Gunpei Yokoi: Nintendo’s Game Changer

Photo - Gunpei Yokoi

In 1981, Nintendo released Donkey Kong to arcades on both sides of the Pacific, solidifying not only the company’s video entertainment division, but what would soon become the platforming genre. Though the brainchild of Shigeru Miyamoto, its success both in its design and in the corporate structure was guided by a man whose impact on the company’s early days could not be underplayed: Gunpei Yokoi (横井 軍平, 1941-1997).

Yokoi’s legacy extends surprisingly far back. Before Super Metroid. Before the Game Boy. Before Donkey Kong. Even before Game & Watch, and before Nintendo was in video games at all. No, his involvement all started with a simple extending arm.

The Ultra Hand, developed by Yokoi (image from Before Mario)

The Ultra Hand, developed by Yokoi (image from Before Mario)

Donkey Kong was not Nintendo’s first video game or even their first arcade game, but it was the one that put them on the map. Similarly, Ultra Hand (1966, toy) was not the company’s first toy, but it was the first breakout hit in the Japanese market, helping to grow the company beyond its Hanafuda origins. At the time, company president Hiroshi Yamauchi (山内 溥, 1927-2013) was looking to diversify Nintendo beyond its limited playing card roots – the Ultra Hand was one initial step on the path to better fortunes.

The story goes that one day, while inspecting Hanafuda production, Yamauchi noticed a certain engineer toying with an odd little device. Yokoi had constructed the extendable claw during his breaks, presumably from extra materials not being used in the factory. The president told his employee to develop the device into a marketable product quickly. The result was the Ultra Hand, a device that could grab small objects from afar. Believe it or not, the little toy was Nintendo’s first million seller, and even made it out of Japan via an Australian third-party distributor.

Ultra Hand Microgame

The Ultra Hand was memorialized as a microgame in the first WarioWare title (GBA, 2003). The team that made Wario and his associated games, R&D 1, was headed by Yokoi during his tenure.

Yokoi would develop several other novelties for the company as the company’s diversification grew to include electronic entertainment. In 1975, Nintendo released EVR Race, an arcade title where outcomes of a virtual horse race could be bet upon. But while this design was hard for arcade operators to maintain, Yokoi’s contribution would be decidedly more simple, and like the Ultra Hand, it too would result from a story of boredom and frugality.

The Game & Watch product line (introduced in 1980 with Ball) was a series of handheld LCD devices, each containing both a playable game and a digital clock. The design supposedly arose from Yokoi noticing a fellow train passenger toying with a pocket calculator, inspiring the idea of using the same technology to make actual games. The inclusion of a watch was likely to give the devices broader appeal as a new product: i.e., it could be sold as a timekeeping device primarily, with the diversion just being a bonus. While I’m not sure the early demographics of the various titles were dominated by commuting salarymen, the products proved to sell pretty well, eventually making it overseas.

Yokoi is credited with the invention of the modern Directional Pad (called the + Control Pad by Nintendo) for the Game & Watch version of Donkey Kong

Yokoi is credited with the invention of the modern Directional Pad (called the + Control Pad by Nintendo) for the Game & Watch version of Donkey Kong

With Donkey Kong leading the charge into the arcades, and the Game & Watch tapping into a previously underutilized market, Nintendo turned its sights on producing a fully-functional home console (in contrast with their rather limited Color TV Game boxes in the late 70s). Yokoi’s team, Nintendo R&D 1, continued to be prolific on the Game & Watch, while Miyamoto got his own team, R&D 4, to produce titles for the new home console, the Family Computer or Famicom (ファミコン, known as the Nintendo Entertainment System outside of Japan). While Miyamoto & co. introduced hits such as Super Mario Bros. (1985), Yokoi and his designers offered titles with less splash, such as Ice Climber (1985), Balloon Fight (1985), and Kid Icarus (1986). There was one better-known title that R&D 1 put out at this time, but… I think we have enough to still go through today, so let’s save that for another time.

I guess we'll have to backtrack later...

I guess we’ll have to backtrack later…

Yokoi’s most significant contribution would come in 1989, with the release of the Game Boy. While the NES had been a leap forward in technical capabilities (compared to the Atari 2600), the Game Boy seemed to be a leap backward. Competitors almost seemed too happy to outdo the four-color console: the Game Gear, essentially a portable version of Sega’s 8-bit Master System, arrived just a year later. Several other companies (such as Atari’s Lynx, NEC’s TurboExpress, and Tiger’s Game.com) also tried to enter the market throughout the system’s life span. None even came close. The monochrome Game Boy line lasted the entire decade, only ceding in 1998 to the Game Boy Color. Together, these 8-bit handhelds sold over 100 million units – by contrast, the Game Gear, its closest competitor, sold 11 million.

Why did the system do so well if it was just an underclocked NES with 4-color display? Just like with the Ultra Hand and Game & Watch, Yokoi had taken well-known technology (factory parts, LCD screens, or NES-like monochrome system design) and applied it in a new way. He called this “lateral thinking of withered technology” (枯れた技術の水平思考). By using older technology, costs could be kept lower, and in the Game Boy’s case, the philosophy also allowed better battery life, which turned out to be the deciding factor in the decade’s handheld wars. The Game Boy lasted a whopping 15 hours on its 4 AA batteries; the Game Gear lasted a third that time on 6 AAs.

The “lateral thinking” proved to be R&D 1’s strong suit in the early days of the Game Boy. Super Mario Land (1989) was developed by this team, not Miyamoto’s, which is probably why it’s so different. The premier team behind the console Mario games would hit back with the excellent The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993) and Donkey Kong (1994, sometimes called DK ’94 to distinguish it from other versions), and along with Tetris (1989), the system became a great way to pass the time on those boring car trips, not unlike the original inspiration for the Game & Watch. And despite the gender-specific naming, the Game Boy became pretty well-known for reaching non-traditional demographics.

Uh oh...

Uh oh…

Now comes a sad part of the story, where we talk about the Virtual Boy (1995). Yokoi’s penultimate project is probably why he’s not a better-known name: the Virtual Boy, despite its pedigree, was a flop. It seems Yokoi was never satisfied with the result, with the company pushing it to market prematurely, possibly to ensure it didn’t end up like Sega, maintaining too many console releases at a time. The red display was a cost-saving measure, but it wasn’t enough: the MSRP was about double that of the Game Boy, and the color choice just made the “immersion” factor even harder to convey.

From various sources, it sounds like Yokoi was going to retire anyway, but the short lifespan of his latest brainchild probably hastened the pace. To some extent, it seems the Virtual Boy was an example of what not to do with “withered technology” – it hasn’t been until just recently that devices such as the Oculus Rift have been able to gain a lot of serious attraction. And the 3DS was probably an example of trying this again, though of course some rumors about the Gamecube’s successor went a little farther

The "land" in Super Mario 3D Land (3DS, 2011) seems to be an homage to the previous handheld-original Mario games.

The “land” in Super Mario 3D Land (3DS, 2011) seems to be an homage to the previous handheld-original Mario games.

In any event, Yokoi offered one last parting gift before his departure from the company he helped build: the Game Boy Pocket, a smaller version of the Game Boy, giving 10 hours on 2 AAA batteries and a more traditional monochrome screen, rather than the murky greenish of the original. Soon, alternative body colors were offered, including a very cool translucent skin to show the system’s insides.

At his new venture, Yokoi and several other R&D 1 alumni developed another handheld, the Bandai WonderSwan (1999), to compete with their original company’s upcoming successor, the Game Boy Color. Unfortunately, before either machine could be released, Gunpei Yokoi was killed by a traffic accident on October 4, 1997.

While of course no product at Nintendo was ever made by just one person, the products that Yokoi led greatly impacted the way Nintendo views itself, and his legacy extends beyond just the handheld lines he was greatly associated with. The concept of using older, more well-known technology in new ways, is very much Nintendo’s strategy even today. Just as the Game Boy became a megahit in an underdeveloped market, despite its technical shortcomings, so too did the Wii, over a decade later. I think this strategy deserves more investigation in a future lecture, as it hits at the core of what Nintendo is.

The Wii's architecture was heavily based on the Gamecube, but outsold its HD counterparts

The Wii’s architecture was heavily based on the Gamecube, but outsold its HD counterparts

On a personal note, my first experience with video games was through the Game Boy. Many of my fondest adventures were not on the SNES or even the N64, but on the Game Boy, being able to explore a little part of a world after school. Were it not for Mr. Yokoi, I probably would not be writing this blog today.

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