The Rainmakers

The Rainmakers
Searching for Gunpei Yokoi

Lara Crigger | 6 Mar 2007 07:01
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Although fancier, more powerful handheld technology existed at the time, Yokoi maintained that the Game and Watch systems should use affordable components that offered a decent battery life. Consumers, he believed, would prefer cheaper products with fun gameplay over the hottest, cutting-edge gadgets. This design philosophy, which Yokoi would later dub "Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology," guided most of his inventions; to this day, Nintendo still gravitates toward well-understood technologies to design their novel, reinvented gameplay.

The R.O.B.
Since the late '70s, Nintendo had been experimenting with the home videogame market, and by 1983, the company was ready to release its first gaming console, the Famicom (NES). But that was the same year the infant videogame industry, wracked with price wars and a glut of crappy titles, crashed spectacularly. Faced with indifferent customers and bargain bins brimming with videogames, retailers refused to stock more consoles. Nintendo realized it needed a clever marketing ploy to trick store owners into supplying the Famicom.

Again, Yokoi saved the day, this time by devising the Robotic Operating Buddy, or R.O.B. (the Famicom Robot in Japan). Released in 1985, the R.O.B. was a one-foot tall toy automaton that didn't do much of anything, except consume AA batteries at an alarming rate. But the R.O.B. was bundled in the NES Deluxe Set, which also included a console, a Zapper gun, two controllers and two games (Duck Hunt and Gyromite). This clever packaging convinced retailers that the NES was not a videogame console but a robotic toy, and stores hesitant to stock other videogame products ordered the Deluxe Set instead. The trick worked: In its first year, the NES sold more than 1 million units, and having served its purpose, Yokoi's R.O.B. was quickly dropped from the line-up the next year.

Yokoi designed many other products for the NES, especially with 25-year-old Shigeru Miyamoto, who joined Nintendo in 1977. Yokoi took to the young man, acting as his mentor. Together the pair produced two of the most memorable franchises in history - Donkey Kong and the original Mario Brothers - before Miyamoto moved to his own R&D group in 1984. Afterward, Yokoi kept producing games, including Kid Icarus, the original Fire Emblem and, of course, Metroid.

The Game Boy
Despite his successes with the Famicom, however, Yokoi preferred portable gaming, and in 1989, R&D1 released the first Game Boy, a revolutionary handheld that had been in development for three years. The system, which combined the portability of the Game and Watch with the interchangeable cartridge technology of the NES, was an instant success. When the Game Boy launched in Japan, its initial shipment of 300,000 units sold out in two weeks. Later, when it migrated stateside, U.S. shoppers snatched up more than 40,000 units on the first day alone.

As with the Game and Watch, the Game Boy eschewed the sexier, cutting-edge technologies available at the time - particularly a full-color screen - in favor of longer battery life and cheaper price points. This decision made many Nintendo higher-ups nervous: Atari had just released their own handheld, the Lynx, which featured full color and a backlit screen. But once again, Yokoi's intuition proved correct. Consumers ignored the pricy, power-hogging Lynx, which required six AA batteries for only four hours of play time, and purchased the Game Boy instead. Sega's Game Gear - also a technologically superior product - would suffer the same fate in the 1990s.

Yokoi stuck by the Game Boy for years, producing many of the handheld's various iterations and some of its most famous games: Dr. Mario, Metroid II and Super Mario Land. The Game Boy's success catapulted Yokoi into megastar status at Nintendo. Even more so than before, he was considered an unbeatable golden boy and one of the company's most valuable assets.

If only he'd stopped there.

The Virtual Boy
In 1993, fresh off his Game Boy triumph, Yokoi began work on the Virtual Boy, which would be Nintendo's only entry into 32-bit gaming. Two years later, the company released the final product. Essentially a set of goggles mounted on a tripod, the Virtual Boy projected monochrome images in a headset, using parallax to create 3-D graphics.

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