Nintendo showed up to play this year. One day after the Microsoft and Sony press conferences — whose vibes chastened and triumphant, respectively — Nintendo kicked off the first official day of E3 by announcing a slew of titles starring their most iconic characters: A new Kirby, a new Yoshi, a freaking Toad game, an open-world Legend of Zelda, and the impending return of the Star Fox franchise to the Wii U. The latter is a project under the personal supervision of Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer who helped to turn Nintendo into Nintendo.
Miyamoto was also onsight showing off a pair of early-stage game-things, currently codenamed Project Giant Robot and Project Guard. Both Projects put significant focus on the unique properties of the Wii U Gamepad. The former lets you build your own giant automaton and fight other skyscraper-sized mechs in a kaiju-style brawl: You control your robot partially with motion control, and can “look” out of the robot’s visor via the screen on the Gamepad. Meanwhile, Project Guard forces you to shift between twelve different camera turrets in order to defend your base from attacking robots.
These Projects won’t necessarily become games unto themselves. They reflect the early, experimental stage of Nintendo’s game development — and their presence at E3 reflects an urge to showcase the particular qualities of the Wii U console. “As people have looked at Wii U, people maybe haven’t understood how useful of a device it is, and everything it can do,” says Miyamoto. “We’ve also had people who had thought maybe that Nintendo was struggling to fill up these GamePad experiences. We wanted to speak to both of those audiences and show them, ‘No, we’ve got a lot of great ideas that use the Gamepad, and these are all the things that Wii U can do.'”
We talked to Miyamoto (in person, via translator) about the Wii U, Star Fox, what he thinks about contemporary video games, and what it was like drawing the original maps of Super Mario Bros 3 on sketch paper.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A couple years ago you said that you wanted to get back to working on smaller projects. What’s it been like working on Project Giant Robot and Project Guard as opposed to working on the larger titles in the Nintendo universe?
SHIGERU MIYAMOTO: What I define as “small project” is actually the more experimental phases. Even a Zelda game would start with a small team. We’d create the core of the gameplay, and then we expanded it out to a full project form there. So when I’ve said in the past that I’m going to be working on small projects, it’s really those experimental phases that I’m referring to. But somehow that got misinterpreted into somebody thinking that I was retiring, or that I was going to start working on smartphone games. That’s not the case.
Can you talk about what it’s been like bringing Star Fox to the Wii U?
We worked on some ideas around Star Fox back during the Wii days. But the problem was that we didn’t have any new ideas to bring to the game. I wasn’t particularly interested in just making another Star Fox game with better graphics and better sound. So we set that aside back then. This time, as we were doing our experiments, and we found this idea of doing the two-screen gameplay. I was particularly interested in a new style of play, where you’d have the cockpit view on one screen, and you’d have the third-person standard Star Fox view on the TV screen, and how those two screens could interact with one another.
The idea of having a helicopter-style game, and being to then to drop a robot down and tether it, and operate the robot that you dropped while you’re controlling the helicopter: [There are] a lot of new and different ideas that we simply couldn’t have had, if we didn’t have that Wii U Gamepad.
A lot of the games Nintendo is showing off this year are customizable. In Smash Brothers, you can play as your own Mii. In Project Giant Robot, you design your own robot. In Mario Maker, you can build your own Super Mario Bros. levels. How does that that level of customization change your job as a designer?
My approach has always been less “I’m going to create something, and I want them to play it a certain way.” I’m always trying to design games in a way that the player will think about what might be possible, and come up with their own ways to play the games. So I’ve always had sort of an affinity for course editors, for the players to have a customization element, dating as far back as Excitebike on the NES, which was the first game that we built a course editor for.
What’s interesting about Mario Maker is that it started out as a tool set for our development teams to create levels themselves. As recently as Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES, there was still a time when we were designing the levels by drawing them out on paper. It took a lot of work to do that [laughs]. Since then, as part of the game development, what we’ve always done is develop tools that allow us to develop level design within the program.
I’d love to know how much paper you used just designing a single level of Super Mario Bros. 3.
We didn’t use that much, because we would do the initial drawing of the level on paper, and then we would layer tracing paper on top of that. We would trace the level on top. And we would add color to that. If we had changes, we would change the colors to indicate where the changes were.
It sounds very high-tech.
The ones who had the hardest time with that process were the programmers, who then had to sit there and look at this paper as they typed, and try to implement what was on the paper, turn it into code.
The technology for making video games has advanced a bit since then. Does that make the designer’s job easier or harder?
On the one hand, the technology has gotten so powerful now. If you decide to use that that technology to create amazing graphics, what that ends up doing is creating a whole lot of work for the artists and the designers in trying to use that power, to create something that looks so detailed. In the past, the systems were simpler. Even if you didn’t understand the math behind physics programming, it was okay.
On the other hand, at the same time that the hardware’s been approved, they’ve also improved the programming languages. So now you have things like Unity, tools like that will make it easier. Even if you’re not trained specifically in mathematics or programming language, you’ll still have an ability to get something up and running within a tool like that. So that side of it can be, in some way, easier.
Is there any trend in video games that excites you right now?
I don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on that kind of stuff, but even if there was something interesting that I noticed, I probably shouldn’t say it [laughs].
This goes back to what I was saying about the tools, the technology, the programming. Game development itself is relying more and more on the programmers and the artists to bring those games to life. My focus, really, is on the work of the game designer, and the game designer’s ability to think up new structures for play, or bring new ideas to the table, in a way that then can create new ideas for video games, and new ways to play.
For me, I think the challenge is that we see a lot of people who are putting all their energy around using the technology to create hyper-realistic graphics, and those sorts of things. I like to look for more novel ways to use the technology to do things that couldn’t be done before. A simple example is something like Project Guard. Now, with the power of the system, we’re able to display those twelve different cameras onscreen at one time. How can you use those twelve different screens to create an interesting interaction for the player to enjoy? That becomes the core of the new piece of gameplay.
Is Project Guard something that will grow into its own game, or do you see it being absorbed into a larger game?
Perhaps if you noticed in Project Guard, there was a Star Fox logo on the cameras! I have different ideas for what would be possible, but I haven’t finalized anything yet. One idea that I had for Star Fox is something like the Thunderbirds TV series, where they had all these different vehicles and Mechs that they could use. I’m not certain, but one thing I think about Star Fox is that, instead of just a ship-based adventure that we’ve seen in previous Star Fox games, there’s multiple different mechs and vehicles and things that they use. And maybe, within that, the Project Guard style of gameplay could be one element of sort of a larger-scaled thing.
The other analogy I’ve been using with the team is that the Star Fox games that we used to make were Star Fox for the movie theater, a big dramatic adventure. And this time, with our focus, it’s a little bit more of Star Fox if it were a TV series. So maybe Project Guard is the TV series of Star Fox that runs late at night, and the main missions of Star Fox are the TV series that runs in primetime.
You’re programming a whole day of Star Fox.
The Star Fox channel!
What other projects are you working on now?
I also still have a producer role on other titles. Splatoon is another one that I’m overseeing as producer. That game is being developed by members from the Animal Crossing team, as well as the previous director of Star Fox, as well as the art director from Nintendo Land. So they’re all working together on Splatoon, and I’m overseeing that as a produer. I’m also overseeing Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, which is being developed by our EAD Tokyo Studio.
The games that we’re showing at the show floor, I’m involved in probably about half of them. But the ones that I have direct development on are the three that I mentioned, Star Fox, Giant Robot, and Guard.
When I spoke to you a couple years ago, we got to talking about MarioKart. I told you that my favorite character was Toad, and you said that was your least favorite character. I notice that you’re working on a Toad video game.
[Laughs, has a long conversation with the interpreter which results in the following:] No, actually, I do like Toad.
Out of interest, who is your favorite character to play in Smash Brothers?
I haven’t played Smash Brothers thoroughly yet, but my suspicion is that I would probably play as Star Fox. Playing as Kirby might be a little bit easier, but…
You prefer a challenge.
This is gonna be the year of Star Fox. I’ll play as Star Fox for awhile.