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Video game legend Miyamoto talks 'Wii Music'

Creator of games like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong sits down to talk about his latest title--one Nintendo hopes will be a holiday hit.

Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of monster hits like 'Donkey Kong,' 'Super Mario Bros.,' and 'The Legend of Zelda,' discusses his newest game, 'Wii Music.'
James Martin/CNET

Last Monday, Nintendo released its latest would-be blockbuster game, Wii Music.

The new game, for the company's monster hit console, the Wii, is from Nintendo senior managing director Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the video game industry's true legends. This is the man who developed titles like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda, and who is viewed among gamers with a level of reverence that may be unsurpassed.

Wii Music is a participatory game that, at its simplest form, lets players have fun making music. Unlike hit franchises like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, which at their core task players with playing music on fake guitars and drums to the accurate beat of existing songs, Wii Music is more about putting musical tools in the hands of a broad spectrum of players, from kids to grandparents, and letting them find their own creativity.

Now playing: Watch this: Shigeru Miyamoto talks about 'Wii Music'

For Nintendo, the game comes at an important time: the holidays are approaching and the company needs a new standard-bearer game to help sell Wiis during the coming months. To be sure, the Wii has never had any problems moving units--usually selling out within hours of retailers getting shipments. Still, with the economy rapidly deteriorating around us, even Nintendo could use some help.

And where better to look for that help than to Miyamoto, a man who is seen as the king of gaming creativity and whose nose for simple and silly fun may well be unmatched in the industry.

On a recent publicity tour for the game, Miyamoto took some time to sit down with CNET News to talk about the game. Nintendo mandated that the discussion be related solely to Wii Music, meaning that his former work was largely off-limits, except in the context of the new game.

Q: Where did the idea for Wii Music come from?
Shigeru Miyamoto: When we first came up with the concept for the Wii itself, we wanted the Wii to be a device that everyone in the house would relate to, so we needed to have several key software topics available for people to play: sports, health and fitness, and music. So that was the genesis for creating Wii Music. Our initial experiments were finding ways to use the Wii remote and nunchuk to perform different instruments, and then we experimented with using the Wii remote to conduct an orchestra. We found that both of those produced an experience that was fun. I've been a musician for the last 30 years, and I've thought back often on what is the most enjoyable part of playing and performing music. So we worked very hard to take the experience and joy of creating music and really implement that into the Wii Music experience.

How did the game evolve from concept to finished product?
Miyamoto: We started off with the very simple concept of performing with instruments, and we were developing Wii Music at a time when music games were becoming very popular. The tendency with any development team when they're making a game in an established genre is that their game ends up similar to those games. So my role was to really encourage our team to break away from what other music games were doing and do something different. Because other games in the so-called music game genre up until now haven't been about creating music, but about rhythm matching. I wanted to break out of that mold and focus on musical creativity, and create something that is more free-form and offers players creativity and the freedom to play the game in the way they want. Because that's what musical creativity is all about and that's where the joy of creating music comes from.

"My role was to really encourage our team to break away from what other music games were doing...Because other games in the so-called music game genre up until now haven't been about creating music, but about rhythm matching."
--Shigeru Miyamoto

How important to the overall Wii Music experience and the game's success is the sharing songs and videos?
Miyamoto: Wii Music has a tremendous amount of depth. Each song in Wii Music is comprised of six different parts, and you can lay down each part individually, performing that part yourself, and laying your performance of the next part on top of that--so, say performing the drums, layering the drums on top of the bass line, and layering the harmony on top of that. You can create a version of the same song your friend is working on, and each can sound very different, depending on the instruments and arrangement patterns. Then the two of you can share it and compare, and you can go in and re-edit and layer over each other's own performances, and, in that sense, have two or more people collaborating together. For people who are interested in a much deeper experience and exploring the depth of music, that becomes a key function.

How important is the success of Wii Music to Nintendo's business, given the current global economic collapse?
Miyamoto: Our mission is to put smiles on people's faces with our games. I feel very strongly that Wii Music does that, which is important in times like this. From a business perspective, it's been shown historically that entertainment industries aren't as adversely affected by rough economic times as other industries. On top of that, I hope Wii is in a strong position, because we've really positioned it as a device for the entire family. And when you compare the value you get out of Wii to other entertainment options, I would argue that Wii Music is an exceptional value for families' entertainment dollars.

Given that, going into this holiday season, if someone is trying to decide between Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Wii Music, why they should choose Wii Music?
Miyamoto: Actually, I almost ask if we should even be calling Wii Music a video game. In my mind, I think of Wii Music being along the lines of a new kind of musical instrument. You can bring Wii Music home and within a few minutes, everyone in the family, regardless of their gaming skill, can pick up Wii Music and start playing a wide variety of musical instruments, not just making sounds, but actually making music. So in that sense, it's like this new musical instrument that allows you to become a creator of music and a performer of music without the barriers that you would normally have of having to learn an instrument, learning to read music, and learning musical theory. That's something no other game or any other interactive experience can offer.

"The greatest possible joy would be maybe 20 years down the road meeting somebody who is a successful and professional musician, and have them come to me and say they first decided to get into music after playing Wii Music."
--Shigeru Miyamoto

Music teachers say they love games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band because they get people excited about music. What can Wii Music teach people about music?
Miyamoto: That's where the idea of Wii Music as a new kind of musical instrument really comes into play. I've played instruments for a long time, but I'm not very good. In order to get up in front of other people, you have to be able to be good at the instrument, and understand music, and be able to read music. So what Wii Music does that I don't think other games manage to do is it takes you past those hurdles, and especially for young kids, lets them taste what it's like to experience the joy of creating music because with Wii Music, you're able to perform all these instruments and play them, translating your movements into actual music. You can immediately start performing together and experience the fun of interacting with your band members in a jam session. My hope is that as people start to play with Wii Music, and they get that initial taste of what is really fun about music, then that's truly going to pique their interest about music and encourage them to go through the process of learning to play an instrument and to learn to read music.

So you expect there will be people who come out of playing Wii Music who will become musicians down the line?
Miyamoto: I often meet game developers who tell me that when they were kids, they played Mario Bros., and that's what got them into video gaming, that's what made them become a video game designer. So for me personally, the greatest possible joy would be maybe 20 years down the road meeting somebody who is a successful and professional musician, and have them come to me and say they first decided to get into music after playing Wii Music.

What is the Miyamoto DNA that's common to the famous games you created and now to Wii Music?
Miyamoto: There are two kinds of things that I focus on when I'm designing games that I think are very important to keep in mind. And one is that when I design games, even if there is a goal or objective, I really want to encourage the player to explore the game themselves, and find their own goals, and find the elements of the game that interest them. The second thing that I think is particularly important is that not only is the game fun for the person playing the game, but also for the people who are standing back and watching someone else play. So it looks like something that those people see and say, "Oh, I want to try that too." Those are two elements that I've really tried to focus on in my own game development over the years. And I think those have both come through strongly in Wii Music, in giving people this musical creative tool that allows them to explore their own creative musical expression and really help them to bring that out. Those are where you can see the common similarities between Wii Music and the other games I've created.

Will there be a way for Wii Music players to share their creations on YouTube and the Internet, and if so, do you think we'll see new music stars emerging?
Miyamoto: Well, in terms of our overall network structure and online capabilities, of course, it would be physically possible for us to have a network system and take their music videos and post them to a server, much like we're doing right now with the Mii Contest Channel, where people can post new creations to a common area where other people can view them and share them and download them. But with Wii Music, we're focused primarily on people being able to share and collaborate with their friends. Although we're seeing already in Japan, where the game has been out a little bit longer than here in America, that some people are in fact already recording the videos they create and posting them on YouTube and some people are getting quite a number of hits for them.