Nintendo’s Yoshio Sakamoto is a designer who takes pride in being strange – a paradox at times, as he’s employed by a company perhaps best known these days for its approachable, all-inclusive games.
“It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Metroid is the only series I’m known for outside of Japan,” Sakamoto said as he introduced himself in a packed GDC 2010 talk.
He says he was “virtually uninvolved” in the Prime arc of the series, and the balance of his work is “subtler and quirkier” and thus doesn’t often see release outside of Japan.
In fact, Metroid games are niche titles in Japan as well, he says – “Over there, I might be considered a guy who only makes niche games… my true identity might be as a game designer with a strong tendency for niche games.”
Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has always been “puzzled” by Sakamoto’s approach, he says. Sakamoto has played a director role on the Metroid games, but for the upcoming and highly anticipated Other M, which launches in the U.S. on June 27, he is the producer.
The aim is to create the “ultimate Metroid game,” he says.
He resists being credited for originating the franchise, punning: “If anything, maybe I consider myself the one who raised Samus. After all, the one who gave birth to Metroid is the Queen Metroid, right?”
Wario Ware, Tomodachi Collection
Sakamoto also introduced the popular Wario Ware series, and claims that as a producer it doesn’t originate from his creativity and thus he rarely speaks out on it. He produced four titles, beginning with the original WarioWare: Twisted, which came from a tester's experimentation with the GBA’s gyroscope – president Iwata spun the console around on a chair to check it out, and muttered “how idiotic," recalls Sakamoto.
Sakamoto is also responsible for Japan-only Tomodachi Collection, which he likens to "playing house" with friends' Miis -- for example, highlight of the presentation was Sakamoto's video wherein Miis of Nintendo execs fought over Samus Aran's romantic attentions.
The title has been massively successful in Japan. Today, says the producer, it's nearly sold 3 million units.
The striking thing about Sakamoto is the diversity in his body of work -- the tone of Metroid is so opposite that of Wario Ware that it's funny to realize they've been overseen by the same individual -- it puzzles even Iwata himself, says Sakamoto.
“I’m well aware that Mr. Iwata thinks of me as someone only with a comical touch,” he added, noting that the Nintendo boss is surprised Sakamoto is able to create “serious” titles at all.
One of his biggest inspirations is filmmaker Dario Argento, maker of films like Suspiria and Deep Red. “I decided that without a doubt, I wanted to create things in the same manner as Argento did,” he says.
Argento's films taught Sakamoto that an effective creator manages four elements: Mood, as with Argento's unusual progressive rock soundtracks; timing, foreshadowing used to connect events to one another, and contrast to increase a sense of dramatic tension.
One of his first games, an installment of the interactive fiction-like Famicom Detective Club, was an homage to Argento, and he continued to use this approach on all other projects, Other M included. “The reason I am sharing this is to show you how deep my desire was to find the ideal method of conveying fear, and how that led me to find my own creative style,” he said.
Argento’s films increased Sakamoto’s film appetite as he sought more ways to control those four elements and apply them to other themes than horror, taking influences from Luc Besson, Brian De Palma, John Woo and the Hong Kong movie scene.
“It might sound like a joke, but I started to have dreams viewed from an objective point of view, with edited scenes and even their own background music,” he says. “Maybe my affinity for niche things extends even beyond games.”
Nonetheless, he insists he’s no film fanatic: “I haven’t seen any more movies than the average person,” he says. “I have great admiration for these directors, but it’s not like I have a complex about it or try to become one,” he says. “They’ve helped bring that out in me.”
Making People Laugh
In addition to film, Sakamoto says he’s been a music aficionado and continues to be inspired by comedy. “I love things that are funny and things that make me laugh – I’m always thinking, ‘is there a laugh hidden here? Can I find something funny in this?’”
“I just want to make other people laugh the most,” he adds. “I’m not a comedian… I’m just happy to add a little spice to my day and make the people around me have a good time.”
Despite his favor for comedy tone, he is “actually quite meticulous,” he says, continually focused on material-gathering and idea-sorting. “When it occurs to me I will take my best material in my head and simulate the situation… in which I will find my best delivery. I want to control audience reaction; I want to engineer the laugh.”
And engineering comic tone requires the same four techniques as he used for horror and drama, Sakamoto points out.
“I respond strongly to things that stimulate my interest,” he says, and he utilizes them through the mood, timing, foreshadowing and contrast principle. He says the mechanism to move one’s feelings is the same regardless of the type of feeling, so a developer must think of how to control the mechanisms that move the user’s emotions.
Other M: The "Ultimate" Metroid?
"There really is no difference in my stance or approach" for Wario Ware versus Metroid," he says. "It’s more about technique; I think this is the real answer. As long as one is open to the possibility of new experiences and is willing to feel them deeply, you can use a single toolset to move people’s hearts in a great many different ways. I’d like to leave it to you to decide if this is true or not.”
And he hopes all of his methodologies and learnings will align best in Metroid: Other M, which he calls "the synthesis of all the know-how I’ve acquired and the culmination of all the things I’ve been envisioning in a serious touch title.
He believes he had a different role than a normal procducer, writing a story set between Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. It reintroduces Adam Malkovich, who had appeared in Fusion – creating another instance of foreshadowing.
“I tell the story of Samus as a young girl and reveal her relationship with Adam, but that’s just a portion of Other M," he says.
"Developing games is all about giving shape to images," he says. Throughout the course of my life I've come across many things: moments from movies or music, things created by peoplel, human beings themselves, objects, living creatures et cetera."
Continues Sakamoto: "My spirit has been moved by these interactions… I think these experiences create individual images that stick with us. From the perspective of someone who makes games, I believe that it’s our job to take those moments that our spirits have been moved, and represent them with understandable forms," he says.
"It’s our mission to give our images shapes that can be conveyed to other people.”
This philosophy crystallized for him long ago when his team received a Valentine's gift of chocolate from a woman who was a fan of the Famicom Detective Club games.
It made him realize that "What we create touches the heart and spirits of people," he says. Since then, he's begun imagining the faces of people, both whom he knows and those whom he doesn't, as he works. He tries to visualize "the best possible reaction on the faces of my imagined audience.”
For the developers at GDC, he concludes: "I hope that you will continue to convey the beautiful and fun things stored in your heart to the players who love games."