Born: September 10, 1941
Died: October 4, 1997
Gunpei Yokoi was among the first video game designers at Nintendo and spearheaded the company’s transformation from a maker of toys and playing cards into a global electronic gaming empire. He developed the company’s best-selling product lines of the 1980s and early 1990s, from the Nintendo Entertainment System (Famicom, or NES) to the Game & Watch and Game Boy handheld systems.
Born during World War II, Yokoi was raised in Kyoto and obtained a degree in electronics from Doshisha University. In 1965, the family-run Nintendo Playing Card Company hired him to maintain the manufacturing equipment that produced its hanafuda cards. But by the mid-1960s, the domestic playing card market was declining, and the company searched for new sources of profit. Experimenting with various product lines, the company began to focus on children’s toys. Its president Hiroshi Yamauchi, the great-grandson of Nintendo’s nineteenth-century founder, asked Yokoi to design “something great” for the company’s fledgling Games division. Yokoi’s Ultra Hand, a wood lattice that extended and grabbed when users brought its handles together, was an instant hit, and 1.2 million were sold.
Yokoi moved from the assembly line to research and development. He designed a series of successful toys for Nintendo, including the Beam Gun, the predecessor to the “zapper” included with NES consoles in the mid-1980s. To produce this toy, Yokoi collaborated with Masayuki Uemura, who worked for the Sharp Corporation on solar cells. Together, they developed a plastic gun that shot a beam of light with solar cells as targets. Inspired by skeet shooting, Nintendo used this technology to turn old bowling alleys into shooting ranges.
In the mid-1970s, Nintendo decided to enter the growing video game market. President Yamauchi created three departments that competed against one another, and Yokoi was put in charge of Nintendo Research & Development 1. His department focused on creating handheld games. Yokoi’s inspiration came from a train trip when he saw a rider passing time by pressing the keys on a liquid-crystal display (LCD) calculator. Yokoi realized he could use LCD technology to satisfy an untapped market for portable games, and, from 1980 to 1991, developed sixty titles for a product line called Game & Watch (so named because it incorporated a digital clock). Small enough to fit in a child’s hand, each device offered a single game. To reduce energy use and operate with a limited memory, the LCD screen was printed with a specific scene. To keep the small surface uncluttered, Yokoi created a cross-shaped directional button, or D-pad, that would become a standard feature of all Nintendo video game controllers.
With its basic interface, affordable components derived from digital calculators, and good battery life, Game & Watch exemplified Yokoi’s video game design principles, which he later called the “Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology.” Rather than leading in the development of new technology, Yokoi believed that Nintendo would stand out by conceiving creative and entertaining uses for existing hardware.
In the early 1980s, Nintendo was preparing to release its first gaming console, the Famicom (NES), and needed a marketing gimmick to help the product stand out in a crowded field. Yokoi’s strange but winning solution was the Robotic Operating Buddy, or R.O.B., which was bundled with the NES Deluxe Set in 1985. R.O.B. functioned as a controller, but gamers could only actually use it for two games. Nevertheless, retailers who otherwise would have declined to stock another game console picked up the product, believing they were selling a robotic toy. In addition to keeping the NES in stores, Yokoi helped develop some of Nintendo’s most popular game franchises, including Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, and Metroid.
Yokoi’s best known innovation was the Game Boy, which combined the portability and monochrome LCD display of the Game & Watch with the cartridge system and 8-bit processor of the NES. Release in 1989, Yokoi declined to incorporate full-color 16-bit technology into the handheld like its competitors, the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear. He correctly predicted that consumers would prefer a cheaper product with better battery life. Nintendo would eventually sell over 100 million Game Boys, and many of the games that Yokio developed for the console became best-sellers.
The key failure of Yokio’s career came in his last years at Nintendo. In the early 1990s, Yokio pushed the development of a 32-bit system called the Virtual Boy. The console required users to wear goggles and watch a sometimes headache-inducing red light-emitting diode (LED) screen. Critics faulted its cost, fragility, and energy inefficiency, and the product was discontinued only a year after its 1995 release.
Yokio resigned from Nintendo in August, 1996, and began a new video game company called Koto, which produced a handheld video game, the Wonderswan, for the Japanese market. Tragically, Yokio was killed in by a passing car on an expressway in October, 1997.
Yokio has been recognized for his achievements posthumously, receiving the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Game Developers Conference, the industry’s largest annual meeting. His design philosophy continues to shape Nintendo’s market strategy. Both its current handheld system, the DS, and its home game console, the Wii, are built on legacy technologies and do not attempt to match the processing speeds and graphics capabilities of their competitors.
David Sheff, Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World (New York: Vintage, 1994).
Andrew Pollack, "Gunpei Yokoi, Chief Designer Of Game Boy, Is Dead at 56," NY Times, October 9, 1997.
Lara Crigger, "Searching for Gunpei Yokoi," The Escapist, March 6, 2007.