Role: Character Designer/Art Director/Director
Association: Nintendo EAD Production Department
The likes of Takashi Tezuka, Katsuya Eguchi and of course, Shigeru Miyamoto, are world-renowned for their roles as designers, producers and directors at Nintendo, acting as the leadership, and in some cases, the driving force behind the teams working on many a high profile title. Of course, these big industry names aren’t the only key players in Nintendo’s arsenal of highly capable staff members, with many young talents and important contributors to the company’s biggest titles often sorely overlooked. However, in one of the most interesting and experimental moves made by the company in years, the introduction of the internal ‘Garage’ initiative, which gives younger developers the opportunity to express their unique ideas that could potentially become the next great Nintendo franchise – one such example of the fruits of this new program that has already come about is the multi award-winning Splatoon, a distinctly Nintendo-style reinvention of the multiplayer shooter that has spawned not only Nintendo’s newest successful IP (selling over 4 million copies worldwide by the end of 2015), but something of a cultural phenomenon in its fiercely dedicated fanbase and the almost instant adoption of its characters as some of Nintendo’s most beloved.
The staff members who make up the teams behind the likes of Splatoon are crucial to Nintendo’s development as a company, serving as the next generation of creators who will alter the direction of the company going into the future, and one day potentially take up the reigns as some of the most important figures in the industry, much like the current veteran staff members are today. The Garage initiative has done a great job at throwing a much deserved spotlight onto some of Nintendo’s up-and-coming creators, with presumably more games yet to be seen, but today we’ll be focusing on one staff member in particular who, despite having a well-rounded portfolio with Nintendo since joining in 2004, has only recently come to light through embarking on his biggest project yet as the co-director of Splatoon – Tsubasa Sakaguchi.
In a company with such an established history and hierarchy as Nintendo, it would be easy to expect that new employees would be forced to work their way up from the bottom, only the most talented breaking through into the most important roles. However, for Sakaguchi, this was not the case. Having studied graphic design before joining Nintendo in 2004, the young designer would find his first assignment to be a particularly major one – working as a character designer on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. A lot was riding on the graphical aspect of Twilight Princess, its darker visual style heavily influenced by fan backlash to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker‘s cell-shaded, cartoony look, making this quite the undertaking for a newcomer to Nintendo. However, the notably quirky, diverse, at times even slightly unnerving but wholly memorable appearances of the many faces that make up the population of Twilight Princess’s Hyrule serve testament to the fact that this fiendish task was handled with a great approach by Sakaguchi, his designs helping to complete the eery, murky world of the game that differed greatly from not only any Zelda game, but any Nintendo game before it.
Carrying out this massive undertaking by providing a well-received response to the hunger of Zelda fans itching for a more ‘mature’-looking experience, Sakaguchi had firmly proved both his competence and individuality as a designer. With Twilight Princess going on to sell roughly six million copies across two different platforms (not to mention the game eventually receiving a recent HD remake for Wii U), the first project with the young designer’s involvement could certainly be described as a success, but surprisingly Sakaguchi wouldn’t fulfil the character designing role on another title until 2009. In the meantime, games released under Nintendo’s new ‘Touch! Generations’ label, which targeted new players with a more casual experience in the hope of expanding gaming to a much wider audience, including Big Brain Academy for Wii, Wii Fit and Wii Sports Resort, would benefit from Sakaguchi’s graphic design talents, honed at university and now put to work creating interface and other screen-related elements for some of the company’s key releases. With the likes of Wii Fit in particular, which are heavily aimed at an audience who wouldn’t normally approach video games, the interface plays a more crucial part than some would recognise; simplicity, accessibility and ease of use are a necessity to ensure an experience that can be enjoyed by anyone, and Sakaguchi’s success in providing this is arguably a factor in many of these titles coming amongst the best-selling titles released on the Wii, as well as contributing to the console’s overall appeal to a new audience with fresh new experiences.
Sakaguchi’s keen ability to construct accessible interfaces likely played a great role in his appointment as a designer on the 3DS’s menus. Taking many visual cues from what could be considered Nintendo’s company house style following the launch of Wii, as well as following on from the icon-based layout formats made familiar to a wider audience by smartphones and exclusively in Nintendo’s case, the DSi, which expanded upon the original DS with downloadable software and applications. These subtle but important elements of the system’s design, which have been expanded on and improved over time, have helped to shape the console’s identity, and likely will hold influence over future iterations of Nintendo’s console menus. Despite being a relative newcomer to the company in comparison to long time staff responsible for hardware design, Sakaguchi has helped to capture a distinctly ‘Nintendo-like’ feel and quality in everything from the menu icons to the way on-screen buttons indent when pressed. By this point, Sakaguchi had already left a significant mark on Nintendo’s legacy, but for the designer now supported by a very impressive portfolio, the best was yet to come.
Come 2009, Sakaguchi would return to character design on Wii Fit Plus, an admittedly minor role considering the nature of the title in question, but one that would go on to leave a much larger impression on Nintendo fans through the surprise inclusion of the fitness trainer from Wii Fit in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS/Wii U, as well as the inclusion of other visual elements from the Wii Fit series, some of which can no doubt be credited to Sakaguchi. In 2012, a perhaps underrated but significant example of Sakaguchi’s work would go on to play an important role in the release of Nintendo’s new system, the Wii U; Sakaguchi would oversee the art direction of pack-in party title Nintendo Land as art director, responsible for, as he put it in an Iwata Asks interview about the game, “the overall visuals and creating the atmosphere” for the game. Accompanied by a quirky yet charming soundtrack from Ryo Nagamatsu, Sakaguchi’s visual style for the game, which utilised an almost handmade look, worked fantastically to create the impression of a real Nintendo theme park, as well as proving to be an effective demonstration of how Nintendo would be utilising their newfound power of HD graphics. Playfully realistic mechanical structures assembled with defined fixings, fabric surfaces with an imaginable softness, detailed down to the very stitch-work holding the worlds of Pikmin Adventure and The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest together, as well as many other small visual and material flourishes spread throughout the game’s diverse environments truly do create a unique and appealing atmosphere for the game that becomes a huge part of the experience.
In a short time Sakaguchi’s career had come relatively far; involved in a number of big projects and having left his mark across a number of platforms, his work, perhaps unnoticed by many, had already played a crucial role in bringing about some incredibly memorable Nintendo experiences. However, it would be Sakaguchi’s third Wii U project (after working on Nintendo Land, he filled the role of character designer on 2013’s ‘Year of Luigi’ DLC New Super Luigi U), created together with his fellow young and creative Nintendo staff through the aforementioned Garage initiative, that would undoubtedly be his most significant, and perhaps the one that will project his career at the company to new heights. The first full game to emerge from the new program, Splatoon, is an important title in Nintendo’s recent history for a number of reasons. It’s hard not to be impressed by the fact that despite being a brand new IP in Nintendo’s lineup, Splatoon has already gone on to become something of a cultural phenomenon both in Japan and the west, spawning masses of merchandise unlike anything seen from a brand new Nintendo series before, an avid community of both players and creatives who quickly filled the web with artwork and other fan creations soon after the game’s unveiling at E3 2014, as well as highly publicised promotion in some unlikely forms, including a live concert featuring music from the game, as well as a cross-promotion with an entire prefecture of Japan.
Many elements of Splatoon‘s design carry the obvious signs that a fresh set of minds was behind their creation, albeit minds who are thoroughly in-touch with what makes Nintendo games so special. Whilst offering a particularly individual approach to the genre, Splatoon marks a rare Nintendo foray into shooting games, something they largely steered clear of during the Wii era and its family-focused marketing approach. Taking a highly competitive, multiplayer-focused style of game but with unique gameplay twists that set it apart from the crowd such as the ability to transform from human to squid form (a crucial part of the game’s formula, as well as an idea conceived by Sakaguchi) Splatoon‘s territory control-focused action is simple yet wholly effective in creating an experience unlike any other, and one that appeals to a wide range of players, young and old, and perhaps most importantly, those looking for fierce competitive battles as well as those looking for more casual fun.
Splatoon also stands out remarkably through its visual style. Whilst bright colours and well-designed, memorable characters are hardly a Nintendo first, a heavy focus on elements of customisation over the human-squid ‘Inklings’ that make up the game’s playable characters, gives players a chance to stamp their own sense of individuality on their digital avatar, something which meshes remarkably well with the game’s themes and style. Players are presented with almost 300 different pieces of clothing, headwear and footwear which can improve their Inkling’s battle stats, as well as give them a unique style to help them stand out in the game’s ‘Inkopolis’ hub. The game’s wearable items are particularly stylish, with a wide range of available street-wear intended to invoke a “cool and rebellious” feeling (something that also influenced the game’s rock music soundtrack, according to an Iwata Asks interview with some of the team, including co-director Sakaguchi) that helps to give this game a new and original sense of identity, something no doubt in part due to the effects of a younger team. With his work on Twilight Princess and Nintendo Land standing testament, it’s clear that Sakaguchi and his team are no strangers to creating both concepts and aesthetics for games that, whilst at times bizarre and unexpected, are charming in unique and inventive ways.
In some ways, Splatoon marks the beginning of a possible new era for Nintendo. Many are hopeful that the successful introduction of a new major IP supported with a huge marketing push may see Nintendo choose to follow this route again in the near future, especially with their upcoming system, codenamed NX. Perhaps there is hope that the company will return to the experimental yet consistent approach to games design they are fondly known for maintaining during the Nintendo 64 and GameCube eras and if this is the case, it is no doubt that young, creative producers, developers and designers such as Sakaguchi will lead the charge, bringing fresh perspectives and new ideas to the company.
Sakaguchi himself has already stood testament to the new approach being seen amongst Nintendo’s next generation of talent. He has made a number of public appearances and taken great effort in engaging with fans, appearing in a number of interview and gameplay videos in the run-up to Splatoon‘s release, including alongside fellow Splatoon staff members producer Hisashi Nogami and co-director Yusuke Amano in Nintendo’s 2014 Digital Event and tackling questions posed by younger fans of the game in an interview with FamilyGamerTV. He has also notably taken part in some lighthearted content to help promote the game and Nintendo in general, such as taking a sushi making class with EuroGamer’s Chris Bratt and posing as an amiibo figurine in the video linked above (I won’t spoil which one he’s supposed to be, but it’s definitely worth a look if you like the idea of Nintendo employees pulling their character’s unnatural poses!). This highly positive attitude towards engaging with fans can be seen to continue into Splatoon itself, with regular post-release updates taking fan feedback into account to make various improvements and additions to content and gameplay, an area of the game that has received particularly high praise, as well as highlighting an evolving change in Nintendo’s stance towards DLC and game updates in recent times, free or otherwise.
With his first time working in the director’s role a resounding success (not to mention the birth of a beloved IP that is likely to see more action in the future), it’s undoubted that Tsubasa Sakaguchi has a long and exciting career ahead of him at Nintendo. On the cusp of a new hardware reveal and at a time where Nintendo are in constant need of fresh ideas and innovative mindsets to stand apart from the crowd and continue producing quality software, it will be more than interesting to see which direction Sakaguchi’s next project will take him and how he will bring his contemporary design mindset to future titles.