Searching for Gunpei Yokoi

Ten years after his death, Gunpei Yokoi has been reduced to legend: condensed, marginalized and re-packaged as a Nintendo creation myth instead of a man. You’d think there’d be entire encyclopedias profiling this Japanese Doc Brown, the prolific inventor who engineered the D-Pad, Game and Watch, R.O.B., Game Boy, Virtual Boy, a dozen or so children’s toys and the Super Mario Land, Fire Emblem, Kid Icarus and Metroid franchises. Not so. Instead, most official Nintendo histories gloss over Yokoi’s contributions, and many books and websites – if they’re even translated into English – echo the same rudimentary, unsubstantiated stories. Even Yokoi’s own obituaries wander off topic. The man was so vague and ghostly, he may not have even existed at all.

The only hard proof we have that Gunpei Yokoi graced this mortal soil is a few faded black and white photographs. Eerily, in each one, he looks exactly the same: gray hair, cleanly brushed back; a crisp, dark suit; and a faint but cheerful smile toying at his lips.

So how did Yokoi become such an enigma? The man only died in 1997, and yet his name has already evaporated from history. Like the shadows scorched into rock by an atomic blast, we know he existed, but his motivations and personal life remain a mystery. The true Gunpei Yokoi has vanished, leaving only his inventions behind.

The Ultra Hand
Most chronologies of Yokoi’s life begin in 1970, which implies that he’d skipped childhood entirely and instead sprung full-grown from a box of Nintendo playing cards. Facts on his early life are sparse. Yokoi was born in September 1941, during the thick of WWII, to a wealthy pharmaceutical factory owner. Instead of following in the family business, he attended Doshisha University, graduating with a degree in electronics. In 1965, the Nintendo Playing Card Company hired the young grad to maintain the assembly-line machines regulating its cash crop, hanafuda cards. Affable but quiet, Yokoi worked the conveyor belts for years, building a reputation among his peers as an electronics whiz who built toys and gadgets in his spare time.

Shortly after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the playing card market collapsed, and Nintendo struggled financially throughout the rest of the decade. Desperate to keep his family business afloat, President Hiroshi Yamauchi branched the company into everything from taxi services to “love hotels,” but nothing worked. Nintendo’s only commercial successes were a few children’s toys, which in part inspired the anxious Yamauchi to establish a new Games division in 1970.

Yamauchi called Yokoi into his office one day, asking the engineer to develop something – anything – for the Christmas rush. Gunpei produced an extending arm toy he’d constructed in his spare time, a wood lattice that could reach and grab when its handles were pushed together. Yamauchi was delighted, and Yokoi’s toy, dubbed the Ultra Hand, was hustled to the market that year.

Surprisingly, the Ultra Hand blossomed into an overnight sensation, selling more than 1.2 million units. Yokoi was quickly promoted from maintenance duty to research and development, where he proved to be a mechanical Midas, creating many of Nintendo’s best-sellers, including: the Ultra Machine, an indoor baseball-thrower; the Ten Billion Barrel, a Rubix Cube-like puzzle; and the Love Tester, an electronic gadget that measured a couple’s compatibility. One of his most successful toys, a joint venture with Masayuki Uemura, was the Beam Gun, a plastic light-gun that was the predecessor to the NES Zapper. Before long, Yokoi’s string of successes netted him his own creative team, the Research and Development 1 Group (R&D1).

Game and Watch
Yokoi’s next big hit came to him as he rode home one evening on the bullet train. The exhausted engineer noticed the gentleman next to him fiddling with an LCD calculator. Yokoi watched, fascinated, as the bored man punched buttons in idle boredom. Suddenly, Yokoi wondered if weary commuters, looking to pass the time, might be interested in a portable gaming device. Thus was the Nintendo Game and Watch born.

The first Game and Watch system, Ball, launched in 1980, and over the next 11 years, 59 more titles would be released, from Donkey Kong to Oil Panic to Balloon Fight. Each handheld sported an LCD screen printed with a specific scene, such as a house or a forest. Buttons on the side cycled through Alarm, Time and Game functions, and some models even used a dual-screen set-up, like the Nintendo DS. But most importantly, the Game and Watch handheld included a cross-shaped directional button named the D-Pad, eliminating the need for a joystick (which Yokoi insisted was too clumsy for a handheld device). An engineering revelation, the D-Pad has been used on every controller for every console for every company since its inception.

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Although fancier, more powerful handheld technology existed at the time, Yokoi maintained that the Game and Watch systems should use affordable components that offered a decent battery life. Consumers, he believed, would prefer cheaper products with fun gameplay over the hottest, cutting-edge gadgets. This design philosophy, which Yokoi would later dub “Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology,” guided most of his inventions; to this day, Nintendo still gravitates toward well-understood technologies to design their novel, reinvented gameplay.

The R.O.B.
Since the late ’70s, Nintendo had been experimenting with the home videogame market, and by 1983, the company was ready to release its first gaming console, the Famicom (NES). But that was the same year the infant videogame industry, wracked with price wars and a glut of crappy titles, crashed spectacularly. Faced with indifferent customers and bargain bins brimming with videogames, retailers refused to stock more consoles. Nintendo realized it needed a clever marketing ploy to trick store owners into supplying the Famicom.

Again, Yokoi saved the day, this time by devising the Robotic Operating Buddy, or R.O.B. (the Famicom Robot in Japan). Released in 1985, the R.O.B. was a one-foot tall toy automaton that didn’t do much of anything, except consume AA batteries at an alarming rate. But the R.O.B. was bundled in the NES Deluxe Set, which also included a console, a Zapper gun, two controllers and two games (Duck Hunt and Gyromite). This clever packaging convinced retailers that the NES was not a videogame console but a robotic toy, and stores hesitant to stock other videogame products ordered the Deluxe Set instead. The trick worked: In its first year, the NES sold more than 1 million units, and having served its purpose, Yokoi’s R.O.B. was quickly dropped from the line-up the next year.

Yokoi designed many other products for the NES, especially with 25-year-old Shigeru Miyamoto, who joined Nintendo in 1977. Yokoi took to the young man, acting as his mentor. Together the pair produced two of the most memorable franchises in history – Donkey Kong and the original Mario Brothers – before Miyamoto moved to his own R&D group in 1984. Afterward, Yokoi kept producing games, including Kid Icarus, the original Fire Emblem and, of course, Metroid.

The Game Boy
Despite his successes with the Famicom, however, Yokoi preferred portable gaming, and in 1989, R&D1 released the first Game Boy, a revolutionary handheld that had been in development for three years. The system, which combined the portability of the Game and Watch with the interchangeable cartridge technology of the NES, was an instant success. When the Game Boy launched in Japan, its initial shipment of 300,000 units sold out in two weeks. Later, when it migrated stateside, U.S. shoppers snatched up more than 40,000 units on the first day alone.

As with the Game and Watch, the Game Boy eschewed the sexier, cutting-edge technologies available at the time – particularly a full-color screen – in favor of longer battery life and cheaper price points. This decision made many Nintendo higher-ups nervous: Atari had just released their own handheld, the Lynx, which featured full color and a backlit screen. But once again, Yokoi’s intuition proved correct. Consumers ignored the pricy, power-hogging Lynx, which required six AA batteries for only four hours of play time, and purchased the Game Boy instead. Sega’s Game Gear – also a technologically superior product – would suffer the same fate in the 1990s.

Yokoi stuck by the Game Boy for years, producing many of the handheld’s various iterations and some of its most famous games: Dr. Mario, Metroid II and Super Mario Land. The Game Boy’s success catapulted Yokoi into megastar status at Nintendo. Even more so than before, he was considered an unbeatable golden boy and one of the company’s most valuable assets.

If only he’d stopped there.

The Virtual Boy
In 1993, fresh off his Game Boy triumph, Yokoi began work on the Virtual Boy, which would be Nintendo’s only entry into 32-bit gaming. Two years later, the company released the final product. Essentially a set of goggles mounted on a tripod, the Virtual Boy projected monochrome images in a headset, using parallax to create 3-D graphics.

But for the first time, Yokoi’s principle of “Withered Technology” failed him, as consumers recoiled from the awkward, uncomfortable device. The Virtual Boy used red LEDs, chosen for their affordability and low battery drain, but the black-and-red display gave players headaches and eyestrain. In addition, the Virtual Boy was extremely delicate; if the console were bumped or knocked over, the mirror arrays inside could easily break. This, combined with its small game library and $180 price tag, kept customers away from the Virtual Boy, and Nintendo discontinued the console after only one year.

Rumors swirled that because Nintendo execs wanted another console out before the N64, the Virtual Boy had been rushed to market against Yokoi’s wishes. Indeed, in retrospect, the system’s design flaws all run counter to Yokoi’s philosophy: The Virtual Boy had short battery life, it was difficult to use and it was too expensive. Yet, even with twice the development time, the console might still have failed, since consumers have been stubbornly resistant to adopting VR technology.

Koto Laboratories
Yokoi was personally crushed by the Virtual Boy’s flop. The former Nintendo superstar became an outcast, and many wondered if the old man still had his creative fire. In August 1996, just days after the Japanese release of the Game Boy Pocket, Yokoi resigned.

Officially, his departure had no connection to the Virtual Boy. However, insiders claimed Nintendo hadn’t exactly discouraged Yokoi from leaving the company, either. Still, the engineer remained close to Nintendo, publicly waxing fond of his former employers.

Shortly after his resignation, Yokoi launched a development firm called Koto Laboratories. Koto was a fresh start for Yokoi, where he could be free to focus once more on the handheld systems he so loved. First, the company released a line of LCD keychain games in the style of Tamagotchi. Then, signing with Bandai, Koto began work on a competitor to the Game Boy, later dubbed the WonderSwan. For Yokoi, things were finally looking up again.

Gunpei’s Legacy
On October 4, 1997, Yokoi and an associate were driving on the Hokuriku Expressway when they rear-ended the truck in front of them. The two men stepped out of the car to inspect the damage, and a passing car sideswiped them. Yokoi was grievously injured and pronounced dead two hours later. He was 56.

Since his passing, Yokoi has received some industry recognition, particularly the 2003 GDC’s posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, Yokoi’s legacy of “Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology” lives on at Nintendo, obvious in the design schemes of the DS and Wii systems.

But the real Gunpei Yokoi remains a man within his machines, unknowable apart from his inventions. In this age of celebrity game developers, the idea that a titanic genius would be content to be eclipsed by his products seems incomprehensible. But for the thousands of nameless developers in the industry toiling away on games and consoles, Gunpei is nothing short of an inspiration. He is proof that the best legacy is not a name place in the history books, but rather the gift of joy, be it to one person or 100 million people around the world.

Every gamer, every child, every person who has ever loved a Nintendo product owes their smiles to Gunpei Yokoi, the quiet engineer with the faint, cheerful smile, the crisp, dark suit and nothing much else to distinguish him, who remains a god without a name, a burnt impression upon the rock, a ghost, a myth, a memory, a legend.

Lara Crigger is a freelance science, tech and gaming journalist whose previous work for The Escapist includes “Playing Through The Pain” and “How To Be A Guitar Hero.” Her email is lcrigger[at]gmail[dot]com.

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