Designer Spotlight: Masahiro Sakurai

Competition is the source of fun in video games. Deciding the winner and loser in a face-off, fighting enemy characters, comparing your progress in a game with your friend’s, or trying to beat the high score of another player you’ve never even seen before are all competition. While there’s no doubt that competition makes games fun, how you perceive losing depends on the person. For example, as a game designer you cannot ignore the fact players who have an unpleasant experience where they lose may begin to dislike, or tire of, your game. Even if that isn’t the case, in a game where multiple people compete, only one person can enjoy the fruits of victory, while the other players don’t have fun. This isn’t a happy experience. If people are going to play a game, I want them to all be happy! Is thinking this way being too greedy?

– Masahiro Sakurai, Famitsu, April 25, 2003, Vol. 3 ( as reproduced in <em>Think About the Video Games</em> )

I would never presume to sum up the eclectic career of video game director Masahiro Sakurai in one image, but if I had to it might be this one, a screenshot of the main menu for Kirby Super Star:


Aside from highlighting Sakurai’s love of menus (he’s written articles about them for the magazine Famitsu, and his wife designs them for all his games since Super Smash Bros. Brawl), it shows more than almost anything else his love of variety and acessibility. Most of these modes and others not even unlocked are not accessible from the beginning of Super Star, but the game provides and highlights the variety of ways in which you can approach it. You get easier modes from the start, unlocking more challenging content over time, but every mode gets the end credits so “beating” it does not require any kind of high skill level. It’s a noticeably friendly, unassuming layout, with big icons that give a fun indication of what to expect. The later, harder modes are positioned and colored in a way that’s clear, and its all organized on a cute cork board.

This has been the cornerstone of Sakurai’s artistic process as a video game director, a steadfast belief in variety and catering to the needs and tastes of diverse audiences. From his early days as a programmer at the Nintendo subsidiary HAL Laboratories to his current job, freelancing for the same video game giant in his managerial studio Sora, Ltd., this commitment to inexperienced players, inviting formal design, and systems based around experimentation has stayed firm. He’s a bit of a paradox: a man so hardcore he can play three of his his Super Smash Bros. characters at the same time and gave himself extreme carpal tunnel syndrome from the hundreds of hours of play-testing he’s done over his career, but also one primarily interested in players who will never want to even be near that level of intensity or investment.

Almost all of Sakurai’s surprisingly few credits have been as a director, and his debut in the role set the stage. 1992’s Kirby’s Dream Land introduced Kirby, the adorable spritely puffball who’s since become a Nintendo icon, and along with him saw the beginning of Sakurai’s design philosophy. While most developers were creating more “hardcore” titles for committed players, Sakurai was invested in creating something for unskilled newcomers. The result is a very easy platform game in which the character has an infinite number of jumps, can dispatch enemies by inhaling them, and consumes food for powers. While a hidden game mode dramatically increases the difficulty, players looking for a challenge can also set their own level – or simply the way they play – by creating their own limitations. It’s small compared to his later works, but with a pleasant, soft art style that was a counteragent to the harsher, edgier designs of the time.


Dream Land is also important for another reason; Sakurai co-directed it with programming wunderkind Satoru Iwata. Iwata would become president of HAL, and later Nintendo, and many of his greatest successes were with games that followed their precedent on Dream Land and emphasized players outside the “gamer” demographic. During all of this, he remained Sakurai’s close friend and colleague (at Iwata’s funeral in 2015, Sakurai was given seating alongside the family), and almost every game Sakurai made had Iwata working with him in some capacity, even if just a producer. In the meantime, Kirby exploded early on to become one of the staple SNES franchises, with HAL producing a number of spinoff games without Sakurai’s involvement.

These emphases on accessibility, choice, and keeping less committed players in mind has remained central to Sakurai’s work, and they expanded in his two successive Kirby games. Kirby’s Adventure in 1993 was one of the last titles released on the NES (two years after the release of its successor, the Super Nintendo), and it carries all the collective experience that had been developed during its life cycle. It’s a beautiful, fun game which expanded on its predecessors ideas, inventing a system in which Kirby could copy the powers of certain enemies. This only furthered player choice, an idea Kirby Super Starcontinued in 1996. Its selling point was an “eight games in one” design doling out successive, harder, and more elaborate scenarios. It also exposed Sakurai’s love of cinematic presentation, with the standout “Revenge of Meta Knight” sequence turning the game into a fast, dramatic action film; Kirby has to board, disable, and crash a giant flying battleship under a time limit. He experimented with fun cutscenes in Adventure, but the animations, character dialogue, and plotting betray an interest in narrative construction.

After this, though, Sakurai’s interest in Kirby waned. He and Iwata – who by this point was HAL’s President, though still programming – started work on HAL’s first Nintendo 64 game, a 3D fighter aimed at casual players codenamed “Dragon King: the Fighting Game” (named not for any premise, but the Yamanashi Prefecture neighborhood their office was located). He struggled to find a tone to best present this friendlier game, especially with HAL allotting a little over a year for development, and hit on the idea of using recognizable Nintendo icons who were unconnected to the competitive fighting game scene. The two developed it in secret, only getting permission from Mario and Zeldacreator Shigeru Miyamoto after showing a demo with Mario, Donkey Kong, Fox from Star Fox, and Samus from Metroid. Despite the shoestring budget and a surprisingly hard to market premise – the idea of a Nintendo-branded casual fighting game was anathema at the time – 1999’s Super Smash Bros. became a sleeper hit in Japan, and soon after was localized to similar acclaim. It was a number of factors: iconography and popularity (including Pikachu and Jigglypuff right as Pokémon had permeated the culture most intensely didn’t hurt), a unique system in which players try to toss each other off a floating arena instead of cutting down a health meter, and demented four-player matches. The series was, and remains, a perfect party game, with all sorts of wild items and powers and settings for anyone to pick up and enjoy.


By the time the sequel Super Smash Bros. Melee started development soon afterwards, it was already a known quantity. While it came out in 2001 to tremendous acclaim and remains a beloved presence in competitive eSports up until today, the actual development was a grueling experience for Sakurai. The thirteen months of work demanded an involvement that hurt his physical health, and even still the game needed Iwata at the eleventh hour to debug the game, just before he became President and CEO of Nintendo. The game is far closer to the image of Smash people have in their heads than the more stylistically bizarre original, with a glut of content, a “light gritty” aesthetic, and hundreds of collectible trophies of characters from Nintendo’s history. It’s also where the Kirby inspiration from the original game can be seen more extensively, with entire game modes and character moves lifted from the series – not even counting Kirby himself, who has been a staple of the series since the first game.

That fatigue, however, appeared to lead to the end. Sakurai directed the wonderful 2002 racer Kirby Air Ride, which had innovations like accessible gameplay centered around a single button, a “Checklist” box of rewards preceding modern achievement systems and to which he’d return again and again, and a “City Trial” mode in which players explore an urban space to gather powers for a final race. He also directed the mostly forgettable Adventureremake Nightmare in Dream Land, lent his voice to his character’s archenemy King Dedede in Kirby 64: the Crystal Shards (and reprised the role for future Smash games), and produced for the Kirby anime Right Back at Ya! However, his disinterest only worsened further, burnt out by a career and business model made of seemingly nothing but sequels, as well as Melee‘s arduous development. In 2003 he quit HAL and went indie, forming his one-person studio Sora, Ltd. two years later.

Unlike other developers who move to the independent scene, Sakurai imagined himself as a freelance directorial contractor, making games for other companies but free from internal politics. In 2005 he helped design Meteos, a frenetic puzzle game inspired by 24 and The Matrix about firing stacks of blocks to fight off alien invaders, but he inevitably returned to old territory. After being offered to develop a third Smash game by Iwata, Sakurai put together a team of freelancers and HAL staffers to create Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii, a three year process that led to the most lucrative (and among competitive fans, controversial for its aggressive emphasis on casual play and random elements) iteration of the series. It featured a poor stab at online play hampered by Nintendo’s many issues with online interactivity, a massive story mode and 39 character cast, left field ideas like a coin-operated shooter and stage builder, but likely the most important element was its look to outside Nintendo – and not just in design. Mario’s old rival Sonic the Hedgehog and Metal Gear hero Solid Snake joined the cast, the latter being a request from series creator (and Sakurai’s friend) Hideo Kojima. While Sonic’s inclusion was a fan dream that delayed development by a year due to Sega denying Sakurai’s request to include him before agreeing to it over a year later, Snake was far more exciting. Having the armed, grenade wielding soldier of a violent, operatic war thriller show up alongside – and get beaten up by – Yoshi or R.O.B. the Robot created the thrill that anyone could be in this kind of game.


That element of surprise and excitement isn’t really central to Sakurai’s ethos as a designer, but it’s fundamental to his work as a promoter. He’s the primary marketing engine for his own games, and most fans of his know him in this role. “SAKURAI,” to them (sometimes with exclamation marks, often misspelled), is a trolling, capricious sprite, a youthful 46-year-old who doles out gifts and indulges seemingly random ideas on a whim. Ever since developing a Japanese-only website for the first Smash game to help illustrate its at the time unintuitive controls and gameplay, he’s made websites and daily blogs central to advertising. The slow trickle of information, coupled with Sakurai’s often silly affect , generates excitement to an extent that’s rare even for games with vastly better sales.

Right before Brawl was released, Iwata asked Sakurai to develop a title for a new Nintendo machine, whose signature gimmick was the ability to present images in stereoscopic 3D. Sakurai saw the technology as suited for shooting, and imagined a mechanically unique action game that mixed a number of shooter types, such as bullet hell, rail games, and third person shooters. Like with Smash , he initially conceived it as an original game before deciding to work on an obscure Nintendo property, settling on the NES classic Kid Icarus. It made sense; he included a drastically redesigned version of the game’s hero Pit in Brawl, the idea of a winged angel hero easily conveyed the equal importance of flying and grounded movement, and its lack of contemporary relevance – outside a forgotten Game Boy sequel, it had been left alone for a quarter century – allowed him to twist its odd Greek mythological inspiration and incomprehensible silliness in any direction he wanted.


Focusing on 2012’s Kid Icarus: Uprising to the extent I am is admittedly somewhat odd; the game is tremendously flawed. It’s the first of two times Sakurai’s typically grand ambition truly escaped his grasp (the other being his very next 3DS game), with a painful and irritating control scheme hard even for experts to handle. At the same time I can’t write it off as anything less than excellent, because its flaws, deep as they are, only obscure a genuine, mad brilliance. It’s an excellent example of how to do a revival right, one that may strip-mine its predecessor for inspiration but dwarfs that with new ideas of its own, most satisfyingly a difficulty system where you “bet” in-game currency to raise challenge, which can lead to greater rewards but becomes easier and potentially cuts those rewards off every time you die. The old and new characters have wonderfully outsized, charismatic personalities for a rather well told saga about petty, vengeful, and goofy gods wreaking havoc upon their human charges. Its combat is based around a number of drastically unique weapon types that makes experimentation fun. Even Pit’s personality gets a lot out of the game being a reboot; his frustration at being kept on the sidelines for so long uses the history of the series’ development as a compelling character beat.

Uprising released to positive (if mixed) reviews, and Sakurai once again jumped right back to <em>Smash</em> a month later . Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U are an attempt at throwing down a gauntlet by creating two games which have the same characters but drastically different focuses, theoretically allowing more freedom and customization than ever before. The first game is an ultimately unfulfilled experiment to capture the series’ spectacle on a portable system, while the second my favorite in the series by far, taking the franchise to a mind-boggling extreme of content. There are 58 fighters, three of which are customizable avatars and seven released through downloadable content made up to a year after the games’ 2014 releases. There’s extensive character customization and mechanically unique play styles from new fighters, likely attempts on Sakurai’s part to interrogate the potential of his old system. His increasing fatigue (not helped by carpal tunnel, which was so painful he had a specialized track pad built for testing) isn’t noticeable in a game as spirited and excited as this one, but there is a tone in interviews showing a concern for an attitude of “more is more,” and that Smash and other major games may be headed for a tipping point.

There are a number of mechanical, formal, and ideological tropes that characterize Sakurai’s work. His games are, first and foremost, meant to be accessible. His greatest fear of the medium is for games to become a wasteland devoid of new audiences and players, a culture only serving those invested in the longterm. While there are often settings or options for difficulty approaching a more “hardcore” skill level, difficulty is channeled most extensively through the gameplay itself. Instead of unlocking fundamental skills, characters typically access tools while always having a base set the player masters, such as how Kirby’s inhale attack expands from a basic tool to deal with enemies and obstacles to the entry point into a variety of powers. In Smash, you always have a number of elaborate moves or actions, but by making every move easy to execute – the most complicated attacks rarely require more than a single button and directional input, drastically different from most fighting games’ complex sequences – and including flashy “special attacks,” a new player can understand the basics without having to grasp Smashes, meteors, techs, grabs, chains, and aerials. And in Air Ride, all your moves are tied to the A button and based around context, which makes it very easy to learn but still having a wealth of actions.


Often, these interests match up, with many of his games being less interested in a single tight mechanic seen through to the end than a smorgasbord of content that opens over time. In theory, anyone playing should find at least something onto which they can latch. Super Star has a number of games that provide a slightly unique spin on the mechanics, every level of Kid Icarus: Uprising is fairly distinct, and Air Ride and every Smash game are bursting at the seams with hidden characters, environments, music, items, and modes. Uncovering that content demands a fairly extensive understanding of the game, but it’s also done over time, and at the player’s whim. As frustrated as Sakurai is with continuing this sort of arms race of content, he’s also easily one of the best executors of the philosophy.

And this buffet style goes along with a audiovisual splendor in every game he’s made. For all Sakurai’s investment in less intense audiences, his own hardcore predilections shine through. Many of his games push the graphical limits for the technology they use, their scores are massive and incredibly eclectic in terms of style and genre, and he often demands a lush presentation; this is aided by an uncanny ability to attract famous talent. The scores for his games from Brawlonwards carries a laundry list of the most iconic and well regarded Japanese composers in the industry, he’s managed to work on many of the most iconic characters in the medium, and his friendship with Satoru Iwata gave him incredible support and let him work with far fewer restrictions than a normal developer would even hope to have.

In all of this, Sakurai has remained a polarizing figure amongst the fans of his games, particularly Smash, in his place as a public figure. They are perennially upset with him, whether for catering to casual and less experienced audiences, adding random elements to his games (such as the hated, and thankfully removed in the next game, random tripping mechanic in Brawl), including content due to a perceived bias; delaying games for bug testing and miscellaneous content, not making content the “right” way, or even using his daily development blogs to reveal too much or little. It’s given him a notoriously jaded edge, a dark side to a love for play and players that led to him onceworking undercover as a sales clerk to understand more about how people purchase and look at games.


A great deal of game design comes from attempting to create something that appeals to a broad demographic, and in theory that means jettisoning non-conventional designs. Sakurai cares about the former, but what distinguishes him from other people chasing that is an utter disregard for the latter. He create mechanics and worlds whose drastic uniqueness gives them identity and appeal, with a presentation allowing less skilled players to have a good time without requiring a massive personal investment. They have malleable systems which encourage experimentation and exploration. And they’re fun in an almost tactile manner, whether in Smash‘s bouncy and kinetic movement or the laid-back floating of Kirby. Altogether, his games are compelling and enjoyable, but they’re also and always distinctly his own to an extent that’s almost unfathomable.

Necessary Works:
Kirby’s Adventure
Kirby Super Star
Super Smash Bros. Melee
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Secondary Projects:
Kirby’s Dream Land
Kirby Air Ride
Super Smash Bros.

For the Serious Fans:
Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land
Kid Icarus: Uprising
Super Smash Bros. for 3DS