Gunpei Yokoi – The Mother Brain

Think of Nintendo, and what do you see? Mario jumping on a Koopa, Miyamoto’s irrepressible grin, or one of the many consoles, perhaps? The few photographs that survive of Gunpei Yokoi don’t have the same iconic quality – but maybe they should. If Miyamoto is emblematic of the company’s seemingly endless imagination, then Yokoi stands for something just as important : its way of thinking. “The Nintendo way of adapting technology,” said Yokoi, “is not to look for the state of the art, but to utilise mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply.” Think of a man saying that in the seventies: then think of the DS and Wii.

Gunpei Yokoi
Gunpei Yokoi

Yokoi joined Nintendo in 1965 straight from Doshisha University, where he’d studied electronics. The serious young man, a Kyoto native, had made the rounds of local companies after graduating, and Nintendo had hired him to maintain its many machines responsible for turning out their Hanafuda playing cards. Yokoi would later confess, with one imagines a twinkle in the eye, that he chose Nintendo over others because it was an easier commute! Little record remains of Yokoi’s first few years in the company, but there is one clear fact: the job could not hope to contain his restive and ingenious imagination. In his spare time, Yokoi had constructed many toys for his own amusement – a natural tinkerer, he built things out of whatever was around. In 1970, fully five years after joining Nintendo, Yamauchi saw one of Yokoi’s creations.

It was a contraption made out of a wooden lattice, with a grip bolted on one end and a handle on the other – if you held the handle and squeezed, the wooden ‘arm’ extended and the grip closed. Despite having no practical applications, it brought a smile to Yamauchi’s face: though very far from a whimsical man himself, he understood the value of playfulness in a product. Yokoi’s invention would become known as the Ultra Hand, and sell more than a million units – the first success of a career that would be defined by Tokoi’s restless re-purposing of technology.

The Ultra Hand
The Ultra Hand

After the Ultra Hand, Yokoi was no longer Nintendo’s maintenance man, but the star of its new Games division. Its success made him Nintendo’s ideas man, tasked with coming up with the next big thing on a regular basis and presenting his labours to Yamauchi for a verdict that would dictate the product’s future. Nintendo’s president was a mercurial man with absolute faith in his own judgement, who would unhesitatingly dismiss an invention or immediately start full production – but in Yokoi’s case, the decision was nearly always positive.

The Don, Hiroshi Yamauchi
The Don, Hiroshi Yamauchi

Over the next few years Yokoi produced hit after hit: The Ultra Machine, the Ultra Scope, the Love Tester. “It was a time of great fun,” said Yokoi. “I saw myself as a cartoonist who understood movements in the world and created abstractions of them.” These inventions were full of shrewd touches. The Ultra Machine pitched baseballs to be hit – but they were lighter than a normal baseball, so the machine could be used indoors. The Ultra Scope was a periscope that kids could use to spy round corners or over the top of fences. The Love Tester, a device that Yamauchi instantly saw would be huge, was Yokoi’s first electronic toy – a boy and girl gripped a handle each on the toy, and held hands to complete the current. The machine would then feed back a number that measured their ‘love’ – nonsense, of course, but in 1970s Japan any excuse for young couples to hold hands was daring and had that sweet tinge of the forbidden.

In 1973 came a shift in the scale of Yokoi’s ambition, and a glimpse of the future. Yokoi had been shown small solar cells that the electronics company Sharp was producing, and he wondered what fun application they could have. The answer, as ever, was both simple and ingenious: a very basic solar cell would serve to pick up a light source, and this could be used to trigger a circuit. To put it another way, you could aim a beam of light from a gun and, when it ‘shot’ the right spot, a can or bottle or plastic pigeon could explode as if hit by a bullet. This became the Laser Clay Shooting System, and was wheeled out into custom-built venues (former bowling alleys) – it was a great success, but soon demand faded. Yet Laser Clay Shooting would later become a standalone home game called Duck Hunt. Later still, Duck Hunt would be remade for the NES, with Yokoi’s team not only developing the game but also the NES Zapper to play it with – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

From 1974 onwards, Nintendo’s focus narrowed: home electronics was where its future lay. Though Yokoi continued to invent physical toys and Nintendo still manufactured them, perhaps the most impressive being the fiendish Ten Billion Barrel puzzle in 1980, videogames were now Nintendo’s industry – and they were proving themselves masters of it. The Color TV 6, a home console that played six variants of Pong, was Nintendo’s first home console, and designed in collaboration with Mitsubishi. Price was of the essence – Yamuachi dictated that it must undercut the existing competition by a large margin.Yokoi worked on this and its various successors, becoming one of Nintendo’s very first videogame designers in the process.

Color TV 6
Color TV 6

The evolution of videogames is, of course, inextricable from the evolution of technology. But Yokoi thought differently about Nintendo’s creations, believing that using old technology in new ways was the surest path to success – nowhere is this better seen than in the invention of the Game & Watch. Yokoi had noticed something when he was commuting: bored businessmen. One had a pocket calculator, an increasingly common (and therefore cheaply mass-produced) electronic object, and jabbed idly at the buttons to pass time, fiddling for the sake of it. Yokoi put two and two together and realised that, using similar technology, Nintendo could make something much more fun than a calculator. But would people buy it?

Yamauchi thought so, and Yokoi and R&D1 were instructed to make what would become the Game & Watch – the game was what everyone would really buy it for, while the watch side was a useful extra function that let its players claim they were checking the time. Yokoi used a simple LCD screen layered over a painted background and produced Ball, the first Game & Watch – no bigger than a pocket calculator, and selling for a similar price.

Game & Watch: Ball
Game & Watch: Ball

Its success was instant. Over the next decade Nintendo would produce sixty varieties of Game & Watch and sell over forty million of the devices. Game & Watch would also lead to some of Yokoi and Nintendo’s most crucial innovations – the dual-screen design that would later be used for the DS was a Game & Watch original, as was the clamshell case of the GBA SP. The Game & Watch also presented Yokoi with a problem that he solved in one of the most brilliant moves in videogame history: too many buttons. The earliest G&W devices used distinct buttons for movement, but as the games became more complex the device risked becoming over-crowded with individual buttons – and Yokoi considered a joystick, but found it far too clumsy for a portable device.

So Yokoi invented something that Nintendo still hold the trademark for today: the d-pad. Simple and brilliant, the history of videogames is unimaginable without it. The d-pad was immediately incorporated into the design of the Famicom (NES) controllers, and every subsequent Nintendo console. More than that, the continued success of the Game & Watch series throughout the eighties showed that Yokoi’s philosophy of affordability and long battery life was sound: the foundations, of course, for the Game Boy.

A quick word about R&D1. Yokoi had been in charge of his own team since the mid seventies: Yamauchi divided his employees into three groups with different responsibilities. Genyo Takeda, Yokoi’s protege and current senior managing director at Nintendo, described his former mentor as “the sharpest designer” at Nintendo, and Yokoi headed up Research & Development Group 1, the team that among other achievements designed the Game Boy. This small team of engineers, a subtle and quiet group of operators, were described by one Nintendo colleague at the time as “a band of samurai” – dedicated, fiercely loyal, and unquestionably brilliant. Yokoi, although undoubtedly their leader, would have insisted credit be shared.

The Game Boy, R&D1’s finest moment, is yet to come. In the early eighties Nintendo’s efforts were focused solely on the Famicom, and making it a success first in Japan and later in America. Yokoi and his team turned their hand to making games for the system, and the first wasn’t too bad: Metroid. This was followed by Kid Icarus and Famicom Wars (known in the West as Advance Wars), an astonishing start – but one of Yokoi’s other inventions arguably had a more direct impact on the fortunes of the NES.

The Robotic Operating Buddy, better-known as R.O.B.
The Robotic Operating Buddy, better-known as R.O.B.

Everyone remembers the Robotic Operating Buddy, or ROB for short. In truth ROB didn’t do much – it picked up blocks, linked to a couple of NES games, and swallowed batteries at a prodigious rate (the only one of Yokoi’s inventions to do so). But it looked cool, like a super exciting toy, and that made it the perfect Trojan Horse for the NES, faced with an American market still wary of the word videogames following a market crash of 1983. Nintendo decided to market the NES as a new kind of toy, moving as far away from the stink Atari had created around ‘videogames’ as possible. Nintendo’s marketing blitz was ROB-led, the system came with ROB as a pack-in – and it flew off the shelves. A year later Nintendo would quietly retire the accessory, but it was an essential differentiator and selling point for the early days.

By this time, Yokoi was working on perhaps his single greatest invention: the Game Boy. This device would build on the principles Yokoi had outlined many times: it would be affordable, use existing technology that was cheap to mass-produce, and have low power consumption. It would also compete at the cutting edge of the market. These two things never go hand-in-hand, and sure enough by the time the Game Boy was ready for launch in 1989 its rivals – Atari’s Lynx and Sega’s Game Gear – offered full-colour screens and more powerful processors, and weren’t shy about mocking Nintendo’s offering in uncompromising terms. A monochrome display? In 1989?

Gameboy
The one and only Game Boy

Nevertheless, Sony understood what Nintendo had done – a lasting rumour from the period is that Sony’s own R&D team were bawled out by their superiors for not inventing the Game Boy. It may have been ‘underpowered’ in obvious ways, but the design was exceptionally slick: small, light, and offering up to twelve hours of play from four AA batteries (where its rivals used six batteries for less than half that time), the Game Boy also had the advantage of being made by Nintendo, and thus supported by a stellar library of games.

Overnight it was a smash, and over the next fifteen years the Game Boy would sell just under 120 million units. Yamauchi’s original estimate of 25 million over three years looked tame. Yokoi and R&D1 created the software that propelled the system – the likes of Super Mario Land, Balloon Kid and Dr Mario – and Nintendo secured the rights to Tetris, the game that would become synonymous with the system.

Yokoi and R&D1 continued to create great software for all of Nintendo’s systems – including the likes of Fire Emblem, Super Metroid and Wario Land – and Yokoi’s last great project at Nintendo was begun, the Virtual Boy. Though widely regarded as a blip in Nintendo’s history, the Virtual Boy perhaps deserves a little more respect. It was an attempt to provide an at-home 3D experience and, according to who you believe, was allegedly rushed out of the door so Nintendo could focus their in-house resources on the N64. It also outsold the Saturn during its only year of release – not bad for something that Sega of America’s uncouth executives referred to as a ‘dog.’

Nevertheless the final years of Yokoi are a sad tale: there is the image of him, immaculately dressed as always, relegated to a side room at the Shoshinkai Game Show while the rest of Nintendo focused on the N64, trying in vain to interest journalists in the then-failing Virtual Boy while everyone gawped at Super Mario 64. Accounts differ on whether the Virtual Boy was what resulted in his finally leaving Nintendo, but in August 1996 Yokoi resigned from his position at Nintendo and struck out on his own.

The remainder of the tale is tragically brief. After working on several smaller Tamagotchi-like products and on the first stages of the Wonderswan, a Bandai handheld, Yokoi’s life was cut short in a traffic accident on October 4, 1997. He was 56.

Gunpei Yokoi is one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of an enigmatic company. Not much is known about his life and work beyond the highlights – in the west, at least. But for anyone who loves videogames, those highlights are more than that. Think of Nintendo, and what comes to mind? Some of us remember christmas morning and a boy ripping open a parcel to find a Game Boy – a piece of technology so precious, so amazing, that its existence can scarcely be concieved. That day and that joy is one of my happiest childhood memories. I remember the invention, of course, rather than the inventor. But you suspect that that’s how Gunpei Yokoi, a humble engineer of titanic genius, would have wanted it.

GunpeiYokoi

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