Gunpei Yokoi 1941 - 1997 横井 軍平

Saturday October 4th, 1997.

The day the creator of the Virtual Boy: Gunpei Yokoi died.
Eventhough the day I read about Gunpei Yokoi's death I knew little about this man, I was still shocked for I knew all what he had created.
Call it admiration, nostalgia, pride for the Virtual Boy's uniqueness, sympathy for his family and fans. I say a little bit of all which made it so that I just had to write about this legendary man to commemorate him.
So now about Gunpei Yokoi's history with Nintendo and how his life tragicly ended:

In 1889 Nintendo started out as a (family-owned) playingscards manufacturer, stationed in Japan, they were famous for their Hanafunda playcards, eventhough differency in their playingcards production line was added after 1949, all Nintendo was about was still playingcards (no wonder with such experience the incredible popularity of the Pokémon playcards has taken the world by grasp).
Gunpei Yokoi-San was born in September 1941;
Gunpei Yokoi grew up in Kyoto. His father was the director of a pharmaceutical company. After graduating from
Doshinsha University with a degree in Electronics, excelling in mathematics and science, the young man went by Kyoto companies, filling out applications.
Hiroshi Yamauch
born 1927, dropped out of Waseda University in 1949 to succeed his grandfather and become the 3rd president of Nintendo until June 9th 2002, in 1965 he hired Gunpei Yokoi to maintain the heavy machinery on the assembly line of Nintendo. (fun to know is that Mr. Yokoi was the entire maintainance department)
By 1969 Mr. Yamauchi was thinking about expanding into the toy industry, since he heard Gunpei-San liked tinkering with/building gadgets, he asked him (under the supervision of Mr. Imanishi) to invent a toy "something great" for Nintendo to sell during Christmas, the day after he showed Hiroshi the Ultra Hand (a claw on an accordion arm that kids could extend by squeezing two handles), Gunpei gave his invention (which he had built in his own spare time) to his boss for the good of the company. It was a success so more gadgets were developed by Gunpei. The Ultra series sold 1,2 million copies worldwide by 1970.
Three years later Gunpei, after experimenting with solar cells and light guns, had hoped to make indoor trap shooting ranges, he showed it to Hiroshi who named it Laser Clay Ranges, the Laser Clay became a big (but short) hit in Japan. Gunpei loved his work and he saw himself as "a cartoonist who understood movements in the world and created abstractions of them".
After seeing the success of a new computer game which was released in the USA called Pong, Mr. Yamauchi & Yokoi decided to move on into this new form of entertainment...

Yamauchi asked Yokoi to design in-expensive handheld games for Nintendo. Yokoi and his Research and Development section (RD1) began to experiment with new electronics technology, so Yokoi designed a line of games called Game & Watch, a credit-card sized video game that used inexpensive liquid-crystal technology. Gunpei Yokoi could not place a joystick on Game & Watches because it was too small and flat, so he created a +-shaped Directional Pad for games in which players had to move in four directions. Shortly after Hiroshi Yamauchi patented it and it has been used on every other Nintendo gamesystem since the G&W. The series stretching 59 titles between 1980 and 1986 changed the way people played videogames, the LCD games sold over 40 million units!

By the time it was 1980 the videogames craze started to break out in Japan. Yamauchi wanted to cash in on the video game craze, so he directed Yokoi’s research and development team to start designing arcade games. They had only small success so Ron Judy and Al Stone, the men who were distributing Nintendo games in the USA, were about to stop their contract with Nintendo when Yamauchi assigned Yokoi to be the mentor of a young prodigy named Shigeru Miyamoto. Miyamoto designed the game and Yokoi built the hardware for a game that was eventually titled Donkey Kong. (funny to know here is that when Shigeru talked to the American importers about the name of the game he had just created with Gunpei, he said "Monkey Kong", but due to the bad phoneline the Americans thought he said "Donkey Kong", the name was more liked so it stayed)

*Gunpei Yokoi & Shigeru Miyamoto

In 1989 Yokoi and his 45-headed research team (R&D1) came up with what became the biggest selling (and the only one that is still selling) hand held games console. Co-designed with Satoru Okada, it was not the first programmable hand held game, Milton bradley had released one years earlier, but it was inexpensive and had reasonably clear graphics, and had enough processing power to play a large library of games... ofcourse I am talking about the Game Boy! In 1996, Yokoi updated Game Boy by making it smaller and adding a higher-resolution screen. He called the new unit the Game Boy Pocket. After 10 years the Game Boy & Game Boy Pocket together sold over 80 million hardware units!

In 1995 the Virtual Boy was launched. Yokoi and his now 60-headed research team (R&D1) together with Reflection Technologies had worked on the Virtual Boy for over 3 and a half years. Eventhough loved by most of the 770.000 people who bought it in Japan/USA, the press didn't like it and treated it like trash as it just wouldn't take off. [[see the Virtual Boy Section for details]] When Nintendo unveiled the Nintendo 64 at a special trade show in Tokyo in 1995, Yokoi remained in a quiet section of the show floor demonstrating new games for the Virtual Boy. The games were never published as practicly all publishers went to develop for the newer Nintendo 64.

What he achieved while with Nintendo and when he invented it: Ultra Hand (1966), Ultra Machine (1968), Love Tester (1969), Light Ray Gun SP Series (1970), Ele-conga (1970), NB Block Crater (1970), Ultra Scope (1971), Light Ray Telephone LT (1971), Lefty RX (1972), Time Shock (1972), Laser Kure Clay Shooting System (1973), Wild Gunman (1974), Shooting Trainer (1974), Light Ray Gun Custom Series (1976), Duck Hunt (1977), Battle Shark Skyhawk (1977), The Chilean Tree (1979), Game & Watch Series (1980), Donkey Kong [arcade] -producer- (1981), Game & Watch Wide Screen (1981), Game & Watch Multiple Screen (1982), Computer Mah-jong (1982), D-pad (1983), Famicom Controller (1983), Donkey Kong Jr. -producer- (1983), Game & Watch Color Screen (1984), Mario Bros. -producer- (1984), ROB Robot (1985), Metroid -producer- (1985), Kid Icarus -producer- (1985), Game Boy (1989), Super Mario Land -producer- (1989), SolarStriker -producer- (1990), Balloon Kid -producer- (1990), Dr. Mario (1990), Metroid 2: Return Of Samus -producer- (1991), Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins -producer- (1992), Super Scope (1992), Super Metroid -producer- (1993), Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 -producer- (1993), Virtual Boy (1995), Mario's Tennis -producer- (1995), Galactic Pinball -producer- (1995), VB Wario Land -producer- (1995), Tetris Attack (1995), 3D Tetris -producer- (1996), Game Boy Pocket (1996). Not to forget he also worked with his (people he trained) R&D1 (Research and Development) team on the Famicom (NES) and Super Famicom (SNES)! PS: There are just too too many Game & Watch-like and other game gadgets he invented to be able to mention all. I mean, this man invented gadgets from a robotic vacuum cleaner (1978) to a dancing robot (1985)!! As for the Love Tester, Yokoi said he made it so he would get to hold hands with a lot of girls ;-)

Yokoi resigned from Nintendo on 15 August 1996. It is said Nintendo blaimed him for the commercial failure of the Virtual Boy, while this was not his fault at all as Nintendo marketed the gamemachine terribly and priced it far too high (US$179.95). Still after his departure from Nintendo he kept consulting for Nintendo, that's how humble a man he was. But the official reason for his resignation states...
He started a new venture called
Koto Company, (established: September 11th of 1996) with plans to produce handheld games for children, it is also said his work with Nintendo was the beginning of a long career... Created as a haven for game inventors and software creators, he dreamed of creating a company that would rival Microsoft!
You may know Koto Company from the WonderSwan portable game machine they created (later a joint project with Bandai), which was largly designed by Gunpei, and guess what the name of the first game that appeared on the WonderSwan in 1999 was... it was "Gunpey".

Gunpei Yokoi, a 56-year-old native of Kyoto, Japan, was traveling with Etsuo Kisoo, an executive from Kyoto, on the Hokuriku Expressway in Neagarimachi, Ishikawa Prefecture, when Kisoo rear-ended the car in front of them. When the two stepped out of their car to survey the damage, both Yokoi and his associate were sideswiped by another car (driven by a Mr. Iwao Tsushima, whom and his wife received slight injuries). Yokoi sustained serious injuries and was immediately transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead two hours later. All his associate was treated for was a fractured rib.

Having read this, you may now understand how Gunpei Yokoi became the legend he is. He is missed by many, as he made videogaming into the fun it is today with his innovations. It is courtesy that I now say "Rest In Peace Gunpei Yokoi", but because nowadays 10's of millions and millions of children and adults smile at his invention the Game Boy, I am sure he will be alright knowing he has brought so much joy to the world.

Written by Ferry Groenendijk.


Extra: Gunpei happily at work on Galactic Pinball (explaining how it all works in an interview),+Gunpei (more database information)


Bibliography Gunpei Yokoi: In his autobiography “Gunpei Yokoi Game Kan” (as told to Takefumi Makino, published by Aspect, Tokyo, 1997) he confessed that he chose to work at Nintendo primarily because it was an easy commute from his home.

" Side well troop flat game mansion " Side well troop flat (constitution: Pasture military affairs sentence) Aspect 1997/06 issue ¥1400
" Genius of game " じ ゅ げ む cMook Recruit 1998/04 issue ¥933

There has also been a book named "Game Over Press Start To Continue" published by David Sheff, Andy Eddy which is about Nintendo's history and future along with a Gunpei Yokoi bibliography; Paperback - 494 pages (April 15, 1999) GamePress; ISBN: 0966961706 ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.12 x 7.85 x 5.12 | Hardcover 1 May, 1993; Publisher: Random House Inc; ISBN: 0679404694

In the late 70s, it was customary for Japanese company heads to drive American cars, the epitome of prestige and extravagance. The left-handed US exports were an inconvenience and symbol of luxury only top executives could afford. The story goes that one day, the president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was on his way to a meeting and discovered his chauffeur was ill. A call went out for anyone within the company who could drive his Cadillac. Only Yokoi, an automobile-enthusiast, responded. En route, he remarked to his boss that commuting workers, on the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo, surreptitiously clicked away at their pocket calculators in their laps, passing the time. If they were given something interesting to play, something small (no bigger than a credit-card or wrist-watch), portable, and able to double-up as an effective timepiece should the need to disguise arise, they’d all surely buy one. And so after a few quick meetings with Sharp Electronics the first hand-held LCD video game, the legendary Game & Watch, was born in 1980.

Howard Lincoln quote about Mr. Yokoi: "He had a great sense of humor, a great smile... a very generous and outgoing fellow. He made a tremendous amount of creative contributions to Nintendo and the video game business over the years. People play Game Boy all over the world, and that's Mr. Yokoi's."