The father of the Game Boy. Gunpei Yokoi’s design philosophies shaped not only the direction of the Game Boy, but Nintendo’s creative DNA as well.
When Nintendo hired Yokoi back in 1965, they couldn’t possibly have known how important and influential a thinker they’d brought aboard. But he quickly proved his worth, demonstrating his knack for gadgetry by creating what would become Nintendo’s first-ever hit toy, the Ultra Hand.
Yokoi had his hand in numerous Nintendo toy projects throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, many of which — such as Duck Hunt — were destined to become immortalized as classic NES games. Retailers usually treated video games as an extension of toys rather than electronics back in those days, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that Yokoi’s work shifted from playthings to electronic entertainment — back then, they were all the same thing.
Both of Yokoi’s best-known game systems, Game Boy and Game & Watch, demonstrated his philosophy of creating affordable entertainment by using commoditized components, stripping out superfluity, and paring down a device to its basics. Game & Watch used dirt-cheap LCD watch screens and processors in a novel and entertaining way. Game Boy paired an aging Z80 processor to barely tolerable passive-matrix greyscale LCD screens. And yet both devices managed to overcome their limitations and their competitors alike.
Still, perhaps the purest example of Yokoi’s philosophy at work comes not in a video game but rather in the form of Lefty RX, a low-cost remote control race car. As its name suggests, the Lefty RX had a distinct design quirk: It could only turn in a single direction. While the idea of a race car that can only turn left may sound absolutely daft, it’s exactly the sort of “lateral thinking” that Yokoi valued. By stripping out the complex mechanisms that other remote control cars used for full steering, the Lefty RX could be manufactured at a fraction of the competition’s price. And for race cars, being able to veer only to the left isn’t even that big a limitation; a classic race track consists of an oval, right? So in a race, a car is only turning in one direction anyway.
By looking critically at an industry standard and applying some massive but logical cuts to the design, Yokoi created a version that made modest compromises to play value while coming in at a fraction of the cost of the competition. Years later, Game Boy would apply the same philosophy to handheld gaming: Stripping out color graphics and processing power, but still managing to produce a satisfying if crude simulation of the NES experience on the go. And at less than half the cost of the Atari Lynx, with far lighter battery demands.
Yokoi spent much of his career as division chief for Nintendo’s R&D1 — Research and Development 1, a more technically focused group than Shigeru Miyamoto’s Entertainment Analysis Division. R&D1 is generally treated as Nintendo’s legacy division, credited for the creation of arcade games stretching back into the 1970s, as well as most of the early “black box” games. R&D1 and EAD split apart around the time of the original Mario Bros., and Yokoi oversaw all the odd non-Miyamoto Mario games such as Wrecking Crew.
Under Yokoi, R&D1 oversaw some of Nintendo’s most intricate games. While EAD games were characterized by their innate elegance and fluid feel, R&D1’s tended to be more complex — often experimental, as well. Metroid combined the platform action of Super Mario Bros. with the RPG-like adventure mechanics of The Legend of Zelda, and Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally saw the company making its first foray into 3D effects. Still, it was Game Boy that best demonstrated Yokoi’s beliefs, compromising fidelity for low cost and ease of use. That same philosophy defined even the unpopular Virtual Boy, the ungainly game device that many regard as Yokoi’s career-ending failure. Virtual Boy was a financial disaster for Nintendo, despite being a clever hack of a device.
Unfortunately, Yokoi never had the chance to recover from Virtual Boy’s failure. He left Nintendo soon after, and his follow-up endeavor, Koto, only produced a couple of products before he died in a highway accident in October 1997.
The keen combination of economy and usability Yokoi brought to Nintendo’s hardware lineup, and the quirky sense of creativity that accompanied them, remains unique in video games. Only Nintendo has continued to carry forward his philosophy of inventive applications for aging, inexpensive technology. In fact, one could argue that Nintendo only fares well when it operates according to Yokoi’s tenets.
Gunpei Yokoi may be nearly 20 years gone at this point, but his legacy and his shadow loom over Nintendo, and over gaming at large. Even today, the medium as a whole only stands to prosper by preserving, and living by, his example.