RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK IS MY FAvorite movie," says Shigeru Miyamoto. "I take my hat off to Steven Spielberg!" And the Raiders director tips his to Miyamoto: Both Spielberg and Star Warrior George Lucas have made pilgrimages here to Kyoto, Japan's ancient cultural capital, to visit Miyamoto, 40, an outwardly unprepossessing employee of the Nintendo company.

Hollywood's most powerful Peter Pans journeyed to pay homage to a man whose inner child is even bigger than theirs. Miyamoto, after all, is the creator of Super Mario Bros., the video game that in various versions over the last eight years has sold 100 million copies worldwide. In the process, little mustachioed Mario the plumber has earned Nintendo billions of dollars and created a generation of vid kids. Nintendo game machines, which hook up to TV sets, are in one of every three American homes, and a growing number of kids around the world, some argue, know Mario better than Mickey Mouse.

So it is only fitting that Disney has turned the game into Super Mario Bros., the movie. In its first weekend, kids—and parents—anted up a healthy $8 million to cheer Bob Hoskins (playing Mario) and John Leguizamo (brother Luigi) as they scramble through an enchanted underworld of tunnels and pipes, leap over fireballs and elude dragons, all to rescue a princess (Samantha Ma-this). Miyamoto has screened the movie once. "I didn't understand it 100 percent because it was in English," he says.

As is the way with Japanese corporate employees, Miyamoto does not receive so much as an extra pinch of pixie dust from the Mario games, the movie, the lunch boxes, sheets, toys and fast-food tie-ins. He makes what he describes, vaguely, as a middle manager's salary. And this is all fine by him. "Nintendo allows me to create. I do not need anything other than that," he says in his cramped Kyoto office, which is stuffed with Mario toys, Mickey Mouse statues and a banjo (he is an accomplished blue-grass musician and big fan of the Beatles). "He is not specially treated at Nintendo," says Henk Rodgers, who heads BPS, an international game company. "But to me all he needs is a cape. Miyamoto is a superhero."

Although he is free of the stifling blue-suit conformity of most Japanese managers—he wears a Mickey Mouse watch and his hair is shaggy—in many ways Miyamoto is contentedly ordinary. He bicycles the less-than-a-mile distance to work and shares his tiny five-room home (he calls it a "rabbit hutch"") with wife Yasuko, 36, a former Nintendo office worker, son Ray, 7, and daughter Lui, 5. In fact, the imagination that created Mario was kindled in such surroundings. Growing up in Kyoto, one of three children of Hideo, an English teacher, and Yasuko, a housewife, Shigeru would daydream that he was sick enough to be hospitalized, but well enough to sketch cartoon characters nonstop. "I could draw for a month!" he says, smiling at the memory. His first love had been puppetry, but he became obsessed with animation at age 11, after his father bought the family a television and Shigeru got hooked on Japanese superheroes.

After graduating from the Kanazawa Municipal College of Industrial Arts and Crafts in 1977, the 24-year-old Miyamoto was the first staff artist ever hired by Nintendo, a century-old playing-card company that was breaking into the new market for electronic video games. By 1981, Miyamoto, who had loved playing arcade games in college, created Donkey Kong, which, in a striking departure from the zip! zap! kaboom! of competitors, was modeled on Beauty and the Beast—with a smidgen of King Kong. (The tragedy of the Eighth Wonder of the World ape is one of his favorite stories.) Then Nintendo chiefs asked him to create a game for the next big innovation, the home computer. The result, in 1985, was big-nosed Mario, a character who tapped the most elemental feelings of childhood. The endless unfolding of passageways of the game, Miyamoto has said, were influenced by memories of the sliding doors in his parents' home, and he associates the shadowy blackness of Mario's subterranean world with the cool air of a cave he explored as a boy. "Because of the darkness you have fear, and this heightens your feelings, and the fear becomes part of your joy of discovery," he says. "Discovering things brings a certain kind of high." Indeed, but Miyamoto is still perplexed over Mario's popularity. "People must just like him," he says. "He's an average guy."

As one child respecting another, Miyamoto never tries out his video ideas on his kids, who are allowed to play Nintendo a mere two hours a day, "unless it's raining outside, and then I let them play longer." Of his own skill with a joystick, Miyamoto says, "I'm better than most adults, but I'm just an average player compared to kids." Still, engrossed now in the challenge of taking electronic games to the next level of interactive video, there is no one more dedicated, more eager to play, more determined to score, than Miyamoto himself. "Two or three times a month," he says, "I wake up and think, I must make something better than Mario today.' "

TOM GLIATTO
KIMBERLY AYLWARD in Kyoto

  • Contributors:
  • Kimberly Aylward.