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Miyamoto and Mario

When Shigeru Miyamoto was a small child, running through the woods outside of Kyoto Japan, eating mushrooms and jumping on turtles, everybody laughed at him. Who’s laughing now?

Mario, of Nintendo fame, isn’t actually Italian. Or at least the real Mario, the actual person the character’s name comes from, isn’t Italian. He’s actually an American. When Shigeru Miyamoto was in California, selling the initial shipments of Donkey Kong cabinets to arcades, the games were stored in a little warehouse in California after shipment from Japan. Somehow associated with this warehouse (nobody can really remember, but some of the possible stories include him being the watchman, the building superintendent, or the landlord) was a little guy with a bushy moustache named Mario. At the time, the main character in Donkey Kong didn’t actually have a name (he’s referred to as JumpMan). The people working at Nintendo in California decided that the character in the game looked like the guy at the warehouse, and the name stuck. Shigeru Miyamoto LOVED the name, thought it was a good fit, and the name stuck. The follow up to Donkey Kong was now named Mario Brothers, and the rest is video game history. Incredibly, incredibly successful video game history.

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Shigeru Miyamoto was born on November 16th, 1952 in Sonobe, in Kyoto prefecture, Japan. Sonobe was a small town outside of Kyoto city in central Japan, nestled into the mountains. After a childhood exploring the forests around his city, idly doodling manga he enjoyed, and falling in love with the works of Walt Disney, Miyamoto decided, that when he grew up, he would be an artist. His family eventually moved into the larger city of Kyoto proper, which gave him an outlet for his new artistic drive; he’d join the Manga club in high school, then on to the Kanazawa Municipal College, a small art school on Japan’s west coast. After 5 years of skipping the classes he wasn’t interested (he’d learned the banjo and joined a band playing Beatles covers) he eventually graduated with a degree in Industrial Art and Design. He parlayed his father’s connection to a job offer with Nintendo, a Kyoto based company that had been around for more than 80 years.

The headquarters of Nintendo in 1889. Inside, they were making hand-painted playing cards.

Nintendo was originally founded in 1888 as Nintendo Karuta, a playing card company. Originally hand painting the cards, the founder had moved into mass-production as a way to provide cheap cards to casinos, which wanted fresh decks to prevent marking cards and allowing cheating. The company slowly grew until 1959, when, following a consolidation and rebranding as the Nintendo Trading Card Company, Nintendo signed an exclusive deal with the Walt Disney Corporation for use of Disney’s characters on their cards. This deal, coupled with a clever distribution system linking Nintendo to toy stores, lead to a massive boom in business. Throughout the 1960s, Nintendo began to branch out from playing cards to other board games, and then into children’s toys. Eventually Nintendo moved into businesses completely outside of games and toys altogether, creating pre-packaged instant rice, owning a series of love hotels (exactly what they sound like) and even, briefly, a well regarded taxicab company.

You can STILL run a taxicab company through your Nintendo. Sort of.

The 1970’s, however, brought Nintendo into home electronics. Their first successful video game was the Laser Clay Shooting System, a (literally) massive system using film projectors and a series of mirrors to allow a simulation of skeet shooting, usually set up inside of repurposed bowling alleys. A successful ad campaign featuring Sonny Chiba led to massive pre-orders and the factory began cranking out the systems around the clock.

Then the 1970’s oil crunch happened. OPEC raised oil prices, and Japan, a country with almost zero oil capacity, felt the impact harder than most. The pre-orders dried up, and the company tried to reinvent itself, shrinking the Laser Clay System down to an arcade cabinet sized system. Both this system and the company’s follow on, Wild Gunman, sold so well, both at home and in the United States, that Nintendo created a standalone video game division. It was to this division that newly graduated Shigeru Miyamoto was hired.

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His first project was designing a case for the Color TV game console. While he had worked on earlier models (including making the casing an incredible color of orange, he added a control wheel to a driving game for the system (Color TC Racing 112), which made the game far more accessible, and which boosted sales. He went on to create character sprites for multiple games, designing the character that appeared on screen, but not actually coding the games themselves.

Then Nintendo launched a game called Radar Scope.

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Radar Scope was a forced perspective take on Space Invaders (instead of coming straight down, the attacking aliens came in at an angle and grew in size as they got closer), where a player defended their spaceport from attacking aliens. The game featured a joystick and two buttons, and was the first game Nintendo built a significant number of cabinets-they shipped 3000 to the United States alone. But by the time Nintendo created the game, built the cabinets, shipped them across the Pacific Ocean and tried to sell them to American arcade owners, gamers were tired of Space Invaders, and the forced perspective (and lackluster game play) wasn’t enough to sell the game. After sales dried up around 1000 cabinets, Nintendo had the remaining 2000 cabinets sitting in a warehouse outside of Seattle without buyers. These cabinets represented a significant investment, and were continuing to cost Nintendo money paying to store games no one wanted to play.

Most Radar Scope Cabinets looked just like this: unplugged.

Nintendo of America was in trouble. Minoru Arakawa, the head of the American division, was grasping at straws. His solution to the problem was to design a game that would use the pre-existing Radar Scope cabinets. In what I can only think of as a desire for a fresh look, Nintendo turned to the relatively untested Shigeru Miyamoto.

Miyamoto initially thought about simply improving Radar Scope, but he didn’t really like shooting games, and thought that Space Invaders-style games were already played out. And despite his deep admiration for Pac-Man, he didn’t want to create a maze style game either. He decided to create an entirely new style of games, one with a story.

Miyamoto had long disliked that video games didn’t have any story. Pac-Man was basically escaping a maze. Space Invaders was simply shooting up. Even Radar Scope didn’t have any named characters. What he wanted to do was build a game with characters players would related to. His initial effort was based around the characters from Popeye, but Nintendo couldn’t get the rights. But the game idea was sound, and Miyamoto simply renamed the characters. Bluto became Donkey Kong (donkey because they liked the sound of the word and believed that donkey meant stupid in English, and Kong for the giant gorilla who attacked Manhattan,while retaining some deniability for copyright reasons. Olive Oil became Lady (later named Pauline), while Popeye became Jumpman,. Miyamoto redesigned the artwork for the Radar Scope cabinets (pasting over the artwork he may or may not have made for the original cabinet) and a new game, Donkey Kong, was born.

Nintendo hated the game. They thought it wouldn’t sell and expected the cabinets to be basically scrapped as a loss. In Seattle, however, Arakawa liked it, and found two bars to (reluctantly) place Donkey Kong for play. Within days, the Nintendo tech servicing the games found them full of quarters. The entire staff of Nintendo, including spouses and children, pitched into rebuild the Radar Scope cabinets into Donkey Kongs, and the company couldn’t keep up with the demand for Donkey Kong cabinets.

Red Donkey Kong cabinets are super rare in the wild….maybe 1200 of them were sold, and they’ll sell for triple an original, blue cabinet.

From Donkey Kong, Miyamoto moved onto his next game, Donkey Kong Jr, where (in a twist nobody saw coming) a smaller, younger ape saves his father from Mario. This was followed by Donkey Kong 3, which was NOT a platformer like the first two (DK hangs in the center of the screen and the player sprays bugs and DK himself), and this may be why the game was not as successful as the first two. Miyamoto moved on from apes, focusing on Mario in his next game, now named Mario Bros.

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Released in 1983, Miyamoto returned to his platformer roots, yet expanded to two player simultaneous game play. After a dream of bugs climbing out of pipes, the game used green pipes to spawn the enemies (green was easy for older CRT screens, and was on the VERY limited number of colors period CPUs could produce). Mario became a plumber instead of a man who dedicated to defeating gorillas. In addition to his infamous plumbing background, the game also gives us Luigi, Mario’s greener brother.

(super quick aside. If the brothers are named Mario and Luigi, why is the game named Mario Bros? Does this mean Mario’s name is Mario Mario, and his brother’s Luigi Mario? Does Mario have a last name at all? Is he like Cher and Bono? Will this question be answered in the 1500 words following these questions? Probably not.)

In Mario Bros, the two plumbers must stop monsters who are coming out of the pipes of New York City; players do this by jumping directly below an enemy, which knocks it over. Players must then kick the downed enemy to truly defeat it. This mechanic of hitting from below drove the use of turtles as an enemy, as they can’t be hurt from above.

Reception was (again) good for Mario Bros, proving that Nintendo’s gamble on Miyamoto was a wise one. They sold nearly 4000 cabinets, and a port to the Atari 2600 sold another 1.6 million copies…in 1983. In the year Atari buried cartridges in the New Mexico desert because video games “weren’t selling”, Mario Bros was the best-selling cabinet AND home cartridge of the year. Nintendo rewarded Miyamoto with a promotion to lead a division of his own, and he focused his efforts on designing games for Nintendo’s recently released FAMICOM system. While the FAMICOM had been released in Japan in July 1983, the initial release had only 3 games. Miyamoto’s division focused on creating a suite of games for the new system, (some of which we’ve already covered).

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Following the completion of ExciteBike and Devil World, Miyamoto and his co-designer Takashi Tezuka continued to work together, and they decided it was time to expand on the story of gaming’s most famous character. (and his brother). Work began on what would eventually become Super Mario Bros.

Miyamoto and Tezuka wanted to keep their trend of games with a story alive. Gamers seemed to crave the story, even if it was just giving motivation for the character’s actions on screen. (Sure, the story of Donkey Kong isn’t the deepest, but it DOES explain why Mario was going through the trouble of dodging falling barrels). Mario seemed to always rescue women from monsters, and as he was now a plumber, so pipes should be involved. Additionally, Myamoto and Tezuka had gameplay ideas they wanted to experiment with. In addition to the “Mario rescues a princess” theme, the real idea of SMB was to create a game that had a hero that grew to twice his size, had super powers (like high jumping, falling from great heights, and the ability to shoot fire), while crossing multiple terrain types. Miyamoto wanted the levels to be about a minute in length, but in an effort to keep players from sprinting across the levels as fast as they could (thus creating more level to build) they created obstacles to slow the players down. The end result was that the levels all ended up being roughly 12 screens long, significantly reducing the coding requirements. Like most games from Nintendo at the time, borrowed heavily from other titles in making this one. Not only does it use the side scrolling concept of ExciteBike, but uses many of the character sprites from Devil World. It also uses the fire bars from Legend of Zelda (another Miyamoto creation) as well as the coins and some sounds from Clu Clu Land, and a host of “stolen” bits and bytes from other games as well. Which makes sense. If you and your team are busy designing multiple games (during SMB, Miyamoto was also working on Legend of Zelda, and the Nintendo team, which wasn’t large, was sometimes designing upward of 5 games at once) this is why the clouds and bushes in Super Mario Bros are the EXACT same sprite, just colored differently. Why reinvent the wheel? (and waste bytes)

You’ll never be able to un-see this. I’m sorry.

While I could do another full entry just on the design process of SMB (I’m not going to do that to you) the one thing that grabbed my attention the most was the physical process of creating the levels. Primitive computers couldn’t lay out levels like Mario Maker does now, so the two creators built the levels on graph paper before they were programmed. If there were any changes, acetate was laid over the graph paper…this layered style became the Mario franchise’s signature look, with obstacles layered over each other, (and by SMB 3, actually “bolted” together) in a way that makes it look like the levels actually ARE paper laid on top of each other. I mean, there’s eventually a game CALLED Paper Mario.

And while the end result of the game ends up cutting some of the original design (the first ideas had players swapping between land, air and the water, but the flying levels were scrapped completely) the end result was a kind of game that nobody had seen before. The boosted memory of the FAMICOM, coupled with the accessibility of a well-designed home system, all using a well-known character, resulted in, well, Super Mario Bros.

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I’m not even going to review the game itself. There’s no point. If Pong is the granddaddy of home video gaming, SMB is the father of gaming, and all games today are (at least) step children. EVERYBODY has played Super Mario Bros. It’s on multiple consoles, including the NES Classic Edition. It’s one of the top 5 games for the NES. It’s in the top-25 of just about every “Greatest Games of All Time” list on the planet. There are legendary speedruns, hacks, secrets, and hidden levels. SMB was the best-selling game for the NES–and the best-selling video game PERIOD until Grand Theft Auto V dethroned it, in 2012. It has spawned an empire of games, including at least 30 sequels, selling, more than 330 million units collectively. SMB also spawned other gaming series like Mario Kart, numerous comic books, a TV series and a truly horrible movie. There are T-shirts, phone cases (and mobile phone games), and even Legos (oh man, does my daughter want the Legos). Mario eventually grew into the face of the Nintendo franchise. And as video games grew into one of the most visible Japanese exports, Mario’s smiling, mustached face was the image that the world thought of when video games come up. It’s even made appearances in the strangest places. My favorite was the closing ceremonies from the 2016 Summer Olympics.

This is a series that has sold more than 330 million units since initial release. It’s turned its creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, into a minor deity.

While he’s had (very) few misses, his hits are some of the greatest games in the history of gaming. Here are just a few of the games he did for Nintendo. In the FIVE years after SMB, he worked on The Legend of Zelda, THREE sequels to SMB (Doki Doki Panic, kludged into an SMB sequel for the US as well as SMB 2, The Lost Levels), Ice Hockey, The Legend of Link, Earthbound Beginnings, and Super Mario Bros 3.

He then moved onto the Super Nintendo, where he worked on Super Mario World, Pilot Wings, and F-Zero, as well as A Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart and Star Fox.

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All of that was about 8 years’ worth of work. That will NEVER be topped in the history of gaming. He was so important to Nintendo’s continued success they actually ordered him to stop walking to work, because they were worried he’d be hit by a car and cripple the company. He spent the next 25 years building Nintendo’s empire, ushering in the N64’s main games (Super Mario 64, Star Fox 64, Mario Kart 64), directing the Ocarina of Time (considered by many as the greatest game of all time) as well as leading the team behind the Rumble Pak, which brought tactile feedback into the controllers, a standard in today’s gaming. He was integral in every successive Nintendo system, up to and including the Switch. He continues to serve at Nintendo, currently as a Creative Fellow, where he not only gives input and feedback on many Nintendo games, he also is heavily involved with the company’s expansion into theme parks.

And while it all started with a frantic redesign of a Space Invaders clone, it truly took off with the FAMICOM and the release of Super Mario Brothers. Which was 35 years ago today.

Happy Birthday, Mario, and thank you Mr. Miyamoto.  

And happy birthday Luigi? Are you and Mario twins? We know you’re (super) brothers, and you’re the same size and build, just greener. I’m going with twins. So happy birthday to you too.

Categories: Gameplay/Reviews NES NES History

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