Shigeru Miyamoto is tired. Jetlag is partly to blame – the 11-hour flight from his hometown Kyoto to Paris, combined with a day's worth of interviews with journalists eager to pull headlines from his lips, accentuating the bags under his eyes. But it's more than that.
This November, Super Mario's father turns 60. Having spent over half of his life working at Nintendo (his first and only job) on more than 100 games, a little vocational weariness is inevitable.
But it's more than that. The pause before he answers is borne from somewhere deeper than the fug of travel exhaustion or the fatigued plod toward retirement. While his face remains composed, there's an internal scrabbling for an acceptable answer to the question.
Eventually, a sharp intake of breath and a smile. "I still play video games because I still make video games, of course," he says, before adding: "Just playing the stuff I make myself keeps me very busy."
He looks down.
Miyamoto may not have fathered the video game medium, but perhaps more than anyone else, he has been responsible for raising it.
From his first unexpected success with Donkey Kong, a game designed to shift 2000 Radardscope arcade cabinets sitting unsold in Nintendo warehouses in 1981, through the creation of multiple multi-million selling series based around characters of his own design, Miyamoto has stayed abreast of every generational leap in technology in a way not one of his contemporaries has managed.
The iconography of Mario
For more than 20 years his most famous work, Super Mario Bros. remained the best-selling video game, selling more than 40m copies worldwide and popularising a character who, by the 1990s, had become more recognisable among American schoolchildren than Mickey Mouse.
Mario's iconography came to define the medium in popular culture: the red splash of his plumber's costume; the unfashionable cap and moustache; Koji Kondo's irrepressibly joyful theme tune; the squat, shifty-eyed Goombas; and the spike-backed kidnapper, Bowser. There was a rude surplus of ideas behind the pixels which, combined, continue to represent video-gameness to so much of the world.
Beyond the recurring play myths he originated – Donkey Kong, Zelda, Mario – Miyamoto was the first to master not only the technological transition from 2D to 3D graphics with his seminal titles Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but also the accompanying creative transition in game systems and mechanics this dimensional expansion brought with it.
Then, in more recent years, his hand on Nintendo's visionary tiller brought motion control to the masses by way of Wii Sports and Wii Fit, titles that broadened both the definition of games as well as the audience that consumes them.
Miyamoto was honoured as the first inductee in to the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1998 and is the only video game designer to have been knighted into France's Order of Arts and Letters. If the esteem in which he is still held in was in any doubt, just four years ago he placed first in the Time Magazine reader choice of the world's 100 most influential people.
As such, to hear this visionary say that he only plays video games because he makes them is jarring. Surely his love for the medium he has spent a lifetime working to shape and define is more than just a job? Surely.
"Could it be that you might not play games if you didn't create them," I venture.
Again, the long pause; a quiet search for an answer already sat on his tongue:
"It could be that … I might not be playing games."
Could it be that Shigeru Miyamoto is tired with video games?
More spokesman than creative genius?
"The thing with Shigeru Miyamoto is that you think you're meeting Walt Disney when, in reality, you're meeting Mickey Mouse."
I had shrugged off my journalist friend's sharp warning that Mario's maker can be something of corporate mouthpiece in interviews these days. But now, sat opposite him in the plushest hotel room in Paris that yen can buy, this diminutive designer, producer and director appears more spokesman than creative genius.
It's partly understandable. He's here to promote Nintendo's latest project, an interactive guidebook on 3DS for visitors to the Louvre museum – an app, if you will, not a game.
Instead of a Walkman or iPod with spoken notes delivered as you strain to see the Mona Lisa, now visitors can rent Nintendo's latest handheld, offering 700 commentaries about the artworks and a real-time map to show your position in the museum.
It's a gimmicky idea but a well-executed one, designed to show off some of the 3DS's lesser-known features to the general public and, no doubt, help drive sales for a handheld whose sales have been generally underwhelming.
But my interest lies in Miyamoto's game work, not his promotional role in quirky tour guides. This doesn't stop him from working the Louvre guide into every other answer, with quietly cheeky stubbornness.
Miyamoto's dedication to remain unflinchingly on-message reflects his unusual position in the company. Fusajiro Yamauchi may have established the Marufuku Company in 1889, the company that would shortly thereafter become the Nintendo Playing Card Company, but without Miyamoto the Nintendo of today would not exist.
It's from his creative heart that Nintendo's brand, mascots and most valuable game series have sprouted. Miyamoto is inseparable from contemporary Nintendo and Nintendo is inseparable from contemporary Miyamoto.
And whenever a creative becomes synonymous with a corporation, there's a danger that creative pursuit slips into corporate concern, especially when business falls upon tough times. Indeed, it's easy to forget that Miyamoto's current job title is "general manager", a role that belies his expertise, inferring generalist, unspecified supervision.
A day in the life
So just how much input does the one-time artist and designer have in Nintendo's creative output? What does a day in the life of Miyamoto look like in 2012?
"My days all follow much the same pattern," he says. "They are structured and typical. Roughly half of my time I spend checking new games that Nintendo's directors are working on.
"I sit at my desk, play their games and create checklists of comments and amends that I then send out to the directors. Then, the rest of my time is spent attending various meetings, talking about management decisions for the general business direction of Nintendo."
This split of Miyamoto's time clearly reflects the split in his professional responsibility: half to the company's creative output and half to the company's corporate future. I wonder if he misses spending the majority of his time creating?
"Not at all; the decreased workload allows me to do new projects like the audio guide," he replies, with typical Japanese diplomacy. "But I am still very close to the game development. Although I am not a director myself I do check all of our games and discuss them over email. I visit Nintendo's Tokyo EAD team every few weeks too, so I don't really feel detached from the game side of the business."
Miyamoto's schedule may still be demanding, including a significant amount of foreign travel to promote Nintendo games as well as his monthly trips to Tokyo, but there is a sense that, as he approaches 60, he is winding down, stepping aside to allow others to carry the creative flame.
The most recent Super Mario and Zelda titles have credited him as "general producer" with direction and design duties falling to others, most notably Koichi Hayashida, director of Super Mario Galaxy 2 and, more recently, Super Mario 3D Land.
I ask him how he has been working to ensure that there are artists and designers to take his place when he retires, a question that is greeted with a gently frantic response.
"There have been numerous media reports that I am about to retire and I very much want to emphasise that this is not the case." This eagerness to dismiss his (inevitable) retirement plans is understandable.
When a video game blog recently claimed he was looking to retire soon, Nintendo's stock price fell the same day – a further indication of just how closely Nintendo's fortunes are perceived to be dependent on his involvement.
"I believe that if I remain in the same position as a leader of the development teams within Nintendo, then the entire structure will grow or revolve around me," Miyamoto says. "I've certainly seen there are other people within EAD that have the potential to be leaders.
"I wanted to give these people a chance to lead their respective teams. When I said in the press that I would step back a little I was just saying I want to support the company from the side, rather than being front and centre all of the time."
'We don't usually hire game designers'
Despite this eagerness to push others to the fore, Nintendo's recent unwillingness to stray far from characters and series first developed by Miyamoto is worrying.
Without risk-taking at a managerial level, surely there's little creative soil from which the next Miyamoto may emerge and flourish.
Nintendo EAD has always had the air of myth about it, a Chocolate Factory for games – the handful of journalists who have visited the Kyoto or Tokyo premises rarely see anything more than the lobby and a meeting room separate from the machinery of game development – with Miyamoto a subdued Willy Wonka.
With this in mind, I ask him how he spots new talent when hiring.
"We don't usually hire game designers," he says. "We almost exclusively hire artists or programmers; people who have learnt a technique and have a basis that we start with. Recently we have hired a few game designers, but generally they have already had careers in other companies and then joined us. But we hire a lot of people out of university. They bring basic knowledge and we start from there."
A love of discovery and adventure
This was certainly Miyamoto's own route into the industry. Born and raised in the 1950s in the rural town of Sonebe, near Japan's ancient capital, Kyoto, Miyamoto was a short, unassuming boy.
With no television in the family home he relied on the natural world outside for excitement, spending countless hours exploring the woods, caves and riverbanks near his house.
It was here he fostered the love of discovery and these childhood adventures inspired his games, a local chained-up barking dog making an appearance as the Chain Chomp enemy in Super Mario Brothers 3 and his beloved caves appearing throughout the Zelda series, myths that appear to grow in the retelling.
Graduating with a degree in industrial design in the mid-1970s, Miyamoto's father asked an old friend – Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of the toymaker Nintendo –whether he had any jobs available for his son.
Miyamoto's first task at the company was to design art for the outside panels of some arcade cabinets Nintendo was working on: Radarscope and Sheriff. Two years later Yamauchi called Miyamoto into his office and asked him if he'd like to design an arcade game.
Miyamoto jumped at the chance, drawing the game's characters on square paper, each block representing a single pixel on the screen, calling the resulting game Donkey Kong: "Donkey", as a synonym for "stubborn" and "Kong" for gorilla.
Is there a difference between the kind of designer that started in art, like Miyamoto (who is ambidextrous – both Mario and Link were designed with his left-hand), to one who started in programming, I wonder?
"I don't think there is a big difference," he says. "Obviously people from artist or programmer backgrounds have to work together soon enough. So I think there are two key characteristics: a positive attitude towards new things, and someone who doesn't easily give up in the face of problems or criticism. That's what I look for in a new hire."
In Part 2 tomorrow, Simon talks to Miyamoto about the troubled launch for the Nintendo 3DS and the future of the handheld market.