By Geoffrey Bunting
Only around a year ago, with the announcement of Star Fox Zero, YouTubers flocked to Nintendo events to meet and interview Shigeru Miyamoto. For many, it was an opportunity to meet their hero. They gushed about this too, and I have to admit I was somewhat jealous. During these interviews, he was gracious, engaging, and clearly excited by that Nintendo were producing – even now, thirty years since he started.
Despite this, Shigeru Miyamoto remains one of the most divisive personalities in gaming. On one hand, he is a living legend, a huge part of the gaming renaissance of the late eighties and early nineties. He invented some of the most popular and enduring franchises in gaming history, including The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario, and Donkey Kong. In short, he really is the godfather of video games.
Then there is his reputation of being a ruthless and jealous man to work with, as well as his history of sexism – a history that coincides with similar issues throughout Nintendo and the industry. There’s his lengthy jealousy-fuelled feud with Rare, sabotaging Argonaut’s Starfox 2 and then stealing its assets and code, and his awful treatment of third party developers in general – British ones especially. All of which raises many questions over how we should really view Miyamoto’s affect on gaming.
Yes, Nintendo is also culpable in these events, whether it be actively or simply by enabling Miyamoto and his trend of being a jealous and insecure developer; so bought into his own legend that he refuses to be shown up. There’s no doubt he has done more good for gaming than bad, but can we really ignore the damage he has caused?
For me, Miyamoto is a hero of mine. I’ve written before about the influence that Nintendo games have had on my life, and he has played a huge part in that. He is also, however, indicative of a problem that has been on my mind lately, that of the separation of artist and art. More and more, I am becoming aware of a line I draw between what I can accept and separate and what I cannot. This line tends to divide things that hurt only one’s self – drugs and alcohol – and things that hurt others – prejudice, physical abuse, etc. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the art in question cannot be appreciated or enjoyed, just that it is necessary to be able to look at what we love with a critical eye; to not sweep anything under the carpet for the sake of preserving our innocence. For instance, I can appreciate the work of Shane MacGowan and not care about his abuse of drugs and alcohol, but I can be especially aware of Eric Gill’s sexual proclivities when looking at his contribution to British sculpture.
In fact, Gill is a pertinent example in that, once you know of his proclivities, you can see it all over his work. The same is true for Miyamoto. Once you know what he’s done, once you can see the echoes of other people’s work in his games, it is hard to ignore.
There is one example, however, that stands out in his litany of indiscretions, and that is the case of Dinosaur Planet.
If any of you are wondering what Dinosaur Planet is, I don’t blame you. It’s a game that nobody actually got to play. Developed by Rare around 1999 for the Nintendo 64, Dinosaur Planet was a game in which the player would travel through time, fight dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, and otherwise save the world. From the footage released of the game, it looked like it would play much like other adventure games on the system, looking a lot like Ocarina of Time. All in all, for the period, it looked an exciting game.
Even more interesting about Dinosaur Planet was its use of two protagonists, one male and one female. At the time, this now common feature was not nearly so prevalent. Dinosaur Planet would have been one of the first Nintendo titles to include a sincere choice of protagonists.
The female protagonist, Krystal, from what can be seen in trailer footage and interviews, was the kind of character gaming had been – and still is – crying out for. She was strong, capable, and possessed her own agency. In a lot of ways, compared to Nintendo’s usual female characters, she broke the mould. Rare had been responsible for some of Nintendo’s best games: Banjo Kazooie, Donkey Kong Country, and Perfect Dark, to name a few. So the announcement of Dinosaur Planet would have been greeted with a lot of anticipation.
Then Miyamoto turned up. Years previous he had riled Rare up by being put-out by their revolutionary use of the SNES’s 16-bit graphics in Donkey Kong Country. These graphics, which made much of the limited hardware, drove Nintendo to question why all its games couldn’t live up to DKC’s graphical fidelity – including Miyamoto’s own Super Mario World 2. Rather than rising to this challenge, in response he threw a tantrum, “Donkey Kong Country proves that players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good.” – he then made sure his graphics were as far removed from DKC’s as possible.
Now, he waded in on Dinosaur Planet. He joked that the characters reminded him of his Starfox characters and, as if he had a monopoly on anthropomorphised animals, that’s exactly what it turned into. Over the next two years, Nintendo dismantled the game and rewrote it, turning it into Starfox Adventures.
After his dealings with Argonaut, which saw him sabotage Starfox 2 and copy the concept of Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, it is another example of him using his status to steal other people’s work and to try and take credit for it. But, as if this wasn’t bad enough, another unfortunate by-product of this conversion from Dinosaur Planet to Starfox Adventures was the appropriation of the character of Krystal.
From interesting and exciting protagonist, she became one of Miyamoto’s favourite tropes: a damsel in distress. Krystal was completely replaced by Fox McCloud as the main character – he even uses her magical staff from the trailer – and she is then stripped down to a skimpier and more sexualised outfit, imprisoned, and made an object of desire for the solely male protagonist. During her introduction, in which we are presented with a completely creepy panning-up shot, there’s even a cheesy saxophone track playing.
Krystal was demoted from exciting protagonist to a prize for the player to attain. Any argument that this is simply because of the conversion to a Starfox game is undermined by the developer’s choice to undress her and not give her any presence until her eventual rescue towards the end of the game. It is just one of many examples of Nintendo and Miyamoto completely devaluing female characters by making them tantamount to objects rather than human beings – or human… foxes, in this case.
Perhaps it is not surprising that, after this, Rare cut ties with Nintendo and partnered with Microsoft.
It is also not surprising that, in a career spanning over three decades, that Miyamoto has a few not-so-stellar moments. They do not take away from his achievement and his influence. However, the magnitude of these indiscretions; the way he has, essentially, looked to sabotage third-party developers and appropriate their work for his own gains cannot be disregarded. Dinosaur Planet is the culmination of this pattern.
There is no guarantee that Dinosaur Planet would have been a good game. But given Rare’s pedigree at the time and what we were able to see of the game, it looked on par with their usual quality. Given a choice between a game that might have been in the leagues of Banjo Kazooie and a mediocre Starfox game, there’s no contest that I would choose the former.
Much as one struggles to ignore the influence of Gill’s sexual obsession in his work, so too is it difficult to ignore Miyamoto’s transgressions when looking at his. Miyamoto’s ego has accounted for a number of games and companies, culminating in Dinosaur Planet. As a result, we missed out on what may have been one of the N64’s most enjoyable and groundbreaking games. And while there is no arguing that Miyamoto is one of the most influential personalities in the industry, that influence isn’t always put to the useful and the good. As a giant of the industry, Miyamoto – and his peers – have a responsibility to encourage the growth of the industry and of those under his purview, not, as he has, being so self-involved as to destroy good games for his own gain.
I can admire his work. Despite everything, Nintendo – especially their N64 era efforts – are still my favourite publisher. Yet, as time goes on I become more and more aware of how little progress they are making, and the more details come to light of how developers like Miyamoto have misappropriated their power. The problem is, looking back, those dirty fingerprints remain all over his games. Can I still enjoy his work? Yes. Can I ignore what he did to make it? No, no I cannot. And maybe you shouldn’t either.