“Rethinking Your Menus” Sakurai’s Famitsu Column Vol. 138

Rethinking the menus


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Rethinking Your Menus (Vol. 138)

Originally published February 3rd, 2006. 

I recently acquired a new HDR, but honestly, it was nowhere near what I would consider user-friendly. The remote had so many unnecessary controls, and I didn’t understand any of the items on the menu… I suppose it’s not just me, though: machines like that have all become engorged with features lately. People beg for this and that, but ultimately the technology becomes more than they can handle. The standard has shifted; too much is never enough. Many kids will surely come to despise appliances from an early age, but I suppose that’s just the way things are going to be.

I’ve found that, with games (perhaps not so much with appliances), menus and settings screens are where users place their “orders” to the system. Depending on how you look at it, these screens can be quite confusing. I’d thus like to share some key factors I focus on when designing in-game menus. Hopefully someone will find these ideas useful.


  • Utilizing Icons and Colors

Instead of forcing players to read, it’s better to provide images and colors to help them decide what to do. Use pictures and letters together to ease understanding.


  • Tapping to Start the Game

I recommend setting up your menus such that, if a player starts pressing a button at the title screen and repeating this several times without selecting another item, they will eventually end up at the main mode of the game.


  • Using Hiragana*

If your objective is to create something players can process easily, I suggest balancing between difficult and simple characters. Don’t simply use kanji because you can. Also, don’t lose sight of how confusing menus full of English can be.


  • Making Headings Intuitive

Rather than “Single Mode,” something like “Play by Yourself” makes the intent clearer to me. Of course, it’s important to use headings which fit the tone and genre.


  • Providing Jargon-Free Help

When players put the cursor over a menu item, a line of help text displays below. All menus must have this kind of message to guide players. You should also be careful of what the message says. If an item labeled “Save/Load” is paired with a message reading “Save/Load your game,” that’s no good. You need to break these concepts down for players who don’t understand what “saving” and “loading” mean.


  • Reacting to Players

If a player presses a button, make sure the system shows it “knows” what the player did by changing colors, emitting a sound, etc. before the loading process begins.


  • Avoiding “No Response” Inputs

Likewise, it’s important to utilize as many of the buttons as possible, even if it means some commands double up across buttons. Don’t ignore a player’s “order.”


  • Removing Unnecessary Items

Simply throwing all the important items onto a single screen isn’t the right way to go. I think it’s crucial to narrow down the selections a little. Also, keep the more “hardcore” features tucked away in a deeper part of the menu.


  • Cutting Extraneous Jargon

Not everyone is going to understand terms like “configs” and “key repeat.” Any game can be someone’s first, so keep that someone in mind.


  • Aiming for “Non-Linguistic”

Ideally, someone could look at your menu and say, “Everything’s in French. Honestly, I can’t read a thing—but I can still play the game without a hitch!” Well, maybe that’s a little extreme, but that sort of intuitive design is what you should strive for.


…So? How is that game or appliance you’re working on? Take another look!

Looking Back on Rethinking Your Menus:

(Interview conducted sometime in 2008)

Sakurai: Letters all too often tend to become the focus of menus and settings screens. However, I often ponder if there’s a more intuitive way to express the information to players.

The controls on systems like the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS have become very intuitive.

Sakurai: Yes, but the games I make don’t feature a lot of settings to adjust. Rather, they provide a number of options by which players can change the rules of the game. Even the control settings screen features a good number of images.

—That’s a good point.

Sakurai: You probably already know this, but if you can adjust the angle of the character select screen in Smash Bros. by tilting the C-stick.

—Yes, I know very well. I play around by twirling the stick whenever I get bored. Also, I noticed the pointer in Melee was 2D, but changed to 3D in Brawl.

Sakurai: It did. Those sorts of features are there because I feel the system should react in some way when the player goofs around with the controller rather than ignore them.

—I have to say, you really go the extra mile.

Masked Man
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  1. “I have to say, you really go the extra mile.” Which is one of the reasons on what makes Sakurai so great. He puts extra detail and extra love. He puts extra detail beyond the camera pause view on an stage!

  2. Not quite the menu article I expected. I was expecting Sakurai to explain how his wife Michiko settled on the menu design used since Kirby Air Ride, and how the Smash 4 menu became such a mess.

    1. Sakurai explained how the Smash 4 menu became a mess indirectly.

      “People beg for this and that, but ultimately the technology becomes more than they can handle. The standard has shifted; too much is never enough.”

      1. That quote doesn’t apply to Smash 4’s menu, since the quote is from a 2006 interview and is describing the “new standard” for technology, which Sakurai tends to pass over in favor of a more user-friendly interface.

  3. Small nitpicks:
    Using Hiragana* – the asterisk is never explained, in the end I had to google for what that word means.
    but if you can adjust the angle of the character select screen in Smash Bros. by tilting the C-stick – mistake, that “if” shouldn’t be there.

    With that out of the way – thanks for another translation! I really enjoy reading these. I don’t have much to comment on this one, just keep it up!

  4. I find this interesting, since conceptually, it’s a bit contrary to his “Don’t Need This, Don’t Need That” article. Granted, that was talking about gameplay features and this is talking about the interface, so they are different subjects, but I think it’s still an interesting comparison that he considers the menu should be simple, easy to understand, and to the point, and the gameplay shouldn’t skip on extra content just because it’s not what everyone would want.

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