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Inside Nintendo in the 1990s: Star Fox, late nights and making the N64

"I think we managed to do all of the things they said don't do!"

A close-up of a plastic Mario figurine, with its arms spread, in a welcoming gesture. I'm not sure what he's welcoming us to, though - there's nothing else around.
Image credit: Adobe Stock / Adriana

Japan, 1993, in the city of Kyoto, and two young men are on a bike. They're on the busiest crossing in the city and clearly, they're drunk. Westerners. Inside their bags, they have papers they probably shouldn't have - confidential papers. Confidential Nintendo papers. And in a few hazy post-pub moments, these papers are about to be all over the floor for everyone to see. One look at them and you'd see the game Nintendo was making next. One look at them and you'd see the 3D chip Nintendo had designed for it. One look, and you would see Star Fox.

"Err it's all lies. Nothing happened," one of the men, Giles Goddard, tells me now. He's smiling. "I don't think we've told Nintendo about this, but yeah, we were taking them home to study over the weekend, and we went to the pub on the way back home.

"Dylan [Cuthbert] didn't have a bicycle," he goes on, "so he was standing on the back of mine. I was pedalling and we went over, right in the middle of the biggest crossing in Kyoto. And we fell over because we were a bit drunk - actually I think it was on the way back from the pub. And all the papers came out of the basket. And it was a windy day so they just started blowing all over the place, and then the light turned green for all the cars to start moving, so we had to scramble and pick up hundreds of pieces of paper for 10 minutes."

It was a disaster. It was a double-disaster because of what Nintendo had told them earlier that day. "Nintendo said make sure you don't lose them, or take them out, or leave them in the pub or something like that," says Goddard. "And I think we managed to do all of the things they said don't do!"

Miraculously, they got away with it. Once they'd collected all of the paperwork up and dusted it off, it didn't look too bad. Tattered, maybe, but far from ruined. So when they returned to the office the following day, no one seemed to mind. "Actually," says Goddard, "maybe it worked in our favour because it looked like we were studying them so hard that they got a bit messed up."

But how do two westerners in Kyoto get their hands on confidential Nintendo design documents at all? Nintendo is a hard place for westerners to get inside even now. Back then, it was even harder. How did Goddard and Cuthbert manage it? Why were they even there at all?

My full chat with Giles Goddard, recorded earlier this year, in case you're wondering where the moustache has gone. (Mario took it.)

To answer that, we have to go back even further back in time. Back to the UK in the late 80s, and back to Giles Goddard finishing his required schooling at 16, and wondering what to do with his life next. And he was flummoxed, because nothing seemed to grab him. He knew what he wanted to do, he wanted to make games, but that didn't seem like a career. Not a proper one. It seemed like a hobby.

One day, though, Goddard was flipping through the pages of a gaming magazine when an advert caught his eye. It was for Argonaut Software. The same Argonaut Software he adored for Starglider, that colourful wireframe combat flight sim. There weren't many studios out there doing 3D at the time, and 3D was something Goddard was really interested in. He'd been a part of the Demoscene movement for a while, toying around with what 3D could do. In that job advert, the stars all seemed to align. So he went for it. "I phoned them up and I showed them a demo that I was working on, and they said, 'Yeah, you come and work for us," and that was that. The teenager from Southampton was on his way to London to become a professional game developer.

Jez San created Argonaut Games back in 1982, and the studio was located at his house. Developers were scattered across a handful of rooms, and most - if not all - were guys of around a similar age. It was relaxed, it was informal, they'd go to the pub every Friday and hang out. Goddard loved it. "We just had fun all the time," he says.

Argonaut was working on getting 3D demos running on Nintendo hardware - on the NES (Famicom) and Game Boy in particular - and one exciting day, it succeeded. "It was terribly slow but it worked." But this was only part one of a bigger plan. "It was obvious that it was possible," Goddard says, "it just needed a bit of help."

By "help", Goddard means 'Nintendo's help'. The idea was to pitch Nintendo directly and ask for support. It fell to Jez San to do the talking, so off he flew to Nintendo in Japan while the rest of the team waited to hear from him back home.

The pitch would go something like this: "If you fund us," Goddard summarises, "we can make an actual chip that goes on the cartridge to speed all of this up, so you get proper good frame rates, proper 3D, with filled graphics 3D, not just wireframe." But imagine delivering to a boardroom of now legendary Nintendo faces. It must have been daunting to say the least. Whatever San said, though, it worked. "I think they just said yes there and then," Goddard says.

Starglider, the game that would start Argonaut on a path that led to Star Fox. Goddard was a huge fan.

"[San] phoned us in the UK in that meeting - just to check whether it was actually possible to do what he was proposing [...] - then just said, 'Yeah, it's doable if we have the funding to do it.'"

It wasn't long before Argonaut had a prototype to show Nintendo, and Goddard and Cuthbert were designated as the people who would go to Japan and show it. While there, they would also talk about the game the two companies would make together to showcase the new chip. The new aerial combat game that would be Star Fox. So this time off they flew, and though they didn't realise at the time, they'd never properly come back.

Nintendo headquarters - Nintendo EAD (entertainment analysis and development) - is a place few people have been. I don't remember anyone from Eurogamer ever being invited inside. It's a secretive place. And in the 1990s, it felt even further away, even further out of reach of people in the west. Giles Goddard and Dylan Cuthbert going to work at Nintendo was a big deal. It still is. That's the house of Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda, the home of gaming.

It's with this level of anticipation that Goddard and Cuthbert walked in. They were excited. They were expecting to be dazzled. But it wasn't the colourful welcome they'd hoped for. "Everything was white or grey, the uniforms were beige..." Goddard recalls. "You imagine all these colourful sorts of Marios and stuff around, but there was nothing, there was none of that." The only signs of personality were the figurines on people's otherwise identical desks. It was the opposite of Nintendo's games - it was bland.

Nevertheless, Goddard was overwhelmed, especially when he came face to face with the people he'd be working with. There was Shigeru Miyamoto, Katsuya Eguchi, Koji Kondo, Takaya Imamura, and Tsuyoshi Watanabe. They were the Star Fox team then. Today, they are the people who lead Nintendo.

But once the nerves settled, and despite the awkwardness of having to go through a translator, they all got on well. "In fact," says Goddard, "we used to go out with them for lunch every day for like a year. There used to be a little sort of coffee shop around the corner called Tomimasu, where all of the top brass and everybody went from Nintendo. Tiny, tiny little cafe, but it was always full of Nintendo people. So if you wanted any secrets, that's where you'd go for lunch."

And inevitably, when spending so much time with people, there wriggles in a little space for small talk. Even with Miyamoto. "Especially Miyamoto-san," Goddard corrects me, "because he was always interested in the culture of the UK, and the Beatles, and all the stereotypical English things that people in Japan love. He was always really curious about all that."

They had a nickname for him, he tells me - "Irrelevant". They didn't mean it in a nasty way or anything like that, it was just that he had a knack of "coming out with really weird irrelevant-sounding questions", apparently. "We'd be talking about one thing but then he'd suddenly start talking about something completely different," Goddard says. And he shrugs. "I think his mind works in a very different way to other people."

This really is a rare glimpse inside Nintendo EAD, and right at the time Goddard was working there. He says this brings back "huge memories" for him.

For the first part of their Japanese adventure, Goddard and Cuthbert were put up in a hotel. They lived there, really. And for a while, that was as fun as it sounds. "It was right in the middle of the fun part of town, so you'd go to all the pubs and clubs and stuff like that, and then to get home, you'd be like a two-minute walk back to the hotel room. So it was ideal, especially if you're eighteen or nineteen."

But as the Star Fox project stretched on, the novelty wore off, and as the weeks turned to months, hotel life became a disorientating kind of existence. He'd go out in the morning only to find the room tidied and things moved around when he got back. "It gives you that weird kind of 'nothing feels like home any more' kind of feeling," he says. "I remember waking up numerous times forgetting where I was, because your mind plays tricks on you thinking 'well this must be home now', but it's obviously not home, so you just wake up and you don't know where you are."

Star Fox, the project itself, was mired in technical issues. Because the team were developing both hardware (the chip) and software simultaneously, it wasn't always clear where the problems came from. Which was to blame? And there wasn't an internet to turn to. There were only books. It meant progress looked like wading around in a quagmire of trial and error.

Magnifying this further was Nintendo's way of doing things. It was a very different way of doing things than Goddard was familiar with. "It was like a school, really," he says. "Even though we weren't employees or anything, everybody had to be in at eight forty-five every day, and if you were late, you'd have to get a stamp saying why you were late, so it was a very, very formal place to work.

"But I guess at the start," he adds, "because we weren't employees, we were guests, they were very lenient. But after I joined full-time, that's when they actually started forcing the rules."

Rules like working until exactly 12pm, when a bell would ring to signal that everyone had to take their lunch hour now, thank you very much. Except, there was no thank you very much, there was just a bell. And then another bell, and then another one. "I don't want to say 'it was like a prison'," he says, and then laughs, realising he's said it now. "But that's how I would imagine a prison would work: very, very efficient, everything is on time, everything is done on time." But no one seemed to notice. Ground down by the regularity and familiarity of time, perhaps. "You don't really think about it after a while."

Nintendo would also work very long hours, and the expectation was that Goddard and Cuthbert would, too. "We were just told that we had to stay there until something was done," he says, "or stay there until something was fixed. We couldn't go home, kind of thing." It wasn't called crunch, not then, but that's exactly what it was. And it was mandated.

"And yeah," he says, "I think it did rub us the wrong way a few times, because you know, it was Friday night, you're nineteen, all your friends are out in town, and then suddenly you're told that you have to go and spend all weekend working on something. Sometimes you do flip and go 'why am I here? Why am I doing this?'"

A playthrough of Star Fox on SNES. If you jump to the credits at 1:08:19, you'll see Giles Goddard's name.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Goddard was often in trouble, then. "Yeah numerous times actually," he says with a laugh - and without a moment's hesitation! "We were always getting into trouble for this and that."

He remembers one time that he blew up a power supply in a new development PC, because he plugged it in at the wrong voltage. And Miyamoto noticed. "And Miyamoto got really angry and said, 'You need to go and apologise to blah-blah-blah now.'" But Goddard had other ideas.

Quick as a flash, he went to his desk and swapped the fried power supply for his computer's, and then - as if making a sudden, surprise discovery - announced, "Actually no it's fine - it's not broken." And it worked: Miyamoto was calmed. "But I did actually break it," Goddard tells me. "I just fixed it before he found out."

Star Fox was eventually released in 1993, 30 years ago now - the anniversary was in February this year - and its arrival would wow the world. It delivered a near generational leap in technology and all because of a tiny chip hidden inside the cartridge case. To me at the time, it was magical. And it was a big success for Nintendo.

But Goddard wasn't entirely satisfied with it. Perhaps it's the programmer in him, but what bothered him was the frame-rate. "When you start making the game, you design it for twenty frames a second because there's not a lot of content in there and it feels really nice - the movement's really nice," he says. And then the design team comes in and ruins everything - read: makes it look pretty. "And that's when it starts feeling really laggy and gnarly, and there's not really a lot you can do about it." He shrugs.

Goddard had a decision to make at Nintendo now, because with Star Fox finished, the contract tying him there was done. Did he want to go back to the UK or would he stay at Nintendo in Japan? The offer was there. And, not seeing much back home for himself in the UK, he took it.

Nintendo had a decision to make too: what to do next after Star Fox, so it began a period of R&D on a machine known internally as Project Reality. We know it now as the N64, of course. And it was to be a collaboration with Californian tech company Silicon Graphics. Genyo Takeda and Shigeru Miaymoto were in charge, but they needed people like Goddard - a native English speaker no less - to be their eyes and ears on the ground in California. They needed an away team.

The frame-rate issue was particularly prevalent in Stunt Race FX (Wild Trax), which Goddard worked on after Star Fox.

On the away team with Goddard was Nintendo's late leader Satoru Iwata, no less, and Yasunari Nishida, who had been instrumental in the development of F-Zero. And they would all fly out together to California to meet SGI. It was a perfect chance to get to know each other, if only someone had taken it. But Iwata wasn't apparently much for small talk. "He wasn't a guy that really talked about personal things a lot," Goddard says. "Very much a work ethic, work and work kind of thing." And he was about to be in for a culture shock.

"It was interesting because they hadn't really travelled much, so it was all very, very new to them. And obviously the way of working is very, very different from what they were used to," says Goddard. "I think a lot of times they thought the work ethic wasn't as good as Nintendo's, as it were." Iwata and Nishida knew Nintendo's way of doing things: regimented order and discipline. "They didn't know there was another way of doing the same amount of work but not having to do it so rigidly," Goddard says.

Picture their faces, then, when they arrived in California only to be whisked to a party celebrating the formation of DreamWorks. DreamWorks being a collaboration between SGI and Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Jeffry Katzenberg and David Geffen. So this party was serious showbiz - famous faces and known-names everywhere. Iwata and Nintendo didn't have time for such frivolity! "We only had two days to talk to them," Goddard says, "and the first day was just them partying - us partying with them." Iwata, he says, wasn't impressed.

But with the N64 specs eventually finalised, SGI was able to ship Nintendo the development machines needed to make games for it. There were a trio of them, all magnificent in their own retro way. There was the SGI Indy, Goddard's favourite, which was a turquoise colour and looked a bit like a PlayStation 2. That's what the programmers worked on. There was the SGI Indigo, a more filing cabinet-sized affair for the designers. And there was the hulking fridge of a supercomputer, the SGI Onyx, which emulated the games being played on the console itself.

The SGI Indy had a bonus feature Goddard was excited about too: a webcam. I know that doesn't sound exciting now, but back then, webcams were new, so Goddard started experimenting with it. He put ping pong balls on his face, because the camera picked them up well, and ended up creating a mo-capped facial animation prototype. He was impressed. Miyamoto was impressed. So much so, Miyamoto announced, "Well let's try and get a Mario face into that."

So, Nintendo did. Yoshiaki Koizumi took the prototype and added "bones and everything" for Goddard to use. "Then I just skinned all the polygons together - skinning was a new thing as well - and I got it all spongy, and then we just iterated on that to see what was fun." And that's how the famous N64 Mario face - the one you can pull around at the beginning of Mario 64 - came to be.

The Mario face, which came about as a result of Goddard messing around with a webcam and ping pong balls.

It wasn't the only important N64 milestone Godard was involved in. Do you remember the Zelda 64 demo shown at the Shoshinkai (Space World) show in 1995, the one that offered a glimpse at what a 3D Zelda could be? Goddard made that. The demo had Link battling a very shiny armoured enemy. Sparks flew as swords clashed and light reflected impressively off of the enemy's armour. Considering that A Link to the Past was the last big Zelda game before it, the technological implications of what was being shown were huge.

Except it wasn't an actual game. You couldn't really play it, and nor would it go on to become the now legendary Ocarina of Time. "The demo that I made was more to show what the N64 was capable of and what the future Zelda was going to look like on an N64," says Goddard. "So it went a bit over the top with all the effects.

"We turned everything on. We put all the things in like environment mapping [...] and then sparks, and then three moving lights, and skinning - all this kind of stuff. And obviously not all of that actually made it into the final game [Ocarina of Time], because that's very costly to do, but it was a good way of showing what it was capable of for sure."

The other N64 milestone Goddard was involved in, and that he takes particular pride in, was 1080 Snowboarding. It's actually a game idea he's come back to a few times over the years - even very recently. He was the lead programmer on it, in a team of only around nine people. But to divide Nintendo at the time into individual games and teams is misleading, because really, everyone worked as one. "We were all sharing code and sharing ideas," Goddard says, "and so we'd all have a hand in everybody's games back during that period." So while he wasn't directly involved in games like Pikmin and Wave Race, and many others, he felt as though he was. It's why he remembers this period at Nintendo most fondly of all.

That N64 period would also be his last at Nintendo, and there are two reasons why Giles Goddard decided to leave. One was because his interest was waning. He'd been there more than a decade and, ever the curious type, there were new technological advancements in the world he was interested in. Like the PDA - the personal digital assistant. Or as Goddard calls it: "The iPhone of the nineties." It was booming back then, and he'd worked out a way to connect it to the internet, so a company in the UK had offered him a job. He had options.

The 1995 Zelda 64 demo that was aired at the Shoshinkai exhibition.

The other reason was Nintendo itself. He'd been welcomed there, and he enjoyed his time there, but he felt as though there was a limit to how far he - as a westerner - could go. "If you're a foreigner in Japan, working in a Japanese company like that, you get to a certain stage where you can't really go any further," he says. "You're never going to become a manager or a buchou [department manager] or even a shachou [company president], because you're a foreigner. So I realised that was my job for the rest of time if I didn't do something about it." So he did, and he left.

There was no animosity in his departure, from what I can tell, and the ties with Nintendo remained strong. Goddard would even - after a short period of freelancing and helping make colourful god sim game Doshin the Giant, for N64 and GameCube - create a studio to work exclusively for Nintendo, called Vitei. And Vitei would make underwater puzzle game Theta for DS, WiiWare climbing game Rock 'n Roll Climber, submarine sim Steel Diver for 3DS, and action shooter Tank Troopers for 3DS.

Vitei very nearly released a puppet game for Wii, too. "Basically you used the Wii remote to control a puppet and you made puppet shows and stuff like that," says Goddard. "And it just felt really really good. It looked really good. It sounded really good. And everybody was blown away by it. But the thing was Nintendo didn't think there were enough people into that kind of thing to make it worthwhile," so the project was canned.

But being a second-party studio, so close to Nintendo, had its drawbacks. Goddard was interested in new and emerging game technologies, things like virtual reality, but the contractual obligation to Nintendo meant Vitei couldn't pursue them. Not in the Vitei office, anyway. But what if there was an area there where a separate company could work? And it's this thought which led to the creation of Vitei Backroom. Located, quite literally, in the back room.

As you've probably discovered reading that, though, the distinction between Vitei and Vitei Backroom was rather confusing. That's why, a few years later, the company was rebranded Chuhai Labs, which is how it remains today.

1080 Snowboarding lives on in Carve Snowboarding, made by Goddard and Chuhai for VR.

Chuhai Labs' most recognisable game is Cursed to Golf, a game not published by Nintendo but by Thunderful. It's a golf game, perhaps obviously, but also a kind of side-on platformer, and it all unfolds with a Roguelike twist. Christian Donlan was quite taken with it.

Chuhai has made a couple of snowboarding games as well - I told you 1080 Snowboarding was never far from Goddard's mind. He laboured away at a kind of spiritual successor for VR, called Carve Snowboarding, and then squashed it all into Carve Jr for Playdate. That's another new piece of tech he's interested in: Playdate. "It's just such a nice thing to work with," he says, "and on, and use, and play with." Chuhai made a California Games-inspired game for it, called Whitewater Wipeout, too.

Excitingly, there's also a big new project, a multi-year one that the company is working on now. And my eyebrows shoot up when Godddard teases what it might be. "If you like Star Fox then you'll like this," he says. And maybe my mouth opens a bit too, because he sees the expression and quickly adds: "It's not a Star Fox game. But if you like Star Fox, I think you'll like this."

He's come a very long way since Nintendo, Giles Goddard. He's in casual wear, relaxed and easy when we talk, slowly sipping a beer from the bar area in Chuhai he's sitting in. There are no bells ringing or people in uniform, no enforced lunch hours at 12pm for staff to take. In many ways, Chuhai is the antithesis of the culture he worked in at Nintendo.

But scratch below the surface a bit and you can see it there. Not in the rigorous rules, but in deeper things, because a decade somewhere doesn't easily rub off. Nor does Goddard want it to rub it off, because why should he? He might not agree with how some things were done, but there's no denying the standard at which they were done. It's as he says: "Working at Nintendo sets your standard bar very, very high, which is a really, really good thing to have at the start of your career."

Nintendo shaped him, then, and for that he's eternally grateful. As he's grateful for that advert in the gaming magazine for a job at Argonaut Software. Most of all, though, he's grateful for Star Fox. "It fundamentally changed," he says, "everything."

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Robert Purchese avatar

Robert Purchese

Associate Editor

Bertie is a synonym for Eurogamer. Writes, podcasts, looks after the Supporter Programme. Talks a lot.