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The Mount Rushmore of Nintendo Part Two: Gunpei Yokoi

There are many people who’ve made Nintendo the giant it is today. Join us as we take the next four weeks to dive into the lives of four people who left an indelible impact on one of the games industry’s largest corporations. Check out part one of our series, which covers Hiroshi Yamauchi, here.

While Hiroshi Yamauchi was a young Nintendo’s brawn, securing vital market share within the video games industry, Gunpei Yokoi embodied the adventurous spirit of innovation and craftsmanship that Nintendo would eventually be known for. A “short, solid, and unpretentious man” initially hired to maintain the machines producing Nintendo’s hanafuda cards, Yokoi was also one of Nintendo’s most inventive minds in the era before it entered the video game market. [1] With ideas such as the Ultra Hand, Love Tester, and light guns, Yokoi helped to lead Nintendo away from producing playing cards toward a future in entertainment.

He was the creator of the Game & Watch, a portable pseudo-handheld that played a variety of “games” on liquid crystal displays. [3] Designed after seeing a man on a train punching numbers into his calculator to kill time, Yokoi’s Game & Watch utilized cheap components that simultaneously made the system easy to manufacture and easy to pirate, sold hundreds of thousands of units, and made millions for Nintendo in the process. [4]

More importantly, it built upon a design philosophy that Yokoi held true, and one that has shaped Nintendo’s strategy even through to the present day, that of “lateral thinking for withered technology.” [5] Through the use of “mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply[,]” Yokoi would create devices like the Game Boy that, despite using older technology, were hits with consumers. [6] With the exceptions of the N64 and GameCube, which were powerful devices meant to compete with their fellow consoles and computers, Nintendo’s console and handheld design would always follow this trend, opting to use old and more explored technology in creative ways.

One of Yokoi’s most important decisions came when he poached a young engineer, Masayuki Uemura, away from his position at Sharp. [7] The intelligent son of a poor family who had learned to make radio airplanes out of discarded refuse, Uemura later created the Famicom, Nintendo’s first game console and an instant hit in Japan. [8] By hiring Uemura, Yokoi showed a foresight for personnel choice that proved advantageous for Nintendo, allowing them to constantly innovate while producing products that were both cheaper and more popular than their competition.

Yokoi would eventually Nintendo in 1996, his latest invention, the Virtual Boy, a failure shipped out too early to market. Howard Lincoln, Chairman of Nintendo of America, suggested that, perhaps, he had taken the failure personally. Whatever the reason, Yokoi founded his own toy company later on, one that would eventually help to create the Bandai WonderSwan. Unfortunately, tragedy would strike and, on October 4, 1997, Yokoi was struck by a car and killed. Nintendo’s greatest inventor was gone.

Yokoi left behind an impeccable legacy at Nintendo. A genius at building innovative machines from old technology, an inventor, and even a game developer (he worked on the Kid Icarus and Metroid series), Yokoi built a resume at Nintendo that ensures his place amongst the company’s all-time greats. Without him and his work, there would be no Nintendo, at least as we know it today.

For more information on the life of Gunpei Yokoi and other members of Nintendo’s early leadership, check out Game Over by David Sheff. You can find it on Amazon.

Footnotes:

[1] David Sheff, Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered The World (New York: Vintage, 2011), Location 368.

[2] Ibid., Locations 376-433

[3] Nathan Altice, I Am Error: The Nintendo Family Computer / Entertainment System Platform (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 21.

[4] Ibid., 23; Sheff, Game Over, 479-488.

[5] Altice, I am Error, 23.

[6] Sheff, Game Over, Location 479.

[7] Ibid., Locations 409-417.

[8] Ibid., Locations 400-409, 506-538, 586-594.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4

Written By

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

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