This tribute goes out to a childhood Hero of mine. I was fortunate to have met this brilliant man at a trade show 13 years ago.
His name was Gunpei Yokoi - a master toy & game inventor. Mr. Yokoi was employed at Nintendo Co., Ltd
for over 30 years ( since 1965 ). Before Nintendo became this behemoth video game company we know today. They started out a Hanafunda playing card company over a hundred years ago.
Mr. Yokoi began working at Nintendo, after graduating college with a degree in electronics from Doshisha University. Yokoi started out working on the assembly line for the Hanafuda cards as a maintenance engineer.
In 1970, Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo at the time, came to a hanafuda factory Mr. Yokoi was working at and took notice of a toy, an extending arm, which Mr. Yokoi made for his own amusement during spare time as the company's janitor and machine maintenance man. Yamauchi ordered Mr. Yokoi to develop it as a proper product for the Christmas rush. The Ultra Hand was a huge success, selling approximately 1.2 million units. Mr. Yokoi was soon moved from maintenance duty to product development. Mr. Yokoi went on to develop many other toys during Nintendo's toy era, including the Ten Billion Barrel puzzle, a baseball throwing machine called the Ultra Machine, and a Love Tester. Another invention of his, in collaboration with Masayuki Uemura from Sharp, was the Nintendo Beam Gun Games, the precursor to the NES Zapper.
When Nintendo eventually began selling video games, Yamauchi asked Mr. Yokoi to come up with products in this field. After viewing a bored business-man playing with a calculator on a bullet-train, Mr. Yokoi invented a prototype.The initial result was Nintendo's popular Game & Watch series of handhelds. Game & Watch games were individual handheld games which featured an LCD-display. Some consider the small handhelds to be a prototype of the Game Boy, which would be released later and prove to be Mr. Yokoi's greatest work. These games also featured a "control-cross," which many video game enthusiasts today know as the D-Pad, a controller part that consists of four buttons grouped in a + shape which correspond to the directions up, down, left, and right. In most games this is used to control the direction of certain objects.
The Game & Watch series saw 59 titles between 1980 and 1991. Many popular arcade games were translated into Game & Watch titles, including Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., which Mr. Yokoi helped to create alongside Shigeru Miyamoto.
Nintendo began assigning its chief engineers to head their own divisions as the electronic industry boomed in the late seventies. Mr. Yokoi was appointed to the general manager of the Research and Development 1 (R&D1) group. R&D1 consisted of 55 designers, programmers, and engineers. It was with this group that Mr. Yokoi came up with many new ideas for Nintendo as it entered into the video games market.
Before Miyamoto got his own R&D department in 1984, Gunpei Yokoi helped to produce many of his famous arcade games, such as Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and the original Mario Bros.. In 1985, Mr. Yokoi and his R&D department were responsible for Kid Icarus, as well as the first title in one of Nintendo's longest running series, Metroid. Later in 1986, a part of Mr. Yokoi's R&D1 group branched off to form Intelligent Systems, and Mr. Yokoi later produced Battle Clash, Panel de Pon (scored by Masaya Kuzume), and Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu (scored by Yuka Tsujiyoko) alongside them. Mr. Yokoi was also responsible for hiring the man who would later become legendary for designing the Famicom/NES and Super Famicom/SNES- Masayuki Uemura.
R&D1 was also responsible for the Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.) accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
The remaining members of R&D1 remained with Mr. Yokoi, and they began developing what would become one of Nintendo's most profitable products, the Game Boy.
Mr. Yokoi's perhaps most notable work in the hardware area was the Game Boy handheld, released in 1989. The Game Boy was a small handheld that appeared to be the successor to the Game & Watch games. However, the Game Boy played numerous games through cartridge-based gameplay, and presented games on a monochromatic screen (essentially black and green). In short, it had all the portability of the Game & Watch titles but with the cartridge interchanging capabilities of the Famicom. During its Game & Watch days, Nintendo had marketed the handhelds at an affordable price, while keeping a standard of high quality.
One of the Game Boy's lasting strategies was to provide the user with an affordable product with a decent battery life. Even though higher-ups at Nintendo wanted a full-color screen version of the Game Boy (because other competitors like the Game Gear and Atari Lynx were full-color handhelds), Mr. Yokoi refused to release a color version until technology permitted a color handheld that would last a significant period under the power of a few batteries. Indeed, Mr. Yokoi's persistence saw the Game Boy, with a greater game library and long battery life, dominate the handheld market while the color screen Game Gear and Atari Lynx failed due to high battery consumption and expensive purchase price.
Mr. Yokoi and Nintendo even played a joke on fans who demanded a color Game Boy by revealing a line of Game Boys which had been painted various colors on the outside. The screen was still colorless; the change was merely cosmetic. In 1996, the Game Boy Pocket updated the monochrome screen with a true black-and-white one and slimmer profile.
Finally, in 1998, the Game Boy Color was released, a full-color version of the Game Boy. Keeping with the late Mr. Yokoi's standards, the Game Boy Color required 2 AA (compared to 4 AA for the original) batteries and had approximately the same battery consumption rate.
Many games for the Game Boy were developed by Mr. Yokoi and R&D1. The team had been assigned to develop exclusively for the Game Boy. Some of these include the Super Mario Land series, Metroid II: Return of Samus, and the puzzler Dr. Mario.
Gunpei Yokoi had become one of Nintendo's most respected members with his developing of the Game Boy alongside his other achievements. However, he lost some status when he developed the Virtual Boy, a home console which presented games in red and black. While the Virtual Boy did present a level of 3D, the red presented by the machine often irritated many players' eyes, and the machine itself was also fairly uncomfortable to use. The system also had a very small library. As a result, the Virtual Boy performed poorly in both Japan and North America and was subsequently never released in Europe. Yokoi was crushed by the Virtual Boy's failure, and the disaster had many at Nintendo questioning Mr. Yokoi's capabilities. According to an episode of Icons on the G4 TV channel, Mr. Yokoi was treated as an outcast before handing in his resignation on August 15, 1996, only days after the Game Boy Pocket was released.
Soon after he left Nintendo, Yokoi began the company Koto Laboratory in Kyoto. There he began development of the WonderSwan, a handheld developed in partnership between Koto and Bandai. Mr. Yokoi never saw the final product of the WonderSwan, which was released in 1999, long after his death
On October 4, 1997, Yokoi was involved in a car accident. He was riding in a car driven by Etsuo Kiso, a businessman from Nintendo. After a minor car accident involving a truck, Kiso and Mr. Yokoi pulled over to examine the damage of the two automobiles. While examining, a passing car sideswiped them. Yokoi was grievously injured and pronounced dead two hours later. He was 56. Kiso suffered two badly broken bones and severe whiplash.
The next time you pick up a video game controller with a series of buttons and a directional cross-pad - you can thank this man.
The fact the video game industry is still alive today - you can thank this man.
We miss you, Mr. Yokoi !!!!