I have to give Nintendo props for all the sensibly priced products they produced over time as they have kept me entertained for hours upon hours and still do to this very day. While growing up I never thought about who made what and how, I simply just played and enjoyed not thinking past the bright red Nintendo logo embossed on all my games. Probably the only name I knew of was Shigeru Miyamoto and back then I classified him as “the dude that made all the Mario’s” and I wasn’t even pronouncing his name correctly. In hindsight I didn’t realise that so many of those enjoyable hours of gaming came from a man named Gumpei Yokoi who was a brilliant minded person that helped establish Nintendo as a house hold name. Previously we have taken a look at some of Gumpei Yokoi’s creations in past Retrospective articles and this time round we’ll focus more on the man that designed them.
Gunpei Yokoi (1941-1997)
Little in known about Gumpei Yokoi’s life prior to working for Nintendo with documentation of his achievements only beginning in the late 60s. This is strange considering the impact his creative mind has had on the gaming industry, one would assume that people would be interested in what drove this man's creative ambitions from an early age. Yokoi was born September 10, 1941 in (1941-09-10) Kyoto, Japan to a wealthy pharmaceutical factory owner. Rather than work for the family business Yokoi travelled his own path and attended Doshisha University later graduating with a degree in electronics. He then began working for Nintendo in 1965 back when they were still producing playing cards and venturing out into a number of other business opportunities. Yokoi’s job at Nintendo was to maintain the machinery that produced Hanafuda cards. He continued to fulfill his duties quietly and efficiently while at the same time developing a reputation for being quite the toys inventor.
It wasn’t until late 60s that Hiroshi Yamauchi the president of Nintendo at the time took noticed a toy Yokoi made in his spare time. Yamauchi liked what he saw and ordered Yokoi to have this product on the store shelves before the Christmas rush. Known as the Ultra Hand Yokoi’s first toy was a success and was basically the stepping stone he needed to further his career. As of such Yokoi was moved to product development in Nintendo’s recently established “games” department where his passion for creativity and innovative ideas aided Nintendo out of the current financial downfall they were in.
Gumpei Yokoi had his own philosophy when it came to designing and producing electronics which he called ”Lateral thinking of withered technology”. What Yokoi meant by that was withered technology being cost effective, mature, tried and tested technology. Lateral thinking is taking that technology and utilizing it new and different ways. If you take a closer look at some of the products he has designed you’ll notice that they don’t have the latest and greatest technology in their construction, instead an affordable product that is fun to use has been made.
The Ultra Hand
The Ultra Hard was an extendable claw toy that became an overnight success eventually selling over 1.2 million units.
The Ultra Machine was an automatic baseball throwing machine that pitched a ball to the player at soft pace.
The Love Tester
The Love Tester was a novelty device that gave users a rating on how romantic you are with another person. In order to get a reading both a girl and a boy would hold each others hands and with their free hands hold the two handles inside the machine. The machine actually measured the current that passed though the two people and gave a rating on that. The Love Tester has still managed to travel through the ages with today’s equivalent being SMS and web based often requiring users to input names.
Ten Billion Barrel
The Ten Billion Barrel also known as the Nintendo tumbler puzzle was a puzzle game played in a similar fashion the Rubik’s Cube. The object of this game is to sort the balls so that each of the five columns contains the same coloured balls.
Beam Gun Games
Gumpei Yokoi enlisted the talents of Masayuki Uemoura from Sharp and began working on beam gun games that used solar cells. The solar cells were mounted onto targets and were used to sense a light beam. The result of this Yokoi and Uemoura collaboration was a fun, cost effective toy and at the same time made Nintendo the first Japanese company to produce a toy that contained electronic components. The concept of beam guns proved to very popular and Nintendo used this technology in a larger scale by converting old bowling alleys into beam gun shooting ranges.
Game and Watch Series
Game and Watch game: Ball
Drawing inspiration from observing a man on a train amusing himself by playing with an LCD calculator, Yokoi decided to combine a portable videogame and clock in the one compact unit at an affordable price and he couldn’t have picked a better time to make something like this. At the time Sharp and Casio were competing against each other in the digital calculator market and as a result brought the price of LCD screens and semi conductors down, which were key components needed to construct a G&W unit. The first Game and Watch game was called Ball and was released in 1980. Controls consisted of a left and right button used to direct the character appearing on the LCD display. As more G&W games were released the control system began to evolve and this is where the cross shaped D-pad originated. From then on the D-Pad has basically been standard issue with every videogame console released even with the current generation of consoles today. The G&W series are powered by your off the shelf watch batteries and was the first portable LCD videogame that featured a microprocessor. Many believe that the G&W series was Yokoi’s prototype for the Game Boy due to a number of similarities and it’s often been documented as the Game Boy predecessor. The series proved to be huge success with a total of 60 different games being released. Now days the original G&W games are considered collectibles fetching impressive prices on auction sites if they are in pristine condition
After having phenomenal success with the toys and the Game and Watch games, Gumpei Yokoi was given his own team in 1984. At this time Nintendo set up four separate R&D teams assigning their chief engineers to oversee numerous projects as Nintendo had their focus set on the ever growing videogames market. Yokoi’s R&D1 team (research and development) consisted of 55 engineers designers and programmers. One of these employees was no other than the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, Yokoi and Miyamoto worked together to produce some of the most memorable arcade games in history such as Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong. When the Famicom was released in Japan Yokoi and his R&D1 team produced a number of titles that helped the system become a huge success. With some of these games becoming Nintendo’s much loved franchises that continued right though each of Nintendo’s evolutionary leaps in console releases. A number of these games were produced by a spin off division of the R&D1 team called Intelligent Systems that was founded in 1986 which Yokoi was also in charge of until his departure from Nintendo.
A game that needs no introduction, Donkey Kong was a smash hit back in the 80’s and would still have to be one of the most recognized games today. Originally released in the arcades as a stand alone unit then eventually being ported to vast number of other gaming systems. This was one of the first examples of platform gaming and helped Nintendo establish some iconic characters that they could use for other games later on. The object of the game was to save your girlfriend from Donkey Kong who kidnapped her in the first place because his owner mistreated him. The owner being Jump Man (AKA Mario) had to climb ladders, collect items and avoid oncoming barrels while making his way to save his girlfriend. This game had quite a high difficulty factor requiring perfect timing and precision in order to succeed.
Donkey Kong Junior
Donkey Kong Junior took off where the last Donkey Kong game ended and sports a similar game play style to its predecessor. Mario has captured Donkey Kong and the player has to control Junior past all the hazards Mario throws at you to save his father. This is the first and only time Mario has been depicted as a bad guy in a Nintendo game. Just like the first Donkey Kong game this too was a very successful title and ended up being ported over to many other systems.
Built using the same engine as Metroid and a combination of gameplay elements from The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros, Kid Icarus became an instant classic. The player takes on the role of Pit a young angel trapped in the underworld asked by Palutena the Goddess of Light to retrieve the three Sacred Treasures that would help him defeat Medusa, who has taken over here home The palace in the sky with her army of monsters and evil spirits. Kid Icarus was first released on the Famicom Disk system where gameplay could be saved onto the disk, followed by the NES version that was on a 1Mbit cartridge that used a password system to save progression. Now days Pit has found him self a playable character in Super Smash Brothers Brawl on the Nintendo Wii and many have expressed their desire to see him star in his own game for the same console. If you wish to relive the original classic the game is available for download for the Virtual console.
The Metroid series has become a cult classic and stood the test of time with each release on all the Nintendo consoles except for the Nintendo 64 which never got to see a version. The Metroid series introduced a nonlinear gameplay style that has the player exploring and backtracking throughout levels to find the necessary items and weapons required to progress through the game. The Metroid series has a darker theme to it when compared to the majority of the upbeat happy games Nintendo offers. When first released Metroid took many by surprise by using a female as the main character with the common theme for videogames at the time having a male hero and the female playing the role of the damsel in distress. Gumpei Yokoi intended the Metroid series to end with Super Metroid on the Super Nintendo and it stayed that way, hence the lack of a N64 version. Super Metroid was the final Metroid game Gumpei Yokoi was involved in. It wasn’t until the Game Cube that the 2D classic made the transition to the 3D gaming world and it did it with much success. For a closer more in depth look at the entire Metroid series look no further than Ben Salter’s Metroid Series Guide.
R.O.B (Robotic Operating Buddy) in short was a gimmick accessory for the NES. In the early 80s when the videogames industry crashed due to the market being saturated with mediocre titles consumers were reluctant to buy any videogame products. So R.O.B was packaged with the NES console to portray the videogames console as novelty toy which worked in Nintendo’s favour. Only two titles that utilized this accessory were released Gyromite and Stack-Up after that R.O.B was quickly forgotten but still served its intended marketing purpose. Depending on which game was played R.O.B could interact with a number of objects that were placed on the unit’s base or press buttons on a standard NES controller and would receive signals via optical flashed from the TV. Even though R.O.B was quickly forgotten as an accessory it still lived on through a number of appearances in Nintendo titles over time, some of which R.O.B is a playable character.
R&D1 Team and Intelligent Systems not only developed Super Metroid for the Super Nintendo they also developed Battle Clash which was a shooting game that used the Super Scope peripheral. A puzzle game called Panel de Pon and the tactical RPG Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu. All of these games can be relived on all their original glory on the Wii’s Virtual Console.
Making its debut in 1989 the Game Boy would have to be Gumpei Yokoi’s career high light and was a prime example of his theory”Lateral thinking of withered technology” as the Game Boy proved to be a phenomenal success with components as simple as monochromatic display. Even thought the Game Boy had much lower spec technology that it’s high powered, colour screed, backlit competitors it still managed to eclipse them in sales and popularity. The Game Boy came with a much cheaper price tag and thanks to its efficient battery consumption users didn’t have to spend a small fortune of replacing batteries. This was a common short fall for both the Sega Game Gear and the Atari Lynx. Add to this a huge catalogue of games that suited a broad audience the Game Boy was the unstoppable little guy of the industry. Even though key members at Nintendo were putting the pressure on Yokoi to produce a colour portable gaming system Yokoi stuck to his guns and insisted that they hold back on it until suitable battery technology was commercially available. For a closer look at the Game Boy series check out the previous retrospective article Here!
After the runaway success of the Game Boy it seemed that Gumpei Yokoi could do no wrong but unfortunately the Virtual Boy was the one creation that tarnished his record. The Virtual Boy was regarded as the stop gap between the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64. It was a 32bit system that used oscillating mirrors and hi-res LEDs to display its imagery. The user views the Virtual Boy through a goggle type window. Two different images to separate LED screens for each eye creates what is known as a parallax effect which our brain naturally interoperates the two separate images as a single image there for causing a greater illusion of depth. The Virtual Boy didn’t receive anywhere near the positive reception that the Game Boy did and recieved common complaints due to the lack of colour and the discomfort caused by prolonged use of the system. Even within Nintendo the Virtual Boy didn’t receive much support with Nintendo’s top game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, primarily focusing on the up and coming Nintendo 64. Unfortunately Yokoi’s theory of ”Lateral thinking of withered technology” didn’t work with the Virtual Boy, the ability to integrate a colour display into the system was possible at the time but the cost would have been excessively high. Add to that the consumers were getting a little performance hungry with many wanting bigger, brighter, more powerful feature packed systems. The Virtual Boy didn’t even last a full year with Nintendo quickly abandoning the system in favour of the Nintendo 64. For a closer look at the Nintendo Virtual Boy check out the previous Retrospective article Here!
Life After Nintendo
After the failings of the Virtual Boy, Nintendo and Gumpei Yokoi himself was not to pleased with the systems out come. It wasn’t long after that Yokoi handed in his own resignation and parted ways with Nintendo. Contrary to belief there was no actual resentment between Nintendo and Yokoi as they remained in contact with each other and Yokoi even helped with some consultation from time to time. In 1996 Gumpei Yokoi founded his own company named Koto Laboratories where he could focus on his passion for handheld gaming. Yokoi teamed up with Bandai to develop the Wonderswan which was designed to be a competitor against the Nintendo Game Boy Color and the Neo Geo Pocket Color. The Wonderswan was aimed primarily at the Japanese market and was backed by a respectable library of games. It was a 16bit system with a monochromatic LCD display which could be played in a vertical or horizontal position depending on the game. The Wonderswan was released in Japan in 1999 but sadly Gumpei Yokoi was not around for its release.
October 4, 1997 was a sad day; it was the day the legendary inventor’s life game to an end in tragic car accident. Gumpei Yokoi and an associate from Nintendo, Etsuo Kiso got involved in a minor car accident with a truck and when they both stepped out the vehicle to inspect the damage Yokoi and Kiso was sideswiped by a passing car. Kiso suffered from broken legs and whiplash but Yokoi was pronounced dead two hours later. Even though his life ended at a relatively early age Gumpei Yokoi’s creative thinking has made millions of people around the world happy. His achievements were immortalized on March 6, 2003 when he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards ceremony. His theory on ”Lateral thinking of withered technology” has still been adopted by Nintendo with their current crop of gaming systems. Both the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii have lower spec technology than their market rivals but they are winning consumers over with fun and innovation.
RIP Gunpei Yokoi (1941-1997)
Lateral thinking of withered technology
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Written by: Matthew Armitage