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Shinya Takahashi Is the ‘Conductor’ Taking Nintendo into the Future

19 minute read

A funny thing happened during Nintendo’s January presentation to show off the Switch, its upcoming games console. So intent were viewers on gleaning details about the company’s mystery-shrouded new system—a portable game device that can dock with televisions—that they may have missed another kind of “switch” being presented.

Amid the psychedelic lasers and quirky presentational humor, the storied company trotted out not one, not two, but six Nintendo executives and creative luminaries. That was unusual. None were familiar faces, though all bore impressive titles plucked from the company’s inner sanctum. The company was effectively reversing years of precedent in which its front-facing communiques, dubbed “Nintendo Directs,” had been shepherded by icons like late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aimé.

Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima led with the Switch’s price ($299) and launch date (March 3), as if to clear the table for what followed. Next up was Nintendo Director Shinya Takahashi, who offered a historical montage of Nintendo platforms designed to cast Switch as the culmination of the company’s decades of unorthodox bets. Other rarely seen figures emerged, like Switch general producer Yoshiaki Koizumi (for many the presentation’s star, swooning, and cosplaying) to Switch game producer Kosuke Yabuki (the director most recently of Nintendo’s acclaimed Mario Kart 8). As the presentation continued, finger snaps echoed. Koizumi donned a Mario cap. Splatoon 2 lead Hisashi Nogami roamed the stage with paintball guns. It was as if mom and dad were away, and the kids had come out to play.

Celebs Miyamoto, Fils-Aimé and Zelda honcho Eiji Aonuma eventually put in an appearance, but only as a fleeting coda to an hourlong show. That something had shifted was unmistakable. A user on a popular games forum put up a largely overlooked but knowing post titled “Meet the New Faces of Nintendo.”

Only, not so new to Nintendo Kremlinologists. Koizumi has been with Nintendo since the early 1990s, his fingerprints all over the company’s renowned 3D Zelda and Mario games. Kouichi Kawamoto, the Switch’s general director, presided over puzzle game blockbusters Brain Age and Brain Age 2 in the mid-2000s. And Hisashi Nogami, currently producing the Switch-bound sequel to Nintendo’s breakout paintball game Splatoon, helped birth the Animal Crossing franchise in the early 2000s, and led the software development group responsible for motion control exemplar Wii Sports.

Then there’s Shinya Takahashi, 53, whose tenure with Nintendo dates to 1989. It comprises a multifarious career that bears passing resemblance to longtime Nintendo steward Satoru Iwata’s rise from game designer to executive guiding light. Takahashi now wears so many hats at Nintendo that he bears a tangle of titles: director, board member, managing executive officer, and general manager of the company’s Entertainment Planning and Development Division.

Nintendo may have no plans to draft another public figure as iconic as Iwata, the driving force behind some of the company’s boldest ideas before he died unexpectedly from cancer in July 2015. Nor does Takahashi see himself as the company’s new public ambassador. But if you had to point to a Nintendo leader whose hand most influences the company’s creative rudder rolling forward, he may be it.

There was a Nintendo game that involved plying leagues of “blue ocean” long before Nintendo borrowed those words from authors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne to describe what it was up to with the groundbreaking Wii in the mid-2000s. It’s a game I’ve reluctantly confessed to Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto that I spent more time playing than Super Mario 64, the latter only ousted from the pinnacle of all-time best lists by Tetris and Nintendo’s own The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was called Wave Race 64, and it happens to be one of the first games Shinya Takahashi worked on.

“It was my first step, really, into game development,” Takahashi tells me via a translator, describing the explorative period in the mid-1990s when Nintendo was making its paradigmatic leap from the 16-bit 2D graphics of the Super Nintendo to the Nintendo 64’s state-of-the-art 3D vistas. Wave Race 64 arrived shortly after the Nintendo 64’s September 1996 debut, showcasing the system’s visual prowess by letting players jet-ski across astonishingly naturalistic waves, their plausible swells and dips made possible by a then-unprecedented custom Silicon Graphics chip.

“The reason I wound up on Wave Race was because of my work in 3D graphics,” Takahashi explains. “It all started sitting down with these engineers who only had experience with the Famicom and the Super Famicom [the Japanese names for Nintendo’s 8-bit NES and 16-bit Super NES consoles] and the 2D graphics there. We just plopped an SGI [Silicon Graphics, Inc.] machine in front of them and sat down and said, ‘How are we going to make something with this?'”

Takahashi was already donning different hats, both designing and coordinating work by the rest of the team. “It didn’t matter whether they were new or they’d been here for years, we had the engineers working with the designers, all lined up at the same starting point with zero experience. And then I was helping to pull them along,” he says. According to Takahashi, it was he and Yoshiaki Koizumi who effectively pulled Nintendo into the 3D era, essentially thanks to their enthusiasm for 3D graphics.

“Mr. Koizumi was working with Mr. Miyamoto on Super Mario 64, and at this point I’m in the shadows, working on Wave Race 64,” says Takahashi. “And what got us our start was a programmer—he went on to create the base program for Wii Sports—who did the wave programming for the game.” At some point, said programmer’s work caught Shigeru Miyamoto’s eye. “Mr. Miyamoto asked, ‘Can’t you do something with that?’ And that was the start of Wave Race 64. We were basically tasked with figuring out how to take the waves created in the tech demo and turn it into something fun.”

Critically acclaimed, Wave Race 64 went on to sell nearly 2 million copies. And 3D was just the first of Takahashi’s interests that would go on to become key components of Nintendo’s design aesthetic. After work on Wave Race 64 ended, the company got its hands on a motion capture rig, prompting Takahashi to veer in another technically vital direction. “I started to look at the setup and decided ‘I’m going to see what we can do with this for Ocarina of Time,” he says.

Then things got strange, because back then motion capture was strange. “Everything initially was wired, and so it was very complicated, and we were moving around with all these wires,” he says. “We had this tiny little room at the back of the company. We were experimenting with it in there, and all of the higher reps would come by and peek and say, ‘What are you doing in there?’ And they’d see a human that’s connected to all these wires.”

The work paid off—Takahashi is billed as Ocarina of Time‘s motion capture director—and led to his offering further mo-cap assistance on the company’s 1080° snowboarding series. But he sees these things less as discrete or momentary technical feats than holistic processes, taking raw contraptions or concepts from preliminary investigations to the sort of executional application that involves mobilizing teams of individuals. “Back then, people doing motion capture were generally renting out a studio and using the staff there to do it,” he says. “For us to bring it in-house, and again, start from scratch, was I think very, very fun, and I learned a lot from it.”

Yoshiaki Koizumi (L), Shinya Takahashi (R)
Yoshiaki Koizumi (L), Shinya Takahashi (R). NintendoNintendo

One of the first video games Takahashi recalls playing showcased bug-like aliens organized in columns and rows, two-stepping to an ever-accelerating heartbeat rhythm. “That would have been back in maybe middle school or high school,” he says, adding that the game, Space Invaders, was probably what first got him thinking about video games as a career avenue.

The second was Nintendo’s 8-bit NES, first released in Japan as the Famicom (a portmanteau of “Family Computer”) in July 1983. “I was in college when the Famicom came out, and like anyone else, I bought Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, though I didn’t yet have that special drive to make video games,” he tells me. “But I was going to college at an art and design school, and one of my friends was working part-time at Nintendo. So I would have conversations with him in which he’d tell me how they were making the games.” This, says Takahashi, was where he first began to wonder how games were made.

Even then, Takahashi says he wasn’t convinced he had a future in game design. He describes himself as the sort of child who spent substantial time by himself, drawing or creating, and occasionally playing board games, though he adds that he “wasn’t the type of person who spent all their time playing games.” He went on to graduate from college with an art degree, at which point he arrived at the proverbial vocational fork. “When you’ve gone to art school, you really have just two choices. You either become an artist, or you try to find a job,” he deadpans. Most such graduates in Japan went on to become artists, he says, but this was also around the time the games industry was seeing significant advances in 3D graphics. “And so I started to take an interest in that,” says Takahashi.

That left him with two options: spend money on an expensive graduate degree in computer graphics, or go the self-educator’s route by investing in a computer (at a point, he says, when Apple computers—then the go-to machines for graphics artists—were exorbitantly expensive in Japan.) Then a third option bubbled up: get a job at a company that might put him in contact with computer graphics. “Of course, I was born in Kyoto and raised in Kyoto and went to a university in Kyoto, so the naturally closest place for me to go was Nintendo,” he says.

The only problem: Nintendo wasn’t doing 3D graphics when he applied. “They were still creating pixel art for the Famicom,” he says. “And I just assumed that eventually, Nintendo would get into 3D graphics.” Takahashi even recalls an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, in which Miyamoto asked him what he wanted to work on.

“I said ‘3D graphics.’ And Mr. Miyamoto said, ‘We’re not doing that.'”

Each story Shinya Takahashi tells about his tenure with Nintendo involves a kind of high-wire managerial untangling act. For instance, when Nintendo opted to build a Pokémon game for its Nintendo 64 (a task Takahashi describes as “dropped down on us from heaven”), the designers had to create hundreds of distinct character models with signature animations on “a very limited amount of time.”

Short-staffed, with many lacking 3D design expertise, Nintendo began outsourcing help from contractors in Kyoto and Tokyo, making Pokémon Stadium the first Nintendo game in which design groups collaborated from different physical locations. This was terra incognito for the company. Takahashi’s charge was to streamline that process. “I look back at Pokémon Stadium less in terms of the game design, and more in terms of that being the role where I learned the most about team management and team operations,” he says.

Pokémon Stadium, which debuted in the U.S. in February 2000, was also the first time Takahashi worked up close with the late Satoru Iwata, then still an employee of HAL Laboratory, a Tokyo developer with longstanding ties to Nintendo. “I’d worked with him before, on a project about two years after I joined the company,” he says. “But Pokémon Stadium was the first game where we were working very closely together.”

Or take Wii Play Motion, Nintendo’s 2011 mini-game extravaganza designed to showcase its higher fidelity Wii MotionPlus remote. Instead of a single monolithic design group, Takahashi says he took charge of several disparate teams, incentivizing them to compete “to make the best individual games.” And then he had to ensure the results cohered as a single product, while “retaining the individual uniqueness of each of those developers.”

Back then, Nintendo was split into two creative groups: Shigeru Miyamoto’s EAD teams, which Takahashi says were internal and made “very Miyamoto-like games.” And Iwata’s SPD teams, which did less actual development, instead working primarily with outside developers. Takahashi started with EAD, but wound up shifting to SPD, because for most of his time at EAD, he says he “wasn’t spending time deep in game development, creating actual game worlds.”

“I think part of the reason that Mr. Iwata pulled me into SPD was because he saw that I was the kind of person who was better at supporting others in their roles,” explains Takahashi. “I got the most pleasure out of seeing their satisfaction when their projects succeeded through my support.” He believes it was for this reason that Iwata shifted him to SPD.

“For me, the most satisfying thing is when I see someone and I say, ‘Oh, this person is really good for this role,’ and then I see them succeed in that role,” says Takahashi. “That’s what makes me the most happy. I think that’s partially why you haven’t seen me at the fore in talking about game development until now. It’s partially because there hasn’t really been a reason for me to.”

In September 2015, as Tatsumi Kimishima was assuming the company’s presidency, Nintendo merged its EAD and SPD teams into a single, comprehensive development group dubbed “Nintendo Entertainment Planning & Development,” or EPD, only now with Takahashi as captain of the ship. “I’m overseeing all of that,” Takahashi says, “but I view my role as being more someone who’s overseeing our producers. I really look at them more as my stable of talent, and I’m their manager.” He pauses, smiles, and then adds, “That includes Mr. Miyamoto. Lately I’ve enjoyed saying, ‘I’m Mr. Miyamoto’s manager.'”

“If all of Nintendo’s content creators were to be seen as a symphony, then Mr. Takahashi is our conductor,” says Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aimé, when asked to contrast Takahashi’s role with Iwata’s. “What I mean by that is, it’s his decision to bring the different players in our orchestra onto a particular game or a particular initiative. He’s the ultimate decision maker in what gets played by the symphony or what gets created by Nintendo as a company.”

And to follow the metaphor through, audiences rarely get to see the conductor’s face. “He’s been creating this big show, but because you only see his back, you really don’t know him all that well,” adds Fils-Aimé. “But he drives the orchestra and he sets the pace and the bar for the performance.”

Fils-Aimé pushes back on positional comparisons between the preeminent role Takahashi now plays with the myriad ones performed by Iwata, Nintendo’s former “ultimate decision maker,” calling them “different roles, different times, different needs of the organization.” What’s changed, he says, is that after Iwata’s passing, the company decided it was time to ask its less visible luminaries to step up. It’s a philosophy others in the company, like Miyamoto, have espoused in passing for years.

“The people that came out in the presentation, when you look at it from the perspective of Nintendo, they’re actually not new at all,” says Miyamoto of the varied group chosen to rep Nintendo’s Switch during the system’s January feting. Miyamoto, whose hands have touched virtually all of Nintendo’s storied IP, will be 65 this year, while the company’s new president, Tatsumi Kimishima, turns 67 in April.

“On our end, we’re eventually going to have to retire,” says Miyamoto, revisiting a point he’s made in the past. “So instead of rushing and fumbling when that happens, we wanted to use Nintendo Switch as a kind of turning point to hand over more to the younger generation.” There’s just one hitch: “After choosing the members to be onstage, we started to think, ‘Wow, maybe we should’ve chosen a younger bunch of people!,'” he laughs.

Miyamoto says he was in his late 20s and early 30s while working on Super Mario Bros, thus he sees that as the ideal timeframe to target newcomers for leadership roles. “I guess from that perspective, Switch hasn’t fully revitalized or rejuvenated Nintendo in terms of age,” he says. “But with Mr. Takahashi and Mr. Koizumi, they’ve spent a lot of time working with me, so I really feel like they know intuitively the kinds of things that I would think about. So in terms of going outside, of the public eye, these people may seem new, but when you look at it from an internal perspective, I think not much will be changing.”

He pauses, then adds: “People like Mr. Tezuka [the 56 year old co-creator/designer of the Mario and Zelda games] or Mr. Sakamoto [co-creator of the Metroid series, Kid Icarus and more] should really be the ones coming out, but we kind of just skipped their generation.”

Yoshiaki Koizumi (L), Shinya Takahashi (R)
Yoshiaki Koizumi (L), Shinya Takahashi (R). NintendoNintendo

Nintendo touts the Switch as a box of delights that can go wherever players do, a mobile tablet—only with attachable buttons and thumb-sticks and the facility to dock with big-screen TVs. It’s a gamble worthy of the company’s insurgent modus operandi: a potential hub for a range of unconventional experiences (and maybe future attachable parts) stealth-delivered to casual players by way of core gamers, who’ll snatch it up to play Nintendo’s first-party games, then act innately as guerrilla marketers for its other potentially viral quirks.

Even its name feels like a 180-degree turn from 2012’s comparably opaque “Wii U.” Its bit of marketing genius is to be both a one-word summation of the system’s raison d’être, as well as a metaphor linking both old and new ways of thinking about the traditionally cloistered Kyoto company in 2017.

And it’s arriving at a potentially make-or-break moment for a company once considered the preeminent power in video gaming. Nintendo’s most successful console, its revolutionary motion-controlled Wii, toppled sales records and forever altered what it means to identify as a “gamer.” Altogether the company’s DS and 3DS handhelds have sold north of 200 million units, more than any other game system in history. And yet Nintendo’s most recent TV console, the beleaguered Wii U, has become one of the industry’s worst sellers, with just 14 million units on the books as of December 2016.

On the other hand, the company has now fully embraced mobile, bringing games based on fan-favorite series like Mario and Fire Emblem to smartphones and tablets. It didn’t itself design Pokémon Go, but the Niantic-made mobile augmented reality phenomenon clearly electrified the IP. And its $60 NES Classic Edition—a pint-sized version of its 8-bit 1980s Nintendo Entertainment System that comes with 30 games baked in—has been largely sold out for months. Demand for the brand seems strong, as evidenced by the flurry of media stories, blog posts and message board dissections when even slight news breaks. The company seems keen, finally, to capitalize on that brand power as it extends its arms to embrace non-Nintendo platforms, Nintendo-themed amusement parks, and above all else, its idiosyncratic Switch games console, designed to tickle the fancy of multiple demographic groups.

“It’s obviously a system that from the beginning we wanted to have a versatility of play styles,” says Takahashi, as our conversation turns to the Switch. “Even looking at that versatility of play styles, you have to ensure that when it’s connected to the TV, you’re getting home console level performance. At the same time, when you pull it out of the dock and you’re playing it in handheld mode, you have to ensure the battery is sufficient. It’s a question of striking that balance.”

But also of striking another kind of balance, he says, one that reaches back to the company’s evolution in the hands of its third and by far longest tenured president, Hiroshi Yamauchi. “Our tradition at Nintendo, and this comes from Mr. Yamauchi, is that we’re not a games company, but an entertainment company,” he says, sounding a familiar tune, though ending on a slightly different note. “When we’re making a game, the first question we always ask is, ‘How are we going to entertain the player with what we’re creating?’ Or, in something that’s maybe a bit more of what you’d call Kansai style, Kansai being the region of Japan where Kyoto is, ‘How are we going to make them laugh?'”

Takahashi may himself be doing far less of the latter than Iwata once did. “I don’t know if I’ll have to do things like [Nintendo Directs] going forward,” he tells me, noting that his preference, like Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima, is to be “a bit more behind the scenes.” But never far from the scene, he says. “As Mr. Iwata was doing all of those things in front of the camera, I was behind the scenes supporting him, of course along with a number of others,” he says. “But I hope maybe I can keep that up.”

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com