Gunpei Yokoi: Developer Highlight

A lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into making a video game. You have artists developing concepts, programmers, sound designers and composers creating those memorable ear-worms that will stick in your mind forever. In the early days of video games, almost none of these people got any recognition. Companies were worried about their best employees being poached by their competitors, so developers did as much as possible to keep their workers out of the limelight. While it would be nearly impossible to give every single person who has ever worked on a video game a lengthy biography, I do feel that it is important to recognize some of the developers out there, who have put their heart and soul into video games, leaving their mark on the industry.

Origins of Nintendo

Nintendo has its own distinct personality and identity. There are certain elements of their hardware design, software and marketing approach that make you immediately recognise their brand. A lot of these traits have roots going back to when they first started dipping their toe into video games. And one of the people who left their mark in a big way was the late, great Gunpei Yokoi. To understand his impact, you have to understand what was going on at Nintendo at the time.

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Originally, Nintendo made Hanafuda cards. Throughout the 1950s, company president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, managed to make Nintendo the biggest Hanafuda card company in Japan. Yamauchi didn’t want to stop here and had dreams of turning Nintendo into the biggest playing card company in the world. In pursuit of this, he made a trip to the United States Playing Card Company.

When he saw the modest size of the offices and the factory there, Yamauchi came to the realization that making Nintendo the biggest playing card company on the planet, was limited. He began to seek out ways to diversify. Nintendo proceeded to experiment with various unsuccessful ventures: taxi services, instant rice and love hotels. Yamauchi was desperately looking for something, anything, to expand the company and take it beyond its current restrictions.

Introduction of Gunpei Yokoi

Gunpei Yokoi was an electrical engineer who graduated from Doshisha University. He was hired in 1965 by Nintendo to be the maintenance guy for the Hanafuda assembly line equipment. It wasn’t exactly the most glamorous job, but at the time, it suited the young Yokoi fine. He enjoyed working with machinery, enjoyed taking things apart and seeing what he could do with the technology. At his heart, the man was a tinkerer and had a certain gift for lateral thinking.

One day, in 1966, Hiroshi Yamauchi happened to be doing a walkthrough of one of Nintendo’s factories. He saw Yokoi working on some of the assembly line equipment and also some of the random gizmos that Yokoi had been putting together in his spare time. A mad little idea went through his mind. He called the young engineer over and gave him a simple, but vague instruction: build something that we can make and sell for the holidays.

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Using the principle of the pantograph and a set of tongs, Yokoi managed to make something that could reach out and grab things from a distance. It was simple and certainly not anything terribly elaborate, but he brought it into Yamauchi. It was there that the lightning bolt of inspiration hit. Nintendo would go beyond playing cards into the world of toys. They would market to families and this quirky tinkerer would help get them there.

Yokoi’s Transformation of Nintendo

After the success of the Ultra Hand, Yokoi went on to work on several other toys, such as a baseball throwing device known as the Ultra Machine and a little Love Tester that worked on the basis of two people completing an electrical circuit. He developed the electromechanical arcade game Wild Gunman, which was one of Nintendo’s early forays into the arcade scene. And when video games started creeping onto the scene, Yokoi was the trusted man to lead Nintendo.

Yokoi was eventually given his own team within Nintendo, the R&D1 team. This group very much followed Yokoi’s philosophy of taking extant, cheap technology and finding new uses for it. One of the shining examples of this is the ‘Game and Watch’ line of products. The story goes that Gunpei Yokoi was on the bus one day and saw a bored businessman messing around with a pocket calculator. These products had become ubiquitous and cheap during the 70s and 80s. Yokoi looked into it and discovered that, yes, the semiconductors and LCD displays for calculators could be purchased very easily and affordably. Yokoi used this technology to develop a series of watches with built-in games. While these are simplistic by today’s standards, they were incredible at the time: a game that you could take on the go and just play while you’re bored on the bus? Ingenious!

Game and Watch wasn’t the only thing that Yokoi and his team came up with. They were credited with developing the D-Pad controller, first used on the NES. Yokoi’s team also were the ones who developed the Game Boy, igniting Nintendo’s reign of being the top dog in portable gaming. Something that didn’t change until the development of Smartphones. Yokoi even took to mentorship in the early ’80s. A young artist by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto was given the task of developing a new game that could use the equipment in Nintendo’s Radarscope arcade cabinet. The resulting game was Donkey Kong.

The Virtual Boy

Unfortunately, Yokoi’s star within the company fell during the ’90s. He had been working on a new console for the 32-bit era. He was hoping to make it a successor to his Game Boy design. This device was going to use a stereoscopic 3D effect to give the illusion of depth. But Nintendo kept redirecting more and more resources and attention to what would become the Nintendo 64. The forced Yokoi to continually downscale the device. This constraint on his resources resulted in a prototype that he wasn’t happy with and he didn’t want to be released until he could get it right. Nintendo, wanting to focus more of its energy on the N64, decided to release it in this incomplete form anyway. The resulting product was known as the Virtual Boy.

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The Virtual Boy failed to meet Nintendo’s sales goals and is widely considered to be one of the company’s biggest failures in the gaming industry. Its incomplete nature resulted in complaints of eye strain, headaches, and in some instances, motion sickness. Most of the software developers within Nintendo didn’t give it much attention. Not long after the Virtual Boy’s failure, Yokoi left Nintendo to form his own company and worked on what would eventually become the Bandai Wonderswan.

Yokoi’s Legacy

Alas, he did not live to see the Wonderswan to completion. In 1997, Yokoi was in a minor fender bender and when he went out to inspect the damage to his car, he was hit by another oncoming car. The gaming industry lost an icon. And for a long time, the main thing Gunpei Yokoi was known for was, “Hey, he’s the guy who made the Virtual Boy.”

It would be unfair for Yokoi to be known only for a boondoggle that was not entirely his fault. Indeed, Yokoi’s impact on Nintendo and the gaming industry can not be measured. His philosophy of lateral thinking with withered technology still remains a core part of Nintendo’s console development. Very rarely Nintendo tries to design a cutting-edge device that pushes boundaries in the industry. Instead, what you see is them taking technologies that are readily available and cheap and trying to find new and creative uses for them. The DS, 3DS, Wii, Wii U and the Switch all follow Yokoi’s mindset.

And it isn’t just Nintendo’s hardware that Yokoi had a huge impact on. Several iconic game franchises were the brainchild of Yokoi and his R&D1 team. Early light gun games, such as Wild Gunman and Duck Hunt were originally arcade games he made. His legacy goes far beyond just these early arcade titles. The R&D1 team created several iconic series, the most notable of which are Kid Icarus and Metroid.

The world of video games would have been very different without this creative little tinkerer from Kyoto. It’s hard to imagine what the industry would have been like had he not shown up and steered Nintendo onto the path of video games. For all of his contributions to the industry, he is often described as “The Grandfather of Gaming.” And I feel that it is a title that is well deserved.

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