Thursday, March 08, 2007

History #2

As promised here is the second part of my last blog, namely the history of Nintendo and more specifically, some of the visionaries responsible for it's transformation from a maker of playing cards, to it's present day videogame glory. When we left off I had just mentioned the name Gunpei Yokoi and charged him with the salvation of the Nintendo corporation.

Gunpei was a mechanical genius who worked on the assembly line machinery. After the crash of the hanafuda industry Yamauchi was reaching for anything to keep his company afloat. The answer was a toy that Gunpei built in his spare time that was an extending arm consisting of a latticework of rods. He was charged with making it ready for the upcoming Christmas season and the Ultra Hand was born to much success. Of course Gunpei was immediately moved from maintenance to development and he craeted quite a few mechanical toys, games, and puzzles.

One day while riding the train home on his daily commute he spied a man fiddling with his calculator and he decided that perhaps he could make a handheld game that tired workers could play with on their way home from work. This idea was realized with the Game and Watch series which were released beginning in 1980. These handhelds only played a single game, had a simple LCD screen and backgrounds for each game were placed behind the screen to add color. Control at the time was accomplished by a joystick which Gunpei insisted was too bulky. His answer was the d-pad, a low-cost, effective solution that has been used on virtually every controller regardless of company or console since it's inception.

The next big contribution he made to the world was as Nintendo was ramping up to release the original NES in 1983. The videogame industry had been experiencing a slump. So much so that retailers were refusing to stock new product. This time Gunpei saved the day by designing R.O.B. the scary little robot that we have all seen pictures of. R.O.B. was packaged with the NES and convinced retailers that it was a robotic entertainment system and the system was allowed into stores. In it's first year the NES sold over 1 million units, a staggering record at the time due to the market being flooded with crappy consoles and worse games. R.O.B. was just a marketing ploy, but a very good one. The robot was quickly retired but he lives on in our dreams (scary).

Around this time Gunpei met a young man named Shigeru Miyamoto who he worked with. They collaborated on a few game designs and both provided the inspiration for games that would become Mario, Donkey Kong. After Miyamoto left to head his own development team in 1984 Gunpei went on to produce Metroid, Kid Icarus and Fire Emblem.

In 1989 Gunpei created the product that will live in history books long after we all are gone; the Game Boy. Gunpei had hit upon an ideology he dubbed "Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology" meaning to take a technology that is old and reliable and find a new and exciting way to use it. This ideology remains a staple of Nintendo today and has driven the success of the DS and the Wii. At the time the 'withered technology' was LCD displays. Gunpei paired the portable Game and Watch idea with the interchangeability of NES cartridges and a gaming revolution was born. He refused to release a color version at the time as it used too much battery power and was much costlier. He turned out to be extremely inspired in this decision as the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear both were released and failed due to high cost and power consumption (the Lynx only had four hours of play time on 6 AAs).

In 1995 Gunpei made his first misstep. He strayed from his own theory of low-cost, prolific-technology products to produce the Virtual Boy. Most of us hopefully have had the chance to stick our faces into one of these. The experience was a stereoscopic videogame system unlike anything ever to grace the market and light years ahead of it's time. The system was in monochrome and the inexperience of VR coupled with the bulky, uncomfortable form factor of the console had it off the market before it had been out a year. Somehow this one mistake undid the confidence of some higher-ups at Nintendo despite all his former successes and Gunpei Yokoi was ostracized to the point where he handed in his recognition in 1996, days after another of his projects, the Game Boy Pocket was released.

On October 4th, 1997 Gunpei was sideswiped by a car and died two hours later as a result. His death was a loss the the world at large. With so many innovations under his belt who can deny that he had more in his mind, waiting for their chance to shine? He was a great man, and like all most great men his contribution to the world will outlive his memory. There will be two more history blogs in this series. The next one will be all about Shigeru Miyamoto, and the last will focus on Satoru Iwata. Expect them to pop up soon.

powered by performancing firefox


Blogger John H. said...

i want more history blogs! these two were really fun to read.

November 28, 2008 12:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home