Nintendo's biggest brain

You may not recognise this man, but you'll know his work. From Super Mario Bros to Nintendogs, Shigeru Miyamoto is the brains behind some of the best-selling video games of all time. By Tim Ingham

Shigeru Miyamoto is the most successful artist of the last 50 years. He has single-handedly laid the foundations for the world's largest entertainment industry. It's about time you knew who he was. As Nintendo's creative visionary, he has produced more revered classics in his chosen field than either Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg or, yes, the Beatles. Sales of his video games – from Super Mario Bros to Wii Sports; Nintendogs to Donkey Kong; The Legend Of Zelda to Mario Kart – have topped an incredible 500 million, and show no signs of slowing down. Yet in London last week the lifelong Kyoto resident could happily spend his afternoons taking in the capital's most notorious monuments unbothered by acolytes or autograph-hunters.

Miyamoto was in town to collect his Bafta Fellowship, the Academy's lifetime achievement. His name now proudly sits alongside the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen as a master of the arts. It's a decision impossible to argue with. Miyamoto, who joined Nintendo in 1977, has created eight of the top-10-selling video games of all time. One of the other two, Pokémon Red Blue And Green, was invented by his protégée, Satoshi Tajiri. The other is Tetris.

His success began – as so many do – with a huge problem. In 1978 Nintendo tried to hijack the success of arcade smash Space Invaders with its own clone, Radarscope. But Radarscope didn't sell – and Nintendo was left with thousands of arcade cabinets going to waste. An opportunity to innovate presented itself and – as he's done countless times since – Miyamoto sprang into life. He filled the cabinets with Donkey Kong, which hit the market in 1981. The simple platformer was released to huge acclaim, introducing a global audience to the titular beast – still a gaming heavyweight three decades later – and Miyamoto's most successful creation, an Italian plumber named Mario.

Fast-forward 29 years and his latest smash, Wii Fit, has shifted 23 million copies – becoming the second biggest-selling game in history. Just as Donkey Kong did all those years ago, it's made video games a daily part of life for a huge demographic of people who previously dismissed them as child's play. In between these events (and as you may expect of someone whose life work has generated in excess of £15bn) Miyamoto has remained feverishly creative on consoles such as the NES, SNES, N64 and the biggest-selling home games system in history, the Wii – which he also invented.

Miyamoto studied at the Kanazawa College of Art in hometown Kyoto, before being recruited by Nintendo, located just down the road. Famously, he brought designs for a new range of animal-headed children's clothes hangers to his job interview. His prolific output remains undimmed in 2010, as Miyamoto – now 57 – readies his latest classic-in-waiting, Super Mario Galaxy 2, due for release in June. Yet over and above his phenomenal sales success, what really sets Miyamoto apart from anyone else in any creative field is his marrying of genius with astonishing modesty.

He cuts an unimposing, diminutive, almost elfish figure – perched obediently in his chair. A faded Beatles T-shirt and moptop haircut are the only signs of cultural rebellion, smoothed at the edges by a quiet reverence and politeness that extends to his interpreter and UK hotel staff. It's apparent from the off that unlike the many of the Bafta Fellows to whose club he now rightly belongs, impassioned tantrums and theatrical outbursts are not his style. Neither, as it turns out, are the glitz and glamour to which some may suggest he is entitled.

"I'm not envious of the attention of movie stars," he says. "I enjoy not being recognised. It allows me to get on with my life. All I want is to be recognised through my work. It's funny – in America and the UK, they say I'm famous in Japan. In Japan, they say I'm famous in America and the UK." Miyamoto's placid temperament and genial timidity tessellate with the universally loveable nature of his work. Despite occasional sniggers from today's breed of edgy games developer, Miyamoto has never produced a title that wasn't suitable for families to play together – even in the days when video games were the unique preserve of teens hunched in darkened bedrooms. Walt Disney comparisons are not unwarranted.

His influence stretches far beyond kid-friendly, cartoonish creations, however – whether it's the open-world innovation of Zelda providing the blueprint for Grand Theft Auto or the revolutionary 3D world of Mario 64 inspiring the control system of Resident Evil. So what does he make of the more violent end of video games – particularly the bloodstained war epic Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which destroyed all comers in 2009 as the best-selling game of the year? His respectful nature, it seems, stretches even to peers who incorporate aggression into their gaming narrative – but stops short at those obsessed with one-note violence. "When it comes to the question of how each designer creates their games, I don't think we should intervene in how they express themselves," he says. "However, our marketing people must be very careful as to how they promote which types of products to which audiences, especially children.

"Most importantly, we have to consider the future. Sometimes, games designers tend to focus their attention on a limited particular area of their expression. That is simply narrowing down the potential of what video games can do. Also, specifically about the excessive violence, I think we have to bear in mind the unique interactive nature of video games."

All of today's hottest developers cite Miyamoto as a trailblazer and inspiration. His were the games played by the current creators of GTA, God Of War and Halo; the critical interactive encounters that invigorated a desire to create their own virtual worlds. But growing up in the mountainous, cave-laden Kyoto – and with no video game industry in existence – how was Miyamoto himself inspired? Was his childhood a happy one? The great man silently shuts both eyes and compresses them tightly with his index fingers, simultaneously pulling in his legs. Miyamoto is visualising his youth. Ten seconds later, he blinks – catches my eye, and a smile reaches his lips.

"I have often taken inspiration from my childhood memories," he reveals. "It was a happy time for me, even though I had less goods around me in terms of the material prosperity than others – certainly far less than children today. Wealthy families tended to have a lot of stuff, while all the others of us had a scarcity when it came to toys. But because of that, I used to make toys for myself with my own hands. A lot of the encounters and experiences I had and my conversations with other children still influence the way I make games today."

The next evening, Miyamoto excitedly skips along the red carpet of the Park Lane Hilton before collecting his Bafta Fellowship. A huge smile doesn't leave his face all evening. It no doubt masks a desire to escape the limelight he's reluctant to embrace; to return home to his wife, two children and his true out-of-work passion, playing and appreciating bluegrass music. Before he departs, however, there is the small matter of his acceptance speech – delivered, beautifully, in English. "I am embarrassed to receive such an award," he says. "So I am taking it instead for everyone who has worked with me in the last few years." We hope he doesn't mind, but we wish to politely disagree. Miyamoto's selfless ethos might say different, but the records will show that this was an accolade deservedly dedicated to him.



The Miyamoto Hall of Fame

Donkey Kong (1981)

Miyamoto's first game was also Nintendo's first success. It stars the plumber Mario, whose pet gorilla has kidnapped his girlfriend. You must retrieve her by leaping between sloped platforms, avoiding barrels thrown at you by your simian tormentor.

Super Mario Bros (1985)

A sequel to Mario Bros, the influence of this NES platform title is still felt today – with its intuitive controls rarely matched. It introduced Mario's brother Luigi, as well as Princess Peach and arch enemy Bowser.

Super Mario Kart (1993)

Utilising the powerful new SNES console, Mario Kart combined high-speed racing with projectile weaponry, and is widely regarded as the greatest multiplayer game in history. Its influence can still be felt today on the likes of Sony's Wipeout and Activision's Blur.

The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time (1998)

An update to Miyamoto's own classic series, this N64 adventure saw hero Link battling with evil King Ganondorf to discover powerful relic the TriForce. New features such as a target lock system and context-sensitive buttons are now common elements in 3D adventure games.

Wii Fit (2008)

Once again demonstrating Miyamoto's ability to turn interactive entertainment on its head, this "game" is bundled with the Wii Balance Board, which acts as a combined yoga mat and bathroom scales.

Donkey Kong (1981)

Miyamoto's first game was also Nintendo's first success. It stars the plumber Mario, whose pet gorilla has kidnapped his girlfriend. You must retrieve her by leaping between sloped platforms, avoiding barrels thrown at you by your simian tormentor.

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