What the the bard of Nintendo can teach us about stories.
While you may not immediately recognize Shigeru Miyamoto by name, his legendary creations have certainly left an indelible mark on global pop culture. Does a warrior clad in green, brandishing the mythical Master Sword, and hailing from the enchanted realm of Hyrule ring a bell? Or perhaps a mustachioed plumber donning a vivid red cap and blue overalls, persistently navigating perilous landscapes to rescue a princess. These characters, Link and Mario, sprung from the fertile imagination of Miyamoto and vaulted from the confines of Nintendo's gaming universe to become bona fide icons. But amidst the cluttered and struggling gaming industry of the 1970s and 80s, what made these characters stand out? And why are these images so vivid in our imaginations to this day? The answer lies within the deceptively simple yet potent power of storytelling.
To understand the rise of Nintendo and the iconic contributions of Shigeru Miyamoto, we must first look at the early days of the video game industry, dominated by Atari. Founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell, Atari initially capitalized on the potential of electronic games that Bushnell had observed in the amusement park industry. He recognized that computer systems could replicate these experiences more affordably, which spurred the birth of Atari and the modern video game era.
Atari's groundbreaking hit, Pong, an electronic version of table tennis, quickly became an arcade sensation, later expanding into the domestic sphere with home consoles. This success, however, posed a challenge—how to replicate or surpass it. Atari's strategy was to open their platform to third-party developers, aiming for quantity over quality. This decision backfired, leading to an oversaturation of low-quality games.
The focus at the time was on the technical aspects of game development, often at the expense of creativity and storytelling. After all, one of the biggest problems to solve when creating a game at this time was just ensuring the game would work! This technical emphasis was evident in the notorious failure of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," a game so unsuccessful that surplus copies were buried in the desert.
This environment of disillusionment with Atari's offerings created an opportunity for Nintendo, a Japanese company with roots in card games and Japanese pachinko, to step in with a new approach to game design, spearheaded by Miyamoto. It was this shift, away from mere technical prowess to a focus on narrative and character, that would eventually redefine the gaming industry and pave the way for Nintendo's success.
A peculiar set of circumstances emerged for Nintendo that opened the door for Miyamoto to enter the scene. Nintendo had long coveted a place in the US market, and originally bet big on a copy of another popular game at the time, Space Invaders. This Space Invaders clone was called Radar Scope. Nintendo was so sure of Radar Scope’s success that it produced thousands of Radar Scope machines and even shipped them across the Pacific to the United States. It quickly became evident that the US was not interested in more derivative, uninspired games, and Radar Scope was a flop. But now, Nintendo was left with thousands of unused inventory of Radar Scope machines. An idea emerged to repurpose these Radar Scope machines and build a new game that fit the constraints of the hardware they had already produced. Miyamoto seized the opportunity and pitched himself as the man to design this game.
Miyamoto, a designer by trade, was unlike the prevalent technical minds dominating the gaming scene, whose forte lay in engineering rather than imagination. Miyamoto proposed a game that would pivot away from the technical prowess that had hitherto been the industry's hallmark, and towards a narrative-driven approach.
Miyamoto believed that video games should emulate the narrative depth of literature and film, drawing inspiration from timeless stories and legends. He envisaged a game steeped in narrative, akin to epics like King Kong and the tragic complexities of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'. This inspiration gave birth to 'Donkey Kong', a game that would revolutionize the industry.
In 'Donkey Kong', the protagonist, initially known as Jumpman and later immortalized as Mario, faces off against a disgruntled pet gorilla. The gorilla, having been mistreated, kidnaps Jumpman's girlfriend and takes her to the top of a construction site, hurling obstacles in Jumpman's path. The player's quest to navigate these hazards and rescue the damsel was simple by modern standards, but at the time, it was a narrative leap that distinguished the game from the multitude of uninspired sports and shooter games.
When Miyamoto delivered the first version, it was met with mass skepticism from grizzled industry veterans, but once released, 'Donkey Kong' proved to captivate American gamers, emulating Pong's arcade success and laying the groundwork for Nintendo's home console foray with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Unlike Atari, Nintendo succeeded in crafting enduring narratives that kept players engaged, evolving the story of Jumpman into a sprawling franchise that would culminate in a major motion picture decades later.
The essence of Nintendo's triumph was the recognition of story's enchanting power. Storytelling transformed the gaming experience from a mere digital pastime to a heroic journey, encapsulating the player within a fantastical quest. The distinction was profound: where Pong offered a virtual representation of a familiar game, Nintendo's approach invited players to become part of a compelling saga. This narrative depth is what continues to underpin the success of creative endeavors, from video games to cinema, music, and beyond. The stories we engage with shape our experiences, rendering otherwise mundane activities into memorable adventures. The legends Miyamoto drew from for his creations are as old as time, but the way he wove them into the fabric of gaming was unprecedented and continues to influence the industry today.
Miyamoto's storytelling acumen redefined the gaming landscape. By intertwining game mechanics with cinematic storytelling, he created a template that games ranging from epic role-playing quests to intimate indie titles still follow. More importantly, he proved that story is needed for an act of creativity that inspires perennial engagement and relevance. The green-clad warrior from Hyrule and the plucky plumber in red and blue are not just characters; they are the embodiment of that philosophy.