In writing these daily lists for Fanbyte (it’s a great website, you should look it up), I spend a lot of time combing through Wikipedia looking for ideas. And whether I’m reading about the broader history of video games, or zeroing in on weird specifics in search of esoteric themes, one name invariably pops up: Gunpei Yokoi.
Whether you recognize the name or not, everyone that’s played a video game in the last 40 years owes something to the work and legacy of Gunpei Yokoi. His visionary ideas shaped Nintendo into what it is today, and his creations changed how millions of people interact with games, even today. So for the sake of history, let’s look at just a few of the ways that Gunpei Yokoi made modern video games what they are.
Gunpei Yokoi: Inventor of the D-Pad
Nintendo’s groundbreaking Game & Watch line of handhelds was the brainchild of Yokoi, who thought to combine a digital watch and electronic game into one unit after seeing a bored businessman fiddle with a digital calculator aboard the Shinkansen.
Video game inputs were not widely standardized in 1980, when the first Game & Watch title Ball released with one button on either side of the unit — the button on the left moved the character’s left hand, and the button on the right moved the character’s right hand. Subsequent Game & Watch titles continued to use this “one button per input” design ethos to accomplish their goals, until it came time for Yokoi to translate Nintendo’s arcade phenomenon Donkey Kong into a Game & Watch title.
Donkey Kong had been designed to use existing four-way arcade joysticks, with an additional button for jumping. This meant that a Game & Watch version of Donkey Kong would require a minimum of five buttons, but Yokoi had a better idea.
Rather than dedicate four individual buttons to Mario’s movement, Gunpei Yokoi devised a single button that could pivot in four directions, saving space and manufacturing cost while maintaining the functionality of a traditional joystick. This design would later be chosen as the primary input method for the Nintendo Family Computer, known stateside as the Nintendo Entertainment System. Nearly every major console since, handheld or otherwise, has implemented some variation on that original d-pad design.
Gunpei Yokoi: Inventor of Mario’s Mad Ups
One of the most jarring things about playing Donkey Kong, as someone who first knew Mario in his NES incarnations, is Mario’s susceptibility to fall damage. That li’l dude totally eats it if he falls from anything taller than he is, which is the complete opposite of established Mario physics. Modern Mario can jump off anything he dang well wants and be just fine, provided he doesn’t land in lava or on spikes or something. So what gives?
As Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto recalled in an installment of the late Satoru Iwata’s beloved “Iwata Asks” series, getting rid of fall damage was Yokoi’s idea.
“Mario Bros. was also a collaborative effort with Yokoi-san,” Miyamoto said in reference to the arcade classic. “Yokoi-san said, ‘Why don’t we let him jump down from higher places?’ I thought that if we did that, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But as I pondered it, I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t Mario be able to perform some super-human feats?’ Then we made a prototype with Mario running and bouncing around and we realized that this was great fun.”
The ramifications of this decision would ripple across decades of Mario titles. Had the fall damage from Donkey Kong been preserved in Mario Bros., would it then have carried through to Super Mario Bros.? Since Super Mario Bros. is a game about jumping, what would that have even looked like? What sort of game would Super Mario Odyssey be in a world where Mario couldn’t fall?
As much as Mario and crew are Miyamoto’s creations, this extremely vital aspect of how Mario feels — who Mario is — was thanks to Gunpei Yokoi.
Gunpei Yokoi: Inventor of the Game Boy
(Photo credit: Bryan Ochalla, CC BY-SA 2.0. Thanks Bryan!)
Gunpei Yokoi holds the unique distinction of being the father of handheld gaming not once, but twice — first with the Game & Watch in 1980, and again with the Game Boy in 1989. Designed by Yokoi and Satoru Okada, his partner at Nintendo Research and Development 1, the Game Boy turned a nascent subset of the video game market into a commercial juggernaut.
By pairing the NES’ familiar control scheme with low-tech yet capable hardware, Nintendo was able to introduce an affordable handheld system that provided close approximations of console experiences. It entered the market with excellent launch titles like Super Mario Land and Tetris, and while competitors like the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear offered color graphics and backlit screens, the Game Boy’s superior battery life — along with Nintendo’s characters and brand cache — made it market leader for the duration of its lifetime.
The decision to keep costs low and focus on the experience of playing the Game Boy, rather than spending money on cutting-edge technology, was all part of Gunpei Yokoi’s design philosophy, which he called “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.”
Gunpei Yokoi: Inventor of Nintendo’s Whole Deal
Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology is the idea that “new” does not automatically equate to “good,” and that by using technology that has matured and is market-tested, designers are able to focus on creative uses for that tech, which ultimately yield superior experiences for consumers.
This philosophy is why the Game Boy used a low resolution, monochrome screen without a backlight, even though illuminated color screens were available on other electronics of the day. By cutting these costly and energy-consuming features, Nintendo R&D1 was able to vastly extend the battery life of the Game Boy, which served the greatest priority of playing the Game Boy. As the power-hungry Lynx and Game Gear would soon learn, your games are only good when people can play them.
Yokoi’s design ethos continued to influence Nintendo long after his resignation in 1997 — the Nintendo Wii, for instance, prioritized the utilization of rapidly cheapening accelerometer technology ahead of the system’s graphical capabilities. Motion control was paramount to the idea of the Wii, as was the console’s overall affordability.
By using “withered technology” for the Wii’s processing components, Nintendo was able to produce a console that had a low barrier to entry, in terms of both price and functionality. Wii Sports didn’t look that much better than a Gamecube game, but that didn’t matter to the 3 million people that bought a Wii during its first month in stores.
Even the Nintendo Switch embodies the ideals of Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology, 20 years after Gunpei Yokoi’s departure from Nintendo and his subsequent, untimely passing. By using an older mobile processor and lower-resolution screen, Nintendo has been able to sell the Switch at a profit since day one, while still delivering on the promise of its unique hybrid design.
So the next time you pick up a controller, or if you find a Switch under the tree this year, give a little shout out in your head to Yokoi-san.