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Happy Birthday, Shigeru Miyamoto, Father of Modern Video Games

November 16, 2009
by Christopher Coats
Beginning with the seminal arcade game Donkey Kong nearly three decades ago, Nintendo’s chief game developer and the father of modern video games, Shigeru Miyamoto, has combined his love of art and adventure to create a fantasy universe and wear the mantle of modern-day Walt Disney.

Shigeru Miyamoto’s Early Days

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Looking back at the childhood of Shigeru Miyamoto, it’s not difficult to see the signs of what was to come. An artist and musician from an early age, Miyamoto spent hours exploring the trails and hills surrounding his home outside Kyoto. The caves, the canyons and the fierce dogs on a chain were all there—a fantastic world for a young boy with a love of adventure.

The sights, sounds and even the animals Miyamoto saw would inspire the young artist to create a universe that not only launched his career, but also changed video games as we know them.

Obsessed with the artwork and sketches of the world of Walt Disney, Miyamoto pored over them while earning a degree in industrial design from the Kanazawa Munici College of Industrial Arts and Crafts. A bit aimless at the age of 24, Miyamoto was introduced to a friend of his father’s who headed a toy and gaming company by the name of Nintendo.

Hired as a staff artist, Miyamoto joined the company at a time when it, and the world at large, were becoming aware of the joys of video games.

Miyamoto’s Notable Accomplishments

Venturing into arcade games in the late 1970s, Nintendo sought to capitalize on the Japanese success of a game called Radarscope. But by the time the company had spent a fortune sending a fleet of machines to the Unites States, interest had waned and the newly launched Nintendo America faced a financial disaster.

Building on the framework of Radarscope, Miyamoto stepped in with an idea for a game that could be easily adapted into the company’s machines with little effort and loss. The young artist developed a simple story, composed a soundtrack on a small keyboard and introduced the world to Donkey Kong.

Immensely successful, the game caught on across the country, marking the introduction of the company’s most famous character, Mario. Originally called “Jumpman,” Mario was eventually named after the company’s landlord.

Since that day, Miyamoto and Mario have helped Nintendo become the standard-bearer for global gaming. Over the years, Miyamoto has had a hand in over 100 game titles, often returning to Mario when in need of a hero. Most share a common cartoonish look and feel, existing in alternate universes with fantastic creatures that would make Disney proud.

With titles like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda to his name, Miyamoto has become a patron saint of game developers, taking his love of creatures and simple adventure to legendary heights and helping the company adapt to the fast-paced and fickle desires of gamers.

In 1985, as competition for arcade games became more intense, Miyamoto helped lead the company in introducing the Nintendo Entertainment System, which became the 1980s highest selling home gaming system.

Later, as consoles like Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s Xbox threatened to bury Nintendo, Miyamoto led the company toward casting a wider net, creating more games and not solely for hardcore gamers.

Instead, Miyamoto struck off on his first foray into hardware, guiding the development and launch of the Wii console, which dramatically outsold its competitors upon its launch. Not one to rest on his laurels, Miyamoto continues to evolve his creation with titles like Wii Fit, Wii Sports and Wii Music, taking gaming into uncharted territory.

The Rest of the Story

Like his hero Walt Disney, the characters created by Miyamoto have become some of the most recognizable on Earth, with Mario and Link from Zelda rivaling Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Some have even landed on the silver screen with varying degrees of success. As the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) made its way into living rooms across the country in the 1980s, characters and players alike were celebrated in big screen adaptations, “Super Mario Brothers” and “The Wizard,” films that attempted to glamorize gaming in traditional ’80s fashion—with a high-stakes play-off finale.

Recently, the obsessive draw of Miyamoto’s first creation, Donkey Kong, was captured in the documentary, “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” which followed two middle-aged men in their strange-but-true journey through the world of competitive arcade gaming.
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