In the early 1980s, Shigeru Miyamoto got his first glimpse of a Rubik's Cube at a toy fair in Japan. The young video-game creator from Nintendo Co. (NTDOY ) found the six-sided puzzle to be an ideal toy -- a cinch to get started, murder to solve, and impossible to put down. Miyamoto kept those qualities in mind when he created Super Mario Bros., which went on to become the hottest-selling video game of all time, with more than 40 million copies sold. And the mustachioed carpenter-turned-plumber was in good company. Six of Miyamoto's games are among the global top 10 sellers.
This winning streak has earned worldwide adulation for Miyamoto, now a senior managing director. When the diminutive 52-year-old dropped by the Nintendo World Store in New York on Sept. 25, he found 1,500 people waiting in line for his autograph and a photo. The line had begun forming two days earlier, with fans flying in from as far away as Europe. "One fan told me: 'You're a god!' I was very embarrassed," he says.
An industrial designer and artist by training, Miyamoto joined Nintendo in 1977 just as the Kyoto-based toy and playing-card maker was venturing into arcade games. His big break came four years later. An arcade game called Radarscope had just flopped, crimping Nintendo's ability to sell its arcade machines. Although Miyamoto knew little about electronics, he was asked to create another game that would run on the same hardware. Within months he and a team of engineers had come up with Donkey Kong, featuring a cartoon carpenter who strives to rescue his girlfriend from a giant ape. "For those three months, it was all I thought about, 24 hours a day," he recalls. Nintendo quickly shipped 63,400 units, outselling every other arcade machine and making Miyamoto a celebrity.
In 1985, Nintendo began targeting the living room with a console called the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and kids quickly got hooked on Miyamoto's Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. The next year he created a labyrinthine fantasy world called The Legend of Zelda, which could take skilled gamers days or weeks to complete. In the 1990s, Miyamoto led the charge into 3D graphics with Super Mario 64. His latest triumph is Nintendogs, a game for Nintendo's top-selling handheld console. It has sold 1.6 million units since its April debut.
Counting all the sequels, Miyamoto's three biggest hits -- Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda -- have sold 271 million copies worldwide. Still, Nintendo failed to thwart latecomers Sony (SNE ) and Microsoft (MSFT ), both of which have steamed past Nintendo in the $25 billion-a-year video-game market. Inevitably, some fault Miyamoto for trying to stay loyal to his relatively young fan base while rivals opted for more realism -- read, lurid action -- to rope in older players. Many of Miyamoto's games, such as the quirky outer-space adventure Pikmin, still resemble cartoons. "We want our games to be for anyone from 5 to 95 years old," he says. "Software makers want games to be so realistic, but first and foremost they should evoke emotions."
In the future the interactive experience may no longer be limited to the four corners of your TV or PC screen. Games may come to fill an entire room, like the holodeck in Star Trek, the designer says. But for now, Miyamoto's strategy for expanding Nintendo's $5 billion sales base is to shoot for the broadest possible age range. When Nintendo launches its next-generation platform, dubbed the Revolution, sometime in 2006, it will come with controllers that Miyamoto patterned after a simplified TV remote -- as opposed to ever-more-complicated game controllers. He can easily envision such gadgets on a coffee table in front of the TV, equally accessible to both young and old. "Most people think video games are all about a child staring at a TV with a joystick in his hands. I don't," he says. "They should belong to the entire family."
By Kenji Hall