Shigeru Miyamoto turned us all into button-mashing couch potatoes with “Donkey Kong” and “Mario.” His latest creation aims to get us fit.
Shigeru Miyamoto doesn’t just work for Nintendo, one of the world’s leading game makers. He is Nintendo.
The most successful game designer in the world, Miyamoto is responsible for blockbuster series like “Zelda,” “Donkey Kong” and “Mario.” More recently, he helped create the Wii, the sought-after game console in which players use their bodies to mimic onscreen action. His latest creation, “Wii Fit” ($89.99), out now, is a physical fitness game with nearly 40 activities, such as yoga poses, ski jumping and snowboarding. The game, which includes a scale/balance-board device, is part of a growing trend dubbed “exergaming.”
While excessive weight remains a problem in America, Miyamoto says he didn’t create “Wii Fit” to fight obesity: “My thinking behind it was, if weighing yourself every day and seeing the changes helps you become more aware of your body, your balance and your BMI [body mass index], that is not only going to lead people to new discoveries about themselves, it’s also going to help them make better decisions about their health.”
Miyamoto, 55, admits he has grown more concerned about his own health since experiencing back pain a few years ago. After noticing he had put on a few pounds, he started swimming and frequenting the gym. He says he also uses “Wii Fit” regularly. As of April, his BMI was a healthy 23.
Miyamoto lives in Japan, about a mile and a half from the Nintendo headquarters. He used to ride his bicycle to work. “Nintendo asked me not to do it,” he told us, through a translator. “They thought it was too dangerous.”
For someone of his fame in the digital generation (he was the first to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame), Miyamoto’s childhood was exceptionally low-tech. He grew up in the countryside near Kyoto, in the central part of the island of Honshu. “I was always surrounded by nature as a boy,” he says. “It was very peaceful.” When he wasn’t exploring the nearby creeks and hidden caves that inspired “Zelda” and “Mario,” Miyamoto liked to draw and stage puppet shows. “Monster movies were big in those days, so many of my puppets were monsters,” he says, laughing. “I seemed to make a lot of dogs, too, for some reason.”
In college, Miyamoto studied industrial design and mechanical engineering. After a series of odd jobs, including playing the guitar in a bluegrass band (“which is not,” he says, “a terribly popular brand of music in Japan”), he was hired by Nintendo in 1977.
At the time, Nintendo was looking for new ventures and badly overestimated the appeal of a coin-operated arcade game machine called Radarscope. The company wound up with a warehouse full of them in Redmond, Wash. “For some reason, I was assigned the task of figuring out what to do with the machines,” Miyamoto recalls. He came up with a simple game featuring a character scaling a set of girders while avoiding barrels tossed by an oversize ape. That game, of course, was “Donkey Kong,” and by 1982 its hero, Jumpman (later rechristened “Mario” in honor of the warehouse’s portly manager), would appear on everything from cereal boxes to neck ties.
A quarter century later, Miyamoto is sometimes referred to as the video-game-world equivalent of Walt Disney. His star is on the Walk of Game in San Francisco, and last year “Time” named him one of the 100 Most Influential People. Asked if he’s ever received poor service at a restaurant and said, “Don’t you know who I am?” Miyamoto shakes his head and laughs like a giddy schoolboy. “No, I’ve never done anything like that,” he says, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “While I hope that my products stand out, I personally try to blend in as much as possible.”
The Miyamoto Timeline
He may not be a household name, but this vidgame titan was behind some of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the last 25 years.
1982: “Donkey Kong”
1983: “Mario Bros.”
1987: “The Legend of Zelda”
1996: “Super Mario 64”
2006: The Wii
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