In a history that's coming up on the 130 year mark, there have been many fascinating eras of Nintendo - the Yokoi years, those formative Famicom years and the mania around the Wii - but none is quite as evocative as the period in the 90s when the company name became a byword for the entire video game industry. And one of the stories that's fascinated me most is how a group of North London teens found themselves working at Nintendo's Kyoto HQ to help make Star Fox - and how one of them went on to smuggle a little of the demoscene into one of the company's most iconic games when they single-handedly programmed the malleable face that met players when they first started playing Super Mario 64.
And it's that person who I chat to in Kyoto where some of the city's development scene are gathered for a hanami - a celebration of the spring blossom, met with drinks and food. The event's been put on by Dylan Cuthbert's Q-Games - Cuthbert being one of that North London group - and also in attendance are 17-Bit and Vitei, the company started by Giles Goddard. Goddard's the only one who stayed on at Nintendo, in the process becoming the first western employee at Nintendo EAD. Although he left the company near the turn of the century he's remained in Kyoto ever since. Goddard and I found a spot on the banks of the Kamo river, worked through a couple of beers and chatted through what life was like inside Nintendo in the 90s.
Tell me a little about what you were doing before Nintendo.
I was in school trying to figure out whether to do A-levels or not, and I decided not to. At the same time I applied for a job in London - I was doing Amiga demos, specifically 3D wire demos.
Demoscene stuff, essentially?
Yeah the demoscene, and no-one else was really doing that. And that was when Jez [San, founder of British games developer Argonaut] had made Starglider [an early 3D game on the Amiga]. There was only a few of us doing that stuff, so it was a no-brainer really.
It seems like you were quite accomplished at just 16.
You used to go down the mines when you were 13 in England! I never thought I was accomplished at anything - if you're in the demoscene, that's what you do. It's not like you're accomplished. Everyone's doing it.
What attracted you to it - was it games, or did you just like conquering technology?
I've no idea. My mum just bought me a Spectrum when I was seven or eight because I asked for one. I used to type in games from magazines - you used to have games written in the back, you'd sit there and type them in and it wouldn't work, because you had a typo or something. It's problem solving, really.
What was Argonaut like?
It was Jez' house in North London - there were a couple of spare bedrooms. Dylan was in one bedroom, I was in the other. There was maybe five or six people - it was two per bedroom.
So you dropped out of school?
I didn't do my A-levels. I didn't see the point in doing a maths A-level at that point. If I had a job, why would I stay another year to get a qualification that didn't actually help with my job?
The first contact with Nintendo - how did that come about?
Jez got in touch with Nintendo and said your NES hardware is really good - we think we can put 3D on it. Do you want us to try and do it? And we did it. We showed them this demo of 3D using software only - it worked but it was really slow. So Jez suggested we use a DSP - like an extra chip - to go on the game itself to help push pixels, basically. He convinced Nintendo that Argonaut should design the chip, and Nintendo went for it. We were all still in Jez' house, giving him invoices and hoping he would pay. None of us were actually his employees at the time.
Nintendo at the time was kind of at the peak of its powers, one of the biggest companies in Japan and indeed all of entertainment - and it was dealing with two 16-year-olds working out of a bedroom in North London. How does that even work?
To be honest, I don't really know. Obviously 3D was a thing in the arcades, Star Wars, Star Blade and things like that - and that's what Jez based Starglider on. After that was Starblade from Namco, which was mind-blowingly big at the time. Nintendo realised that 3D was an area of gaming that they hadn't explored, and that they ought to be exploring. There were only a few companies doing 3D at that point, and we were one of them - and Jez had a good rapport with Tony Harman from NOA, which was another factor.
Was there a stigma around Nintendo at the time?
Not at all. They were the gaming company. People wouldn't say they'd play a game. They said they'd play Nintendo. This was before Sony came along, Sega hadn't really had that much success with consoles at that point.
How long until you got seconded by Nintendo?
It was kind of a natural thing. We were over here for a year and a half doing Star Fox, then after that I went on to do Wild Trax. And I sort of said to Jez, I've been away from the UK for a year, I've no contacts, I don't have any friends there anymore and I don't have an apartment. My life is here now. Can I leave and join Nintendo? He was very reluctant, but agreed that it would be a bit shit to pull back after a year. Then he changed the contract with Nintendo after that so no-one could do that - that's one of the reasons Dylan went to Sony rather than Nintendo.
So when you first moved over to Kyoto, how old were you then?
And what was your understanding of Japanese?
Zero. I thought that people would at least speak English and there'd be English on signs. I remember being just overwhelmed by the amount of kanji everywhere.
Japan was very different back then too, right?
Yeah, there were no tourists, no English signs, no help, nothing. The tourism in Japan was almost entirely Japanese. Now it's almost entirely Chinese.
So how did you learn?
Just get a Japanese girlfriend. Myself and Dylan had Japanese girlfriends quite quickly.
Alright, so how do you get a Japanese girlfriend seeing as you speak no Japanese?
Well, that's how you get them. You get a dictionary and start talking via the dictionary - it's an amazingly good way of chatting up girls. I don't know whether it'd work anymore, with a mobile phone dictionary. The fact you've got this thick white book that had all the words in it.
Wasn't it all terrifying? Maybe when you're 19 you've got a bit more bravura.
No it wasn't terrifying, not at all. It was lonely. We were put up in a hotel for a year, and I hated that hotel so much after a couple of months, just the concept of having this room that wasn't yours, it's just some stuff in the corner and that's your life, you go to work and you go back to the hotel [the Kyoto Royal Hotel, which has recently closed down], it was so horrible. We all hated it.
We used to always bring our girlfriends back, and the hotel would complain to Nintendo that they weren't paying for two people, they were just paying for us. We used to expense all the drinks and meals to Nintendo.
At 19 I was a right shit.
Oh yeah we were all pretty shitty at that point. A 19-year-old getting business class tickets to London every few months, staying in a hotel all expenses paid - you do feel privileged.
How did it work internally? The language barrier must have been there.
They took people that spoke English in the team - they didn't realise we'd pick up Japanese quite quickly because we were quite young. At one point I remember them talking not in necessarily nice terms about us in front of us, and me and Dylan turned around and spoke to them and replied in Japanese. They looked so shocked.
The usual problem was the fact that, in Japan's work society, the culture is you don't go home before your senpai, your elder goes home. And we'd do our shit, do it really well then go to a pub and go drinking. They used to hate that. We weren't prepared to conform to their way of working - that was usually the problem.
What was company culture like at Nintendo back then?
It was very 80s Japanese. Do a YouTube search for 80s Japanese company, they'd have all been like that - there are so many documentaries about the boom period of Japan, the 80s, where they're all copying the US, make it Japanese then make it better and resell it to the world, and they were really good about it. They were really cocky, everyone's being paid really well, but they couldn't figure out the culture. The culture was still basically old-school - it's like being in a school, or the army. You come in at 8.30am, you have a bell at 8.45am to tell you to start working. Everything's regimented. You work your arse off and go home at 11pm at night, then go home and sleep a few hours. And we refused to do that. At the end of Star Fox, when we were working really stupid hours, we thought we were being taken advantage of. We didn't see the bigger picture, that we're 19-year-old kids working with Miyamoto.
You have an image of Nintendo - or certainly I did - that it's like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, this magical world where all the games come from.
No, it's a factory.
Was there any sense of occasion, that you were doing something big?
Never. We had this game, we had a schedule and we had to do it otherwise... Well, who knows what would happen.
So there was no sense of magic?
Not at all. I don't think there is now either. It's such a clinical, rigid way of working. It amazes me they get so much creativity out of that place, with Zelda and Mario. You go there and it's white, it's clinical cubicles and bells ringing for lunch and for going home and that's it. How they get any creativity out of that place is beyond me. But they do do it.
Did you ever get anyone to let their hair down?
No, never. Even at the new year parties, nobody ever really let their hair down that much. But that's just the way Japanese people work.
[sidenote: I asked Dylan Cuthbert the same question later, and the wildest anecdote he came back with was about Miyamoto taking the team to an all-night convenience store during crunch on Star Fox, and then professing a love for milk chocolate digestives on the way]
The team you worked with - Miyamoto, Eguchi, Watanabe - what were they like?
They were great to work with. The individuals at Nintendo were all really good people, extremely talented. There's nothing wrong with the people - it's just the culture that was so old school.
Did that culture change when [Hiroshi] Yamauchi went?
No it's never changed. Maybe it changed a bit with Iwata-san, but not that much. I think he put his foot down with the amount of overtime people were doing. Because Iwata was a programmer himself, he saw that doing longer hours doesn't mean better games so let's stop doing this. Go home and get some proper rest. He changed that, which was great - Yamauchi didn't give a shit about that. For him it was just this pipeline.
Was there ever any interaction with Yamauchi? He seems pretty terrifying by all accounts.
I met him once, and we were all terrified of him.
So what was it like working with Iwata?
When we were doing the N64, I went to SGI with two programmers and Iwata-san.
This was scoping out what the N64 hardware would be, right?
Yeah. At that point Iwata was just a programmer at HAL. And I thought he was a bit of a nerd. I remember him complaining that SGI had just got a big contract with SKG - everyone was partying the day we got there, there was a big barbecue outside, and Iwata said we've just got here, why is everyone partying. I thought, just chill out a bit! And then a few years later he became president, the next time I interacted with him it was almost like he had a script he was reading from. But at heart he was a programmer - I knew he had the right mentality to run Nintendo. He knew how to develop games. But other than that he was a bit nerdy.
The SGI trip - was it like a scouting thing?
I think it was a trip to figure out what Nintendo - how Nintendo could influence SGI's hardware, basically. To make sure that what they were making was inline with the games Nintendo wanted to make. They were all about making quality graphics, whereas Sony was about making really fast graphics. Nintendo didn't know where they were supposed to be in that.
How involved were you in the hardware discussions?
Directly not so much - I went with EAD. It was [Genyo] Takeda's group - they were the ones who were actually talking about the hardware. We were just making sure it did actually work for EAD's purposes.
Just before all that - you also made Stunt Race FX [a SNES game that, like Star Fox, made use of the Super FX chip. It was known as Wild Trax in Japan]. I imported it back in the day. I paid 20 quid for an adapter and 80 quid for the game.
I think you were ripped off. I don't like it!
I liked it! What was the framerate exactly on it?
That's why I don't like it. It has such terrible framerate. When I was making it, it was like 30hz, which was better than Star Fox - that was like 14, 20, something like that - and I wanted a 30hz racing game. Coming from Mario Kart, which was 60hz, it had to be as close to that as possible. That was our nearest comparison. And the thing I got working at 30hz was great - it felt really good, everything was really smooth, but then we ended up putting so much shit in there it went from 30 to 20 to 14 to 12. The slower it got, the worse the dynamics got. And the final dynamics weren't as smooth as they used to be.
I remember it for having these brilliant suspension behaviours.
Yeah, but that's not entirely intentional. The intention was, the suspension was supposed to act like real suspension, not this spongy gloopy thing.
But they were big cartoon cars! It made sense!
That's why I'm not a game designer. Nintendo saw the fact that it was becoming gloopy, so they played with that and they put that into the game design itself.
Put some eyes on the cars. Job done.
That's pure Nintendo, that is. Realising your limitations and working it into the game design is what Nintendo does best.
Maybe there's room for a remaster sometime soon.
I hope not.
You really dislike it that much?
It's not groundbreaking, it's just...
Well, I liked it. At the time it was exotic - I hadn't really experienced many 3D games.
I'm working with a very famous producer at the moment - I can't say their name - and he's a massive Wild Trax fan, and I don't know why. The games he's made are so much better than anything I've ever made, and he's adamant that Wild Trax is great. But everyone's like that. Everything you make is never perfect - I only ever see the flaws. Even with 1080, all I see is the things I should have fixed.
Moving forward to around the time of N64 - what were you working on then?
I was in the R&D part of EAD, which would have been making tests and demos with the new hardware.
Were you allowed to dick around, or was it more regimented than that?
We were allowed to dick around. It was great. My most enjoyable part of working at Nintendo was that period. We all got given these really cool SGI machines, the programmers got SGI Indys, the designers got Indigos and then the Onyx was actually running the N64 hardware emulator - the Onyx is a big, massive supercomputer, basically.
That sounds expensive.
The pricelist was ridiculous. It was like a normal, off the shelf PC but 10 times more expensive.
Why was it so expensive?
Because it was from the film industry, and they didn't know any better about hardware.
It was quite a regimented environment, so how do you go about experimenting and having fun?
You couldn't dick around in the way you work, you could dick around with the things you did, making demos. You couldn't dick around with your timecard, being late and not working overtime. You can dick around with the things you're actually doing, and they encouraged that playfulness.
You did the famous Mario 64 face at the start of Super Mario 64 - how did you get that asset, how were you allowed to do that?
When we got the Indys, they came with a camera. I put ping pong balls on my face and I thought it'd be cool to use the camera to control the face. And the justification was to test out the skinning - at that point, if you had two joints they'd be two separate objects. There was no smoothing. That's what I was experimenting in - how to do skinning. And a good demonstration of that was the Mario face. If you have a boss there that's seen this iteration of skinning, of facial animation - it's dicking around with a purpose, it's progressive and it's new stuff.
I love that it's a little bit of the demoscene finding its way into the project. How did it find its way into the game?
Miyamoto just saw it as he walked past. It didn't really change, either - the only thing was the elasticity. They wanted you to pull the face, but after that what happens? That's where you got the springy stuff.
[At this point we're interrupted by his son, who's then politely ordered off to get more beers]
When you saw Mario's face make it into Mario 64, was there any sense that something important was happening?
No, not at all.
To me, it's one of those era-defining things.
No, the scope was much smaller back then. It kind of comes back to what I was saying about us complaining about doing overtime - stupid overtime, working 'til six in the morning kind of thing - at the time, it was really only me and Dylan that were saying, 'hang on, we're working with Miyamoto, the Mario guy. We shouldn't really back out because we want to back out because we want to party on Fridays. Everyone else thought it was just stupid, why are they forcing us to do this.
When Mario 64 shipped, was there not a moment where you think you've done something quite significant?
No, not at all.
I find that strange. Do you find that strange when people like me who are really interested in this stuff?
I find it slightly creepy.
Thanks for being honest...
It's more that I don't think I deserve the admiration.
Well, I never said that I admire you...
At the time there's no way to know that anything is going to be successful. From your point of view, at the time, it's just another Nintendo game. You don't know whether it's going to be a hit or a miss or whatever. And you don't know if it's a hit until a year, six months after it came out.
But Mario seemed significant because of how it seemed to fix 3D gaming, with its camera and everything, almost overnight.
It took more than a year to realise that that was actually a viable gaming mechanic. At that point, 3D was so experimental that even the Mario team were questioning whether it was the right thing to do. Should the camera do this and that? Are we right to do this?
There was shit like with Sega having patents on pressing buttons to change camera views, so there was that side of things - whether we were actually legally entitled to do this camera view. It'd be unheard of nowadays - can you have this view, because Sega had this view? So Sega patented that, and we wanted to have that on Star Fox, and legal said you can't do that because Sega patented that. And we had to find a way around the patent.
That era was so patent driven, so rigid in what you could do and couldn't do - it wasn't as free-form, so much of a wild west as people think it was. You had to work around a lot of stupid rules and legal stuff, and people not knowing whether 3D should be this way or that.
In summary, then, it wasn't as much fun as I'd imagined it being.
No, it wasn't. Nowadays, anything goes - you can have a dick poking around.
Fast forwarding a bit to 1080 Snowboarding. How did you get your own projects in Nintendo?
It was all Takao Sawano. He was a manager, but he was really focussed on doing fun things. 1080 was a prototype of IK. The Mario face was based on IK - inverse kinetics - the bones, when you pulled one it'd stretch out. So I thought the natural progression for that was to have an actual figure - I wanted an animated figure that entirely procedrually programmed, so it was reacting and animating on its own, basically.
That sounds like what happened with Euphoria and Rage.
Yeah, I was basically trying to do ragdoll physics with the new joint animation stuff. And I can't remember why, but at some point we thought a skiiing game would be a good way to show that. But you ended up being this flailing ragdoll on skis going down a slope, which was fun but ridiculous. The point with snowboarding, it was just taking off and you could do tricks. Skiiing is like golf - it's got this old reputation, whereas snowboarding was like skating. [Also, it turns out, Miyamoto had just gone skiing and therefore wanted a skiiing game.]
How big was the team?
Five, six people. It was tiny.
So it was a skunkworks thing, basically.
It was similar to how Splatoon was made nowadays. At the time they didn't really do things like that. The next thing like that would have been Pikmin.
1080 Snowboarding was a precursor in some ways to a lot of extreme sports games.
Jake [Kazdal, 17-bit founder, who's also at the hanami], at the same time, was working on Twisted Edge. I was convinced we were the first snowboarding game, but at the same time it turned out someone else was working on a snowboarding game.
What's your relationship with Nintendo like at the moment?
It's fine. The thing is, the Vitei Backroom - we're just about to release Paper Valley, which is this really cool paper plane thing. There are three other projects we're doing, it's really cool VR stuff - and I find that much more interesting than regurgitating stuff on the Switch, which is kind of the option you get with Nintendo nowadays. There are so many people - the Switch, as a piece of hardware, it's really cool. It's just that VR is more fun.
Has Nintendo changed that much since?
It's much the same. It did change a bit after Iwata-san passed away. Now it's very focussed on money. Iwata was adamant that their core philosophy should be on the game, not on the money. Now it's almost entirely the money, which does worry me a bit.
And what about you?
I want to move to Ishigaki. That's my home now. Being completely surrounded by nature, being by the sea. There may be a balance where I can commute. It's only a few hours away. It's a lot more real than Kyoto can be.
Vitei Backroom has just released Paper Valley, a VR game that's just as laidback as Giles himself, on the Oculus store. Thanks to Rich McCormick for helping facilitate the interview.