In an industry where even great creators often remain anonymous, game designer, producer, and director Shigeru Miyamoto has rightfully achieved superstar status. As the creative mind behind such revolutionary franchises as Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong, Miyamoto has helped turn Nintendo into a company synonymous with the very idea of video games. His early titles are the reason that many of us started playing video games, and many of them remain undisputed classics to this day.
Yet, the very first game that Miyamoto ever designed exclusively for the NES/Famicom console has never been ported to the U.S. In fact, it’s the only game that Miyamoto designed that has never been ported to North America to this day.
Anyone familiar with Miyamoto’s history and significance is typically stunned by that information. Sure, Nintendo hasn’t always been the best when it comes to making their classic games readily available, but after all these years, how is it possible that Miyamoto’s first console game has never been ported to North America? For that matter, why was the game not ported to North America in the first place alongside Miyamoto’s other generation defying masterpieces? It doesn’t make any sense.
Well, at least it doesn’t until you realize that Miyamoto’s first console game was Devil World: a strangely satanic take on Pac-Man that has largely been lost to history for all of the wrong reasons.
Devil World is a 1984 Famicom puzzle game that supports up to two players. It casts you as a green dragon (or a red dragon if you’re player two) named Tamagon who must “attack the devil’s world.” The basic gameplay sees you try to collect all of the magic dots scattered throughout each level. Standing in your way are various…demons, I suppose, that can kill you by touching you. The only way to defend yourself is to collect crosses that allow you to breathe fire. Once you’ve collected all the dots in a level, you’ll be asked to locate four Bibles (yes, you read that right) that allow you to reach the “Devil Caves.” Manage to drop the Bibles off in the right areas in that challenging stage, and you’ll move on to a bonus stage. The game pretty much repeats that basic stage progression pattern after you’ve finished that section.
Presiding over the action is none other than The Devil. While the blue, dragon-like monster that the game identifies as The Devil doesn’t necessarily resemble the traditional incarnations of the Prince of Darkness that we all know and love, he soon proves to be quite the nuisance. Not only does he direct his various minions from the top of the screen (via dancing, just as the townsfolk in Footloose warned us would happen), but he occasionally forces the walls of a level to literally close in on you. When the walls start to close in, the game actually becomes a rather unique kind of “auto-scroller” puzzle game. I’ve never really seen anything quite like it, especially in a game that supports two players. It’s certainly the title’s best gameplay gimmick.
Of course, it’s kind of hard to talk about the gameplay in Devil World for too long without eventually needing to field the question “Why was Shigeru Miyamoto’s first console game a religious-themed puzzle title where you battle The Devil with help from crosses and Bibles?”
So far as that goes, the most honest answer I can give you to that question is “I genuinely don’t know.” Miyamoto has rarely talked about Devil World. One of the only interviews I could find with him where he addresses the game in-depth comes from the book “Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes,” in which he talks about the game’s soundtrack (which was crafted by none other than famous Nintendo composer, Koji Kondo). He certainly doesn’t seem to have ever shed any significant light on the inspirations for the game’s somewhat bizarrely overt religious imagery. The lack of any official information (at least from Miyamoto himself) on that subject is just one of the things that makes the whole project so fascinating.
In fact, one of the only other notable interviews I can find regarding the game’s development comes from Takashi Tezuka: the legendary Nintendo designer and director who first collaborated with Miyamoto while working with him on Devil World. Even then, Tezuka didn’t really talk much about the game’s religious elements. Instead, he mentioned that he’d never even heard of Pac-Man when he started working on the game (which even the late Satoru Iwata calls him out on) and notes that Miyamoto had a “strong basic idea of the image he was after” for that game. However, he doesn’t go into greater detail about the inspiration for, or thought process behind, those images.
To be fair, there were quite a few Japanese games at that time that featured religious imagery. We’ve talked about a few of them in our looks at notably censored NES and SNES titles. There have always been cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. when it comes to such imagery in video games (especially at that time), though Japanese games from that era rarely used religious imagery and concepts in any kind of overtly offensive way. Traditional religious symbols were typically used as thematic window dressing in games of that era or as a way to sell/enhance certain aspects of some titles’ lore. Even the original version of The Legend of Zelda allowed players to equip a Bible.
I suppose the oddest thing about Devil World is the fact that the game didn’t need to feature so much overt religious imagery in the first place. I can’t find any credible sources regarding Miyamoto’s personal life that strongly suggest he was especially religious or had a notably religious upbringing. There are also no other projects from the early days of his career that heavily feature religious themes (though, as noted above, some of his later games would utilize similar concepts).
So why would an otherwise pretty standard fantasy game bother to incorporate things like crosses and Bibles in the first place? There’s a rumor that Miyamoto flew to America to try to convince the Nintendo of America team that they should release Devil World in North America, but he had to have known that was never going to happen. The U.S. was in the thick of the Satanic Panic era, and there was no way that Nintendo was going to release a game that so prominently featured religious (specifically Christian) imagery at that time, even if much of the game was mostly harmless.
Perhaps that part of the experience was a bit of a learning moment for a young Miyamoto and his team. Still, it seems like Nintendo could have simply changed a few things about Devil World and released the game in North America. It’s not Miyamoto’s best game, but it was certainly worth a port (such as the one that EU gamers eventually got in 1987). Did Miyamoto make some kind of stance regarding the game’s content? Did everyone simply move on to other things and couldn’t be bothered? Given that the NES was about to launch in North America and that Miyamoto’s next project was none other than Super Mario Bros., I’m inclined to believe the latter theory may be true.
Still, Devil World is nothing if not a fascinating historical anomaly. The game has been referenced via trophies in Super Smash Bros. (and was later ported to the Virtual Console in Japan and the EU), but it otherwise never really comes up in an official capacity. While I understand the reasons why the game was “too hot” to be ported to the U.S. at that time (at least in its original form), you’d think it would have eventually found its way to North America via some means. After all, it was Miyamoto’s first console game as well as the first title he worked on with one of his most important collaborators. Some even suggest that the game’s main character may have been the design inspiration for Yoshi (which is a loose theory at best, but not an absurd one). Historically, it has to be the most significant Nintendo game that is rarely ever talked about or even acknowledged by its own creators.
Maybe Devil World simply functions best as one of those “Did you know?” games where the mere fact it exists is more notable than the experience of actually playing it. After all this time, though, I still want to see Nintendo finally bring the game to North America and close the book on what is really one of the only “missing” (or at least incomplete) chapters in Shigeru Miyamoto’s legendary career.