Shigeru Miyamoto’s Peter Pan effect

Peter Pan is the mythical figure who refused to grow up. To some, Shigeru Miyamoto is the game designer who invented the console genre, but refused to shift gears with the rest of the industry as it grew over the past 20 years.

Only those gamers in denial would say Nintendo hasn’t suffered from a “kiddie image.” It’s not completely accurate, but regardless public opinion has been set on this issue, as my trip to Toys R Us on Sunday to get a Wii has proven. “My son isn’t old enough for PS3 yet,” said a mother I spoke with, “Besides, Nintendo is designed more for kids anyway.” There was no malice in her voice, no fanboyism for PS3 or 360 — just common sense.

In an interview with Wired compiled over the past year, Miyamoto speaks about this public perception, and I can say he honestly wrestles with some inner demons about the decision to make or break games with more “adult” themes for the Wii. Is he helping or hurting the industry when Mario and Link make huge sales wins?

“He is not helping things,” says Seamus Blackley, the former head of Microsoft’s Xbox team who now runs the Capital Entertainment Group. Blackley is in Makuhari, Japan, on the final day of September’s Tokyo Games Show. He speaks for many game designers raised on Miyamoto’s innovations – developers who admire the master’s work but are desperate for something new. “At this point,” Blackley continues, “Miyamoto is making games for his fans. Granted, there are millions of them, and it’s smart business, but most are kids. He’s not opening up adult audiences. He’s reinforcing stereotypes about games, not pushing them to a place where they can become something different and truly awesome.”

This is where the Wii comes in. Sure, it sold 1 million consoles and won the early battles, but this is a five year fight. The $200 million marketing push needs to continue indefinitely, and the “Wii Sports Effect” — the high I’ve been riding for the past three days — needs to last.

That said, the numbers are hard to ignore. Super Mario Sunshine, a game I’ve never even seen let alone played (no lie), set a record when it launched for selling 350,000 copies in 10 days. Mario and Zelda are still sure things when it comes to fun and sales. But, the GTA’s of the world continue to sell, sell sell, and innovative gems like Pikmin don’t get the credit they deserve — possible, again, because they just aren’t accessible to old farts like the Infendo staff. Maybe I’m that guy who’s still holding onto his casssettes, unable to recognize the real value of progress through my own ruby-colored glasses.

People often talk about Grand Theft Auto,” Miyamoto says. “But I am not sure whether that sort of extreme subject matter is always appropriate. They also talk about the future of games being a kind of virtual reality. But I am not convinced that being more realistic makes better games.”

If thinking like Miyamoto is a sin these days, then call me the king of sinners.

I’ll be bringing the Wii home for Thanksgiving in a few days to surprise my family and neighbors. We’ll see what happens, and we’ll see if Miyamoto is crazy stupid, or crazy like a fox.