After 32 years, Takaya Imamura has left Nintendo. Imamura was a key development team member on classic games like Star Fox, F-Zero and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and his retirement became a topic of conversation throughout the industry when he announced it on Twitter back in January. IGN was lucky enough to sit down with Imamura for a lengthy talk about his career with the legendary video game company.As of today, Imamura has become a professor at the International Professional University of Technology in Osaka, a new college that opened this April. While teaching CG Animation and video game development, Imamura is working on his own manga in his free time. He is also open to the idea of working on smaller indie games as a freelance developer.
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.”
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