The Rainmakers

The Rainmakers
Searching for Gunpei Yokoi

Lara Crigger | 6 Mar 2007 07:01
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Ten years after his death, Gunpei Yokoi has been reduced to legend: condensed, marginalized and re-packaged as a Nintendo creation myth instead of a man. You'd think there'd be entire encyclopedias profiling this Japanese Doc Brown, the prolific inventor who engineered the D-Pad, Game and Watch, R.O.B., Game Boy, Virtual Boy, a dozen or so children's toys and the Super Mario Land, Fire Emblem, Kid Icarus and Metroid franchises. Not so. Instead, most official Nintendo histories gloss over Yokoi's contributions, and many books and websites - if they're even translated into English - echo the same rudimentary, unsubstantiated stories. Even Yokoi's own obituaries wander off topic. The man was so vague and ghostly, he may not have even existed at all.

The only hard proof we have that Gunpei Yokoi graced this mortal soil is a few faded black and white photographs. Eerily, in each one, he looks exactly the same: gray hair, cleanly brushed back; a crisp, dark suit; and a faint but cheerful smile toying at his lips.

So how did Yokoi become such an enigma? The man only died in 1997, and yet his name has already evaporated from history. Like the shadows scorched into rock by an atomic blast, we know he existed, but his motivations and personal life remain a mystery. The true Gunpei Yokoi has vanished, leaving only his inventions behind.

The Ultra Hand
Most chronologies of Yokoi's life begin in 1970, which implies that he'd skipped childhood entirely and instead sprung full-grown from a box of Nintendo playing cards. Facts on his early life are sparse. Yokoi was born in September 1941, during the thick of WWII, to a wealthy pharmaceutical factory owner. Instead of following in the family business, he attended Doshisha University, graduating with a degree in electronics. In 1965, the Nintendo Playing Card Company hired the young grad to maintain the assembly-line machines regulating its cash crop, hanafuda cards. Affable but quiet, Yokoi worked the conveyor belts for years, building a reputation among his peers as an electronics whiz who built toys and gadgets in his spare time.

Shortly after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the playing card market collapsed, and Nintendo struggled financially throughout the rest of the decade. Desperate to keep his family business afloat, President Hiroshi Yamauchi branched the company into everything from taxi services to "love hotels," but nothing worked. Nintendo's only commercial successes were a few children's toys, which in part inspired the anxious Yamauchi to establish a new Games division in 1970.

Yamauchi called Yokoi into his office one day, asking the engineer to develop something - anything - for the Christmas rush. Gunpei produced an extending arm toy he'd constructed in his spare time, a wood lattice that could reach and grab when its handles were pushed together. Yamauchi was delighted, and Yokoi's toy, dubbed the Ultra Hand, was hustled to the market that year.

Surprisingly, the Ultra Hand blossomed into an overnight sensation, selling more than 1.2 million units. Yokoi was quickly promoted from maintenance duty to research and development, where he proved to be a mechanical Midas, creating many of Nintendo's best-sellers, including: the Ultra Machine, an indoor baseball-thrower; the Ten Billion Barrel, a Rubix Cube-like puzzle; and the Love Tester, an electronic gadget that measured a couple's compatibility. One of his most successful toys, a joint venture with Masayuki Uemura, was the Beam Gun, a plastic light-gun that was the predecessor to the NES Zapper. Before long, Yokoi's string of successes netted him his own creative team, the Research and Development 1 Group (R&D1).

Game and Watch
Yokoi's next big hit came to him as he rode home one evening on the bullet train. The exhausted engineer noticed the gentleman next to him fiddling with an LCD calculator. Yokoi watched, fascinated, as the bored man punched buttons in idle boredom. Suddenly, Yokoi wondered if weary commuters, looking to pass the time, might be interested in a portable gaming device. Thus was the Nintendo Game and Watch born.

The first Game and Watch system, Ball, launched in 1980, and over the next 11 years, 59 more titles would be released, from Donkey Kong to Oil Panic to Balloon Fight. Each handheld sported an LCD screen printed with a specific scene, such as a house or a forest. Buttons on the side cycled through Alarm, Time and Game functions, and some models even used a dual-screen set-up, like the Nintendo DS. But most importantly, the Game and Watch handheld included a cross-shaped directional button named the D-Pad, eliminating the need for a joystick (which Yokoi insisted was too clumsy for a handheld device). An engineering revelation, the D-Pad has been used on every controller for every console for every company since its inception.

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