A former Retro Studios developer’s anecdote about working with legendary Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto is too good not to share. It will surprise no one that the Mario creator knows exactly what he’s doing (most of the time) but hearing about how he works in practice adds a whole other layer of idiosyncratic craft to appreciate.
The story comes from former Metroid Prime designer Mike Wikan, who spoke about the creation of 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii on the latest episode of the Kiwi Talkz podcast (via Nintendo Life). One time the Retro Studios developer and his colleagues were showing the platformer to Miyamoto and looking for feedback. What enlightening observations would Miyamoto have for the team after trying that early build? None, it turns out. At least not at first.
“He was running into the corner with DK—we had the DK package running early on—and he would kick up a little dust and go over to the corner,” Wikan said. “He did this for a long time, for like 20 minutes, and we were like, ‘What did we do wrong? What is he finding?’”
It wasn’t a mistake Miyamoto had discovered, but rather an opportunity. He had apparently been concentrating on the particle effects of the dust that whole time. Once satisfied, he turned to Wikan and the team to ask if they could give Donkey Kong a new blowing ability. It was a strange proposal, but it ended up being the right one. In the finished game DK can puff on objects to reveal secrets and open up new paths, as well as put out fires before stomping on enemies. The whole thing is a big part of Donkey Kong Country Returns’ identity, and an important way it builds on the basics of the original trilogy.
Miyamoto’s responsibility for the blowing mechanic was previously mentioned in an Iwata Asks interview, but the slow build-up and methodical attention to detail described by Wikan makes it all the more fascinating, like someone changing the entire course of a symphony or mural by having a long think and then contributing a single note or brush stroke. Great Nintendo games have these extra embellishments. The best ones are full of them.
“It was missing whimsy, it was missing that playful sense of the character,” Wikan said. “[Miyamoto] had his finger on the pulse immediately. He knew what he wanted. He wanted a little bit of flavor added to DK that was a little bit whimsical. And it just did perfectly, it was the perfect call.”
Which reminds me: a new Donkey Kong game when?