2011 is going to be a big year for Nintendo.
After years of effortlessly topping Christmas lists worldwide, its DS and Wii consoles have hit a sales plateau. Meanwhile, Apple has muscled in to the handheld gaming market with its touchscreen devices and rivals Sony and Microsoft have cheekily embraced motion-control with their technically superior consoles.
Nintendo has a lot to worry about.
So why is Shigeru Miyamoto looking so cheerful?
The Nintendo linchpin, whose business card describes him as “Senior Managing Director, Member of the Board, General Manager, Entertainment Analysist and Development Division”, is currently waving his arms at a TV screen, demonstrating his next project for the Wii, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, due for release in 2011.
At the age of 58, but the looks of a man in his late thirties, Miyamoto clearly still loves to play. With ear-length dark hair surrounding a round face that seems to be designed for smiling, he shows off the improved attack and defence controls for Skyward Sword grinning with boyish enthusiasm at the screen. His movements are as fluid and expert as you'd expect, but it's the joy with which he plays that is remarkable.The man who gave the world Mario, Zelda, Pikmin, Nintendogs and Starfox has clearly lost none of his love for his work. But where exactly is his company going, now that even Microsoft is talking about catering for “Wii graduates”?
“I don't think the Wii is something that people need to graduate from”, he says through his translator.
“Of course, I am happy that motion is fashionable now. But when we make games, we are not trying to produce trendy products. It needs to be an experience that's meaningful, and the motion control needs to add something. So our new Zelda game takes motion control and adds something to the game to make you feel like you're part of the adventure.
“I think our rivals need to find what it is they have to offer that’s new”.
Like the entire stable of classic games that Miyamoto has produced, the latest Zelda title will be a Nintendo exclusive, a game that exerts a commercial pull so powerful that people will buy consoles especially to play it.
At the time of our meeting, the game is “over half complete”.
“What we are focused on is creating gameplay mechanics so the gameplay experience feels very dense. In fact, the overall experience is going to feel more dense. We hope that people will want to go back and replay the game once they finish it”.
This absolute belief in the power of content over technology is what distinguishes Nintendo from its rivals. The Wii and DS are feeble machines in comparison with competitors, but part of the reason for the decline in sales is simply market saturation: worldwide, the Wii (75.9m as of September) has sold over 30 million more consoles than the Xbox 360 (44.5m), its closest rival, which launched a full year earlier.
“On the software side we are seeing stable sales”, Miyamoto says, “and Mario Kart is still selling at a steady pace. There's still a lot of games we can create for it, and our audience is expanding".
“Nintendo doesn't think so much about competition as about creating new video game experiences, trying to do things differently. The other thing we focus on is trying to deliver our interactive entertainment to as broad an audience as possible”.
The next stage for Nintendo is to build on the wild popularity of its existing consoles. In February, a new version of the Nintendo DS will arrive in stores, the first console to offer high-definition 3D images without the need for special glasses. Predictably, Miyamoto is excited by the development.
“What’s really exciting”, he explains with a gleam in his eye, “is our new ability to have a sense of depth. Once you have the true 3D visual it becomes very clear where all the objects are on that space, so jumping on objects becomes easier”.
Presumably, Mario Kart looks great in 3D.
For the briefest of moments, Miyamoto looks like Pocket-lint has stolen a prized biscuit from his private cookie jar, since no announcement of Mario Kart in 3D has been made. Then he smiles.
“You’re right. We’ve found that pulling the camera far back to observe the car racing works really well".
“But you must remember that we have been experimenting with 3D in one way or another for over 20 years. The 3DS is another opportunity to do even more”.
Intriguingly, Nintendo claims that the 3DS will also be able to play back 3D video content. This could be a boon for parents who don’t want to stump up for a new 3D TV simply so their offspring can watch How to Train your Dragon 3,000 times. It’s a whole new market for Nintendo to conquer, though in the absence of confirmed rights deals, Miyamoto seems keen to downplay it.
“When I was young", he says, “I had a stereoscopic movie viewer thing, and I became fascinated by the images. Maybe you could have short 3D clips you can watch over and over again. It's well suited to a device like the 3DS. It is also technically possible to put a full 2-hour movie on there and watch it too”.
So, after 2010 in which he found time to receive a BAFTA in between designing New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Skyward Sword, Miyamoto isn’t looking forward to much of a break in 2011. Does he ever allow himself to go on holiday?
“The thing is that I enjoy going to work so much that the only time I take for vacation is for my family’s sake. Making and playing games for a living is such fun”.
Each game he makes, he sees as being for a slightly different audience, with challenges of its own.
“With Super Mario Galaxy 2, for example, we were flexing our gaming muscles. The sense of satisfaction from making a difficult game is amazing. If you finish that game, you'll be able to play almost any game in the world”.
But does he find any common ground between his various games?
“Look, everything I create has a little bit of me in it, and there are some common factors. Mario will never end up in an overly violent game, yet all these years he gets through games by punching and kicking”.
And with that Miyamoto picks up his controllers again and starts punching and kicking. And grinning.