The Kid Who Trained With The Masters Of Nintendo During A Gaming Golden Age

It was the hot, sticky summer 1990. Japan’s bubble economy, the period of rapid growth during the 1980s, would be over in a year, but Japanese gaming showed no signs of ending its dominance.

Dylan Cuthbert, then an 18-year-old programmer at PC gamer developer Argonaut Software, was in the lobby of lobby of Kyoto hotel, wearing a cheap suit he hastily purchased. He fumbled with his ponytail and wondered about his family back home. It was his first time in Kyoto, visiting a Japanese company he’d barely heard of. And in the lobby of Cuthbert’s hotel was a game designer whose games he’d never played and whose name he’d never heard. That man was Shigeru Miyamoto. The company? Nintendo.

Back in his native England, Cuthbert had figured out how to render 3D graphics on the Game Boy – something that Nintendo didn’t even envision for the machine. The Game Boy was a sprite-based system, and didn’t provide game developers the luxury of bit-mapping. Cuthbert recalled in his typically nonchalant manner that getting the Game Boy to run 3D graphics “just took a bit of work”, punctuating his remark with chuckle.

But there he was, in Kyoto with Argonaut founder Jez San and Nintendo of America’s Tony Harman, being met at the hotel by people from Nintendo, including a then 38-year-old game designer named Shigeru Miyamoto.

Shigeru Miyamoto, father of Mario (Paul Sakuma | AP)

“When I met him, I thought, ‘Oh that’s cool’,” Cuthbert told Kotaku at Q Games, the Kyoto-based game developer he founded in 2001, best known for the popular PixelJunk series of games. Cool? Miyamoto was the man who invented Donkey Kong and Mario, a legend in his own right and not the kind of guy who usually needs help from an 18-year-old from England.

For the rest of the week, Nintendo developers like Miyamoto, Yoshio Sakamoto of Metroid fame and Gunpei Yokoi, who created the Game Boy, were playing host to young programmers from the UK, taking them to local restaurants and showing them the city. Cuthbert was getting a guided tour of Kyoto by some of gaming’s greatest legends. But for Cuthbert, they were simply some Japanese game colleagues he just met.

While Nintendo began its tear through North American living rooms, the PC was still king in Britain. Mario and Nintendo didn’t yet have the same impact in the UK that PC games did. Cuthbert didn’t grow up a Nintendo gamer, but a PC gamer, through and through. “In the 80s, a lot of people were making games in their bedroom, as they were going through school,” said Cuthbert. He had been doing double maths and physics at school, but his free time was spent making games on the ZX Spectrum 8-bit personal computer and learning how to make them on the Amiga.

The 1992 Game Boy game programmed by Cuthbert, featuring 3D graphics

“The childhood dream was to send your game off to a publisher and get your game out there,” he said. At age 14, Cuthbert sent off a tank battle game to six game companies. He got six rejection letters on beautiful letterhead from companies like Ocean or Imagine, companies that do not exist anymore. Those weren’t badges of shame, but pride. Cuthbert conceded that no doubt his first effort wasn’t his best, adding, “The frame-rate wasn’t so good.”

Whether he was hacking servers to run a text-based dungeon at his summer network programmer job at Lloyd’s of London or simply in his bedroom, he continued to dream of running his own studio, thinking up names like “Unique Productions” and designing logos. More importantly, he kept making games. The games he made as a teenager ranged from one in which players ran around shooting enemies to another in which the player had a “charged jump”. Years later, that game he made as a kid would serve as the basis for 2008’s PixelJunk: Eden.

Even before he had a computer, Cuthbert was making board games to play with his family. “They were pretty awful,” he said. But after getting a computer, he found a way to combine his love of games, drawing and maths.

Compared to making games on the Amiga or ZX Spectrum, school was a drag. Cuthbert remembers telling his maths teacher that he wanted to take a set of data and render it onto a 2D screen. He needed help. “The maths teacher couldn’t answer me directly,” he said. “He should’ve known the information right off the top of his head.” The information he got from his teacher was too academic and not practical for making games. “Because of that, it kind of disenchanted me to the whole school thing.”

“It kind of disenchanted me to the whole school thing.”

Universities now treat the industry with tremendous respect, giving students the tools and teaching they need. But back in the ’80s, gaming still wasn’t recognised as a proper job, and it wasn’t nearly as lucrative as it is now. Budding game designers like Cuthbert had to make hard choices: Do I go to university and get a big-paying non-gaming job? Or do I ditch school altogether, get a real gaming education and make games for peanuts? Cuthbert chose the latter. “For me, learning at home from books was far more efficient.”

Still in high school, Cuthbert was in London, the heart of the country’s game development community. He had moved from outside Manchester to live with his father. “It was actually quite a good move for me,” Cuthbert said, “because it put me closer to all these game companies.” While flipping through the latest issue of a computer hobbyist magazine, he found a job advert for Argonaut Software. He whipped up a resume and showed Argonaut a 2D game he’d made on the Spectrum. While Argonaut was impressed, the studio wanted programmers who had done games with 3D graphics. Cuthbert then taught himself how to render 3D graphics on the Amiga with his “Unique Productions” logo rotating on the screen and sent it off to Argonaut. The next day, Argonaut founder Jez San wanted to give the 17-year-old Cuthbert a job. A week later, he was punching the time clock as a professional computer game programmer.

After working on space simulator Starglider 2, Cuthbert was tasked with creating a 3D engine for the ill-fated Konix Multisystem console using the system’s sound chip – meaning that any game using it would have no sound! The Konix Multisystem never was released due to lack of funds, and Argonaut shifted its focus to the Game Boy, which had been just released in Japan. While home consoles didn’t catch on in the UK, Argonaut began making an unofficial development kit for the Game Boy. Cuthbert was once again trying to make a 3D graphics demo for Nintendo’s portable. Cuthbert was urged to go to Japan to show the Game Boy’s creators 3D graphics running on their handheld – something they never envisage with they designed the machine.

Kyoto at night. (Junko Kimura | Getty)

There Cuthbert was in Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto in a meeting room at Nintendo headquarters, surrounded by 30 people, including Shigeru Miyamoto, Takehiro Izushi and Gunpei Yokoi and demoing the 3D graphics he’d created on the Game Boy. There was only one person at Nintendo who spoke English and who didn’t speak it so well at the time, and the rest of the creators did their best to communicate. They did share a lingua franca, though: the language of games.

“Nintendo showed us a prototype of the Super Nintendo running a really buggy version of Super Mario World.”

“That week was the birth of the Super FX chip,” said Cuthbert. Co-developed with Nintendo, the chip powered the 3D game graphics in the Super Nintendo. Throughout the 1980s, Japanese game developers, especially Nintendo, were focused on the 2D game experience. It was European developers who were experimenting with 3D graphics. Nintendo, however, realised the importance of 3D graphics and decided to collaborate with Argonaut Software to bring 3D graphics to the SNES.

“Nintendo showed us a prototype of the Super Nintendo running a really buggy version of Super Mario World,” Cuthbert recalled. Some stages were just junk covering the screen – a far cry from finished title. Besides Super Mario World, Nintendo showed Pilotwings and F-Zero, which was finished by that point. “They even gave us a ROM of F-Zero,” said Cuthbert. “They’d never do that nowadays.” Nintendo not only gave Argonaut unreleased games to take back to England, but its still unreleased, unmarked grey console that would later be known to the world as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Cuthbert working on StarFox 2, 1995

After playing through F-Zero, Cuthbert played Super Mario Bros 3. It was his first Mario game. He was instantly hooked. “You couldn’t save the game, so you had to leave it on,” Cuthbert said. Finishing the game took a solid 24 hours of play and was the first title he completed 100 per cent. What impressed him most was that the second half of the game got better – compared to many British games that start out with a bang, but then peter out.

This was before internet had kicked into high gear. Sure, there were online bulletin board systems, but game demos and pirated copies were traded via stamped letters. “There was no internet to leak the ROMs out on to,” said Cuthbert. “Even if you were to leak it, where would it go?” Sure, they had to sign an nondisclosure agreement, but the idea that Nintendo, who in recent years has become increasingly protective and secretive, would give another company its unreleased games and hardware is inconceivable. But it wasn’t merely Nintendo being reckless, it was a show of good faith. Nintendo wanted to go into business with Argonaut. It wanted to make a 3D chip and 3D games.

Cuthbert at work on Star Fox for the SNES.

At Miyamoto’s urging, Nintendo wanted to know how to make the 3D graphics in Pilotwings better. The aircraft itself was a rendered sprite, but there was talk at that time of making the aircraft out of polygons. It didn’t happen, but this laid the ground work for the dedicated 3D chip that would ultimately become the Super FX chip. Argonaut co-founder Jez San had the contacts to make the chip for Argonaut, which would ultimately be used in select SNES cartridges like Star Fox. Argonaut signed a deal with Nintendo to make games, and Cuthbert, with his 3D graphics expertise, was assigned to program the games.

Cuthbert set to work on X, the first game on a portable Japanese system to feature 3D graphics. In a way the game was a precursor for the next title, space shooter Star Fox. The game would require Cuthbert to live in Japan while developing the title – something he jumped at. During that first week in Kyoto back in summer 2000, Cuthbert fell in love with the city.

(Akihiro I | Getty)

Cuthbert would fly over for big chunks of time to work on X, residing at the Kyoto Royal Hotel for the first year, before heading back to the UK and then making the trip back again. Days and weekends were spent working his arse off. Any free time was spent in arcades, soaking up the Kyoto nightlife or trying to squeeze in time to learn Japanese. There were vending machines that weren’t bashed in and destroyed, taxi drivers who opened the doors, polite people, good food, and, oh, the arcades. At that time in Kyoto, it seemed like you couldn’t walk 20m without hitting a game centre. The whole city smelled like yuzu citrus due to the cleaning solution used in air conditioners, and the tap water didn’t taste like tap water. “I saw a society work as society should work,” recalled Cuthbert. Phone booths were clean and not vandalised, a far cry from the busted up phone boxes outside Manchester. He was thrilled to be there, not only to make games, but to live.

Those were crazy days. Spent working, gaming and drinking. Fellow Argonaut programmer Giles Godard, who was also in Japan, recalled coming back one night with the StarFox crew. Either Dylan was riding on the back of the bicycle or Giles was – they were both worse for wear – with top secret design documents in the basket. “Just as we’re crossing a busy junction, one of us lost balance and we both ended up sprawled over the middle of the road with the entire contents of the top secret folder blowing towards Kyoto station,” said Godard. “It took us a while to get it all back.” And according to Godard, there was a week where Cuthbert couldn’t leave his hotel room because his teenage girlfriend gave him a massive hickey.

“I saw a society work as society should work.”

The works was tough, but invigorating. Eighteen-year-old Cuthbert was fuelled by his desire to make games and by the kick of Japanese candy. Every day after lunch, he’ld swing by the local supermarket, grabbing a bag of whatever unusual Japanese candy that caught his eye. Gunpei Yokoi started noticing Cuthbert’s penchant for sweets, created a budget and told the young programmer that he could buy candy on Nintendo’s dime. “So everyday, I could buy whatever candy I wanted thanks to Yokoi-san,” said Cuthbert. “All that sugar is great for the brain, especially at that age.”

At Nintendo, Yokoi was a patriarchal-type figure for Cuthbert. The British developer remembered Yokoi as a jovial man who loved his Jaguar that was always breaking down. Said Cuthbert, “I have these memories of him just sitting there playing Yoshi’s Cookie.”

Perhaps Argonaut thought their Nintendo game was going to be akin to its more realistic sci-fi shooter, Starglider.

Nintendo being Nintendo wanted to make a space shooter with a fox. The animal is rich with mythical association in Japan, and the fox idea was all Miyamoto’s. When Cuthbert first came to Japan, Miyamoto took him to a shrine near Nintendo’s offices that’s dedicated to foxes. “It was kind of a surprise,” said Cuthbert, “because I came from a hardcore sci-fi background.”

During the weekends at Nintendo HQ, every now and then Miyamoto would pop by with his kids. Cuthbert would be there programming, on a Saturday and Sunday, and Miyamoto would take a look at his progress. “I wasn’t earning much money,” Cuthbert recalled. So I’d just head over to Nintendo and program.” Miyamoto would grab a seat, smoke a cigarette and provide his input how he thought the game’s controls were coming along.

Every day at lunch, Cuthbert and fellow Argonaut programmers Giles Goddard and Krister Wombell would grab launch with Miyamoto to talk about how StarFox was coming along as well as for Miyamoto to practice his English. But the longer that Cuthbert and Goddard were in Japan, the conversations gradually switched to Japanese. Like most older men in Western Japan, Miyamoto was fond of making bad jokes and bad puns.

Cuthbert and Goddard.

“It really let us see into Miyamoto psyche,” said Cuthbert. Learning about his personality, his humour and how he reacts to situations. Miyamoto isn’t only hands on with the broader aspect of game design, he studies up on the technical aspects and has a firm handle on the minutia of how a game plays. “Miyamoto understood the console inside and out – how the screens worked, how they layered, their priorities, everything,” said Cuthbert. And when things weren’t working out in the game, Miyamoto didn’t hesitate to scrap everything and start over.

“That’s Miyamoto, he’s not money driven,” said Cuthbert. “He just wants to make a really good game.”

Nintendo is fussy about quality. Miyamoto is fussy, too. And Japanese people are, generally speaking, quite fussy, too – as evident in the meticulous attention to detail and the superb customer service. For Cuthbert, who always considered himself quite particular about how things are designed and programmed, he felt right at home. “I always demand a certain level of quality – even today,” he told Kotaku as a Q-Games employee entered the meeting room, telling him in Japanese that he needed to take a phone call. Cuthbert’s replied that he’s in the middle of an interview, but will take the call later in spot-on Japanese. It’s not just his linguistic ability that enabled him to fit right in at Nintendo, it’s his relentless demand for quality.

Miyamoto doesn’t have any qualms about cancelling games, something Cuthbert found out first hand after canning the sequel to StarFox. The first Star Fox game was a smash hit, and the sequel seemed poised to be a big hit, too. But with the upcoming N64 console on the horizon and rival Sony releasing the PlayStation 1, Miyamoto decided to cancel the finished game.

“The thinking was that if Nintendo released another 3D game on the Super Nintendo,” said Cuthbert, “then it would be compared with the PlayStation 1, and the quality was completely different.” Miyamoto came and told the team that completed game would not be released. “Star Fox 2 was disappointing but I could understand the reasoning – the PlayStation and Saturn had come out and were obviously superior to the SuperFX chip,” said Cuthbert. “Considering the rivalry between Sony and Nintendo I could see exactly where they were coming from.” The two consoles would have been unfairly compared.

Empathy is valued in Japan, and many people do attempt to try to understand where others are coming from. Whether it was simply his personality or living in Japan, Cuthbert wasn’t upset angry at Nintendo for canning the game; he understood why it did that. But, for the team, it was a lost title. For Cuthbert, it was the last title on his contract with Argonaut Software – something he says was more disappointing. His time at Nintendo was over.

(Junko Kimura | Getty)

At that point, Cuthbert had been living in Japan for three or four years. Because of a headhunting clause in his contract, Nintendo could not hire him. Fellow programmer Giles Goddard didn’t have such a clause in his contract, and Goddard ended up working at Nintendo. Cuthbert was returning to England to work at Argonaut. With no intention of staying, Cuthbert fired off an email to Nintendo’s biggest rival, Sony, telling them that he’d programmed one of the Super Nintendo’s biggest games. The electronics giant replied, and Dylan Cuthbert was joining Sony Computer Entertainment of America.

While Argonaut’s relationship with Nintendo soured, Cuthbert’s relationship with Nintendo did not. Even while he was looking for a job, Miyamoto suggested that Cuthbert get a gig at HAL near Mount Fuji, something he appreciated but ultimately passed on. “I was at home in Kyoto,” said Cuthbert. “So if I was going to get a job, it might was well be in another country.”

The Sony gig took him to California, where he learned to drive, and then back to Japan. But it wasn’t Kyoto. In Tokyo, he threw himself into his work, working on the the now famous “ducks demo” for the PS2 and designing an Ape Escape. He was back in Japan, the country he loved, but he wasn’t in Kyoto. “I wanted to settle down,” he recalled, “and I didn’t think Tokyo was the place to really enjoy myself.” Cuthbert wanted to go home. But home for him wasn’t England, it was Kyoto.

This time Cuthbert wasn’t going to join another company, he was going to make his own. Q-Games was established in 2001, and Cuthbert felt if he would have set up shop in Tokyo, he’d be stuck in Tokyo.

The prodigious Q-Games output, including the PixelJunk series and a Star Fox game for the Nintendo DS.

There is this notion, Cuthbert pointed out, as he sipped green tea, that Kyoto is a provincial city. “A lot of people in Japan think it’s inaka,” he says, mixing in the Japanese word for “countryside” – but giving it that pejorative spin that can only be expressed in the original Japanese word. In England, he says, everyone wants to live in the countryside, but in Japan, people want to live in Tokyo. “But I think as Japanese people get older,” Cuthbert said, “Kyoto becomes increasingly attractive.”

“I’m now 39 years old, a year older than Miyamoto was when I first met him,” he said in a Q-Games meeting room, polishing off the green tea in from of him. “And I remember thinking he was so old.”

At age 38, Miyamoto was just getting started. So is Dylan Cuthbert.

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