Tom Chick at the Miyamoto interview

The guy introducing Shigeru Miyamoto was a little too effusive. "There's always a lot of good energy in the room where Mr. Miyamoto is," he gushed as if he were talking about some bagwan rajneesh Himalayan yogi sort of guy, "he has a really great aura." Although Miyamoto does seem to radiate humility and talent, a lot of the 'aura' was just the quiet awe of the crowd assembled to hear him interviewed. Surprisingly, many of them weren't old enough to have had first-hand experience wtih most of Miyamoto's games.

Will Wright got up and gave a more official, and personal, introduction. Wright called him 'Miyamoto-san' and said he had a unique gift for building fun into the games he designs. "You can't specify or engineer fun. It's an ephemeral mist. The more you try to grab at it, the more diffuse it is."

Wright's right. There's something very zen in the art of game design: those who say don't know and those who know can't say. Miyamoto himself later suggested it as a quasi-Buddhist parable. Game design is like casting out a net to catch fun, he said, but when you're casting a net, there have to be fish to catch. I'm not sure I know what that means, but it's the voice of someone keenly aware that his line of work is fraught with intangibles.

The interview was conducted by Newsweek's N'Gai Croal, a paunchy man in a suit. Leaning back in a tall chair with a swath of dreadlocks pushing out of the top of his head, he looked like a cross between Jabba the Hutt and a predator gone to seed. He leisurely read questions from his Palm Pilot and then mugged like he was listening attentively while Miyamoto's translator spoke. He threw a lot of dull softballs ("What did your parents think of you wanting to become a game designer?") and some absolute duds ("Will you be making any educational games?"). But it didn't really matter; Miyamoto is a man who doesn't really need to be prompted.

Someone in the audience asked how important it is to have a good story in a game. Miyamoto confessed that he just focuses on gameplay. When asked what games he has liked recently, Miyamoto said he doesn't play many games these days. When he has free time he likes to make things with his hands, he said, pressing his fingers on the solid table in front of him. The inspiration for his latest game, Pikmin, came from working in his garden. In Pikmin, you play an astronaut cultivating a crop of brightly colored aliens. You plant them in the ground and they develop certain ablities, represented by a variety of leaves, buds, and flowers on their heads. You then lead your florid floral swarm to explore an alien world and gather trophies. Your little creatures lift their spoils like native bearers hoisting treasures, which are spirited back to your flying saucer. I don't know what the point of it is, but Pikmin is one of those rare games that I'm truly eager to play.

Miyamoto also spoke a little about Luigi's Castle, a far more conventional offering. Mario's brother runs around a haunted mansion with a flashlight/vacuum cleaner combo, shining his beam into dark corners and sucking up the ghosts he finds. Miyamoto says his team was getting tired of doing Mario games, so they decided to give Luigi a turn as a ghostbuster. Who you gonna call? The other Italian plumber...

Luigi's Castle doesn't show Miyamoto's distinctive touch quite so much as Pikmin. But Miyamoto confessed that he doesn't do much actual design these days, preferring to take a supervisory role over various projects (at one point, he fumbled for a moment trying to remember the name of the Gamecube). When asked which designers he admire, he was quick to choose the people doing games under his supervision.

A bit of trivia: I asked Miyamoto where the names 'Donkey Kong' and 'Zelda' came from. 'Kong' obviously implies a big ape, so that's easy enough. But 'Donkey'? Miyamoto said he had confused the word with 'ass', thinking it meant someone stupid. He assumed to an American audience, 'Donkey Kong' would clearly mean 'big stupid ape'. He said Nintendo laughed when he suggested the name, but it ultimately stuck. As for Zelda, I had wondered if it was perhaps a childhood sweetheart or maybe someone in his family. It was neither. Miyamoto said the development team was trying to give their heroine a name that sounded timeless and eternal. One of his writers came up with 'Zelda' as a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife. The rest, as they say, is history.

There were several questions about the new Metroid title and what's next for Mario, but Miyamoto deferred to whatever announcements will be made this summer at Spaceworld in Japan. He did hint that the next Mario title won't be geared quite so much towards children. The Gamecube was warmly received at this year's E3 -- CGW editor George Jones likened Nintendo's press conference to a revival meeting -- and Miyamoto is obviously buoyed by the enthusiasm. But he was quick to point out that he is not synonymous with Nintendo; there are many other titles and developers behind the Gamecube. Fair enough. But credit some of the enthusiasm for the contribution of Miyamoto's talent and insight. One of Microsoft's greatest challenge in their holiday showdown with Nintendo will be providing must-have titles for the Xbox along the lines of what Miyamoto is doing for the Gamecube.