Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of iconic Nintendo mascot Mario, among many others, doesn't just bring characters to life in his video games. He injects his life into his creations.
That's why his latest project, Wii Fit, which arrives in stores Wednesday, is not really a game at all.
It's a $90 software-and-gadget fitness package for Nintendo's revolutionary Wii, reflecting Miyamoto's interest in his own physical health. Wii Fit, which comes with a balance board, has a built-in virtual trainer that helps players with yoga, aerobics and muscle toning.
And Wii Fit is expected to not only tone up its audience but also to bulk up Wii's already phenomenal success.
Miyamoto, 55, "has a Zelig-like ability to adapt his design to different audiences," says Geoff Keighley, host of Spike TV's Gametrailers TV. "Other companies would have made nothing more than a digital scale. Nintendo has made Wii Fit into something that's as fun as an amusement park ride and as effective as an elliptical trainer."
After a year and half, Wii units still disappear from shelves as fast as they arrive. The $250 system, with its wireless motion-sensing remote rather than a button-covered controller, appeals to a wider range of consumers than any system before it. Wii Fit could bring even more women and other non-traditional players to the Wii, which has sold more than 9 million systems in the USA.
In Japan, where Wii Fit was released five months ago, 2 million copies have been sold. Analyst Michael Pachter with Wedbush Morgan Securities expects about 30% of Wii owners in the USA to buy Wii Fit, similar to the sales rate in Japan, which would mean about 2.5 million initially and perhaps another 5 million over Wii's lifetime.
Wii Fit "looks like it is going to be huge," Pachter says. "It's not Guitar Hero (which sold more than $1 billion over the past two years), but it's more than half of Guitar Hero. It's going to be in the top franchises of all time if I'm right."
Over the years, Miyamoto's muses have had a commanding impact on games. His early Nintendo creations, such as Donkey Kong, Zelda and Super Mario Bros., helped resurrect the market from the post-Atari doldrums of the '80s. Time listed him among the 100 most influential people in the world last year. The Wii, which Miyamoto helped conceive, even has competitors Microsoft and Sony looking to grow beyond hard-core players.
"Wii Fit is exactly why Nintendo is walking all over the competition this generation," Keighley says. "It's expanding the market. Wives and girlfriends see the purchase of Wii Fit as part of an exercise routine. It's bigger than Grand Theft Auto in its appeal.
"The only limit will be the number of balance boards Nintendo can make."
Says the boyish Miyamoto as he demonstrates his creation: "When I design games, what I am trying to do is find a way to take something that is fun or entertaining from something I have experienced and to bring that to other people so they can experience that same degree of joy."
Miyamoto, who is married to a former Nintendo executive and has two children, often spins projects from his personal interests. Fitness and health are his latest passions.
"I had been interested in my own health for several years," he says. "I had actually been weighing myself on a daily basis and recording that and tracking it. So that became the inspiration."