The following article is republished from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader
You've probably never heard of Gunpei Yokoi, but if you've ever played a Game Boy, a Color Game Boy, Donkey Kong, or just about any other Nintendo product made between 1970 and 1996, you have him to thank for it. Here's his story.
IN THE CARDS
In the mid-1960s, an electronics student named Gunpei Yokoi graduated from Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, and got a job as a maintenance engineer with the Nintendo company, a manufacturer of playing cards.
Keeping the playing card printing machines in good working order must have been boring work, because Yokoi started passing the time building toys -with company materials, using company machines and equipment, on company time.
That didn't exactly fit into his job description, so when Nintendo's president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, found out what he's been up to and called him into his office, Yokoi figured that he'd soon be looking for a new job.
Not quite- Nintendo was making so much money selling children's playing cards that it had decided to create an entire games division. Yamauchi transferred Yokoi to the new division, and told him to come up with a game that Nintendo could manufacture in time to sell for Christmas.
Yokoi went home and got one of the toys he'd already made: an extendable grabbing "hand" that he made out of crisscrossing pieces of wooden latticework. When you squeezed its handles together like a pair of scissors, the latticework extended and the hand closed its grip.
YOU'VE GOT TO HAND IT TO HIM
Yamauchi was impressed, and production on the Ultra Hand, as they named it, began right away. The company ended up selling more than 1.2 million of the hands at a price of about $6 apiece- the game division's first toy was also its first big hit.
Yokoi's team followed with a series of other toys, including the Ultra Machine (an indoor pitching machine), the Ultra Scope (a periscope), and a "Love Tester" that supposedly measured how much love existed between a boy and a girl. All the Love Tester really did was give people an excuse to hold hands, but it was enough -it was a huge success, too. So was Beam Gun, a gun that shot beams of lights at optical targets.
Nintendo spent a fortune converting old bowling alleys and shooting galleries into Beam Gun shooting galleries …and nearly went bankrupt. But it recovered after Yamauchi noticed how much money Atari, Magnavox, and other companies were making in the video game business. He licensed their technology and came out with Color TV Game 6, the company's first video game.
GAME & WATCH
As video games were becoming more successful, Yamauchi started pressing Yokoi for a competing product. So the design team came up with the Game & Watch, a series of dozens and eventually hundreds of pocket-sized video games that also displayed the time at the top of the screen.
The games used simple calculator technology -LCD screens and tiny buttons that served as game controllers- and they weren't much bigger than credit cards. Kids could play them anywhere: in cars, at school during recess, or in their rooms before bedtime. Nintendo ended up selling more than 40 million of the devices all over the world between 1980 and 1999.
Nintendo introduced the Famicon (short for Family Computer) -its first cartridge-based video game- in 1983 and then released it in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985. The system established the company as the dominant world player in the video game business. By 1988, however, the NES was getting a little old and Nintendo's rival Sega was preparing to launch a new system called the Mega Drive. Nintendo's new Super NES system was still in the works, so the company needed a product that would generate revenue and keep fans of the company's products occupied until Super NES was ready.
Lucky for Nintendo, Yokoi had one. Called the Game Boy, it sought to combine the best that the Game & Watch series and the NES had to offer. The Game Boy was portable, about the size of a transistor radio, and it was a cartridge-based system like the NES. With the Game & Watch series, anytime you wanted to play a new game, you had to buy a whole new Game & Watch. With a Game Boy, all you had to do was buy a new cartridge. Better yet, Game Boys could be linked together so that two players could compete against each other.
The Game Boy wasn't exactly state of the art. It didn't have a color screen or a backlight, because those drained the batteries too quickly and added too much to the cost. You couldn't play it in the dark. The screen was so crude, in fact, that when Atari's engineers saw it for the first time, they laughed. Over at Sony, the response was different. "This Game Boy should have been a Sony product," one executive complained.
The Game Boy went on the become hugely successful, thanks in large part to the fact that the game appealed to adults in a way that the NES didn't. The original Game Boy was packaged with Tetris, an adult-friendly, maddeningly-addictive game in which the player has to maneuver and interlock blocks that fall from the top of the screen. Game Boys became a fixture on subways, on airplanes, in company lunchrooms, any place adults had a few free moments. When President George H. W. Bush went into the hospital in May 1991, the leader of the free world was photographed playing a Game Boy. Kids liked to play Game Boys, too… whenever they could pry them away from their parents.
NEW AND IMPROVED
Yokoi led the effort to keep the Game Boy product line fresh and profitable over the years. In 1994 his design team came up with an accessory that allowed Game Boy game cartridges to be played on the NES system. That was followed by the Game Boy Pocket and the first Pokémon (short for Pocket Monsters) cartridge in 1996.
Pokémon was the first game that allowed players to exchange items from one linked Game Boy to another, and though Nintendo's expectations of the game weren't particularly high, the game became an enormous industry unit itself, spawning other toys, trading cards, clothing, an animated TV series, a movie, and even food. It's estimated that Pokémon merchandise had racked up $20 billion worth of sales for Nintendo since 1996, not including the video games. As for the Game Boy product line (which saw the addition of the Game Boy Color in1998), by 2001 it had sold more than 115 million units and 450 million cartridges, making it the most popular game system of all time.
DOWN AND OUT
Needless to say, Yokoi made Nintendo a lot of money over the years. What did he have to show for it? Not much -in 1995 his Virtual Boy, an addition to the Game Boy line that was kind of like a 3D View-Master- bombed. The red LED display gave so many players headaches and dizziness that when the product was released in the United States it came with a warning label. One reviewer called it a "virtual dog."
Nintendo lost a lot of money on the Virtual Boy, and Yamauchi apparently decided to humiliate Yokoi publicly by making him demonstrate the game system at the company's annual Shoshinkai trade show, even though it was all but dead. "This was his punishment, the Japanese corporate version of Dante's Inferno," Steven Kent writes in The Ultimate History of Video Games. "When employees make high-profile mistakes in Japan, it is not unusual for their superiors to make an example out of them for a period of time, then return them to their former stature."
Yokoi must have decided not to wait around for his restoration. He left the company in August 1996 after more than 27 years on the job, and founded his own handheld game company called Koto (Japanese for "small town"). It produced a game system similar to the Game Boy, only with a bigger screen and better features. We'll never know what kind of gains he might have made against the Game Boy, because on October 4, 1997, he was killed in a car accident. He was 56.
This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader. Where else but in a Bathroom Reader could you learn how the banana peel changed history, how to predict the future by rolling the dice, how the Jivaro tribes shrunk heads, and the science behind love at first sight? Get ready to be thoroughly entertained while occupied on the throne. Uncle John rules the world of information and humor. It's simply Ahh-Inspiring!
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