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Nintendo's enjoying a renaissance. Meet the man helping to keep it that way

Shinya Takahashi, Nintendo's planning and development head, spills secrets about why the company's pumping out so many good games lately.

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Nintendo

When I first picked up a Nintendo Switch, I almost didn't believe it was real.

It was a week before the device's release, and I was preparing to travel to the East Coast with my wife and toddler. I turned it on, fired up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and was amazed. I spent the next two months straight playing whenever I could: when our son took a nap on the plane, when everyone went to sleep at night, and during toddler naps on the weekends. I wasn't the only one hooked.

"Breath of the Wild is a defining moment for The Legend of Zelda series, and the most impressive game Nintendo has ever created," CNET sister site GameSpot wrote in its review at the time.

Six months later, Nintendo surprised again with Super Mario Odyssey, the 23rd major game for the plumber who sets off to save Princess Peach from the evil Bowser. The game quickly became the 13th best-rated game of all time, and it's racked up more than 10 million copies sold.

These two games were even more surprising because before 2017, conventional wisdom had it that Nintendo was headed toward the dustbin of history. It'd made significant strategic errors; its games weren't coming out at a rapid-enough pace to get people's attention; and the ones that did come out -- like the highly anticipated sequel to the popular Star Fox space battle games -- got mixed reviews.

Nintendo executive Shinya Takahashi

Shinya Takahashi

Nintendo

So what changed at Nintendo to turn things around?

To find out, I sat down with Shinya Takahashi, general manager for Nintendo's Entertainment Planning and Development Division, during the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The answer, he said, boiled down to making teams at Nintendo work together more and increasing communication between the company's corporate headquarters in Japan and its representatives around the world.

It may all seem like minor stuff, but Takahashi said it made a big difference.

"The way that we make games has not fundamentally changed," he said, speaking through a translator. "Some small technical and organizational differences really can change the focus."

It's OK if you don't know who Takahashi is. He's not Nintendo's president, nor is he a high-profile personality like Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto. But he's been there, behind the scenes, working on hit games like 1998's critically acclaimed The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, the Brain Age puzzle games and both Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild.

Today, he's seen as akin to a symphony conductor, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime told Time last year. "He's the ultimate decision maker."

Old mistakes

You probably remember the Nintendo Wii. The console was one of the biggest hits ever in video games. It became a cultural icon with its unusual motion controllers, Wii Sports games like tennis and golf, and later a "balance board" for doing yoga. It sold more than 101 million units all told.

The 2012 follow-up Wii U added a tablet that also acted as a controller, but people weren't as impressed. Over six years, it racked up just north of 13 million units sold, nothing close to its predecessor.

Still, Nintendo was enamored of the idea of the second screen from the Wii U. So much so that Takahashi said developers within the company had come up with many different gaming experiences they wanted to try for it. "We thought of so many ideas for the Wii U that some of them were kind of difficult for us to communicate," he said.

Takahashi chalked up much of Nintendo's success to organizational changes that happened over the past five years, merging the company's two different software teams and making them work more with the hardware teams. The result was that people could move from project to project more easily, and thus help to bring big game releases to market faster. If a game was taking too long to complete, for example, more people could be brought over to finish it.

The fruit of those changes: Breath of the Wild, which came out in March 2017, Splatoon 2 in July 2017 and Mario Odyssey in October 2017, and then the highly anticipated Super Smash Bros. Ultimate battle game set for release this December.

Perhaps even more important has been increased communication with satellite offices around the world.

"The conversations have deepened more recently," Takahashi said, though he chuckled when I asked for specifics, citing the secrecy Nintendo is often known for.

Looking toward the future, I asked about technological advancements.

At E3, Nintendo showed off an upcoming game called Pokemon: Let's Go, which worked in tandem with 2016's hit Pokemon Go mobile game, and an optional $50 ball you can use to control the game and to throw in the real world to capture Pokemon in the game world.

But I was also curious about game streaming, a technology that's been teased for years and promises to use technology similar to Netflix to let people play high-end video games on any device, be it a phone, tablet or television. Sony already offers its own streaming service, called PlayStation Now, and both Microsoft and Electronic Arts have said they intend to offer something similar soon.

So what of Nintendo?

"We hear all of this and we're thinking about a lot, but we would have to determine what is a very Nintendo approach to that if we were to ever do such a thing," Takahashi said with a smile timed to his translator's speech. "But of course, nothing is decided at this time."

Now playing: Watch this: Nintendo reveals Fortnite for Switch
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First published June 29 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update at 12:52 p.m. PT: Clarifies that while Mario Odyssey is the 18th most highly rated game of all time, some titles on the list are repeats. So it's really the 13th most-highly rated when you take that into account.

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