On 20th January 2021, Nintendo artist, designer, producer and director Takaya Imamura posted his first ever tweet announcing that he was leaving the company after 32 years. Imamura isn't retiring — he's only 54 — but his departure signals the end of an impressive Nintendo career spanning the 16-bit era to Switch.
While mascots like Mario and Link might do the heavy lifting in the Nintendo PR department, Imamura has contributed some of fans' most beloved characters to the Nintendo canon, including Fox McCloud, Captain Falcon and everyone's favourite 35-year-old fairy wannabe, the Zelda series' Tingle.
Imamura's first project, the Mode 7-enhanced SNES racer and launch game F-Zero, provided an immediate challenge when he joined Nintendo in his early twenties back in 1989. He created the vehicles for the game, which initially had wheels before the team transitioned to hovering craft and a futuristic setting inspired by Tim Burton's blockbuster Batman, a film which ushered in the modern comic book movie template during F-Zero and its host console’s development.
Once work on the game itself had wrapped, Imamura turned his attention to creating characters for use on the packaging and ad materials. As detailed in an interview discussing F-Zero at the time of the Super NES Classic Mini's launch, Imamura revealed that Captain Falcon began life as a potential mascot for the SNES console itself:
Originally, he was Captain Something-or-Other, but we started talking about what to do for the F-ZERO packaging, and I tried drawing something in the style of an American comic.
The idea snowballed after Nintendo of America reacted positively to the comic book idea and it ended up being included in the game's manual, with Imamura's character designs and layouts influencing the look and style of subsequent entries in the series despite not featuring in the original game at all. In those days, of course, players were much more likely to pore through manuals for instructions, story, and character details not featured in the game proper. Nowadays, it's a novelty if you get anything besides a cart in your game case — and even that's not guaranteed.
And so it was that Captain Falcon and the motley band of aggressive racers felt integral to the spirit of F-Zero without actually featuring in-game.
Following after F-Zero, Imamura helped out on A Link to the Past before designing the characters for Star Fox. At the suggestion of Shigeru Miyamoto, he began sketching animal characters and drew inspiration from Japanese folk tales for much of the cast. The four team members themselves were based on Nintendo staff at the time, as he elaborated on in an interview discussing Star Fox 2:
Fox has a fox-like face like Miyamoto... Falco is Watanabe. At the time, we laughed over how his nose sticks out like a beak!... Director Katsuya Eguchi has a mouth like a hare’s, so he became the hare, Peppy. Planner Yoichi Yamada has large, round eyes, so he became Slippy Toad.
Stopping short of straight-out naming the model for antagonist Lord Andross, Imamura implied that he may have drawn inspiration from the notoriously fiery temper of then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi:
Imamura: And the villain Andross is…I shouldn’t say. (laughs)
Miyamoto: Yes, you can’t say this one! (laughs)
Imamura: (softly) Andross is my boss at the time. (laughs)
Following work on Stunt Race FX and Star Fox 64 (which repurposed many of the designs and ideas that went into the then-unreleased Star Fox 2), Imamura returned to the F-Zero universe as chief designer (and course designer) on F-Zero X, where his characters would appear prominently in-game.
Once work wrapped on F-Zero X, Imamura took on the art director role for The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. He oversaw the sequel's notably darker tone and not only created recurring character Tingle, but was also responsible for the name of the game itself. According to series director Eiji Aonuma, it was Imamura that came up with the titular mask's moniker (Mujura in Japanese) by mashing his own name with the title of the Robin Williams movie, Jumanji.
Polarising as the quirky character may have been when he debuted ("especially in the U.S." for some reason, according to Nintendo's Kensuke Tanabe), Tingle has amassed a cult following in the years since and the character has appeared (or been referenced) in most every Zelda game since. He has even starred in his own games, beginning with the Europe and Japan-only Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland.
Described by Tanabe as "a middle-aged guy who dreams of becoming a fairy", Tingle was apparently "created in a very relaxed manner by [Imamura]", which always struck us as a peculiar phrase — perhaps made stranger through translation — but one which suits Imamura's unconventional character quite well. We've got our fingers crossed that we'll see Tingle himself return in Breath of the Wild 2 (as opposed to just his outfit in Breath of the Wild).
Since the turn of the millennium and his last major involvement with the Legend of Zelda series, Imamura mainly focused on supervising entries in franchises he helped develop from the ground up: the F-Zero series (which has been AWOL since 2004's F-Zero Climax, unfortunately) and the Star Fox games. Most recently he was involved in the rather good Star Fox content included in the Switch version of Ubisoft's Starlink: Battle for Atlas.
Elsewhere, he served as director on two smaller projects. Steel Diver for 3DS was a submarine title evolved from a DS tech demo (apparently assigned to Imamura by Miyamoto thanks to his experience developing games with vehicles). And Tank Troopers was a fun, relatively simple little local multiplayer tank-battle game (yes, more vehicles) to be found on 3DS eShop.
After working more than thirty years at Nintendo, it's clear that Takaya Imamura has left indelible fingerprints on some of the company's greatest output. As particular fans of the F-Zero games, it's sobering to think that a new entry in the series — which has to come at some point in the next decade or two, surely! — may well not feature his direct design input. Hopefully we'll hear much more from him in the future as he pursues opportunities outside Nintendo's Kyoto HQ.
Regardless of his future plans, Imamura's contribution to Nintendo's games and cast of characters makes him one of the most important and infuential people in the company's history, with a legacy of art and design work that we'll continue to enjoy for decades to come. During the aforementioned F-Zero discussion, he joked about his output at the very beginning of his Nintendo career:
For a guy in his first year at the company, I did pretty good work, no?
We couldn't agree more.