Lateral Thinking, Withered Technology: The Life and Legacy of Gunpei Yokoi

(Written as of 2014)

Gunpei Yokoi is considered by people from all around the world to be one of the most iconic and innovative figures in video gaming history. A long-time employee of Nintendo, he worked to create such consoles as the Game & Watch, and his greatest invention, the Game Boy. In addition, he also invented the modern-day D-pad used in video game controllers, as well as heading game development at Nintendo R&D1, where he assisted in the creation of, and produced instalments of, some of Nintendo’s longest running and recognizable franchises, such as Metroid, Kid Icarus and Super Mario Land. As the Game Boy recently turned twenty-five years old, it’s fitting to look back at this legendary innovator, and what he achieved throughout his illustrious career.

Yokoi was born on September 10th, 1941. He grew up in Kyoto, Japan, and was the son of a wealthy pharmaceutical factory owner. But rather than follow in his father’s footsteps, he instead attended Doshisha University, where he graduated with a degree in electronics. He was hired by Nintendo in 1965, where he was first employed as their janitor and maintenance man, working on the assembly-line machines that Nintendo used to manufacture playing cards.

Nintendo hadn’t always been a video games manufacturer. The company was first founded on September 23rd, 1889, and started out by mass-producing playing cards for a popular Japanese game called Hanafuda; meaning “flower cards”. By 1963, two years before Yokoi was hired at the company, Nintendo had dabbled in other business ventures, such as a love hotel chain, a TV network, a food company; they even established a taxi firm at one point. But whilst all these business ventures were met with failure, the Hanafuda cards continued to do exceptionally well, until the playing card market’s collapse in 1964. The collapse of the market led to Nintendo struggling financially throughout the remainder of the decade.

It was in 1966 when then-president of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi, grandson of the company’s founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi, visited the Hanafuda factory where Yokoi worked, and noticed a toy that he had made for his own amusement; a toy in the form of an extending hand, operated like scissors to extend when the handles were pinched together. Impressed with this product, Yamauchi ordered Yokoi to mass-produce his invention and sell it in time for the Christmas rush. Dubbed the Ultra Hand, the toy was a huge success, selling over a million units. Nintendo subsequently promoted Yokoi to the position of product developer, and he continued to manufacture many more toys and gadgets, which would ultimately save the company from their financial dire straits, making him one of Nintendo’s most well-known and well-respected figures. Other inventions of Yokoi’s included a Rubik’s cube-style mathematical puzzle called the Ten Billion Barrel, a miniature remote-controlled vacuum called the Chihitory, and a Love Tester machine. Interestingly, the Love Tester was the first ever Nintendo product to use electronic components. He continued to manufacture toys for the company until 1974, when Nintendo decided to enter the video games industry, embracing their roots as a games company in a much different, and eventually overwhelmingly successful capacity.

Yokoi became one of Nintendo’s first video game designers; the first being Genyo Takeda, who created one of their first game series, Punch-Out!! Incidentally, Takeda had been both interviewed and hired at Nintendo by Yokoi himself. Later on, Yamauchi had come up with the concept for a handheld gaming device, and he assigned the project to Yokoi. He worked extensively on his new assignment, and later found the answer he had been looking for. One day in 1979, whilst travelling on the Shinkansen railway line, Yokoi noticed a bored businessman playing with an LCD calculator by pressing the buttons. Yokoi first thought of an idea for a watch that doubled as a miniature game device, designed for “killing time”. This idea later became the Game & Watch, released in 1980 amidst the second generation of video games, and sold over 43,000,000 units worldwide until it’s discontinuity in 1990.

Shortly after the release of the Game & Watch, Yamauchi appointed Yokoi to assist fellow Nintendo games designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, in the development of their arcade game, Donkey Kong. It was at this time that Yokoi took Miyamoto under his wing and mentored him, explaining to him Donkey Kong’s many intricacies and unique properties the game possessed. The two men established many modern-day company standards with Donkey Kong, by using graphics as a means of characterization, and even using cutscenes in order to progress the game’s story. The game caught Yamauchi’s attention, and it was posthumously approved, and brought to arcades in 1982, going on to become yet another huge success for Nintendo. Interestingly, when it was time to port the game to the Game & Watch in the same year, Yokoi had also included a D-pad with this version of the machine, and has since become one of the most stable elements in video gaming to this day. Yokoi and Miyamoto continued to work together; developing the original Mario Bros arcade game, which was modestly successful at the time, but would lead Miyamoto to take the character to astronomical heights in the future. It was also at this time when Yokoi was appointed head of Nintendo R&D1, which was the company’s oldest development team.

Nintendo’s next move in the video game market, however, required much more of an elaborate approach, when they wanted to branch out even further. Although video gaming was a cultural phenomenon in Japan, it was a very different story in America. In 1983, the video game crash was in full swing. Due to a number of factors such as a flooding of poor quality titles being rushed out to retail and revenue being far too spread out for any one company to do well, the video game market in North America almost ended entirely, leading to many companies filing for bankruptcy, including the dominant force of the second generation of gaming; Atari. In response to the crash, known in Japan as the Atari Shock, Nintendo designed their first foray into home console gaming; the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), or the Family Computer (Famicom) in Japan. The design of the console for overseas releases was cleverly altered to resemble a video recorder, and not a games console, calling it the control deck. But it was Yokoi who developed the console’s initially main selling point.

Yokoi’s next invention was R.O.B. (the Robotic Operating Buddy), which was a toy robot that came bundled with the console, which was released in North America on October 18th, 1985. Nintendo did this to provide the console with additional novelty and to alleviate fears following the crash. But the robot was only compatible with two NES games. Gyromite and Stack-Up; both developed by Nintendo R&D1. But of course, after the novelty of the robot wore off, that was when Nintendo got people everywhere hooked on Super Mario Bros, and the console was an exceptional success, dragging the industry out of its slumber, and convincing many people in North America to give video games a second chance. In addition to both R.O.B. and adding the D-pad to the NES’s controller, bringing it to true prominence, Yokoi also worked with Nintendo R&D1 to produce and develop several big name games for the system, including Duck Hunt (a game compatible with the NES Zapper light gun, likely created by Yokoi), Excitebike, Dr Mario, Wrecking Crew, Ice Climber, Kid Icarus and most notably, Metroid; a series, which Yokoi himself co-created along with Makoto Kano, Hiroji Kiyotake and Yoshio Sakamoto. But even after all the success that Yokoi had garnished, and everything he had done for Nintendo up to this point, it would be his next invention that would go on to become his most iconic and successful.

Yokoi and the Nintendo R&D1 team felt that in order to design a new handheld video games console, it needed to be small, light, inexpensive and durable; as well as having a library of varied, familiar and attractive titles. Following this theory, Yokoi created the Nintendo Game Boy, releasing it in 1989, when it was met with overwhelming critical and commercial acclaim, and would go on to become the third best selling console of all time, behind the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation 2, with over 118 million units sold (counting the Game Boy Colour). Nintendo R&D1 continued to support the system by releasing many titles for it, including Metroid II: Return of Samus, a port of Dr. Mario and Super Mario Land 1 & 2. But the most successful game for the system was undisputedly Tetris. When Tetris was created, it’s developer, Alexei Pajitnov, was forced to sign all rights to the game over the Soviet Union, who then reached a licensing agreement with Nintendo to see Tetris bundled with the Game Boy. Ever since, Tetris (in all formats) has become the best selling game of all time, selling over 495,000,000 copies and downloads worldwide. As a fourth generation console, the Game Boy competed in the handheld market against both the Sega Game Gear and the Atari Lynx; outselling the both of them by a significant margin.

In a selection of interviews, Yokoi attributed his success to his own personal philosophy, concerning lateral thinking with withered technology.   “Lateral thinking” refers to finding radical new ways to use already existing or “withered” technology. Withered technology in this context refers to mature hardware, which is either cheap or familiar. He held the notion that toys and games didn’t essentially need to be of cutting-edge technology, but rather the most important selling points would be their novelty or gameplay value. Yokoi also believed that in some cases, cutting-edge technology could actually become a hindrance rather than a competitive edge, articulating that it could get in the way of developing a new product. At the time when Yokoi saw the bored businessman playing with his calculator and began working on the Game & Watch, Sharp and Casio were in fierce competition in the digital calculator market, and this saw an influx of features such as semiconductors and liquid crystal displays. Yokoi’s “lateral thinking” involved finding a more original and entertaining use for these elements, which he considered to be “withered technology”. This philosophy was also put into place during the development of the Game Boy, as Yokoi refused to adopt a colour display for the console in favour of longer battery life, and succeeded over the Game Gear and the Atari Lynx, which both had colour screens. Nintendo’s current president, Satoru Iwata, insists that Yokoi’s philosophy is still practiced at Nintendo to this very day, and it’s certainly evident. For example, similarities can be drawn with the Game & Watch and the Nintendo DS, which has since become the second best selling games console of all time, even outselling the Game Boy and Game Boy Colour combined.

By the late 16-bit era, Yokoi and Nintendo R&D1 had not only developed a good number of Game Boy games, but also a number of games for Nintendo’s latest home console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). These game included Battle Clash, Mario Paint and the immensely successful Super Metroid. Its most likely that Yokoi also assisted in the creation of the Super Scope, a shoulder-mounted light gun made for use with certain SNES titles; Nintendo R&D1 having developed the demo game for the peripheral, Super Scope 6, as well the game Yoshi’s Safari. But disappointingly, gamers would be considerably less lukewarm to Yokoi’s next foray into console development.

On November 13th, 1994, Yokoi’s latest creation, the Virtual Boy, was previewed in the New York Times and was officially announced the next day via press release. Nintendo promised consumers that the Virtual Boy would “totally immerse players into their own private universe”. Yokoi designed the Virtual Boy believing that it was a unique form of technology, which would be difficult for competitors to emulate, and that it would enhance Nintendo’s reputation as innovators in video gaming technology. However, problems soon arose with the console relating to development cost and proposed retail price. Though Nintendo contemplated the idea of including a colour screen, they concluded that it would have been prohibitively expensive to implement. So Yokoi instead opted for red LEDs since they were the cheapest. However, even with these inexpensive components included, the system was still priced at $180. Whilst this was slightly less costly than a home console at the time, it was considerably more costly than a handheld one.

After an extensive advertising campaign said to have cost Nintendo in excess of $25,000,000, the Virtual Boy was released in 1995 in both Japan and America. It was never released in Europe. However, following disappointing sales figures and an initial lack of software support, the Virtual Boy was discontinued the following year, and Yokoi subsequently departed from Nintendo after thirty-one years with the company.

But contrary to popular belief of Yokoi being dismissed by Nintendo, he had actually “planned to retire at the age of 50 to do as he pleased, and his retirement was slightly later than he’d planned”, according to fellow Nintendo employee, Yoshihiro Taki. Furthermore, according to the book Game Over, written by David Sheff, Yokoi apparently never intended for the Virtual Boy to be released in the state that it had been, and it was simply rushed out to retail by Nintendo, who focused efforts and resources on the development and release of their next home console effort, the Nintendo 64, being created by Nintendo R&D3. But what really disproves the idea of Yokoi and Nintendo having bad blood between each other is the fact that Yokoi developed the Game Boy Pocket as a going away present before he left, in addition to even acting as a consultant for the company following his departure.

After Yokoi left Nintendo, he and several of his subordinates went on to form their own development company, christened Koto Laboratory. They started off by releasing a line of LCD key chain games, similar to the Tamagotchi, which was insanely popular all over the world at the time. It was following this that the development company Bandai approached Yokoi and Koto Laboratory, and challenged him to develop a new handheld gaming device in order to compete with his Game Boy console. This became the Bandai WonderSwan, which was released in 1999. But sadly, Yokoi never got to see the release of his latest effort.

On October 4th, 1997, Yokoi and his associate Etsuo Kiso were driving on the Hokuriku Expressway when Yokoi accidentally rear-ended a truck driven by Takashi Okushima. The two men got out of the car to inspect the damage when Yokoi and Kiso were both hit by two passing cars; Kiso had fractured his rib, but Yokoi had been fatally wounded. The driver who hit Yokoi was Gen Tsushima, a member of the tourism industry, contrary to ridiculous urban legends telling of foul play. Tragically, Yokoi was pronounced dead in hospital two hours following the accident. Kiso thankfully survived with minor injuries. The WonderSwan was released two years later to moderate commercial success. A launch title for the system was named Gunpey, to honour Yokoi’s memory. Furthermore, Yokoi also received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the International Game Developer’s Association in 2003 as acknowledgement and celebration of his many varied and impeccable accomplishments as well as his influence on the industry as a whole.

To me, the Game Boy turning twenty-five years old appropriated a reflection on the man who created it, and the rest of his plentiful and unimpeachable innovations that he dedicated himself to throughout the course of his career, and how his way of thinking has continued to be implemented to this very day in the world of video gaming. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft all continue to maintain industry standards, but it was people like Yokoi who set them.

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