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A Brief History of Gaming
The World According to Gunpei Yokoi
By Wes Grogan     |   Posted on July 27, 2007   |   Episode 5 (Show Archive)  

   
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In this picture the original Game Boy looks small and light, but as we all know in reality the device was three feet tall and weighed around 80 pounds!
It's impossible to play video games without being affected by Gunpei Yokoi. You won't find a modern game console that doesn't carry his innovations, and his love of providing a good time changed the way we thought about video games. Killed in 1997, there is no denying the influence he left behind that carries through today. From Game & Watches through the Game Boy to his swan song, the WonderSwan from Bandai, Yokoi left us with a legacy that will exist as long as the industry does and beyond.

Born in 1941, Yokoi began working for the company that would define his life in 1965. Hiroshi Yamauchi, former head of Nintendo Co., Ltd., first took note of Yokoi in 1970 when he saw the man playing with an extendable arm that he had created. Dubbed the Ultra Hand, it quickly became a huge success, selling over a million units for the card-making company. He
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With the Ultra Hand you can grab stuff from a great distance, which is cool ... I guess!
was quickly promoted from line maintenance to design, where he would help lead Nintendo into its new future. Other products quickly followed, and sold well. A loyal, unassuming man, Yokoi brought every design he came up with to Yamauchi, who in turn quickly introduced the products to market. It was this loyalty and his assistance to Yamauchi in his desires to make Nintendo more than just a card company that put him in the proper place to eventually save the video game industry.

In 1980, Nintendo released the Game & Watch series. Small handhelds featuring one hard-wired game, the Game & Watch series set itself apart from competitors early on. In a world where Space Invaders and Pong were the watch-words, Game & Watch offered an alternative style of gameplay on the go. Using segmented LCD screens, at least in the beginning, the series began with simple games such as Ball before adapting arcade and (later) NES games for the handheld. The hardware wasn't officially retired until 1991, with the release of Mario the Juggler. Perhaps the biggest element to come out of the Game & Watch hardware, however, was
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No you're not looking at an early prototype of the Nintendo DS, thie is the Game & Watch, the most fun alarm clock you'll ever own!
the Directional Pad, or D-Pad. Originally, the hardware used four small buttons to indicate up, down, left and right. As the games became more complicated, however, this was no longer feasible. In order to make the games more enjoyable and easier to play, always Yokoi's motivation, he combined the four buttons into a single, cross-shaped element, which allowed for easy 8-directional movement and a more intuitive link between the game and the player. A staggering majority of systems released since have included the D-Pad. Later Game & Watches also featured
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Thankfully Gunpei Yokoi had nothing to do with the terrible Game Boy comics!
two screens, which would later be revisited by Nintendo's DS handheld system (also see: Nintendo DS: The Game & Watch Revisited).

The success of the Game & Watch led to Yokoi being made head of Research and Development 1. This section of Nintendo, until 1984, helped young designer Shigeru Miyamoto with games such as Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong, Jr., and Mario Bros. This development team also created R.O.B. the robot (an early accessory for the NES), Kid Icarus, and Metroid along with Super Mario Land and its sequels on the Game Boy.

In 1989, Yokoi and his R&D1 division released the device that would define his vision of gaming to the world, the Game Boy. This device was his attempt to redefine handheld gaming the way the NES redefined the home console. Using swappable game cartridges and running for several hours on four AA batteries, the Game Boy was the birth of the modern age of handheld video gaming. Despite Nintendo's desire for a color screen, Yokoi refused to implement one until technology allowed for it to be done without gobbling through batteries (see Atari Lynx and
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The Game Gear was big and black, but it also sucked battery life like nothing else (except for the Nomad, which only lasted an hour on six AA batteries)!
Sega Game Gear/Nomad). The system was released at an affordable price, a decent line of NES quality (though black and white) games, and a pack-in game. That pack-in game, Tetris, helped people to look past the screen and see the fun that the brick-shaped handheld could provide, as did Super Mario Land and other NES ports or adaptations such as Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters and Metroid II: The Return of Samus. Yeah, I had to bring up Kid Icarus again.

Through its life-span, and its successors, the Game Boy managed to beat off multiple competitors (all of which had superior elements), due to its addictive games, pick-up-and-play philosophy, and battery life. It delivered some of the most memorable game moments (for better or worse), such as the first Pokemon game, several fantastic
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Without Gunpei Yokoi we wouldn't have to put up with fat girls in Princess Daisy costumers. Thanks Gunpei!
Legend of Zelda titles, the introduction of Princess Daisy and Wario in Super Mario Land I and II, respectively, and, of course, what some consider to be the definitive form of Tetris. The Game Boy would lead to the Game Boy Pocket, which would lead to the Game Boy Light (released only in Japan), which gave us the Game Boy Color, which in turn gave us the Game Boy Advance, redesigned as the Game Boy Advance SP, later redesigned again as the Game Boy Micro. Released in 2005, the Game Boy Micro is the most recent iteration, meaning that the Game Boy line has been active for sixteen years. As of the writing of this article, there are rumors circulating that Nintendo will be retiring the Game Boy name, after the success of their latest handheld, the Nintendo DS, but there haven't been any confirmations.

Gunpei Yokoi was never content to sit back and enjoy his success. Instead, he was always looking for new gameplay experiences that he could introduce. This natural curiosity ultimately led him to discover what would be known as the Virtual Boy. Released in 1995 at a price of $180, this curious creation was championed strongly by Yokoi, despite some glaring issues with the system that seemed to go against his natural instinct of fun. The red and black display, though capable of creating 3D playing fields, was also capable of creating massive headaches, requiring the player to pause every twenty to thirty minutes. The system wasn't portable, being a large headset the player looked
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Like drinking using a straw, there's just no way you can look manly while sticking your head in the Virtual Boy!
into. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, the system just wasn't much fun. Yokoi had lost sight of what made his systems so innovative and popular, and he paid a deep price for it. The system was a market failure in both Japan and the States, resulting in Yokoi being shunned by Nintendo. In traditional Japanese business fashion, Nintendo forgot Yokoi's innovations and successes, instead relegating him to the back corner of the company. Though, traditionally, this kind of treatment is eventually lifted, Yokoi tendered his resignation on August 15, 1996. The company he had given so much, with such loyalty, had turned its back on him and he never fully recovered from it.

Gunpei Yokoi had no desire to leave the world of video game entertainment behind, however, and almost immediately started the company, Koto Laboratory, where he began designing a new handheld game system in partnership with Bandai. This handheld would feature several unique elements, such as duplicate control pads to allow for vertical or horizontal playfields. It also used only one AA battery and was capable of running for thirty to forty hours
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If you squint you might be able to make out Gunpey, the video game homage to the WonderSwan's creator!
before having to be replaced. Strangely enough, the system didn't feature Yokoi's ground-breaking D-Pad, although an accessory was released to duplicate the feel of one. Marketed primarily as a Japanese system, the WonderSwan has very few English games, but it does have a good-sized library of enjoyable games, featuring ports (and unique titles) from well-known companies such as SquareSoft and Capcom. The black-and-white system was followed by the WonderSwan Color and the SwanCrystal (none of which were released in the United States).

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Rest in Peace, Gunpei Yokoi!
Unfortunately Yokoi didn't live to see the handheld released to the public. On October 4, 1997, he and Etsuo Kiso, a Nintendo businessman who was driving the car, were involved in a minor car accident. When the men got out, checking the damage to the vehicle, two more cars rammed into the car from either side, crushing Yokoi. He was pronounced dead two hours later at a hospital. Bandai didn't forget him, however. When the WonderSwan (his swan song) was released, the first game for the system was named Gunpey in his honor.

Gunpey was recently remade for the Sony PSP and (bringing it full circle) the Nintendo DS. Yokoi believed strongly in "lateral thinking of withered technology," which meant reinterpreting the technology that already existed instead of constantly seeking the newest and most expensive. When Yokoi left this motto behind, with the Virtual Boy, he experienced his one, truly biting failure. In the end, however, the Game Boy and the WonderSwan are what Gunpei Yokoi will be most fondly remembered for. This gentle, quiet-spoken man who sought to bring fun to the world was officially honored by the games industry in 2006, when he posthumously received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Game Developer's Choice Awards ceremony on March 6, 2003. Metroid Prime, developed by Retro Studios and featuring Samus (one of his best known creations) won Game of the Year in the same ceremony.

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