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The man behind Super Mario 64 is a shaggy-haired, banjo-playing Japanese artist who rides a bicycle to work, wears a Mickey Mouse tie and chills out by plucking bluegrass tunes on his Dobro guitar.

Normally, such behavior would not get you far in the land of white-shirted "salarymen." But Shigeru Miyamoto, 43, has reached the top in the rarefied world of video-game designers by consistently creating games that kids can't resist. As a result, he's as revered as a rock star--and not just in Japan. Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and movie directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have all traveled to Nintendo's famed E.A.D. (Entertainment Analysis and Development) lab in Kyoto to meet the man known as the Spielberg of video games.

Hired in 1977 as the company's first staff artist, Miyamoto designed the popular Donkey Kong game four years later by combining themes from two of his favorite stories, King Kong and Beauty and the Beast. In 1985 he turned a sketch of a pint-size workman in a cap and droopy mustache into Mario the Plumber, the world's best-selling video-game character (total worldwide sales of Mario games in all formats: $5.85 billion).

Creating a successful game within the strict confines of a cartridge player requires cramming a cast of characters and their play environment into the computer equivalent of a Tokyo love hotel. But Miyamoto says Nintendo 64's powerful new graphics capabilities will change all that. "Up to now, we have had trouble making games look as real as possible," he says. "But now these problems have been solved. These new engines will be a real challenge to game creators."

One challenge will be to move today's stand-alone video games onto the Internet, where players could compete against one another, even if they were playing in different cities or countries. But Miyamoto says online expenses are still too high for most vidkids; he predicts that the two extra ports on the Nintendo 64 (which will allow up to four players to compete) will suit most people just fine, at least for now. "If we are going to use the Internet for play," he says, "it has to be more popular."

The father of two young children, Miyamoto confesses that neither of them is very good at playing the video games he creates. But that's probably because he won't let them play more than two hours a day. "And that," he adds, "is only after they finish their homework."

It's a wise father who thus ensures that he is the one who gets to spend all his time playing games.

--By David S. Jackson