Shigeru Miyamoto is a titan of the video game industry known around the world for bringing the Super Mario and Legend Of Zelda franchises to life. We sat down with the legendary game director, designer, and producer for a revealing interview where he opened up to us about how the Donkey Kong game series drew its inspiration from a childhood experience of watching a giant ape beat his father to death with a barrel.
OGN: Your first major title, Donkey Kong, catapulted you to fame in the early ’80s and kicked off what would become one of the most storied careers in all of entertainment. How did you come up with the concept?
Miyamoto: There’s actually an interesting bit of trivia there. The truth is that it was based on my father, a plumber who worked in the Kyoto area.
OGN: Interesting. What exactly happened, if you don’t mind me asking?
M: Well, one day, he was climbing up some scaffolding on a routine job. I’d tagged along to help him out. That’s when I spotted this massive ape, which bounded through the door and just started wailing on my father with a barrel. He kept smashing the barrel down on my father’s head, again and again, with this crazed look in his eyes. My father was screaming for help the whole time, but I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea where the ape came from or how he got a barrel. But I was immediately struck with the narrative possibilities.
OGN: When did you decide to develop this experience into a game?
M: Right away, really. As soon as I saw this enormous ape dragging my father’s badly beaten corpse up a ladder, I could already see Donkey Kong’s level design taking shape. Of course, it took years to finally put all the pieces together. But once I did, I realized there was something very satisfying about watching a pixelated version of your father’s corpse trying to fight back against a relentless ape. I wanted to share that feeling with gamers across the world.
OGN: Are there any details you wish could have made it into the final game?
M: Well, we added some touches to make the game more fair for players, like the ability to dodge barrels or fight back with a hammer. In reality, my father didn’t dodge a single blow from that barrel. And, of course, in the old arcade cabinet we didn’t have the audio technology to capture his dying screams. Still, I think we managed to capture the essence.
OGN: It’s incredible that you were able to turn such a personal experience into art. Does some part of you feel that you might owe your success to that gorilla?
M: In a way, yes. That incident is the core reason I became a gamemaker. In fact, there’s a part of me that likes to think that the spirit of my father lives on every time Mario dies in Donkey Kong.
OGN: Has the event impacted any of your other work?
M: You’ve probably already guessed that Donkey Kong Country was my attempt to empathize with the ape, to get into his mind and acknowledge that he, too, has a family that he needs to protect. But there’s also a bit of a lingering frustration toward that gorilla that always remains. That’s why I made sure it was possible to beat the ever-loving shit out of Donkey Kong in Super Smash Bros.
OGN: Any last tips for aspiring game developers?
M: I would just urge you to look for inspiration anywhere you can find it in life. It could be an ape smashing a parent’s skull with a barrel or you killing a giant talking tree in the woods. Whatever it is, just make sure you follow your vision.
OGN: Mr. Miyamoto, thank you for your time.
M: Thank you.