20 years ago today, Shigeru Miyamoto came to town.
The legendary video game creator visited London as part of a European tour to promote The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on Nintendo GameCube (plus the GBA release of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past and Four Swords). But rather than the usual media appearances, Miyamoto did something he has never done before or since: he spent three hours meeting fans and signing games.
I was in the room that day, standing in the queue for four hours to get a game signed, and it was a day that I’ve never forgotten. And it turns out, it was a special afternoon for those behind-the-scenes, too.
Here’s the story of the day Shigeru Miyamoto visited Virgin Megastores on Oxford Street.
Back in 2003, Nintendo UK’s PR was operated by the agency Cake – and it was the Cake team that was tasked with making the most of Miyamoto’s visit.
“Nintendo and Virgin Megastores were both clients of Cake,” recalls John Tyrrell, who is currently employed by Devolver Digital but was running the Nintendo press office within Cake at the time. “Cake was basically managing all the signing events at Virgin Megastores on Oxford Street. So it was a case of ‘Miyamoto is coming to the UK? Why not do a signing with him?’ It was that simple. We thought that would be cool. But none of us had any idea whether it would work or not. It had never been done before, that was the thing. Cake was all about its ‘media firsts’ and doing something a bit wild for the first time. So we just did it. But nobody knew what was going to happen.”
I had done a million in-store events like this... Everyone from the cast of The Office to Marilyn Manson, David Bowie… millions of people. But I’d never done anything like hosting Shigeru Miyamoto
It was truly going to be a special event. "We hadn’t done anything like this with games," recalls Simon Dornan, who was head of PR and events at Virgin Megastores. "We’d done some games events, we launched the Xbox there, but we’d done very little, and certainly never a personal appearance. So, we didn’t want to miss this opportunity. We wanted to do it. But I am not going to pretend I knew who he was. I am not a gamer. I’d never heard of him. So I was like, really? Do you think people will come? I was happy to do it, but I just didn’t know what to expect. I had done a million in-store events like this with rock bands, boy bands, and all sorts. I’ve done some DVD signings. Everyone from the cast of The Office to Marilyn Manson, David Bowie… millions of people. But I’d never done anything like hosting Shigeru Miyamoto.”
Everyone was on-board, and from there things moved very quickly. Cake put together a press release, and barely two weeks before he was due to appear, the news hit the internet. Via the likes of IGN and Eurogamer, the news spread that Shigeru Miyamoto would be attending Virgin’s Oxford Street store on Friday, February 21st, from 1pm to 3pm. Gamers could bring any Nintendo paraphernalia they would like to sign, including any game Miyamoto had been involved with. The first ten people in the queue would receive a free copy of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past for the GBA, a whole month before its release date.
I was 17 years-old at the time and spent my evenings writing for Nintendo fansites, so I saw the news the moment it came up. My friend Ian and I had recently discussed going on a trip to London, and this seemed like the perfect excuse. He wasn’t the biggest Nintendo fan, but it didn’t take much convincing.
I scoured the internet for a bit more information. The release stipulated that I could get anything signed, but how many things? It seemed deliberately vague on the details. “It wasn’t deliberately vague, it was ignorantly vague,” Tyrrell laughs. “I don’t think we understood the fandom we were dealing with or tapping into. We just made a load of assumptions that people would bring something for him to sign.”
In the end I brought a selection, including boxed copies of the original Zelda game on the NES, along with its sequel. I’d never actually played either, but I felt they were the rarest Miyamoto games I owned. I also brought along a copy of Super Mario Sunshine, which, at the time, I completely adored. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and endless critical reappraisals… I still completely adore it.
I don’t think we understood the fandom we were dealing with or tapping into. We just made a load of assumptions that people would bring something for him to sign
Ian and I had met up early, catching the 8am train to begin our pilgrimage to meet Miyamoto. We had reached Virgin Megastores by 10:45am. It was surprisingly quiet. There was a Miyamoto display in the window, with Wind Waker playing on a small screen. But outside of that, there was no indication anything was happening. We asked the security guard where the signing was taking place. He gestured downstairs.
The night before, Tyrrell and his colleagues were busy setting up. They’d brought along Wind Waker demos and standees, but what they hadn’t expected to deal with were fans who had already started to queue. “That wasn’t what we were expecting,” he remembers. “We had to go and fetch some guard rails for them.”
When the store opened at 9am the next morning, over 200 people were in the queue. By the time myself and Ian had arrived, the queue was snaking around the aisles. I glanced at Ian, who had the resigned look of a boy who was about to stand in a queue for four hours.
Dornan had arrived after the store had opened and was shocked to hear people had been queuing overnight. “There was a big question mark over whether it was going to work,” he tells us. “But that was because of my lack of knowledge and insight into the gaming world. I remember being thrilled from the moment I arrived.”
Tyrrell added: “We were a bit naïve about what we were dealing with in terms of the fandom. It was a long time ago. This was 2003. Nowadays, you put something like this out there, you’d be able to judge the level of interest instantly by how viral it went. We had no way of knowing. I was told we had a bigger crowd than the [noughties pop act] Blue.”
Andy Robinson, now the founder and editor of VGC, arrived 15 minutes after us. He had brought a selection of Miyamoto games, including The Legend of Zelda, Pikmin, Ocarina of Time and the Nintendo GameCube itself. Yet even in those 15 minutes, the queue had grown exponentially, and he was worried that Miyamoto wouldn’t get to him by the time 3pm rolled around.
He was just going with the flow of all the things that were happening to him, and keeping a smile plastered on his face despite what was clearly… it could have been adversity to someone who was less cool
If Andy was worried, just imagine how Freddy Savory, Duncan Rogers, Tim Fagan and Steve Turner felt. Four fans from a Nintendo forum had got together the night before to play imported copies of Metroid Prime and Animal Crossing. They had a sleep over, a big breakfast, and finally made it to Virgin Megastores at 11:50. They just about managed to get into the basement area before the barriers were put up. An hour before Miyamoto was due to arrive, and the queue was closed. Those who turned up after that were forced to watch from the balcony above, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero.
As Nintendo fans entertained themselves by making friends, or playing on their Game Boys (or, in my case, Snake on my Nokia phone), Miyamoto was hosting a media roundtable. If he was anxious about the thousands who had come out to meet him, he wasn’t showing it.
“Getting to work with Miyamoto… it was just really exciting,” Tyrrell says. “I’ve met him twice. The other time was around ECTS, because I have this strange memory of walking with him and his interpreter… and they just have this calm pool of water vibe about them. It was really attractive. They were so chilled.
“And he was super chill on the signing day. What I love about the games industry… is if you meet someone like that in film or music, you probably wouldn’t be able to get in the room because of their egos. He is completely without ego, as far as I can tell. He was just going with the flow of all the things that were happening to him, and keeping a smile plastered on his face despite what was clearly… it could have been adversity to someone who was less cool.”
At just before 1pm, Dornan took to the stage to make an announcement. Fans would only be able to get one item signed, and there wouldn’t be an opportunity to pose for photographs. There were just too many people.
Miyamoto finally arrived at 1:10pm. Dornan greeted him with a few Japanese phrases he’d learned the night before, before announcing him to the room. It was here that the legendary games creator did something nobody had expected… he stood at the centre of the stage and threw his arms into the air. The crowd erupted.
And then suddenly, he came out with his arms aloft, punching the air and the crowd was going crazy. It was fantastic. It was one of the most touching moments of this life that I was leading at the time
“Up until now, he just came across as very shy and very polite," Dornan recalls. "And then suddenly, he came out with his arms aloft, punching the air and the crowd was going crazy. It was fantastic. It was one of the most touching moments of this life that I was leading at the time. It was really moving. I felt this wave of emotion from people in the crowd. It was a different kind of fan to the ones we were used to. Nobody cried or fainted, it wasn’t like that. It was far more… not quite worshiping, but people seemed genuinely touched to be in his presence. It was unlike any other event we ever hosted there.”
Tyrrell remembers the moment vividly. “We thought it was hilarious. How was he going to take this crowd? And he just walked up on stage and throw his arms in the air. And the crowd roared. Nobody knew he was going to do that. We had this huge crowd of fans, we had to do something… and he went and did that. It was hilarious. I remember him being really gracious. It wasn’t him that made the decision about how many things he was going to sign or whether he would do photos.”
The Ocarina of Time soundtrack was being played over the speakers as the first ten in the crowd received their copies of A Link To The Past, and the signing began. But things moved slowly. Ian and I had decided we were going to ask Miyamoto a question, and that was whether he liked cheese or not. We thought that would be funny. I had also decided to get The Legend of Zelda signed, and I asked Ian if he could get Zelda II scribbled on, to complete the set.
Andy Robinson had chosen to get his GameCube signed, but he was getting increasingly anxious. Security had been walking the queue, warning people that Miyamoto would be leaving at 3pm. 30 minutes had gone by, and the queue had barely moved. Robinson had calculated that Miyamoto was meeting one fan every 20 seconds, which meant it would be close as to whether he would get to meet him.
Amongst the copies of Zelda and Mario that people had brought along, there were a handful of unique items. There was a standee for Yoshi’s Story, boxed Game & Watch consoles, even an imported Famicom from Japan. But there was one thing that everyone we spoke to noticed.
“The coolest thing I remember was the fascia plate from a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet,” Tyrrell says. “I think Miyamoto was pretty impressed with that. And there were a few bits like that. There was a bit of showing off going on.”
The Cake PR team were aware that there was no way Miyamoto would meet every fan by 3pm. They had decided that once the time was up, he would walk the queue and hand out posters. This message was spread along the queue, and fans became despondent.
I still have a memory of that downstairs space, emptied apart from two or three people… the stragglers in the queue. It was slightly bleak after all that excitement. And Miyamoto was still there, doggedly writing his name on things
Robinson, Savory, Rogers, Fagan, Turner and numerous others decided they had to jump the queue. Robinson felt bad, but ultimately felt the risk was worth it if it meant he could meet his idol. The four friends were certain they’d never get to the front in time, so felt they had nothing to lose. All five managed to move up the queue. One lad tried to push in front of myself and Ian, although he was stopped by the man in front of us. He still managed to find a spot just a few places behind us. In the end, the panic was for nothing. Miyamoto had no intention of leaving. And he stayed an extra hour to make sure he saw every fan.
“It was us making those decisions based on the scale of what we were dealing with,” Tyrrell says. “But he stayed well after the allotted time. Everybody who was queuing up before they closed the queue, he saw. Every single person. Nobody who queued up was disappointed. And I thought that was lovely of him. I still have a memory of that downstairs space, emptied apart from two or three people… the stragglers in the queue. It was slightly bleak after all that excitement. And Miyamoto was still there, doggedly writing his name on things.”
Robinson got his GameCube signed, while Savory got Ocarina of Time, Fagan had Metroid Prime, Rogers had a Wavebird, and Turner got A Link to the Past scribbled on. I had my copy of The Legend of Zelda, while Ian forgot what I’d asked for and plucked out Super Mario Sunshine instead. He did find out that Miyamoto liked cheese, though, so I wasn’t too disappointed.
Scattered across Oxford Street you would run into fans showing off their signed merchandise to one another. The local Burger King was packed out with people admiring their newly acquired scribble. Many continued to hang around the store, exchanging phone numbers and debating all things Nintendo.
“It was the first time that I really got a taste of what fans look like,” Tyrrell beams. “They were just so many people really excited to meet this guy, who had defined so many of their gaming memories. When I say this was one of my favourite ever events, that was part of the reason why. It was special.”
The whole thing was lovely. It was one of the most ego-free events that happened there
The signing session turned out to be a one-off. Miyamoto hasn’t done anything like it since. In fact, those close to him tell me he rarely signs anything anymore, having become aware of signed games appearing on eBay. But for everyone involved 20 years ago, and for those in the crowd, it remains an unforgettable day.
“The whole thing was lovely,” concludes Dornan. “It was one of the most ego-free events that happened there. The vast majority of people who attend those kind-of things were always fully aware of the circumstances around them at the time. They would often make demands or come with certain baggage. It was really refreshing to have an event that was free of all that nonsense. No silly rider request, no trying to blag stuff afterwards.
“It was just heart-warming. It was so different to what we usually did. Across the Virgin Megastore estate, we would do hundreds of these events. And we did this round-up video at the end of the year, and it was great that in the midst of all these clips of bands rocking out and people stage diving and crowd surfing… there was this middle-aged Japanese guy in a roll neck and a tweed jacket with his arms in the air. It was a brilliant, brilliant thing.”