and movies should be approached as separate mediums with different objectives. He believes developers should be focusing on making a game first and then a movie second.
“I don’t want to criticize any other designers, but I have to say that many of the people involved in this industry — directors and producers — are trying to make their games more like movies. They are longing to make movies rather than making videogames. In the case of our team, we are not intending to make movies,” says Miyamoto in a 1999 interview with IGN.
Still, he had quite a tendency of using movie production methods such as elaborate camera angles, impressive special effects, and emotional soundtracks to make his games feel much more cinematic.
He explains, “We are proud that we are now making a new form of entertainment called “interactive media”. However, we are always striving to make our games more cinematic and we think we can improve our technology necessary for making games by looking at movies. For example, we had a couple of directors working on the effects in the games, movie-like effects in the case of Zelda [Ocarina of Time] — but this is different from many other games that simply mirror movies and make use of premade characters. With our games, we produce everything in real time. By simply changing the camera angles and letting the characters move on a real time basis, we achieve a game with the feel of a movie. Many other games simply show pre-recorded sequences instead.”
Miyamoto uses movie production methods to enhance his games without losing sight that he’s still making a game (and not a movie). Compare this to David Cage, who takes adult themes that he enjoys in movies, and tries to make those themes work as an interactive film.
“Many people may say that this game [Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time] is like a movie, but it’s different. We have taken advantage of some of the specific methods used in movie production, but the game is not like a movie. It’s more like an experiment in developing a new form of interactive media. In doing so, we sometimes made use of movie making methods,” says Miyamoto. “With film-making, you take several different scenes and later edit them so you can view them as one sequence. In Zelda, things are happening in real time as the camera changes angles and shots. This game is not like a movie, but rather, the camera is becoming the stage performer. I can tell you that those who developed the camera work in the game love movies, so they adapted the camera work from movies. No one who worked on the game, including me, has had any experience in making movies. I personally don’t dislike movies–I like them a lot.”
Miyamoto has always been called the Steven Spielberg of video games, but Miyamoto doesn’t believe the comparison fits. Miyamoto did admit to Businessweek that movies taught him a lot about creating more cinematic experiences in video games over the years.
“It’s a common comparison, but I don’t think it’s an appropriate one because movies aren’t interactive the way games are. Even so, I’ve learned a lot from movies. For instance, I pay attention to how movies use music to create a mood, how many camera angles there are, or how the director sets up a scary scene,” said Miyamoto.
At a 1999 GDC keynote speech, Miyamoto would elaborate on why the comparison just doesn’t work.
“People have paid me a lot of lip service, calling me a genius story teller or a talented animator, and have gone so far as to suggest that I try my hand at movies, since my style of game design is, in their words, quite similar to making movies. But I feel that I am not a movie maker, but rather that my strength lies in my pioneering spirit to make use of technology to create the best, interactive commodities possible, and use that interactivity to give users a game they can enjoy and play comfortably,” said Miyamoto.
The stark contrast in viewpoints between Shigeru Miyamoto and David Cage (creator of “Heavy Rain”) are intriguing to say the least.
David Cage’s comments over the years come off as someone that is embarrassed by the game industry’s origins in the toy aisles. He portrays himself in interviews as someone who will legitimize the industry in the eyes of the mainstream media. He leads a growing chorus of developers who feel insecure by how their profession is viewed by outsiders who don’t share the same enthusiasm for the game industry.
In a 2011 interview, David Cage said, “What gets me upset is when people say videogames should just be fun. Fun? What does that even mean? Isn’t a book fun? Isn’t a movie fun? Aren’t you happy you enjoyed it? I’m delighted that Heavy Rain is in no way ‘fun’ in the classic game sense.”
While Shigeru Miyamoto’s games might not feel like interactive movies, I get the feeling that Miyamoto has a deeper understanding of film (as an art form) than David Cage. I’ve always wondered if the only game developers who truly understand film are the ones who aren’t intentionally creating interactive movies. The quote below is probably the best evidence that Miyamoto understands film.
Speaking on Star Fox 64, Shigeru Miyamoto told the press, “For 10 years, people have talked about interactive movies, mainly people in the film industry. Game developers have also tried to make interactive movies, but they usually turn out to be more movie-like than game-like. It seems that alot of game people seem to think that movies are superior, for some reason, but we don’t think that at all. Still, we think that we can borrow good ideas from the movies, like dramatic camera movements, and the use of real time voices. In Star Fox 64, we found that the overall experience gave us a fuller, movie-like feeling. Basically, movies are a passive experience and games are active. I didn’t exactly set out to do this, but Star Fox 64 became an example of what I think interactive movies can be.”
Another example of Miyamoto understanding the differences between film and video games is when he was asked about the problems with the Mario Bros. movie.
“Well, when we first initiated talks about a Super Mario Bros. movie, I tried to emphasize the point that the Mario Bros. games are fun as videogames and if we were going to make a Mario Bros. movie, that movie should be entertaining as a movie, and not a translation of the videogame,” he told Next Generation. “I think that they tried very hard and in the end it was a very fun project that they put a lot of effort into. The one thing that I still have some regrets about is that the movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. videogames were. And in that sense, it became a movie that was about a videogame, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself.”
IGN asked Miyamoto in 1999 if he would be okay with filmmakers joining the game industry (as long as they don’t tell him how to make games). Miyamoto believed (at least back then) that more filmmakers should enter into the game industry because the game industry could learn a lot from filmmakers.
Miyamoto responded, “No, I actually appreciate moviemakers approaching the videogame industry because they have a certain know-how that we don’t have. If they are serious about making videogames, maybe there is something we can learn and there is something that can help the expansion of the videogame industry.”