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Profile: Gunpei Yokoi

Monday, October 23, 2000

Profile: Gunpei Yokoi
Remembrance of a Pioneer

Gunpei YokoiGunpei Yokoi was one of Nintendo's sharpest designers and developed some of its most commercially successful products during his thirty one years at the company. This includes the Game & Watch series and the Game Boy, the world's best-selling video game device with a whopping 100 million units sold. Even more astounding is that the Game Boy is as popular today as it was eleven years ago, if not even more so. As the general manager of the R&D1 division at Nintendo Co., Ltd. (NCL), Yokoi was also involved with the development of such classic games as Metroid and Kid Icarus.

An inventive genius, Yokoi came up with some of the most original and imaginative products ever seen, whether it was an extendable toy arm with a grabbing hand, a light gun with solar cells as targets, a video game system small enough to fit in one's pocket, or a robotic toy that could be controlled by the television screen. Though he was sadly hit and killed by a car on a Japanese highway in 1997, his memory will always live within the hearts of Nintendo fanatics all over the world.

Ultra Inventions

Gunpei Yokoi was born on September 1941 in Kyoto and was the son of the director of a pharmaceutical company. When he graduated from college he had a degree in electronics. In 1965, while looking for a job, he got in touch with Nintendo, a company that was making playing cards. Yokoi got hired and would maintain the assembly machines that manufactured the cards. After being at NCL for several months, he was called into the office of the chairman, Hiroshi Yamauchi. The Nintendo chief had founded a new division, simply called Games, and wanted Yokoi to make something Nintendo could sell for Christmas.

Ultra HandYokoi was a hobbyist who built everything from toys to radios during the weekends. He would use spare parts to make all kinds of mechanical gadgets and had recently made a crisscrossed latticework of wood. When the two handles were pushed together, the device would extend and the two grip parts on the other side would close. Yokoi showed his invention to the NCL president, who gave the young man the green light. The gadget, named the Ultra Hand, was a huge success and sold 1.2 million units at about $6 each.

From this moment, Yokoi was assigned to come up with ideas and propose them to Yamauchi. The chairman would give Yokoi suggestions and challenge him to improve on the designs. During the following years, Yokoi invented a variety of toys in the Ultra series. He made the Ultra Machine, a baseball pitcher that could be used indoors since it used a lighter version of the baseball. More than two million copies were sold in a period of three years. Another device, the Ultra Scope, was similar to a periscope and allowed the children to see around corners, over fences, or behind them.

Gunpei Yokoi used to dabble with various electronic components like wires and oscilloscopes during the evenings. Some of his experiments were used on a machine he called the Love Tester. With scientific inaccuracy, the device determined how much "love" a boy and a girl had between them as they grabbed onto the handles of the machine while joining their free hands. One major reason behind its success in Japan was the concept of holding hands. Such physical contact was considered taboo among young teenagers, and the quirky device turned out to be a nice ice-breaker.

One day, a man from Sharp's Kyoto office arrived at NCL and wanted to meet up with Yokoi. The man, Masayuki Uemura, was on a routine sales call and wondered if Nintendo was interested in the solar cells his company was making. Yokoi and Uemura discussed it and concluded that the solar cells could be used for some interesting products. Uemura was soon hired away from Sharp and the two experimented on small cells. Yokoi had an idea about using the cell's ability to detect light for a shooting game. They made a light gun that shot out a beam of light with the solar cells as targets. When a target was hit, a lion would roar, a stack of toy barrels would be blown apart, or a plastic bottle would explode. More than one million units of the Beam Gun games were sold for about $30 each.

Yokoi had tried out skeet shooting, which was quite popular in Japan at the time, and got an idea about using the solar cells for something similar. He suggested this to Yamauchi, who came up with a commercial application for it. Nintendo bought some bowling alleys and made them into shooting ranges, but instead of using real clay pigeons, they used simulated ones that utilized solar cells to detect a hit. Yokoi put Uemura and a new employee, Genyo Takeda, to work on the project. The world's first Laser Clay Range opened in Kyoto in 1973.

Band of Samurai

In the late seventies, Nintendo watched as the electronic industry boomed and Yamauchi realized that the technologies had become cheap enough to utilize in entertainment products. He decided to put his chief engineers in charge of their own divisions. Gunpei Yokoi became the general manager of the Research and Development 1 (R&D1) group, consisting of forty five designers, programmers, and engineers. They operated in silence just like a band of samurai, with less recognition than the other divisions.

Yamauchi needed a breakthrough product and encouraged his employees to come up with new ways of making video games. Yokoi had realized that electronic devices had become so cheap and small that there were $10 calculators the size of a credit card. With that in mind, he sought to make something smaller than anything ever seen before, but also something that was fun. He developed a small game device that could fit in the palm of a child, and since it also had a tiny digital clock in the corner, it was named Game & Watch.

The first models had seperate buttons for the different directions___initially only left and right___but when the games became more sophisticated and required more buttons, Yokoi had to come up with something new or the device would be cluttered with buttons. What he came up with was a cross-shaped "button" with which the player could maneuver the on-screen character left, right, up, and down. This digital pad would later be utilized on virtually every future video game device.

Among the first games were Ball, Flagman, Vermin, and Fire, but soon more advanced games utilizing two screens were developed, such as Oil Panic, Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. There were even games like Punch-Out that enabled two children to play against each other. Samus Aran being chased by MetroidsIn total, almost sixty games in ten different models were made. The Game & Watches were launched in 1980 and became a phenomenal success. Nintendo made a fortune off them, as they were shipped by the tens of millions all over the world.

Gunpei Yokoi was the producer of Shigeru Miyamoto's first arcade games___Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, and Mario Bros___until Miyamoto got his own R&D division in 1984. Yokoi's R&D1 group would continue to make some of Nintendo's most notable Famicom (NES) games and released two classics in 1985. Metroid was an action adventure in which the heroine Samus Aran was on a quest to destroy the Mother Brain. In Kid Icarus, a young angel named Pit had to rescue Palutena, the goddess of light, and Angel Land from the darkness of the evil and monstrous Medusa.

Yokoi's R&D1 division also came up with an accessory for the Famicom called the Robotic Operating Buddy (ROB), a legless robot toy one foot high. As games such as Gyromite and Stack-Up were played, the ROB was controlled by the flashing of the television screen. It could be cued to pick up parts from a stack and drop them onto a pad. Doing this would unlock secrets in the game.

Thinking Small

In 1986, part of the R&D1 group formed Intelligent Systems and Gunpei Yokoi would later become the producer of many of its games, such as Battle Clash, Panel de Pon (Tetris Attack), and the Fire Emblem titles. Shortly after the splitting, Yokoi and the remaining members of the R&D1 group started development on a product that would turn out to be one of Nintendo's greatest and most profitable achievements ever___the Game Boy.

Game BoyThe Game Boy was a combination of the Game & Watch and the Famicom. Like the Game & Watch, it was portable, and like the Famicom, it had interchangeable game cartridges. It was so ingenious that a group working on portable entertainment devices at Sony got a scolding from managers and executives, as they thought it should had been a Sony invention. Some of the engineers were moved to other divisions and one of them was even so shamed that he left Sony.

The liquid crystal display of the Game Boy had four shades of sallow green, as Nintendo opted not to use a color screen since it would cost too much and require four or eight AA batteries instead of two. The company was criticized for not implementing a color screen on the handheld, but competitors such as Sega, Atari, and NEC that later on sold expensive portable systems with color screens didn't do as well as Nintendo and its Game Boy.

One of the reasons the Game Boy became so successful was that it was not only popular among the children but was also played by many adults. It could be spotted in briefcases, desk drawers, lunch rooms, first-class compartments on flights, and even in the hands of the president of the United States. Realizing its wide popularity, Nintendo started marketing the Game Boy towards adults by putting ads in all kinds of magazines.

When the Game Boy launched in early 1989 in Japan along with Super Mario Land, Alleyway, and Baseball, all 200,000 units sold out within two weeks. It was released later that year in the US with Tetris as a pack-in game, and 40,000 hardware units were sold on the first day, which was quite impressive in those days. Yokoi and his R&D1 group developed some of the Game Boy's best games, including the Super Mario Land titles, Metroid II - Return of Samus, and Dr. Mario, a puzzle game that would also be developed for the Famicom.

Virtual Defeat

In 1994, there was talk about a Virtual Reality project Nintendo was secretly working on, codenamed VR32. Later that year, at Nintendo's annual Shoshinkai show in Japan, the company unveiled the Virtual Boy, a console Yokoi had worked on for two years. Virtual BoyThe strange-looking device had a couple of stylish legs on which was a visor one could look into. Upon looking inside, the players were able to play games that appeared to be on a 3D plane.

Unfortunately, the Virtual Boy never became as popular as Nintendo had hoped. The graphics in the games were only in red and black and people would often complain about eye strain after long play sessions. Add to that a price tag of $180 along with games that were average at best, and it was pretty obvious the Virtual Boy would never catch on with consumers when it launched in the summer of 1995. The Virtual Boy was simply too strange of a product for the gamers to consider it over Sega's and Sony's 32-bit consoles.

Nintendo realized this and dropped the 3D machine as quickly as it could, but Gunpei Yokoi surely was very bothered by the fact that the Virtual Boy was such a failure. He had dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort on the product and it just wouldn't sell. Yokoi resigned from Nintendo on August 15th, 1996, just days after his latest achievement, Game Boy Pocket, was launched in Japan, and although the official line was that him leaving the company had nothing to do with the failure of the Virtual Boy, many think it had a lot to do with it. Yokoi started a new Kyoto-based company called Koto Laboratory and continued to have a good relationship with Nintendo.

A year later, on October 4th, 1997, Yokoi was involved with the design of the WonderSwan, a handheld developed through a partnership between Koto and Bandai, when something terrible happened. Gunpei Yokoi was in a car with his associate Etsuo Kisoo on the Hokuriku Expressway in Neagarimachi, Ishikawa Prefecture, when they hit a truck in front of them. They stepped out of the vehicle to check the damage when a random car side-swiped them, seriously injuring Yokoi. He was taken to a nearby hospital but was pronounced dead two hours later.

Gunpei Yokoi was always described as a warm and wonderful gentleman who was loved by everyone he came in contact with. Although one of his last projects with Nintendo would turn out to be everything but a success, he will always be remember for the masterful inventions of his early days. On that mournful Saturday in 1997, the industry of interactive entertainment had lost one of its pioneers, a genius whose imaginativeness established Nintendo as one of the world's leading game developers. Gunpei Yokoi's creations made many a rainy day into a magical adventure and a tedious car trip short, and for that, we thank him.

Jeton Grajqevci


Artwork copyright © Kevin Freitas 2000 - 2001.

Special thanks to David Sheff and Andy Eddy for writing Game Over - Press Start to Continue, a fascinating book about the history of Nintendo and its rise to dominance of the gaming industry.