But for the first time, Yokoi's principle of "Withered Technology" failed him, as consumers recoiled from the awkward, uncomfortable device. The Virtual Boy used red LEDs, chosen for their affordability and low battery drain, but the black-and-red display gave players headaches and eyestrain. In addition, the Virtual Boy was extremely delicate; if the console were bumped or knocked over, the mirror arrays inside could easily break. This, combined with its small game library and $180 price tag, kept customers away from the Virtual Boy, and Nintendo discontinued the console after only one year.
Rumors swirled that because Nintendo execs wanted another console out before the N64, the Virtual Boy had been rushed to market against Yokoi's wishes. Indeed, in retrospect, the system's design flaws all run counter to Yokoi's philosophy: The Virtual Boy had short battery life, it was difficult to use and it was too expensive. Yet, even with twice the development time, the console might still have failed, since consumers have been stubbornly resistant to adopting VR technology.
Yokoi was personally crushed by the Virtual Boy's flop. The former Nintendo superstar became an outcast, and many wondered if the old man still had his creative fire. In August 1996, just days after the Japanese release of the Game Boy Pocket, Yokoi resigned.
Officially, his departure had no connection to the Virtual Boy. However, insiders claimed Nintendo hadn't exactly discouraged Yokoi from leaving the company, either. Still, the engineer remained close to Nintendo, publicly waxing fond of his former employers.
Shortly after his resignation, Yokoi launched a development firm called Koto Laboratories. Koto was a fresh start for Yokoi, where he could be free to focus once more on the handheld systems he so loved. First, the company released a line of LCD keychain games in the style of Tamagotchi. Then, signing with Bandai, Koto began work on a competitor to the Game Boy, later dubbed the WonderSwan. For Yokoi, things were finally looking up again.
On October 4, 1997, Yokoi and an associate were driving on the Hokuriku Expressway when they rear-ended the truck in front of them. The two men stepped out of the car to inspect the damage, and a passing car sideswiped them. Yokoi was grievously injured and pronounced dead two hours later. He was 56.
Since his passing, Yokoi has received some industry recognition, particularly the 2003 GDC's posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, Yokoi's legacy of "Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology" lives on at Nintendo, obvious in the design schemes of the DS and Wii systems.
But the real Gunpei Yokoi remains a man within his machines, unknowable apart from his inventions. In this age of celebrity game developers, the idea that a titanic genius would be content to be eclipsed by his products seems incomprehensible. But for the thousands of nameless developers in the industry toiling away on games and consoles, Gunpei is nothing short of an inspiration. He is proof that the best legacy is not a name place in the history books, but rather the gift of joy, be it to one person or 100 million people around the world.
Every gamer, every child, every person who has ever loved a Nintendo product owes their smiles to Gunpei Yokoi, the quiet engineer with the faint, cheerful smile, the crisp, dark suit and nothing much else to distinguish him, who remains a god without a name, a burnt impression upon the rock, a ghost, a myth, a memory, a legend.
Lara Crigger is a freelance science, tech and gaming journalist whose previous work for The Escapist includes "Playing Through The Pain" and "How To Be A Guitar Hero." Her email is lcrigger[at]gmail[dot]com.