32 years in a single job is a long time. When asked how he looks back on such a defining period of his life, Imamura needs some time to find an answer.
“The only way to sum it up is by saying that it was 32 years of working under Shigeru Miyamoto,” Imamura finally says.
Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of some of the most iconic franchises in the industry, such as Mario and Zelda, was the producer for most of the projects Imamura worked on. Only when Miyamoto became the company’s Creative Fellow in 2015 was he no longer tasked with overseeing Imamura’s projects.
When asked how Miyamoto was as a mentor, Imamura said he certainly had his fair share of getting scolded…although he says it with a laugh. “Someone who has achieved his level of success is very strict. He was strict on himself as well. I was much weaker and softer than him, to the very last day. But of course he wasn’t only strict. Sometimes he could be more playful, and I have memories of being praised by him, too.”
How an Artist with No Computer Experience Became a Game Creator
Imamura joined Nintendo in 1989. In that year, New York’s iconic Rockefeller Center was taken over by Japan’s Mitsubishi Estate. Japan’s economic bubble was at its peak, and it was the great leader of the video game industry as well. After the video game crash of 1983, a relatively small and unknown Japanese company had single-handedly revived the industry with its Family Computer, or Nintendo Entertainment System in the West. When Imamura joined Nintendo, the Super Nintendo had not yet been released, and without Sony and Microsoft, Sega was its only real competitor.
When Imamura was at college, the Family Computer had become a huge phenomenon in Japan. Imamura remembers playing classics like Metroid and Zanac on the system, and by the time he was about to graduate, he was playing Super Mario Bros. 3. But the leap from player to creator never necessarily dawned on Imamura, and he was still holding onto his childhood dream of becoming a manga artist.
“I never considered video games as a type of toy that I could actually make,” he says. “Video games were made by computer programmers, not by an artist like me.”
Imamura applied for a job at Nintendo, not because he aspired to become a video game developer, but because he hoped he might be able help out with designing the game packages and instruction booklets. He loved video games so much that becoming part of the industry in any possible way sounded exciting. Imamura looked up Nintendo’s address in the instruction booklet for Super Mario Bros. and wrote the address on an envelope to apply for a job.
“That was the first time I learned that Nintendo was based in Kyoto,” Imamura recalls with a laugh.
“I had also applied for Konami. I vaguely knew that they were based in Kobe, but I had no idea where Nintendo was. Konami had a very flashy building in Kobe’s Port Island. I remember the marble floor of the lobby and the receptionists clad in formal outfits. It was exactly how I had imagined a video game company. Compared to that, Nintendo was much more reserved.”
Imamura says that throughout his 32 years at the company, Nintendo stayed reserved, sticking to only the necessary in all walks of its life.
“Historically, Nintendo was a relatively small company, so when working there it never felt like we were being watched by the whole world. It felt like working at an energetic local company,” Imamura says.
Imamura still remembers the day he went to Nintendo for his job interview. It was also the day he met Miyamoto for the first time.
“I already knew who Miyamoto was. I remember thinking, ‘So this guy made Mario, huh? Impressive’.” When he entered the interview room, he brought along a manga that he’d drawn. “Miyamoto seemed to be impressed, which made me very happy.”“When he asked me my favorite movie, I answered Brazil and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But when I was asked my favorite game, I ended up saying Metroid,” Imamura recalls, laughing at the fact that he’d blurted out a game not made by Miyamoto.
Imamura still got the job. However, he did not know which department he would be assigned to. On his first day, Imamura was surprised to be placed in Research & Development, the department in charge of Nintendo’s biggest games like Mario and Zelda, with Miyamoto as the leader.
During a training session for new employees, Imamura remembers, Miyamoto suddenly entered the room and said, ‘You guys will work on the Super Nintendo’. Imamura had originally thought he’d be drawing art for instruction booklets, and here he was being told he’d be making games for Nintendo’s next-gen system.
This unexpected assignment came with one particular roadblock – Imamura had never even touched a keyboard. But despite having to learn some fundamentals in the early days, Imamura quickly found himself involved, and significantly contributing, to some of Nintendo’s biggest franchises.
Just a little over a year after Imamura joined Nintendo, the company released the Super Nintendo in Japan on November 21, 1990. One of the system’s launch titles was F-Zero, the first game Imamura worked on.
“The Super Nintendo had a graphics mode called Mode 7, which allowed a background layer to be rotated,” he says. “Before I joined, F-Zero had already started out as a project aiming to use that feature to its full potential. Kazunobu Shimizu, the director, said he wanted to make it more sci-fi. I loved science fiction, so I reworked and edited the vehicles that Shimizu had drawn by himself. I also drew the animation patterns and characters, and I was in charge of the courses as well. In those days, we made games with teams of fewer than 10 people. F-Zero was made by an especially small team, so the person who did the sprites also had to come up with the layout of the courses, among other things.”
Nintendo’s Major Franchise Output
From the start, Imamura created iconic characters that have a special place in people’s hearts to this day, and it was only his first project.
Through his character design for games like F-Zero and Star Fox, Imamura quickly established his own unique style, in part inspired by American comics, within Nintendo. Both Captain Falcon and Star Fox protagonist Fox McCloud became part of the original character roster for Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64. And while F-Zero and Star Fox are sadly not as relevant as they once were, Imamura’s impact on Nintendo’s wide swath of iconic characters didn’t stop there.
Despite having no prior knowledge of programming, Imamura was entrusted not only with helping develop software for Nintendo’s next-gen system, but also the company’s first fully-fledged 3D game – Star Fox. Imamura says that by this time, he was already familiar with games in the third dimension.
“I had played games like Starblade, Pole Position, and Virtua Racing in the arcade, and at Nintendo we had access to 3D games from the West. I was really into the 3D games that were available on the Amiga,” Imamura says.
In the early 1990s, two young British programmers named Dylan Cuthbert and Giles Goddard paid Nintendo a visit. They had done something Nintendo had deemed impossible themselves: developing a 3D game for the Game Boy, titled X. In light of their accomplishment, Nintendo wanted them to make a 3D game for the Super Nintendo. Imamura ended up working on Star Fox together with them.“We were developing a 3D game for the Super Nintendo by implementing the Super FX Chip inside the game’s cartridge,” says Imamura. “At the time, it was a strictly secret project. I think even at Nintendo, only a few people were aware of it. I was in charge of the 2D design, but the 3D design looked very hard, since tools for 3D development weren’t common yet.”
And of course, there was a huge language barrier. Cuthbert and Goddard were new in Japan, and they didn’t speak the language yet.
“We didn’t speak English, either, so Katsuya Eguchi, our director, studied real hard and communicated with them in broken English,” says Imamura. “Everyone was so young and cocky. I was only 24 or 25 years old myself, but Dylan and Giles became friends for life.”
After completing development on Star Fox, Cuthbert and Goddard stayed in Japan, and today they each have their own development studio in Kyoto. Imamura collaborated with Goddard’s studio Vitei on the Steel Diver series and Tank Troopers for the 3DS. Star Fox Command and Star Fox 64 3D were developed together with Q-Games, Cuthbert’s studio.
Zelda & Star Fox
Imamura is credited as an object designer for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but what exactly does that mean? Imamura explains to me that at Nintendo, sprites – the non-static objects in a 2D environment – are referred to as “objects,” but his impact went far beyond that.
“In the middle of the development of A Link to the Past, I was asked to join the project to design the bosses. If I remember correctly, I designed all the bosses except for the last one and one other. It was not just the art; I also designed the mechanics together with one of the programmers. For some bosses, we came up with the mechanics just with the two of us, while for others we first received instructions from planners on what kind of enemy they wanted. I also designed the game’s title logo and dungeon maps. Designing dungeon maps is a harsh job, as the dungeons consist of multiple floors and their structure kept changing over the course of development. So, I guess you could say I did a little more than just ‘designing objects’,” Imamura says with a laugh.Imamura’s work on the Zelda series continued with The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. where his primary task was to get it looking distinct from Ocarina of Time.
“We had to develop Majora’s Mask in just one year, so it was a very short development window. When I saw a prototype of the game, I thought it looked too similar to Ocarina of Time, so it became my task to change the look of the game over a short period.”
Imamura came up with the name Majora, the design for the game’s main mask, and the creepy moon that is falling down to earth. He also came up with arguably the quirkiest character in Nintendo’s history: Tingle.
While his contributions to the Zelda franchise are among his most prominent, Imamura told IGN that he held one previous project most dear.
“Star Fox 64 is the game of my life,” he says. “It was a bit like a reboot, but by using a lot of ideas we couldn’t implement in the original, we managed to enrich the game’s scale. From planning to writing the plot, coming up with the gameplay mechanics and graphics, I really worked hard on this game. I also instructed composers on what kind of music I wanted for it.”
Although it sounds like he directed it, Imamura did not, as he was “too busy” for the position.
“It started out as an experiment with Kazuaki Morita, the programmer I had worked together with on the bosses for A Link to the Past. Morita was a super talented programmer who went above my expectations whenever I asked him to do something. Like me, he wasn’t originally a programmer, but a game designer who also knew how to do programming. As we continued to work on the prototype, more and more people joined and it started to become serious. From modelling the characters, mechs and enemies to working on effects and backgrounds, I really worked on a lot of things. In those days, it was normal to work beyond your official responsibility. For Star Fox 64 I was credited as art director, but in reality I worked on a wide array of tasks.”By this time, Sony’s PlayStation was on the market, and games with cinematic cutscenes that made use of the CD format’s capacity had become popular.
“In Star Fox 64, the communication between characters is done through radio communication, so lowering the quality of sound didn’t harm the game’s atmosphere. Games with gorgeous cutscenes on the PlayStation had become the new norm, but while we also implemented more cinematic aspects, in the end, we wanted to stay focused on interactivity. The story would change depending on the player’s score, and by having the characters communicate the world felt more alive. We aimed for a game that would make you feel like you are watching a movie, while you are actually enjoying its interactivity. “
Collaborating to Capture Nintendo Magic
Imamura’s impact expanded beyond the walls of Nintendo, as he began to collaborate with other companies working to bring new life to Nintendo stalwarts.
“I was helping out on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker when it was still in its planning phase, but at the same time I was working on Star Fox Adventures with Rare, and I ended up having to focus on the latter. So If you ever wondered why Tingle appears so often in Wind Waker, now you know why,” Imamura laughs.
Famous for some of Nintendo’s most classic titles, including Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie, Rare was arguably Nintendo’s best second-party studio at the time. Star Fox Adventures would become the last game they developed as a second-party studio of Nintendo.
Every Art Style Zelda Games Have Ever Had
Imamura’s work extended to partnerships with other companies beyond Rare, including with Sega on a new F-Zero project.
“I think it started with Toshihiro Nagoshi proposing the project to Miyamoto,” says Imamura. “I really liked Daytona USA [which Nagoshi produced], so I was honored to work with him. We had an arcade system board called Triforce which was based on the GameCube’s architecture, so when Nagoshi proposed doing an arcade version of F-Zero, I was really happy, as I had always been a fan of arcade games.”
Sega developed F-Zero GX for the GameCube, and F-Zero AX as an arcade cabinet. During development, Imamura visited Sega’s office in Haneda three times a month.“Back then, Nagoshi was the top of Amusement Vision, a subsidiary studio of Sega. I don’t think many people outside the company were ever allowed inside the actual development offices. Companies don’t usually let people inside their development offices, but they showed me the arcade cabinets they were working on, which has become a special memory for me,” recalls Imamura. “Nagoshi had a professional darts machine in his office, which I thought was very stylish. In those days, Nagoshi still had long hair, but he was already quite imposing.”
F-Zero GX was highly praised by media outlets and became a favorite title for many Nintendo fans. Imamura himself calls it “the ultimate F-Zero”, but after that, nearly 18 years have passed without a new entry in the series.
“Of course, I’ve thought about it many times, but without a grand new idea, it’s hard to bring it back,” Imamura says. assuring IGN that his departure from Nintendo does not mean that the series is dead.
The Closing Chapters
In his later years at Nintendo, Imamura produced and supervised numerous Star Fox projects and directed the aforementioned Steel Diver series and Tank Troopers. He was active as a developer until his very last day at the company. But like any developer that has been at it for so long, not all of his projects have seen the light of day.
“Sometimes, planning a project could take as long as an entire year,” he says. “I had colleagues who planned and experimented with multiple projects for many years [(without being able to release anything], so I think I belong to the lucky group of developers, as many of my games actually made it to the store shelves.”
Imamura, in part, believes the smaller development teams when he started made seeing through projects easier.“Today, bigger projects like Zelda are made by over a hundred people, but in the days of the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64, I remember that even teams for the bigger projects consisted of only around 30 people. That made it easy to communicate within the team, and there was room for us to express our opinions. Today, for the bigger projects, I think there might even be some staff that aren’t aware of exactly what part of the game they are working on. I understand that dividing labor is essential in order to work efficiently, but I think that it would be great if staff members could work on smaller projects in between such big projects.”
Imamura initially described his legacy at Nintendo as “32 years of working under Shigeru Miyamoto,” but as mentioned previously, Miyamoto could no longer oversee his projects after 2015. That year also saw the death of former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, and with his new position as the company’s Creative Fellow, Miyamoto had less time to oversee actual game development, according to Imamura.
“The last time [Miyamoto and I] really worked together was during the production of Star Fox Zero,” says Imamura, referring to the 2016 Wii U title. “I was supervising the project, and Miyamoto wanted to create an anime. I worked on the anime very hard together with Production I.G and Wit Studio. I wrote the scenario and storyboard in the early phases of the project, which the professionals then made a really great anime out of. Miyamoto was heavily involved and gave detailed instructions. He was there when we recorded the dialogue, too, so he really cared about the project.”
Star Fox Zero: The Battle Begins became the last project Imamura worked on together with Miyamoto. Roughly five years later, as Imamura was leaving the company, he didn’t have a chance to see Miyamoto and say goodbye in person.
“Under the current circumstances, we couldn’t meet, so we had to say goodbye over email. He has invited me to meet up and go down memory lane together once COVID-19 finally settles down, so I’m looking forward to that.”
When asked if leaving a place you called home for more than half of your life without being able to say goodbye was sad, Imamura gave a lonely smile.
“It made tidying up my desk easier, as nobody was there. When you’re at the same company for over 30 years, you really have a lot of stuff there. I had to apologize to the people nearby each time I passed them when carrying my things, but the fact that almost no one was there made it a lot easier.”
Nintendo legend Takashi Tezuka, famous for his contributions on Mario and Zelda titles among other classics, gave Imamura permission to take home statues of Majora’s Mask and Star Fox’s Arwing. Though those physical reminders of Imamura’s work may have left the office with him, his decades of work have left a much more lasting mark on Nintendo’s legacy.