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History Lesson: Yoshiaki Koizumi

Nintendo's unsung hero...

Although he's perhaps the least well-known of all the individuals we've featured in our History Lessons so far, one look at Yoshiaki Koizumi's CV would make you wonder why.

He may not be a household name like Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma, but his output has arguably played as crucial a part in Nintendo's success over the past 20 years.

Koizumi's original ambition was to become a film-maker, having graduated from the Osaka University of Arts. However, after playing Super Mario Bros, he began to consider the storytelling possibilities of videogames, feeling they gave him a way to create dramatic scenarios in a manner that wouldn't be possible in a non-interactive medium like cinema.

"I entered Nintendo in 1991, the year after Super Mario World came out," he remembered. "I wasn't hired to make games but was in charge of drawing illustrations for game packaging and instruction manuals."

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His first test as an artist was to illustrate the manual for The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past. As the game came together, Koizumi realised that plot was taking a backseat.

Soon he was heavily involved in the game's script. A brief stint back in the artist's chair followed as Koizumi contributed scribblings to the original Super Mario Kart, before writing the story for Link's first handheld adventure.

Link's Awakening was the first of several scripting jobs for Koizumi, who contributed to the narrative of Majora's Mask, and wrote Rosalina's storybook in Super Mario Galaxy. "For a long time, it really felt like telling a story in a Mario game was something that wasn't allowed," said Koizumi in a 2007 interview, recalling how he wrote the backstory of the celestial mother and her Lumas overnight without anyone knowing.

This kind of clandestine composition wasn't new to Koizumi, who had met resistance to his love of introducing narrative into games before. "I would sort of try to find sneaky ways to get [story elements] in without them noticing too much. These are aspects of the games that Miyamoto wasn't nearly as fond of, and occasionally didn't like."

In fact, Koizumi was headstrong enough not to listen to instructions from Miyamoto, who wanted a first-person Zelda for Ocarina Of Time. "I knew that displaying a character constantly running around on a large field would be incredibly difficult," remembered Koizumi. "But, while it wasn't very nice of me toward Miyamoto-san, I didn't try a first-person scene even once!"

By that time, Koizumi had acquired yet another skill. "As a private hobby, I had imported a computer called Amiga, known for its advanced graphics, and at home I would work away at 3D modelling and animation, and I would show it to Miyamoto-san. Then before I knew it I was in charge of model animation for the player character in Mario 64."

After the success of Mario's debut 3D outing, it was Link's turn to benefit from Koizumi's magic touch. A visit to Toei Kyoto Studio Park, a film studio that allowed visitors to see period drama sets and shows, led Koizumi to one of his most significant creations: Ocarina Of Time's Z-targeting. Having watched a show in which a hero defeats multiple opponents, he began to think how such a situation could be recreated in videogame form.

"It's a sword battle, so there's a script and a certain set-up. The enemies don't all attack at once," he says. "First, one attacks while the others wait. When the first guy goes down, the next one steps in, and so on. One thing I had been trying to figure out with regard to Z-targeting was how to fight multiple enemies.

"If I just made it like normal, the enemies would swarm the player all at once, so it would be a mess. Watching [shows using this kind of battle] at the studio park was a clue toward solving that problem. Z-targeting flags one opponent, telling the other enemies to wait."

Koizumi's ingenuity on Ocarina and Majora's Mask (it was he who conceived the three-day cycle) earned him a promotion to director for Super Mario Sunshine. Next came bongo-bashing beauty Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, which - along with a certain famous demo1 - paved the way for Koizumi to direct Super Mario Galaxy.

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"It was during the GameCube presentation event, where we revealed a demo software called Mario 128," says Koizumi. "I was the director of that demo. After that event, I kept thinking of ways of somehow turning that system, used in Mario 128, into a product. However, I had always thought that realising this would be close to impossible."

Thankfully, Galaxy's spherical planetoids proved an entirely surmountable obstacle for Koizumi's team at EAD Tokyo, which, storybook and all, set a high-water mark for Wii games - one only topped by the Koizumi-produced sequel.

This time, however, Miyamoto got his way with the narrative and a streamlined story won out. "There was a time that I just didn't budge no matter what he did," says Koizumi, "and I finally budged when he said to me, 'Trust what the old guy says'!"

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