Nintendo’s Backroom Genius: Gung-ho for Gunpei Yokoi
If humanity could reclaim the lost hours stolen away by the inventions of Gunpei Yokoi, we could cure swine flu, end global warming and balance the budget. In three decades, this Japanese Thomas Edison transformed the bankrupt Nintendo playing card company into a multi-billion dollar titan and the bane of teachers everywhere.
When Gunpei started at Nintendo as a line technician in 1965, his job was anything but fun. By day Gunpei suffered, but at night the tinkerer cranked out gadgets with company tools. One of these toys, a telescoping pinching arm called the Ultrahand, nearly got Yokoi fired when the company’s CEO, Hiroshi Yamauchi, stumbled upon the gizmo. Instead of being canned; however, Gunpei was promoted to the director of a new toy division, and Ultrahand broke all Nintendo sales records.
Yokoi followed the success of the Ultrahand with a score of other ultra-gadgets. The Ultramachine hurled Ping-Pong balls for indoor batting practice. Yokoi’s Ultrascope was a pocket sized periscope that expanded up to several feet. Gunpai’s next inspiration came from Sharp Calculator salesman Masayuki Uemura.
Together the pair assembled the granddaddy of the Duck Hunt Zapper, a blaster that projected a beam of light to hit calculator solar cells mounted in reactive plastic targets. A million Zappers sold, and the whole toy industry wondered aloud, “What is Yokoi’s secret?”
Gunpei chalked up his success to the phrase, “Lateral thinking of withered technology.” What the inventor meant was that he harnessed old, inexpensive materials in innovative ways. Using this maxim, Yokoi crafted the first portable videogame with calculator microprocessors and LCD screens. He called it the Game & Watch, and the toy sold over 40 million units. Nintendo knew the gizmo was the future of toys.
To dominate the burgeoning game market, Nintendo formed three research and development teams to produce a game console more advanced than anything on the market. Yokoi captained R&D Team One, a crew of Nintendo ninjas that included his star protégé, gaming legend Shigeru Miyamoto. Under Yokoi’s watchful eye, Miyamoto developed Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers, but Gunpei’s finest hour was yet to come.
Game Boy proved the greatest success story in videogame history. With over 150 million sales and counting, this sleek 5.8 inch monochromatic wonder machine bridged the gap between the Game and Watch’s portability and the NES’ interchangeable cartridges. If the Game Boy spanned a technological gap, then it also closed the age gap with Tetris, a puzzle game designed by Russia mathematician Alexey Pajitnov.
By the early 1990s, Gunpei was the man with golden thumbs. His products amounted to billions of dollars in sales, but the inventor hoped his Virtual Boy would exceed all records. Instead, it was the biggest flop in game history. The system’s virtual reality goggles were as comfortable as a medieval torture device. To make matters worse, a game based around the movie “Waterworld” was slated as Virtual Boy’s anchor title, and like all good anchors it went straight to the bottom.
After one year, Nintendo scraped Virtual Boy and Yokoi resigned in disgrace. In 1997, an automobile struck Yokoi, killing one of the greatest toy inventors in history.