It's 9.30 on a Saturday morning. We're in North West London and it's cold. Very cold. Strangely, though, all this information seems to be a distant echo as the realisation of the moment starts to dawn. We're sitting here in a small café-come video store eating toasted panini and coffee and discussing what questions to ask Shigeru Miyamoto in an interview one hour from now. Shigeru Miyamoto. One hour. Think about it. What questions would you ask him?
The enormity of the situation is slowly dawning. This is a once in a lifetime experience, like interviewing the Beatles or Steve Jobs. We make some jokes and try to remain focused on the task at hand. How are we going to handle this? Cool, hardened journalists here on business, with a deadline and a single-minded goal – the truth. Or knock-kneed fanboys, all flashing cameras, over enthusiastic handshakes and felt tip pens poised over Miyamoto-sans greatest games. What would you do?
It's 10.20, the hotel is a short walk in that cold British air and then we are there, surrounded by beautiful Japanese interior design and happy looking Nintendo PR folk. 10.28, and we're told that by some miracle they're running on time. I'm slightly disappointed. I don’t know whether it's the fact that I’m nervous or the fact that I've been enjoying the anticipation.
Either way, the time has come. With our questions under one arm and a mass of video equipment and Miyamoto themed memorabilia under the other (hey, you didn't think we'd do the "hardened professionals" thing, did you?), we are led in. There are two Japanese gentlemen behind the table, neither of whom seem familiar. Oh my God! Here we are, with all that's gone before, and I don't even recognise the guy. Ow. The first man is introduced as Yasuhiro Minagawa and we are told he will be acting as translator for the session. The second is Eiji Aonuma – the director of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and reason enough for us to be there. Then we look around to the corner in which the water cooler resides and there is an instantly recognisable face. Shigeru Miyamoto. Hands are shaken, cards are swapped, cameras are set up and we all sit. At 10.33 am we ask the first question, and the next half an hour will be time I will never forget.
NTSC-uk: How did you feel about initial critical reaction to cel-shaded Zelda?
When we first showed images of The Wind Waker game I knew there were some people who didn't like how it looked compared to the other games, but we had already started selling the concept to the general public. When I first spoke to friends they all asked why we were using toon-shading technology, but now they really like it. They all agree that once you start playing the game you understand the beauty of the choices we made in this imagery.
NTSC-UK: To what extent, if any, did Mario titles influence Zelda?
When we first created the Legend of Zelda, we started working on Super Mario Brothers at the same time and I was involved in them both. Many of the developers were also working on both titles at the same time, so whenever we exchanged ideas for the new titles, we always said "This is a Mario idea", or "This is a Zelda idea" but in between there are always some ideas that can be used in both games. So it's not that one game influences the other game, it's that ideas get separated according to which title they are more appropriate for.
NTSC-UK: In The Wind Waker, which new element of the game are you most satisfied with?
I personally wanted to realise a very natural movement to the character and of the play itself, in terms of actually controlling everything on the screen as naturally as possible. That is partly why I wanted to incorporating the toon-shading technologies and by now I'm quite satisfied with customers' reaction to this goal.
The Wind Waker was my third project. I worked on the N64 Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, which I directed. When I finished those game there were some things I had to leave out, but thanks to GameCube technology with The Wind Waker I've been able to incorporate almost everything I couldn't do in the past, so I find that quite satisfying.
NTSC-UK: And was there anything you'd like to have included that you had to leave out this time around?
Yes there were, but let's look forward to the next instalment!
We had to get rid of 2 stages. Some people still say the game is too big.
NTSC-UK: So what are these new concepts you're moving forward to the next game?
[After lengthy and good humoured exchange between all 3 of them]
It's my responsibility to stop them talking about their new ideas for Zelda!
NTSC-UK: Facial Expressions seem to be an intrinsic part of the new game, how did that come about?
When we first started working on the toon-shading technologies we came up with very rough prototypes for the characters, and the first thing I noticed is that you can tell where a character's looking by following their eyes. It was very interesting and at the beginning our original idea was just that eyeballs could sometimes move. But as we wrote the game, it became clear we could make use of the eyeball movement a lot more, like when the character is in some mysterious place he may be glancing somewhere with his eyes and when the player watches him on the monitor he realises there's got to be something over there. So more and more we were incorporating that kind of idea into the game, but it was not originally my intention to make use of the eyeball expressions and equally as we worked with the ideas more of the character himself became vividly alive and so watching our own created character become increasingly animated over the course of his development was really important to us.
In Japan we have a saying: the eyes can tell as much truth as your mouth.
NTSC-UK: What's your favourite in-game event in the Zelda series so far?
When I was creating Majora's Mask, I worked on creating single events but in The Wind Waker I was in charge of the whole general storyline, not just to the specific event ideas. So as far as I can tell you about what I like, it wasn't about any single event happening – it was how all the events fitted together. That's the thing I like most.
I talked about ideas being Mario-like or Zelda-like and that we sort them out, but what is more important is the impression, or sometimes illusion, that the game player feels as if he's exploring the world of Hyrule. Using video technologies, including 3D technologies, it became possible for us to vividly reproduce that kind of realistic experience. In Hyrule, for example, when Link has gigantic heads looking at him, that event was vividly reproduced through the incorporation of 3D technology and any events associated with it can now have a feeling that you are inside the game and you are now encountering the enemy. They were most memorable.
It may be a trivial thing to add but in the very first original Legend of Zelda game some of the enemies confidentially gave you money and said, "Don't tell anybody else". It's a small thing, and in terms of technology it didn't require any high-tech, yet in terms of the game idea it's a very important because it's kind of telling you, you should get relaxed and enjoy yourself. So that kind of atmosphere is something that I always try and make in my games.
NTSC-UK: Was it more difficult taking Mario from 2D into 3D than it was Zelda due to Mario's innate 2D simplicity?
Yes, with the long history of Super Mario Brothers and Mario himself, we knew it was going to be hard now that Mario is becoming 3D. Taking a look into the many different aspects of Mario, some things were going well because of 3D expression, but on the other hand, as you just pointed out, Mario may have become a game which is not for everybody now. That kind of feeling is actually taken very bitterly, and with the public reaction to the latest Mario games, we are already starting to develop a new Mario game that shall be different in that sense. We've just talked a bit about what's being Zelda-like, now what we think about being Mario-like is that the player has to enjoy himself just moving Mario. With the 3D expression, players can enjoy many more varieties of movements, but if we ask them are you really comfortable controlling Mario, I have to admit that not everybody appreciates controlling him now.
NTSC-UK: So who do you write your games for?
I've actually never thought about any specific person when I'm creating new games but The Wind Waker was different. When I was deeply involved in the development of it I received my first child and maybe because of that, even though he is of course too small to realise right now, but when he grows up I'd really like to give him The Wind Waker to try, which is really the first time I have thought of that sort of thing. So The Wind Waker is really for my son.
In my case my children are more grown up, one is 17 and one is 15, but I'd really like to write games that can be enjoyed by a whole family. In Japan especially, it's not unusual that The Wind Waker might be played by a mother and children, and in that sense another game called Animal Crossing is played by whole families, maybe because the parents are in a generation who have grown up with videogames. More and more I'm very inclined to make videogames which can be played by the whole family, that's why in The Wind Waker we have included some special features so several family members can actually take part in the game not only by interfering with their mouths, but they can actually get involved in the gameplay. That's a very fun aspect.
NTSC-UK: And on that point, how many hours a day do you let your kids play videogames?
About 2 hours but I always make a point of saying "Only after your homework". I always say on sunny days you have to go out!
I was going to say the same thing!
NTSC-UK: Finally, there's a lot of speculation on the future of mobile phone gaming at the moment. What are your thoughts in this area?
As far as performance and functionality is concerned, some of the cell phones are catching up with portable systems like GBA. But I currently have GBSP and a cell phone with me, and it's not any trouble at all to have both. For me when I think of the cell phone and so forth, I think it's better to have them both separately, doing what they do best.
So it was over. We hurriedly grabbed some pictures with Aonuma-san and Miyamoto-san, had an awesome signing session and after a final round of thanks and hand shaking we left the room. It had all gone very quickly, but even then we both knew one thing – it had been as perfect an encounter as we could have possible asked for.
What doesn't come across in the transcript is the laughter. We spent almost the entire time laughing and although we all spoke different languages, Miyamoto-san and Aonuma-san had an energy, passion and joy which transcended pure vocal communication. They joked with each other and Minagawa-san throughout and you could tell that they had an awesome knowledge and love of the work they do.
We kidded as we walked back to the car how much we would love to be going back to Japan with these guys – talking about new game ideas, new scenarios to place their legendary characters and being key players in shaping the games industry and in turn the dreams of children and adults the world over. It won't happen for us, but I can assure you – with men like this making games, our dreams are in good hands.
Written by: Ben Bufton
Interview and transcript by: Nick Gillett & Ben Bufton
Pictures by: Ben Bufton
Translator: Yasuhiro Minagawa (Nintendo Japan)