I had heard that Shigeru Miyamoto was really proud of his new game, Pikmin 3. Like, really, really proud. Like, guy-who-made-Donkey-Kong-and-Super-Mario-and-Zelda-thinks-this-game-is-great proud. That good, huh?
"How many games have you made?" I asked Miyamoto last week at E3. We've been doing interviews for a decade. We can go outside the conventional chitchat and product hype if need be. How many?
"In terms of games I've personally worked directly on and really been involved in development on, probably about 50," he said through a translator. He seldom needs my questions translated but responds in Japanese. "If you then include the games I'm involved in the oversight standpoint, it's well over 100 now."
"And this stands out to you as, you think, is one of the best?" I asked.
"I think so," he said.
"And how do you know that?" I said.
He was beginning to answer before my question was even done.
"Because after I made it, I played it and it's fun," he said in a moment that reminded me quite clearly who he is and what he's done.
"Do you feel like you've ever made a bad game?"
"Yeah," he replied (more on that in another story, readers... tomorrow).
And then Miyamoto broke down for me what he thinks a really good game is, particularly Pikmin 3, this new Wii U real-time strategy game that gives players control of three explorers and 100 different-coloured, different-powered ant-like plant men in order to fight bad guys and discover lost treasure.
"You know, obviously video games are designed for the player to play the way the designer has intended them to," he said. "But a good game — and this is really where I think Pikmin 3 stands out — is a game that gives you enough freedom that the player can create their own way of playing and can find ways of playing that the developers didn't envision. I think Pikmin 3 is a game that is very much like that. There are so many options strategically and in terms of the items you're going after. Obviously the stage layout and where they've placed the items have all been done by the designers, but, because you're so free to choose your approach to it and your strategy, I think that people are really going to be able to think through on their own and really come up with creative ways of how to attack these levels."
There hasn't been a new Pikmin game since 2004. The first one came out in 2001 and ran on a tight in-game 30-day timer. Before those virtual days ended, a player had to use the little spaceman, Captain Olimar, to marshal up to 100 red, blue and yellow Pikmin to fight big bug-like bad guys and reclaim parts to his spaceship. The Pikmin could only work by day, and the player had to become skilled at tasking their Pikmin with all sorts of activities: from the dragging and pulling of spaceship parts and treasure back to a home base to the building of bridges, the knocking down of walls, the planting and plucking of new Pikmin and a whole lot of combat against large enemies. Red Pikmin were tough and immune to fire; yellow could be thrown higher; blue wouldn't drown.
Pikmin was Nintendo's answer to a real-time strategy game like Command & Conquer or StarCraft, but with simplified units and commands, best suited to Nintendo-style gaming and gamepad-based controls. It was also one of the only games Miyamoto publicly closely identified with during the half-decade run of the GameCube console on which it appeared. It takes a team to make a game, of course. Pikmin, it was understood back then, was one of Miyamoto's babies.
"In a sense I almost feel sorry for the people who played Pikmin 1," he told me at E3. "What I really feel like is that, in Pikmin 3, we've finally been able to include all of the elements that I wanted to include in Pikmin 1. Often times, when you talk about movies, people say, oh the first one was the best... I feel Pikmin 3 has become sort of the ultimate version of Pikmin 1 if we'd had more power."
Pikmin 3 adds a whole lot. The series already had strong purple Pikmin and white ones that can survive poison. The new game adds beefier rock Pikmin and pink ones that can fly. It adds a two-player competitive mode that has opponents racing to use their squads of Pikmin to reclaim treasures and fill out a row or column on a bingo card before the other player does. It introduces lots of little things like, say, a gate that only flying Pikmin can open, leaving the player to decide whether to keep the flying ones assigned to holding the gate open or retrieving them for other tasks.
The player now has three space-explorers to lead the Pikmin, letting them divide their squad and multi-task. In fact, the managing of different teams had me thinking that Miyamoto, who manages so many different development teams at Nintendo, might see his game as metaphor.
"It's very similar," he laughed. "It's actually similar to cooking. In Japan they often recommend for people to cook a lot to prevent the brain from ageing or deteriorating. Cooking, of course, involves doing multiple tasks simultaneously. You're preparing ingredients, boiling the water, doing something else... This time the gameplay is particularly fun, because it's introduced into Pikmin the idea of managing multiple different processes simultaneously."
Miyamoto offered to play a round of the game's bingo battle with me. Almost immediately, he was crushing me. His Pikmin army was dividing and conquering, retrieving treasures, attacking my Pikmin. Miyamoto's bingo board was lighting up. My Pikmin were getting chewed.
I could tell he was holding back. He was also trash-talking. "I could win at any moment," he said.
"I could tell," I replied.
"Good luck," he said.
I requested a quick death. I didn't want a mercy win. At least I zapped his Pikmin with a lightning power-up a few times.
"With Pikmin 1 certainly we had the ideal we were striving for," Miyamoto told me. "With that game, I think we ended up with a basic ruleset of the game that was a little bit too strict and confining, the 30-day time limit in particular... from that sense it was difficult for people to get into that game, particularly if they were novice gamers.. And, I think the other challenge we had with Pikmin 1 was that people would want to go back and replay the game, but partially because of the limits — the time limit — people just felt it was a bit too much to go back and replay that again.
"And, with Pikmin 2, we wanted to focus on really trying to ease the gameplay to a certain degree so that it was easier for people to get into and play so we polished the Pikmin idea a bit but really only focused on how to make it easier to play.
"Whereas with Pikmin 3 we've really taken it and taken that Pikmin 1 ideal and really tried to bring that to life in a way that encourages replayability all throughout the game."
During most of my interview with Miyamoto, a Nintendo employee kept replaying one of Pikmin 3's standalone missions. These are short seven or 10-minute missions that Miyamoto said might initially seem impossible to clear. At the end of the interview, Miyamoto asked the guy if he'd had fun (you can guess the answer) and then pointed out that he could have done better.
"We've designed the game in a way so that, as you play it, you get better and better at it and start to understand the depth of the strategy and the best ways to use the Pikmin in it," he said. In time, you'll be playing quite well.
Miyamoto told me he plans to have some of his developers create videos to show off optimal strategies. "It's sort of like watching a professional drive on a close-circuit track, where, watching a race like that, what it really comes down to is how perfectly you can hit the lanes and that's where a lot of the strategy is. I don't think there are a lot of other games like that." This is the kind of thing one does with a good real-time strategy game. It's not the kind of game Nintendo's top designer makes all the time, but if he's feeling this good about this one, here's hoping it's that good.
Pikmin 3 will be out on the Wii U on August 4.
Coming tomorrow: Miyamoto's Bad Game