Friday, June 23, 2006

Miyamoto's Dark Side

Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto
photo courtesy of Impress Group Company

Next-Generation has a very interesting editorial discussing this very issue. The topic at hand is Shigeru Miyamoto’s influence on gaming. On the balance, most of us can agree his influence is certainly positive, but a question often not asked is has his presence in the industry brought negatives to the table. More bluntly, it asks: ‘is Miyamoto's influence universally good?’

The answer, according to the author, is No.

“Miyamoto is, at heart, a children's book author…” and he “was virtually put in charge of the most powerful videogame company on Earth,” writes Next-Generation’s Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh.

His vision “was the only significant voice within Nintendo. In the wake of Miyamoto's success, everyone else was put on standby,” adds Jon Rossel Waugh. And here in lies the problem. The Miyamoto’s way became the only way. “This aesthetic, this mentality, this rulebook became – through Nintendo's mantra, in absence of any mainstream alternative (except maybe Sega)… Nintendo's system was seen as nice, and certainly impressive on the technical end, yet sort of stodgy. Sega had games no one had played before – or not exactly, anyway. Nintendo getting Street Fighter II before Sega did a little to knock that impression.”

The author is right in pointing this out. The industry certainly doesn’t work that way, and alternatives are arrived at and explored by other developers everyday. Will Wright may share Miyamoto’s sensibilities and philosophies but Miyamoto could not have made Sim City, only Wright could have. The implication made is that Nintendo had in many ways experienced a decade of decline since the end of the 16-bit generation largely because of Miyamoto. This is a shocking twist, but there is certainly a point to be made.

I would however made a big distinction between the above argument with what the author proceeded to do in the rest of his editorial, which was to make mostly questionable and arguable claims about how adherence to the Miyamoto formula kept innovation in gameplay form happening. Here is a short list of his claims: Super Mario World is a retread of Supwer Mario 3 [Well ok, I sort of agree since I loved Mario 3 much more than I did Mario world]; Zelda – A Link to the Past is a remake of Zelda 1; Zelda Ocarina of Time could have been made on the a 2-D platform, even a GameBoy.

The author’s point here is an attempt to connect his premise that Miyamoto’s overwhelming success and entrenchment within Nintendo caused a kind of ‘freezing’ which brought about repeated retreads and remakes of the same game. According to Rossel Waugh, Zelda essentially hasn’t changed since the first game.

I can’t say I agree in this regard, and this may have been a case of over-reach on the author’s part to grasp at connections that doesn’t exist. The Zelda franchise is great because in part, it has maintained firmly rooted in the concepts and conventions created in the original, but it is certainly by no means frozen in time because of a desire to stick with the Miyamoto system.

Ultimately Rossel Waugh lost the point he was trying to make in the first part of his editorial and opened the door for the discredit of his entire position. Miyamoto can’t be all things to all people. He has a special ability to make universally appealing games of a certain type. The mythical ‘virtual gardens’ that he spoke of in past interviews, is what he strives to recreate in almost all his games. Each game has its internal logic, based not on reality but on game rules. But within that game, the logic makes sense and is wholly consistent. This however doesn’t define what ALL games are about. Nintendo’s problem, and Miyamoto’s contribution to that problem, at least in the last 10 years, was precisely because management at Nintendo had deemed Miyamoto so powerful that they built the company’s strategy around the type of games Miyamoto either designs and oversees personally or games that follow his method of game design.

There are alternatives out there. In an era of increasing stagnation and sequel-itis, Nintendo is attempting to find its way back into the center of the limelight by reinventing the way it makes games. Case and point, Miyamoto was either only marginally involved or had no involvement at all in the creation of some of the platform's killer-apps: Animal Crossing, Brain Training, Nintendogs, to name a few. More convincingly, many more 3rd party games that give the DS such a strong identity and differentiates it from the PSP are not Nintendo games. They are games from third parties. Games like Capcom's Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney, Atlus' Trauma Center, Konamis' Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow and Winning Eleven; Bandai Namco's Kaitou Rusoo, SquareSoft's Children of Mana and the upcoming Final Fantasy III are all outside of the Miyamoto school. Quite simply, Nintendo has proven, after a decade of self-doubt, that its good to have Miyamoto on the team, but one man can't make a game console.

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