If you like videogames, you heard about Nintendo. If you like Nintendo games, you probably heard about Shigeru Miyamoto. Creator of all the Mario-related games, plus several franchises that paved the way of Nintendo as a symbol in the game industry, it’s easy to be wondered by his achievements and respect Mr Miyamoto. But Nintendo owns a great deal to another designer from the house. Mr Gunpei Yokoi.
Gunpei Yokoi was hired by Nintendo to oversee a production line for the electronic toys department of the company, and used his free time to exercise his mind creating simple engineered devices, in order to study and develop his skills. During his time in the production line, he developed an extended arm in his free time, that eventually became the famous Ultra Hand (the one in the picture below).
Because of his ingenious ways, Mr Yokoi was invited to participate as one of the first game designers for the new department of the company, and it would lead the new innovative field of arcade cabinets and home consoles, about to hit the market in a few years.
One of the most famous inventions from Mr Yokoi was inspired by the most common problem in the world: boredom in daily commute. Legend has that Mr Yokoi was observing a businessman playing around with a calculator in the train, while waiting to get home, and this little event sparked the idea to create the first successful product from Nintendo in the video-game business: the Game & Watch.
The Game & Watch portable device is well praised in the early development of the industry, and set the tone of Yokoi’s philosophy of “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology”. Basically, Gumpei always considered the use of well known technology on his creations, but applying a innovative use to make devices that feels fresh, even with “old” technology. The device spawned a series of titles, including some that would later be present in the first console of the company, such as Balloon Fight and Donkey Kong.
A few years later, Gumpei Yokoi revealed his latest invention to the headquarter of Nintendo, and in 1986, the GameBoy was released to the public. Featuring a LCD screen, lightweight and with durable battery life, the GameBoy soon would become the prefered portable device in the market, even competing with better rivals, such as Game Gear and the Atari Lynx. As game designer, Gunpei Yokoi released a few important games to the portable, such as Metroid II – Return of Samus, Super Mario Land, and Kid Icarus.
The last time Gunpei Yokoi was in the news, unfortunately, was to release the infamous Virtua Boy. Trying to reach into 3D environments, Nintendo asked his R&D team to come up with ideas to turn a game into a 3D virtual reality, and Gunpei Yokoi was appointed as lead designer. After the success of the GameBoy, no one else inside the Big N would have better credentials to do so.
However, in light of the difficulty to create a portable 3D simulator, the project took too long and had to make concessions on the design, to avoid an exorbitant price. The design selected by Nintendo resembled a futuristic microscope, standing on a tripod, with controllers at your hand. Anyone that played one of the 22 released games would complain about headaches, nausea, and in a few extreme cases, desorientation.
It’s not certain why Nintendo decided to go ahead with the design showed to the public, but the backlash of criticism made Nintendo blame Yokoi for the failure in sales of the Virtua Boy. Gunpei Yokoi decided to stay in Nintendo a little longer (he was ready to leave for his own company) and clear his name.
However, on October 4th, 1997, Gunpei Yokoi was hit by a passing car, after leaving his own to check a small collision with a truck, in a busy highway in Japan. Gunpei Yokoi was pronounced dead 2 hours later at a local hospital.
Although he is gone, his legacy is forever cemented in the game industry. The original Game & Watch featured the first Directional Pad (or D-Pad for short) ever made for gaming, and it became a standard for every controller from Nintendo; His accomplishments with the Gameboy are undeniably huge, and his philosophy of cost x technology lives on inside Nintendo as of today; his design for the dual screen model of the Game & Watch would be the basis for the Nintendo DS, released years after his passing; the original R.O.B. toy, that was packaged with the Nintendo Entertainment System and helped pave the way for the games back in the trust of the customers, was also designed by him.
Gunpei Yokoi was one of the founding fathers of this industry, but unfortunately ostracized by one mistake in his otherwise brilliant career. It’s a shame a legend like him is slowly being left behind as one of the greats in the game industry.