As an author, I am often asked about my influences. Most of the names I mention are well known: George Orwell and German children’s book author Cornelia Funk, Weimar novelist Irmgard Keon, JRR Tolkien, as well as Haruki Murakami, world famous Japanese author and eternal nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
One more name always raises eyebrows, both in book events and during interviews or conversations with colleagues: Shigeru Miyamoto.
It’s good to be careful with superlatives, but in this guy’s case, nothing else will do: Shigeru Miyamoto, born November 16, 1952 in Nantan, Japan, is one of the most successful game developers of the 20th century. . In 1977, a Kanazawa College of Art graduate began working as a designer at the video game company Nintendo in Tokyo. Instead of pursuing his dream and drawing manga, Miyamoto spent three years designing cases for Nintendo video game consoles.
Reset Nintendo mode to black mode
At the time, Nintendo had already been around for about a century, making card games, instant rice bowls, and toys. In the late 1970s, it invested a lot of money in a video game called “Radar Scope” – a shooter similar to Space Invaders – to break into the lucrative gaming market in the United States.
But “Radar Scope” faltered and Nintendo needed a replacement. After three years with the company, Shigeru Miyamoto was given the opportunity to design and develop not an arcade machine, but the real thing: a complete video game.
The 28-year-old seized the opportunity – and propelled himself and his company to global fame with the invention of ‘Donkey Kong’ released in 1981.
With “Donkey Kong,” Miyamoto saved Nintendo from financial ruin and created three of the most enduring characters in 20th century pop culture: the Italian plumber Super Mario, who can change his size with the help of mushrooms; his sweetheart Princess Peach in her pink dress and parasol; and the gorilla with a red tie named Donkey Kong.
Next coup: The Legend of Zelda
Since then, Shigeru Miyamoto has been developing games, as well as directing Nintendo from 2002 to 2020.
He had another coup when he invented “The Legend of Zelda” video game series in the 80’s. In the “Zelda” games, young hero Link has to rescue Princess Zelda and save the kingdom of Hyrule from the evil Ganon, which is short for Ganondorf. Several Zelda games are considered some of the best video games of their time, among them “Ocarina of Time” (released for Nintendo 64) and “Breath of the Wild” (released on Nintendo Switch).
Super Mario, Link and Donkey Kong: today Miyamoto has become a gaming Steven Spielberg – everyone knows his name, and among children his heroes are more popular than Mickey Mouse.
Although they don’t speak or utter sounds or at most short phrases (Mario likes to shout “Mama Mia!” while Link is completely silent), Miyamoto’s heroes have brought joy to children and adults all over the world over the past 40 years.
I am one of them. Growing up in the 1990s in the Ruhr Valley, a former coal-producing region in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia with high unemployment, I envisioned myself in the fantasy worlds created by Miyamoto and Nintendo. Equipped with a Game Boy and a Super Nintendo that my older brother bought, I discovered as a little girl what it was like to save the world alongside Link, Mario, and Donkey Kong. Miyamoto’s games have helped me grow up believing I can do anything I set my mind to – and it can be a bit of fun, saving the world.
In his games, Miyamoto has invented universal heroes—all of them men, even if Link is androgynous enough to inspire even a young girl like myself—and redefined the meaning of the hero’s journey in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Fairy tales on the game console
In ancient Greece and the European Middle Ages, being a hero still meant winning eternal glory in battle, as “The Iliad” and “Beowulf” tell us. In the early modern Arthurian legends, heroes had to combine Christian piety and loyalty to their beloved master by facing and resisting countless temptations. In the process, the pleasures of life are sometimes neglected: the only Arthurian knight to find the Holy Grail and immediately ascend to heaven is the chaste Sir Galahad.
With Nintendo, on the other hand, saving the world is one thing and one thing only: having fun. Shigeru Miyamoto has created happy heroes and games that give us fun. His creations don’t take themselves too seriously, in stark contrast to superhero cinema in the United States from the Marvel and DC group. If Super Mario has a companion in the world of books and movies, it’s not Superman, but Alice who gets lost in Wonderland; Wendy, who travels with Peter Pan to the fantastic Neverland; and the poor woman with her pot of gold in the British fairy tale Hedley Cow.
Because in the end, the Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong games aren’t about superheroes and their moral or psychological dilemmas. They don’t even care about saving the world: what Miyamoto did is bring the modern fairy tale into the realm of video games. In his games, good triumphs over evil, hope never dies, and rescuing and traveling the world is a lot of fun to boot. As a storyteller, he is and always will be one of his greatest idols. If you want to learn how to do a proper happy ending, look no further than Disney or the Brothers Grimm. Look at Shigeru Miyamoto.
When Shigeru Miyamoto turns 70, he’s been busy. As Nintendo’s representative director, he’s spent the past few years opening the Super Nintendo theme park at Universal Studios in Tokyo and working on the “Super Mario” feature film. Hollywood is bringing the bearded plumber to the big screen: The Super Marios Bros. Movie will be released in cinemas worldwide in the spring of 2023. Shigeru Miyamoto will have every reason to look forward to his 71st year as one of the most talented storytellers alive.
Editing: Brenda Haas