Move To Level Two - Ho A Hurdle, Dodge A Fireball On The Way To Finding The Spirit Of America's Favorite Toy








Somewhere over the Pacific, flying west from Seattle at 39,000 feet, I put Mario through his paces. A fireball roars from the mouth of a lion, threatening to annihilate the big-nosed fellow in coveralls. I press the controller. Mario jumps, the fireball rolls below him. The lion launches another fireball. I don't know if a heart beats in Mario, who is just dots on a video screen, but mine is beating faster. My palms sweat. It's not just that I feel for the little guy. I feel the danger directly, even though the fantasy takes place in a video-game machine smaller than a paperback.

I am flying to Japan, headed for Mario's electronic birthplace in Kyoto, where the Nintendo Co. Ltd. collects billions of dollars, each year, from parents responding to the demands of their children. As a company built on the foundation of a cute character, Nintendo is comparable to the Disney Co., but Mario outranks Mickey Mouse in popularity polls. ``Nintendo crosses every border to speak directly to young people from every culture,'' the company boasts. ``Kids from around the world are learning two languages: their native tongue and Nintendo.''

As one parent, I find this a little troubling. I know the language spoken by my son when he plays Nintendo: ``Please, let me play one more game,'' says Evan, 6. But I know nothing about the people behind Nintendo. I knew Mickey's creator. He was Uncle Walt, the kindly man on television who spoke directly to America's children. Walt reassured parents that Mickey was good for kids. I wonder if there's a Walt at Nintendo. I know nothing about Hiroshi Yamauchi, the billionaire president of Nintendo, but he's not exaggerating Nintendo's influence on families.

In Japan, Nintendo is played in 40 percent of homes. In the United States, Nintendo has used a base in Redmond to capture almost one-third of homes. And that's in five years. Mario has more U.S. homes to conquer. Then there's Europe. Yes, Mario is big. Bigger than school books. Last year, books sold to U.S. elementary and high schools generated $2.2 billion. Compare that to the $2.7 billion in U.S. sales of the home Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the hand-held Game Boy, and software by licensees. In Redmond, Microsoft gets all the high-tech press, but Nintendo this year expects $4.1 billion in U.S. sales. Bill Gates this year finally cracked $1 billion.

Nintendo is fast becoming as common and appealing to U.S. youths as Big Macs. It's not just boys taking bites: Lured by an expanding list of games that offer alternatives to shooting at bad guys, one-third of players are over 18 and 20 percent are females of all ages. Players now can select from a list of 200 titles for NES and 80 for Game Boy. Titles include golf, action adventures, preschool math instruction and ``Mickey Mousecapade.'' The drumbeat to buy Nintendo got louder last fall when the third Nintendo TV program went on the air. Each show, a feature-length showcase for company products, is a hit.

America's children now watch Nintendo, play Nintendo, eat Nintendo (cereal), sit Nintendo (furniture), see Nintendo (wallpaper), brush their teeth with Nintendo (Mario Brothers automatic toothbrush), wear Nintendo (shirts, underpants, shoes, etc.) and sleep Nintendo (sheets, sleeping bags, etc.). That's $200 million a year in sales of stuff with Nintendo's name on it. The company's presence in the home, and its grip on the minds of children, is so pervasive that academics, psychologists and educators debate whether Mario and friends are a threat to thinking itself. From Bellevue to Tokyo, parents try to squeeze themselves between the screen and their children, who cry for more game time in order to demolish Mother Brain, the universe-sucking villain in ``Metroid.'' Eager for new markets, Nintendo is actively trying to develop games for seniors and preschoolers. Children too young to manipulate a hand controller now can step on a footpad to send commands to the machine.

Some parents say Mario and friends are a neutral presence, a distraction or interlude from the daily pressures of life. Others see a positive presence, a role-playing pastime that assures children that life's hobgoblins can be defeated. Still others say Nintendo teaches violence and sexism.

Uncle Walt never had this problem. Walt invented Mickey Mouse in 1928 and spent a lifetime producing products welcome in U.S. homes. A conservative mid-Westerner, Walt wanted his two children to learn from what they saw. His movies, cartoons and theme parks advanced certain values. ``Bambi'' taught us to treasure animals and the woods. ``Pinocchio'' taught us never to lie. ``Snow White'' taught us that good work triumphs over evil. Walt involved himself with every detail of his company, including the amount of blush on Snow White's cheeks, to maintain the purity and wholesomeness linked to the Disney name.

Is Yamauchi watching the blush on Mario or just the bottom line? Is the Nintendo Entertainment System just an amoral moneymaker, or is Walt's soul in the new machine? I wanted to meet the people whose mastery of entertainment technology will take us beyond what Walt could imagine. Walt gave us the opportunity to watch Snow White dance with Prince Charming. Nintendo someday may have us dancing on screen with Snow White, our hand controllers giving us the power to decide her blush, her hair color or even her willingness to dump the prince.

Penetrating Nintendo is a bit like one of Mario's adventures. Mario collects coins as he travels through different levels. Each level presents greater difficulties but bigger rewards. I'm collecting answers. The first level is Redmond.


I am looking at the bow tie.

``It's funny,'' he says. ``Take the bow tie off and they don't recognize me. It's terrific,'' says Howard Phillips.

Phillips is the boyish front man for Nintendo's North American subsidiary, Nintendo of America Inc., which dominates a neighborhood next to state Route 520 that formerly was home to a large chicken farm. He works for Minoru Arakawa, Yamauchi's son-in-law and president of Nintendo of America. Arakawa keeps a low profile.

To enter Nintendo of America, I presented myself at the reception desk, received a badge identifying me as a visitor and waited for my escort. Nintendo does not allow visitors to wander around. Competitors would pay big money for a glimpse of the next Mario game. About 1,600 people work here. For meetings, people gather in conference rooms named after games or characters. One exception: a meeting place for company lawyers is called the ``War Room.''

From Redmond, Nintendo distributes its products, plans marketing strategy, produces its ``Nintendo Power'' magazine (paid circulation: 1.5 million, and packed with come-ons for new products) and reworks imported games for U.S. players. Nintendo keeps an army of consumer service representatives and ``game counselors'' who take 150,000 calls a week, give tips on beating Mother Brain and milk callers for information collected by the company sales-data machine, ``Elmo,'' or Electronic Mail Organizer. A caller in Pittsburgh can't find ``Super Mario 3?'' Tell the shipping department.

Phillips, 32, grew up in Laurelhurst, which also produced Bill Gates of Microsoft. Gates often goes tieless. Phillips always wears a bow tie. They don't flop around and get snagged in things, he explains. Bow ties also set Phillips apart when he appears at Nintendo promotional events all over the United States, meeting kids who treat him as a hero, memorize his published game tips, and follow his adventures in a cartoon panel called ``Howard & Nester.'' Kids know Phillips as the wizard of game playing. In Dallas, Phillips appeared at the Nintendo World Championship, a marketing event that took place in several of the largest U.S. cities and generated a bonanza of positive publicity. He racked up 531,465 points, while the officially declared winner scored only 420,000.

Such exposure has boosted Phillips in the ``Q Rating,'' the entertainment-industry measure of a person's familiarity and popularity with an audience. Phillips says he ranks above The Hulk, Pee-Wee Herman and Madonna and just below Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not bad for a guy who started with Nintendo nine years ago as a shipping clerk. He hands me his business card. It reads: ``Howard Phillips, Gamemaster, Director, Game Creative.'' Phillips presents himself as just an ordinary person, who describes games as ``neat,'' but he's also a savvy businessman, who acknowledges his MBA if asked about it. The dozens of news articles that have profiled him in cities from Miami to Los Angeles always emphasize the fun that Phillips has in his job. By extension, it's the same fun children can have playing Nintendo. ``I can't believe they pay me sometimes,'' Phillips frequently says.

Ironically, no games have originated in Redmond. Counting licensees, two-thirds of Nintendo game designers live in Japan. Most U.S.-based designers live in California's Silicon Valley.

To the public, Phillips is to Nintendo what Ronald is to McDonald's. But inside the company, he's the bridge between Kyoto game designers and U.S. game players. As such, he learns what gives pleasure to a world audience and helps decide which games enter the U.S. market.

First, a game must have ``face value.'' In other words, the game's basic idea, its ``core interaction,'' be it driving a vehicle or shooting bad guys, must immediately click with a player. A game must be a challenge, but the first level cannot be too difficult. A player must feel that it is not impossible for Mario to get by the lion, pass all the levels, and rescue Princess Daisy. Second, each level must present a series of rewards and opportunities that hold a player, hour after hour. Players call the richness of the experience the ``depth'' of a game. Nintendo learned how to grab and hold players from its years in the video-arcade industry, where millions of dollars were made one quarter at a time.

``A game always has to be one step ahead of you, make you thirst for the next moment,'' says Phillips.

Beyond that, cultural differences set the U.S. market apart from Japan's. Nintendo doesn't want to offend U.S buyers, so Phillips helps game engineers remove nudity, commercial brand names and the manji, a common religious symbol for power and good luck that looks like a swastika. All kinds of games will sell in both markets, but U.S. players want more action than their Japanese counterparts. While a Japanese audience might tend to prefer situations calling for logic and decision-making to resolve a problem, the U.S. audience might prefer Rambo's approach: Waste 'em.

``Characters in Japan can be softer, cuter, less dynamic and still succeed,'' Phillips says. Unlike Japanese kids, who he says are allowed to be childlike, American kids at an early age are thrust into adult roles and responsibilities. U.S. kids quickly develop a tougher outlook. They want Bart Simpson, not altar boys. Mario appeals to both cultures. ``Mario is not really that cute,'' Phillips explains. ``He's not sappy. A sappy character won't survive in this market. He's got to be sassy, not sappy.''

Just as Walt policed Disney products, Nintendo also sets standards. Rambo can slice, dice and shoot his opponents, but nothing spurts from the wounds. ``Nintendo does not put blood in games,'' Phillips says.


Spared the bombs of World War II, Kyoto is a treasure house of Japan's culture. Down its narrow streets go geishas in elaborate kimonos, monks with shaven heads and tourists headed for the city's 1,600 temples and shrines. Here, there are few high-rise buildings but many reminders of the dead and the past. In this impossibly crowded country, one can enter a 700-year-old garden and briefly get a sense of solitude, hearing the faint rattle of wooden grave-markers stirred by the wind.

Here, I visit the home of Kazuo and Emiko Takahashi and their two children. Kazuo is a manager with a noodle company that exports to the U.S. For a foreigner, getting permission to enter a Japanese home is difficult. Through a mutual acquaintance, a visit with the Takahashis is arranged. Just as Mario might need magical orbs to enter a new level, I bring gifts of whiskey and chocolates to express my thanks.

Over an elaborate sushi meal, we discuss Nintendo. The family room is small by U.S. standards. There is little decoration on the walls, except one familiar face: Mickey's on a clock. The children are not looking at Mickey, however. They are playing Nintendo.

Japan has more experience with Nintendo than the U.S. People have learned to adjust. To avoid disruptions in classrooms, new games are released when school is out.

Nintendo executives in Redmond will say there is little controversy in Japan over Nintendo. But every parent I met worries Nintendo is bad for children's eyes, distracts from their school work and, with extended play, harms their ability to read and write. A few parents, however, think Nintendo can help children. Role-playing games build thinking skills, they say. Most believe Nintendo is harmless if game playing is limited, a point Nintendo makes. Nintendo executives say parents should turn off the machine when children play too much.

Emiko Takahashi, a homemaker, is watching her son play ``Faxanadu,'' where the World Tree, which gives life to the Elven village, has been taken over by the Evil One. Her son, Taisuke, 12, is deep in the bowls of a master villain's lair and has trouble hearing his mother when she speaks to him. Taisuke and a neighbor boy, Mitsuhide Kubo, 11, are looking at the TV screen with their jaws hung

open. Her daughter, Tomoko, 10, is trying Game Boy.

Emiko is not blaming Nintendo for any health problems, but yes, the children in the neighborhood play the game too much. Children need exercise, she says.

I tell them about Nintendo in my house. Game Boy raised the tension level. Evan played Mario before school, after school and after dinner, and resisted our pleas to do something else. My wife, Sally, was convinced the game made Evan more aggressive. When Evan went to bed, Sally played the game herself, once past midnight. She was hooked, too. At dinner, Evan, Sally and I talked game strategy. Once when I called and asked what she was doing, she lied. She later admitted she was playing Nintendo.

Get this thing out of the house, Sally finally told me. So I hid Game Boy. Sally and Evan demanded I retrieve it.

Emiko feels lucky. Her son plays less than he did two years ago, when Nintendo was booming. Now he plays once a week when a friend comes over. She thinks Nintendo's popularity in Japan has declined.

Taisuke Takahashi says nearly everyone at school has a Nintendo machine. It's hard for him to explain why Nintendo is so much fun. Finding ways to reach higher levels makes him proud. Some kids are more proud of game scores than grades in school, he says.

Taisuke loves baseball. He plays Nintendo only when it's rainy, and he can't go outside, he says. Of course, he skips baseball if Nintendo releases an exciting new game. This hardly pleases his mother.

``It's not a real experience,'' she says.


Off a narrow Kyoto street, inside high walls that hide one of Japan's most profitable corporations, flanked by two aides, sits Hiroshi Yamauchi, one of the world's richest men. He gazes at me through brown-tinted glasses. The room is painfully bare except for a portrait of Mount Fuji. There is no display of a Nintendo product here or in the building's lobby.

Trying to be polite, I stumble through a series of thank-yous for agreeing to see me, as Yamauchi waits for the translator to scramble my stilted English into Japanese. In one sense, I have already spent dozens of hours with Yamauchi, or at least his issue, by playing Game Boy and watching Mario conquer my spouse and children. Others may have designed Mario and carried him to U.S. store shelves but, as everyone points out, the Prime Mover at Nintendo is Yamauchi.

Yamauchi, 62, is not directly involved in his company's creative work. Yamauchi will start a



game-design project and let others work the miracle. Later, he will decide if the product is sold to the public. People say he is always right. Uncle Walt, by contrast, was the first to draw Mickey, served as Mickey's voice, and trained artists to draw in his way. Mickey was a determined optimist. People who knew Disney thought the mouse and his creator had the same personality. No one at Nintendo would compare Yamauchi to an Italian plumber. Walt made big money, but even he would have been impressed by what Mario earned for Yamauchi: company stock worth $2.3 billion and personal dividends in 1989 of $4 million.

Yamauchi is said to be a lone ranger in Japan's clubby business world. He's not one to make headlines with appearances and speeches on world topics like Akio Morita of Sony Corp., although Nintendo last year clobbered the electronic giant in profitability. Nintendo, with $725 million in profits, roughly matched Sony's performance on just one quarter of the giant's sales. English-language press articles give few details about Yamauchi, other than the common theme that not much is known about him. I did find an interview in Business Tokyo magazine that made Yamauchi look like a tough interview. Asked to talk about how he runs one of Japan's most successful companies, Yamauchi answered: ``There's nothing special to talk about.''

On this day, I am lucky. Dressed in a pale-blue suit and a blue silk tie, Yamauchi does not growl or snap like Chain Chomper in ``Super Mario 3.'' He actually smiles. Later, one of his aides was to tell my translator, referring to the boss' mood, that ``the sun was out.''

No, Yamauchi is saying, he does not play Nintendo games, but his grandchildren do. I ask him if his grandchildren ever invite him to play. He says they live far away and he doesn't see them often. Yamauchi does play Go. The objective of the ancient Japanese game, in what will sound eerily familiar to Nintendo competitors, is to maneuver pieces on a board, encircle your opponent, and grab all the territory.

Most of what Yamauchi is saying in response to my questions is bland and unspecific, though he reveals one shocker. After he took over the company in 1949, Nintendo went from one crisis to another as it struggled to find alternatives to playing cards - for decades its sole product. One of his first acts as president was to sign a deal with Disney, allowing Nintendo to print Mickey on its cards. Later he tried a baseball-pitching machine, laser-light gun ranges and other products. He tried electronic games, he says, because there was nothing left to try. ``We have been lucky,'' he says. ``If we had not succeeded, there was nothing left for us and we would have collapsed or been on the verge of collapse.''

Walt could give eloquent, moving statements of what he wanted his company to bring to the public. Yamauchi doesn't bother. What makes Nintendo so popular? ``The answer is very simple. We have attracted many people because people feel very enjoyable by playing our game and they have fun.'' Will Nintendo move into telecommunications? He gives a long answer that basically says Nintendo responds to consumer demand.

I ask him to comment on whether a corporation has an obligation to a community.

``I believe a business can contribute to society by growing and making money and paying more taxes. That's how we contribute to society.''

I try a personal question. He was only 21 when he took over the company. His grandfather had just died. This must have been a terrible time. Much of his country was still in ruins and Gen. Douglas MacArthur was dictating Japan's industrial policy. What happened to his father and what was it like taking over a company so soon after the war?

``My father died when I was in childhood. No matter how old or when the era is, management is difficult in any way.''

I switched to the central question of my research. What is Nintendo doing with its vast audience of children and adults? Like Disney, is Nintendo trying to teach moral values? Should it try? What is it teaching?

``Thinking from the fact that our game software's story is designed according to do no evil and practice virtue, Nintendo is teaching moral value in the same way Walt Disney is,'' was the reply.

That was an answer of sorts, but I knew how Mario feels when he slams into a wall. There was one more person in Kyoto I had to meet, one person in Japan who must have Walt in his soul.


On any given day, the man whom ex-Beatle Paul McCartney wanted to meet, the man who ranks with Steven Spielberg in his impact on U.S. entertainment, might be home in Kyoto taking a hot bath. In his solitude, he



forces his will to alter his thinking patterns. He is trying to bring order to the chaos of ideas in his mind.

Don't try to talk with Shigeru Miyamoto when he's putting himself in this condition. He may not hear you. You would be a faint voice as he works himself into what he calls a spiritual tension. He's waiting for a burst of inspiration, which may come at home or later at the office.

This is how the ``Donkey Kong,'' ``The Legend of Zelda, ``Zelda II: The Adventures of Link,'' ``Mario Brothers,'' ``Super Mario Brothers,'' ``Super Mario Brothers 2'' and ``Super Mario Brothers 3,'' each an appealing combination of humor and surprises and all huge hits, were born. Nintendo's chief producer, Miyamoto was the lead designer of those games. His creations have generated more than $1 billion in sales, each one a rival for anything produced in Hollywood. The new ``Mario 3'' game is expected to generate $410 million in sales this year, which Nintendo says would rank it second in gross revenue to eight years of screenings by the biggest film of all time, Spielberg's ``E.T.''

Miyamoto, 38, who works in cramped quarters at a desk smaller than the average U.S. office worker's, is a giant-size legend among game players. Parents in Japan and the U.S. write to him, asking for autographed photos for their kids. Miyamoto himself is the father of two young children, and his advice to parents worried about Nintendo's effects is simple: When kids play too much, pull the plug. The fuss about video games destroying youth reminds him of what critics said about rock and roll.

Miyamoto is a world-class figure in entertainment, but he doesn't look the part. His ideas have captured global attention, but there's no flamboyance in how he dresses. He wears boring clothes and a don't-look-at-me haircut. He sits erect in his chair like a school boy afraid to slouch. Is this the guy who spoofed ``King Kong?'' Hey, Shigeru, lighten up, I keep thinking. Enjoy your fame. This is the guy who put Nintendo ``deep in the brain stems of American kids,'' as one company observer said.

As chief producer, Miyamoto heads a team of designers, graphic artists, musicians and programmers. His group competes against several teams to create games accepted for sale to the public. Winning teams collect company prizes and recognition from Yamauchi. Miyamoto, who started with Nintendo in 1977 as an arcade graphics designer, has twice won the coveted president's award and a gold medal.

Since his work has generated enormous profits for Yamauchi, I can't help but delicately raise the subject of his salary. Miyamoto stiffens, and then concedes his salary by U.S. standards is modest. Without revealing it, he says only that his fixed salary is increased by ``some additional point.'' Making money is not as important to him as having good facilities and associates to create games, he says. There is a pause, and then a smile appears on his face. ``But it's better to receive more money.'' He laughs nervously, at my bad manners, Nintendo's cheap wages, or both. Good thing Yamauchi isn't around.

As part of his work, Miyamoto aggressively seeks inspiration. He has traveled to Disneyland, San Francisco, New York City and other places that might spark an idea. Some ideas come from his childhood. Miyamoto's Chain Chomper came from an early experience with a neighbor's dog. Miyamoto clearly has thought at length about the psychology of games, but the full flavor of his thoughts cannot be conveyed through translation. ``I am trying to find something in common in my feelings and the player's feelings,'' Miyamoto says through a translator.

Once the idea of a game is set, Miyamoto's team must think through hundreds of questions. What happens when the ball hits Mario? Does Mario die? What if the player has collected bonus points? What if Mario jumps, then where does the ball go? To work through these scenarios, Miyamoto and others draw maps of Mario's world and pictures of what will happen in each section. They use storyboards like those used by Spielberg in plotting camera shots, with one major difference: Viewers watch what Spielberg wants them to see; in games, players chose where Mario goes and what he does. Depending on the game, a player can direct Mario to go in different directions, each of which may have a unique landscape or characters. Sometimes, several routes can be taken by a player to successfully complete a game. Some games have hidden routes; a tree may contain a secret doorway to treasure, for example. All this is stored in the game cartridge, along with sound effects and graphics.

With consumers demanding more characters, choices and complex situations, games take longer to create. ``Donkey Kong'' took Miyamoto and a couple of others 4 to 6 months. ``Mario 3'' took 18 months and 10 people, including one specialist whose job is to give characters psychological and emotional depth. The development cost of ``Mario 3,'' roughly $800,000 when converted to dollars, was five times as much as ``Donkey Kong.''

With ``Donkey Kong,'' Miyamoto offered only a few levels for a player to conquer. Today, he and other designers present players with situations that can take weeks to complete. Choices continue to expand. Players can decide which character they wish to play and whether their character is a boy or a girl. They elect whether the character is strong but slow-witted, old but wise, quick but weak. In one game, a player chooses characters with different life spans; as the game continues, the characters age and die. Such complexities will eventually overwhelm the Nintendo Entertainment System, which can process only 8 bits of information at a time. Nintendo prepared for that by developing a 16-bit machine that debuted last month in Japan. The new machine offers superior graphics and sound: more colors, more realistic movements and more things moving at once. Compared to the jagged shapes of the 8-bit machine, the 16-bit machine gives an image closer to film quality.

The best Uncle Walt could ever do was to give the public a talking image of Mickey, viewed by a passive public. Miyamoto and other designers are plugging players directly into the games as participants. As social critic Brian Stonehill puts it, games ``are starting to convert what happens on the screen into an

extension of your body. When you plug in, your nervous system is connected to the machine.''

Nintendo already offers devices that allow players to control action without using buttons. The most advanced of the two is the ``Power Glove,'' which allows a player to point his hand at the screen and send commands by moving his hand or pointing. Using the glove while standing in front of a big screen is an amazing experience. Throw a punch, and Mike Tyson's head jerks back. Using the ``Power Pad'' allows players to do aerobics with a life-size instructor or run against an on-screen competitor.

The line between human and machine blurs further as players make a character look more like themselves, by literally drawing the character. With a coming technology called multimedia, where computers are linked to audio and visual information storage devices of great speed and capacity, a Nintendo player might insert a digitized portrait of himself into an artificial world inhabited by Genghis Khan, Dan Rather, Eleanor Roosevelt or Snow White. How far is that future? Ask a player who electronically knocks out Mike Tyson.

The old, passive television viewer may some day call up his Disney multimedia file, stand up and dance with a hologram of ``Snow White.'' Perhaps no other person in the world is closer to that future than Miyamoto. As human and machine become more intimate, he talks about the need for players to ``have a good relationship'' and trust their machines.

Trust a machine? I'm wondering if Miyamoto, in 20 years, will be dancing with Snow White. Is that the kind of entertainment he would want to bring?

I put the question in English, and wait as the translator scrambles it into Japanese. He speaks, and it's scrambled into English.

It's technically possible today to create an oing to make one or we can really make one,'' he says.

That sounded like a company answer. The interview ends. I'm left wondering what Miyamoto thinks when he's alone in that tub, and the stream of ideas reveals the future.

Then something unexpected happens to me, like Mario opening a hidden door to a room with coins by the hundreds.

Miyamoto smiles and asks me if I'd like to see something. He pushes a button on his watch. It's a tune from my childhood, the Mickey Mouse Club march, played on his Mickey watch. As I get closer to see the watch, I notice his tie clasp: the mouse again. Walt would have been proud.