Much the way we all set our status to NOT show when we’re in a game, the Game and Watch was originally created to allow Japanese sallarymen to play games at work while their boss was none the wiser. This week we’re joined by Matt Alt as he discusses his article, “How Gunpei Yokoi Reinvented Nintendo,” which is pulled from a chapter in his new book Pure Invention.
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Kelsey Lewin 00:00
Welcome to episode number 10 of the Video Game History Hour, presented by the Video Game History Foundation! Every episode, we’ll be bringing in an expert guest: someone who’s done their research and has an interesting story from video game history to tell. My name is Kelsey Lewin, I’m the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation. And I’m here as always with Frank Cifaldi, the founder and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.
Frank Cifaldi 00:20
Our guest today is writer and Japanese translator, Matt Alt. Matt’s latest book is called, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. He also recently wrote – sort of a companion article I’d say? – for Vice called, How Gunpei Yokoi Reinvented Nintendo. And well, we’ll take any excuse we can around here to talk about Gunpei Yokoi.
Kelsey Lewin 00:41
At least I will!
Frank Cifaldi 00:42
Matt, welcome to the Video Game History Hour!
Matt Alt 00:44
Well, thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Kelsey Lewin 00:47
So let’s set the stage here a little bit, because your whole book is about stage-setting in Japan, basically, and providing a bunch of context to how all of this craziness happened. So set the stage a little bit for us. What is Nintendo in the 1960s?
Matt Alt 01:02
Well, Nintendo in the ’60s is not the Nintendo that we know and love today. They’re kind of… adrift. They are a producer of game cards called “hanafuda,” which are used in a traditional form of gambling. And the president of Nintendo [Hiroshi Yamauchi] is kind of casting around somewhat – you might even say flailing around – trying to bring his company not only into the modern era, but also to find the big hit that will make them the big name that he wants it to be. So they’re doing all sorts of things. Famously, he [Yamauchi] even launched a love hotel service. And a taxi service. He was selling instant rice and instant noodles, and all sorts of things that we wouldn’t really associate with Nintendo today. And chief among those were toys, physical toys. Like, knockoffs of Lego blocks or all sorts of other things like that, that were sold through toy stores in Japan. And kind of established Nintendo as a toy maker but not exactly an innovator, because most of them were really knockoffs or one step removed from other company’s products. The one exception were the products made by a certain gentleman named Gunpei Yokoi. Who was, yes, somebody who I think you guys like a lot!
Kelsey Lewin 02:22
Yeah, so Gunpei Yokoi is – obviously – I feel like a pretty well-known name now. He made the Game Boy, made the Game & Watch, all kinds of stuff like that. But he kind of ended up at Nintendo accidentally, right? Like, he almost ended up at Nintendo – and Nintendo is what it is today – because Gunpei Yokoi was kind of a bad student?
Matt Alt 02:42
Yeah! Well, Nintendo’s early history in particular is like a string of these incredibly, incredibly lucky hires that President Yamauchi made. And if he hadn’t, it’s very easy to imagine Nintendo not having exploded into the into popularity like it did. And Gunpei Yokoi is the first one of those.
Kelsey Lewin 03:01
Yeah, so he’s a smart guy who was… you know, he went to college for electrical engineering. He’s a smart guy, but all of his friends are getting the cool jobs and he’s kind of striking out. So yeah, can you tell us a little bit about how he ends up at Nintendo and what he does there?
Matt Alt 03:19
And this information comes mainly from his autobiography, which unfortunately, hasn’t been translated into English, but it’s available in Japan. He talks in there about how he wasn’t a particularly ambitious guy and his basic modus operandi, so to speak, was that he didn’t want to leave Kyoto. He wanted to stay close to home and look for a quiet job that he could do until retirement, and that would have been fine with him. And the job that he ended up applying for and getting was a job maintaining the hanafuda presses at Nintendo, which was a well-known local company in Kyoto at the time. I mean, they had a very long history as you know; they’ve been in business since the 1800s. But they weren’t seen as particularly high-tech or ambitious place to be. And in fact, the job that Yokoi took wasn’t even an electrical engineering job. It’s basically one step above, like, a janitorial job, you know? Taking care of these old presses, keeping them oiled, cleaning up around them, that kind of thing. So it’s a kind of interesting start for this guy.
Frank Cifaldi 04:21
It’s funny you say that, because the easiest way to upset Kelsey Lewin is to say that Gunpei Yokoi was hired at Nintendo as a janitor.
Kelsey Lewin 04:36
He didn’t say that though?
Frank Cifaldi 04:37
Kelsey Lewin 04:37
He said he was a step above a janitor.
Frank Cifaldi 04:39
He didn’t! But it’s in my notes; my notes say, “something that Kelsey once told me is that Yokoi used to be a janitor,” and I thought it’d be pretty funny, but we’ve already… [laughter]
Kelsey Lewin 04:49
Matt Alt 04:49
[Laughter] Maybe, like, a maintenance guy – you know what I mean? – is a better way of putting it. I mean, he wasn’t swapping out toilets or anything like that.
Kelsey Lewin 04:55
No, no. There was a really popular infographic thing that was passed around a lot (and I think is still being passed around) that I like to point to as sometimes people don’t… Either through mistranslations or misunderstandings of something, they get an idea about something and it sounds like a good story and it gets passed around. And that was one of those. I mean, that’s a great story, right? If he was a janitor and worked his way up…
Matt Alt 05:22
Frank Cifaldi 05:22
From janitor to creating the Game Boy, yeah.
Kelsey Lewin 05:25
Yeah, this like, lowly, uneducated… But no, he’s a college educated electrical engineer.
Matt Alt 05:31
Not only is he well educated, he’s actually… I mean, he’s very talented because he famously won this model railroad competition when he was a kid. Like, he built this really elaborate model train setup. And it was so apparently cool that Tokyo’s big model train magazine came down to film it. So, you know, he was a guy who had a lot of creative potential even as a little kid, this wasn’t some kind of like… He wasn’t, like, behind the curve or anything like that. He was just kind of an unambitious guy. In the beginning, anyway. He just wanted to find a job and kind of live quietly. And as we all know, things didn’t quite go that way.
Kelsey Lewin 06:08
He was a tinkerer.
Matt Alt 06:08
Yes. He’s very much a garage tinkerer, yeah.
Kelsey Lewin 06:11
Right. One of my favorite stories, actually, from the the book that you’re referencing, his autobiography… And you know, because this is all sort of straight from his mouth and we have very few sources from this guy, it’s hard to say exactly how much of this is true and how much is embellishment. (We can get more into that later.) But one of my favorite stories from there is how he said that he thinks he invented the car 8-track player, like, three years before it came to market? And how he used prank people by playing recordings of baseball games that had already happened, roll his window down and…
Matt Alt 06:51
Ah! Yeah, I guess that’s what boomers did for fun back in the ’60s and ’70s. Playing recordings to each other to freak each other out. Yeah, there’s a lot of that in this book. It’s kind of… and I don’t mean to paint him as like a passive aggressive guy at all! Because I don’t think he was. He’s a very skilled person. But you know, he’s like… Basically he says that he invented Donkey Kong, for instance. He came up with the core ideas and gameplay for it. And it was Miyamoto who got credit because he came up with the characters, which, you know, is one way of looking at it. And I don’t think there’s any dispute that Yokoi was key in working on that. But you see, that’s the great thing about his autobiography. And we’ll get into this a little bit later, but he wrote that autobiography after he had retired from Nintendo, I’m pretty sure. And that gave him the freedom to say things that he wouldn’t have been able to say when he was a salaryman, you know, on the Nintendo payroll, and…
Kelsey Lewin 07:51
Must not have had to sign an NDA all the way back in the ’60s…
Matt Alt 07:53
Yeah, I doubt it. Famously, after he left Nintendo in 1995 or 6, I think it was? It was right after the big flop of the Virtual Boy. And there were rumors – a lot of rumors – going around that he had been, you know, forced out; he had been fired by Nintendo and there was a lot of bad blood. And he wrote this… It’s basically the other piece of information that people always quote about him, in addition to the autobiography, because he wasn’t somebody who gave a lot of interviews. He wrote this long essay for a big Japanese literary magazine explaining, “No, I don’t hate Nintendo, no, there’s no bad blood. I’m just, you know, 50-something, and it’s time for me to move on and make, you know… I don’t want to be working for somebody else. I want to work for myself from now on!” So, you know, once he did that, that gave them a lot more freedom to talk about stuff, including things that happen at Nintendo.
Frank Cifaldi 08:46
Well, let’s go back to his sort of emergence at Nintendo, right? So he’s.. I don’t know, what do you do with the printing presses? You oil them or something? That’s kind of what he’s up to…
Matt Alt 08:57
Well, yeah! I mean, they used, like, mulberry bark or something. Like this really, really high quality Japanese paper and glue and all sorts of stuff. These aren’t like, Pokemon cards. They’re thicker. They’re almost like cardboard. So I guess there was a kind of a bigger machine involved in making them, it was kind of complicated.
Frank Cifaldi 09:19
And so he eventually sort of gets the attention of President Yamauchi just from kind of getting bored and screwing around, is my read, right?
Matt Alt 09:30
Yeah! So he was, you know… He’s a really smart guy and he’s a really talented guy, so keeping these machines running, these ancient machines running, wasn’t really using a lot of his brainpower. So in his abundant downtime, he started messing around in the machine shop and making toys. And the first one he made is this kind of Looney Tunes-style accordion arm that would, like: you’d move two levers on the bottom and it would extend out like a like a big arm in front of you. And he was playing around with this, Yamaguchi found out about it and called him into the office, and he thought he was gonna get fired for screwing around on company time. It turned out Yamauchi loved it and wanted him to make it into a product. And so that’s what he did.
Kelsey Lewin 10:11
… Yamauchi loved things?
Matt Alt 10:12
Believe it or not. Well, he loved money! [Laughter] I think it’s safe to say he loved money or the prospect of making it. And in this weird contraption that Yokoi had come up with, Yamauchi saw money. And he was right. He was right. It turned out to be a big hit that was sold under the name Ultra Hand. Ultra being a big keyword back in ’60s Japan: Ultraman, you know, Ultraseven, all sorts of things.
Kelsey Lewin 10:39
Yeah, he had a bunch of toys that use the word “ultra.”
Matt Alt 10:42
Yeah. And as an aside, that comes from the Olympics. There was a gymnast, a Japanese gymnast who used some technique called I think the Ultra-B or something like that? And that was taken up in the newspapers at the time in, like, 1964, ’65. And she was I think she medaled. And because of that, people like… It established this context were “ultra” meant something really powerful. And so in the years to come, it was used in all sorts of places.
Frank Cifaldi 11:11
Kelsey Lewin 11:12
That was pre-Ultraman?
Matt Alt 11:14
Oh, yeah, yeah.
Kelsey Lewin 11:15
Matt Alt 11:16
The ultra, ultra-B or ultra-C or whatever – I’m not remembering, exactly – But it was a gymnastics move. It was an athletic move.
Frank Cifaldi 11:23
I’m disappointed because I was picturing Ultra, like, B-E-E, like the bug. [Laughter]
Matt Alt 11:32
No only ultra gymnasts and Ultramen. And I think there’s an occasional Ultrawoman in there? There’s an Ultramother, I think. But we’re off topic here, we’re talking about Ultraman! We were talking about Yokoi. Although there were… it’s interesting, Nintendo was actually making licensed Ultraman products back in 1966, ’67. I don’t know if Yokoi designed those but I would be shocked if he didn’t. And at one point, the company that was most famous for making Ultraman toys in Japan, there’s this company called Marusan [Shoten] that invented the idea of making action figures of all of the kaiju from the Ultraman series, all the monsters. And they ran into a lot of financial hardship and were about to go out of business, and their bank told them to meet with Nintendo with the idea that they would merge. So it ended up not happening because the two, Yamaguchi and the president of Marusan, were two really big personalities. But it’s really interesting to imagine a future that didn’t happen, where Nintendo merged with what was one of Japan’s biggest toy makers at the time and became, like, a toy company instead of a game company. But that didn’t happen.
Frank Cifaldi 12:38
Well, and I mean, you mentioned that they kind of become a game company. But this is true even at the time of the Ultra Hand, right? It’s just more that they’re not so much creating games as they are maybe… Well, they import, what is it like, Twister I think they did?
Kelsey Lewin 12:55
Yeah, they imported Twister.
Matt Alt 12:57
Yeah, they had a big… You know, when I interviewed Masayuki Uemura, who was the gentleman who actually was the engineer on the Famicom. He came into Nintendo around 1971 or ’72, and he told me that they used to have this giant warehouse that was just full of imported Western games and toys that employees would go in there and play around with, with the hopes of getting an inspiration to make the next big thing. You know, Nintendo was really a fad-chaser back then. And because of lax copyright laws, especially in Japan at the time, a lot of their stuff was kind of derivative. Like, one step removed from other companies’s stuff. And certainly in the ’60s and ’70s, there was zero – zero, less than zero – indication that they would ever become a prime mover and shaker in the toy industry or the game industry or anything like that.
Frank Cifaldi 13:54
So is the Ultra Hand kind of Nintendo’s first original game?
Matt Alt 14:02
Yeah, well, that’s the thing, you know? Like, Yokoi didn’t see it as game. He just saw it as a gizmo or a gadget and Yamaguchi told him, “You got to make this into a game so we can sell it.” And Yokoi kind of racked his brains and came up with this idea of putting suction cups on the end of it, and that you you would, like, stack balls and cups and things like that. But I don’t know how many kids actually played it as a game, do you know what I mean? I think they were just kind of probably smacking each other in the face or pinching each other with it or, you know, doing stuff kids would do with a giant extensible hand.
Frank Cifaldi 14:32
Well, it’s the Mouse Trap scenario.
Matt Alt 14:35
Frank Cifaldi 14:35
I had Mouse Trap, the board game. I’ve never played Mouse Trap, the board game. But I have set that trap off a million times.
Matt Alt 14:42
Oh, sure. Yeah.
Frank Cifaldi 14:45
So I don’t know if history is this clean, but it kind of strikes me that this may be the beginning of Nintendo maybe not necessarily going in a new direction, but starting to at least try to innovate in the game space, right? The toy space maybe, more specifically.
Matt Alt 15:05
Well, Yamaguchi knew a good thing when he when he had it, you know, when he saw it. So, like, he basically promoted Yokoi from oiler of this clanking, tin machine to a Head of Research and Development. And Yokoi, over the course of the ’70s, started making all of these wacky, wild toys for Nintendo. Some of them which were hits, some of which weren’t. But he was the kind of prime innovator of Nintendo’s products throughout the 1970s.
Frank Cifaldi 15:33
Kelsey Lewin 15:34
And you get some of his philosophies that kind of show up really early in some of these toys. People like to talk a lot – or at least, maybe just I like to talk a lot about – his philosophy of lateral thinking with withered technology, sort of the thing that the Game Boy is most famous for. But you see this really early on with a lot of his stuff. My favorite example is the Lefty RX, which is this RC car that he developed because RC cars were getting big. And they were really expensive to make. So his solution to that was, “Make it only turn left and we don’t have to figure out steering!” It only goes one way and they were able to cut an enormous amount of cost because, you know, for so many kids (and obviously this held extremely true with the Game Boy which we’ll get to, but even back in their toy days), they just need something they can afford that works.
Matt Alt 16:32
Yeah, and I think Yokoi was a genius of not letting perfection get in the way of accomplishing something. He was somebody who really understood how kids played and that things didn’t have to necessarily be cutting edge. But you know, I don’t think he had, like… He’s really well known today for that philosophy, which you just mentioned, which is “lateral thinking with withered technology,” which basically means: “Don’t chase the cutting edge. Look for established gimmicks, or technologies or techniques around you and think of new ways to use them that haven’t been used before.” Basically, look for new applications of existing stuff, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. And I wonder if that came from a huge failure of his in the 1970s when he invented the light gun system? We all know the light gun from the Nintendo Entertainment System and from R.O.B, the Robotic Operating Buddy, whose eyes use a version of that. But he invented that in the ’70s for the system called Laser Clay, which was this… You’d use these really realistic looking rifles to shoot projections of clay pigeons on movie screen-sized screens. And they modified bowling alleys! Nintendo had this whole conversion kit that they sold the bowling alleys where, “Hey, are your customers bored of bowling? Well, you can install this Laser Clay system and turn your bowling alley into a virtual skeet shooting thing.” And they invested so much money in it. It was the way that Yokoi invented this technology. And they thought it was going to be a big cash cow. And then there was, like, this big oil crisis. And Japan went kind of into recession. Nobody bought it and they went deep, deep, deep into the red. And they almost… It was a huge failure, probably monetarily even bigger than Virtual Boy. And a really big problem for Nintendo and for Yokoi who was kind of sent off into the wilderness, so to speak, inside the company. Like, “That guy nearly killed us!”
Frank Cifaldi 18:35
Yeah. And it’s really interesting to think… Well, first of all, that that’s almost a prehistoric Nintendo video game in a weird way, right? Because it is a projector and a controller.
Matt Alt 18:50
Frank Cifaldi 18:50
It’s not a video screen but it’s, you know, it’s sort of the first hint of Nintendo video games. But it’s also, if what you’re kind of proposing is true, that that’s the impetus for “lateral thinking with withered technology?” I mean, that sets the stage for the Nintendo that we know today even, right? Just even the technology in their consoles tends to be not the cutting edge graphics chip, they tend to take off-the-shelf parts. But even something a little more direct would be something like the screen on the 3DS, right?
Matt Alt 19:27
Frank Cifaldi 19:27
Was just this crappy 3D effect that cell phones were already done with at that time…
Matt Alt 19:35
Oh, totally! You know, young people might not remember this or have been alive for this, but the the screen on the original Game Boy, like the 1989-1990 Game Boy, was hideous! It was terrible. I mean, it was a really bad screen. It was like, they definitely used off-the-shelf parts for that one. Because other companies like Atari, you know, were using these (at the time) incredibly cutting-edge color LCDs. And the Nintendo’s Game Boy looked really sickly in comparison to that. But as we all know, who won that war: the Lynx or the Game Boy? That’s, uh… you know?
Frank Cifaldi 20:12
California Games or Pokemon?
Matt Alt 20:14
Yes, exactly. Slime World! Todd’s Adventures in Slime World, that was my jam. What a great game that was. But I’m dating myself here… But yeah, so you know, after Laser Clay, when Yokoi was kind of – nobody was listening to him as much anymore – is when he ironically came up with the thing that would REALLY set Nintendo on a new path. That’s when he came up with the idea for the Game & Watch, you know, which is the precursor for all of the kind of portable game systems to come. And that’s a key example of “lateral thinking with withered technology,” because it’s based on a calculator!
Kelsey Lewin 20:52
Yeah, so tell… I mean, I think most people have probably heard the origin story of this by now, but just set the stage a little bit. Tell us how he came up with this Game & Watch idea?
Matt Alt 21:04
Sometime around 1977 or 1978, Yokoi was on a bullet train, and he was riding and… You know, now everybody has all sorts of gadgets to keep them occupied during long trips, but back then you basically either had a newspaper or a manga or… that was it. And it was on these long two or three-hour trips between Kyoto and Tokyo, he’d watched salaryman just desultorily poking at their calculators desperately trying to entertain themselves over the long trip. And he realized that if he came up with a device that was small and looked like a calculator – and this was the original idea – that salarymen could play games without getting busted by their bosses.
Kelsey Lewin 21:43
Yeah, part of it was that he thought it would be… Like, it’s embarrassing for an adult to be playing a game in public, so it needs to be something that’s small and discreet enough that you can just kind of like have it between your legs. And, you know, kind of hide that you’re playing it.
Matt Alt 21:59
I’m not sure it was embarrassment. Japan has always had this really stellar sense of play in the right context. And that’s exactly what was going on here: he was looking to give people a chance to play in a context they weren’t supposed to play. Which is like, “Oh, their boss is sitting right next to them.” Or, “They’re supposed to be at work.” You know, like what you do in your free time, nobody really… if you want to play around and do things, nobody would see that as being weird or transgressive. Which is why, for instance, pachinko is always so big in Japan. And arcades full of pinball machines and stuff are always really big in Japan. So Yokoi’s real genius here was coming up with a device that let you blur the lines between where you were supposed to play and not. And I also think it’s really key that he’s aimed it at adults. Back in the ’70s, everybody thought video games were going to be for adults and that was it!
Frank Cifaldi 22:48
Matt Alt 22:50
What eventually ended up happening was, nobody would listen to him at Nintendo. But he was shanghaied into being president Yamaguchi’s driver for a day when Yamauchi’s driver got sick with the flu or something like that. And with Yamaguchi trapped in the back of the car, Yokoi was able to like evangelize this idea of making a kind of portable, tiny video game using calculator technology. And as luck would have it, Yamauchi, he didn’t say anything. He kind of pretended to ignore Yokoi. But he was on his way to a luncheon or a dinner where he sat next to the guy who ran Sharp, the big Japanese electronics company that made most of Japan’s calculators at the time. And he started talking to him, and a few weeks later, Yokoi got called back into the office again, probably thinking he’s going to get fired again. And lo and behold, president Yamauchi is like, “Here’s the president of Sharp. Get to work on your idea.” And they did. And that’s where that, you know… The first game they came out with was Ball, that Game & Watch where you’re kind of this clown juggling balls and the buttons on the side of the screen let you move the arms up and down. And this is using LCD technology. This isn’t like an active… it’s like a passive LCD? Like a calculator. So you had to put the images – pre-bake them – into the screen, right?
Frank Cifaldi 24:08
Right. And yeah, if you’ve played an LCD game from the ’80s or ’90s, I mean, Game & Watch is where that started, as far as I know.
Matt Alt 24:17
Yeah, yeah definitely. And it sparked so many competitors. But that was the first real video gaming boom. And this is a thing: so he invented it for adults. But it took off hugely among kids. And this was THE big video game boom among kids in the 1980s, like 1980-ish? Like, it was ’79 to ’81, I think? There was just a time period around ’80, ’83 maybe, that was just a huge boom for these Game & Watches and so many variants came out.
Kelsey Lewin 24:48
And it’s funny too, because he originally was like, “OK, I made Ball up. That was good. What’s next?” Yamauchi’s like, “Well obviously you make, like, 100 more variants, dude.”
Matt Alt 24:58
Exactly! Ball 2! [Laughter]
Kelsey Lewin 25:00
Matt Alt 25:01
And you know, along the way, Yokoi innovated all sorts of things. So one of the later, one of the key innovations that came out of Game & Watch, was when Yokoi made – I think – was on the Donkey Kong Game & Watch, which was a conversion so to speak of Donkey Kong. And it had a directional pad on it, the plus-shaped directional pad. I might be getting it wrong that its Donkey Kong, but it was definitely one of–
Kelsey Lewin 25:29
No, you’re right.
Matt Alt 25:29
Am I right? See, look at this. I’m on fire! [laughter]
Frank Cifaldi 25:34
Yes, they needed something to feel like the joystick in the arcade game, right?
Matt Alt 25:38
Yes, and up until that point it had all been buttons, you know what I mean? If you remember those early game and watches (and I do), it was literally… Ball, the Octopus game, which you might remember (God, I love that one!), there was a Parachute one… It’s all just buttons moving left and right on the bottom of the screen. So the D-pad actually made it more like an arcade game experience. And that, it’s basically the D-pad that we know and love today.
Frank Cifaldi 26:06
Oh yeah, I mean the the the Famicom controller the NES controller, I mean, I think it’s literally the same mold.
Kelsey Lewin 26:12
It is, it was spare parts from Game & Watches when they were messing around.
Matt Alt 26:18
Kelsey Lewin 26:19
And you interviewed Masayuki Uemura, right? So did you get any of that kind of…?
Matt Alt 26:26
Yeah! He told me, actually… He told me that the first prototype of the Famicom (which is probably a bunch of circuit boards sitting on a table), they actually used Game & Watches; like, they ran cables, they hacked the Game & Watch and ran cables from that into the proto-console to use as controllers. So they actually literally use those to kind of mock-up what the what the Famicom experience would be.
Kelsey Lewin 26:55
And then they just ended up being like, “Hey, this actually feels pretty good! We should keep it like this.”
Matt Alt 26:58
Yeah, yeah, definitely! I mean, I guess so? I wasn’t like, “Why didn’t you use a joystick?” I probably should have asked him that. This is funny: like, you always think up these questions later, afterwards. To us, the the idea of a Nintendo Entertainment System that used anything but that plus-shaped D-pad is just inconceivable.
Frank Cifaldi 27:16
Right? But what’s your frame of reference back then? It’s going to be stuff like the Atari in the U.S., right?
Matt Alt 27:21
And I love that joystick! That rubber-covered, like, a box you’re holding in your hand with like… it was a STICK, you know what I mean? Like it was really a stick. But it didn’t have a lot of sensitivity to it. And I think that’s where the D-pad really was a game changer.
Frank Cifaldi 27:35
It couldn’t play Mario at that stick.
Matt Alt 27:37
No, although… wasn’t there a Mario for the 2600? There was definitely one for the ColecoVision.
Frank Cifaldi 27:42
There was Mario Bros., as in the arcade game. Not Super Mario.
Matt Alt 27:47
Frank Cifaldi 27:49
Let’s talk a little bit about what Nintendo is at this point, because Game & Watch isn’t really their first video game. And I would assume that Yokoi’s R&D division is probably the group tapped for their early arcade experience, right?
Matt Alt 28:06
Yes. So to set the stage here. In 1978, that’s when Space Invaders comes out. And sparks this tremendous boom for video gaming in Japan. There have been kind of hit games before that, like Breakout and Pong. But Space Invaders really kind of was a fever. Like, took it to another level. And because at the time there were no copyright or trademark laws covering software, all of these other companies rushed out with their own kind of one step removed or even just direct copies of Space Invaders. And Nintendo was no exception. Yamaguchi just wanted to cash in on this thing. And in my interview with Uemura, the engineer of the Famicom, he told me that Yamaguchi bought a bunch of Space Invaders machines and put them in HQ in Kyoto at Nintendo, and basically told the employees, “Come up with something like this.” And Uemura recalls being completely annoyed because instead of people studying it, these lines formed. Just basically the entire company got sucked into playing it and all productivity ground to a halt for like a week or two. And the engineers couldn’t… Because they wanted to get in and take it apart! They wanted to break the machines down and see how they were made. And they couldn’t even get in to do that because there were so many regular employees just trying to play! And they did start making their own knockoffs of those games.
Frank Cifaldi 29:37
Yeah, it’s maybe difficult to imagine just how huge the [Space] Invaders boom was. But you mentioned other companies cloning them. Konami and SNK basically get their start either cloning or officially distributing Space Invaders. This really is sort of the start of the Japanese video game industry.
Matt Alt 30:02
It totally is. And because Space Invaders is really the first arcade game that had characters in it and made gaming kind of more of a virtual experience than this kind of game of like sport. Like, Pong and Breakout had been almost like barroom games, you know? They were they were literally placed in bars when they were invented. And they were the kind of thing, you had a couple beers and play them with your friends and then, you know, go back to having more beers or whatever. Space Invaders was actually kind of an immersive experience. You’re in the space war with these identifiable aliens that are really kind of charmingly drawn, given that they’re in a what, nine by nine pixel matrixes? I mean, there’s still really like identifiable even today. They’re iconic. Taito uses them for their for their arcades, to mark their arcades in Tokyo on the on the signs.
Frank Cifaldi 30:50
Yeah, it’s unmistakable. The one that they use for the most part with that claw.
Matt Alt 30:55
Yeah, that crab?
Frank Cifaldi 30:56
Yeah! Yeah, that that guy.
Matt Alt 30:59
Yeah. That guy who invented that, Tomohiro Nishikado, he was a real genius at just kind of making something out of nothing. I mean, it’s like a black screen with white. But yet he made he managed to make this like real kind of space experience! Anyway, so Space Invaders is huge. Nintendo is knocking it off. Everybody’s knocking it off. And I found in my research for a pure invention this documentary from Japanese TV at the time, where they’re covering what they call the “Invader Boom.” And it really was a boom, like… There were these things called Invader Rooms that sprung up all over Tokyo, were it’s literally an arcade filled with nothing but Invader games. Adults are playing them, but kids are watching eagerly from the sidelines and it starts to become this societal problem, where PTAs are like, “Games are bad for kids! Keep kids out of these places!” And in this case, they were probably right. Because most of these Invader Rooms are full of adults drinking and smoking and they weren’t exactly kid-friendly places. Some of them were literally in red light districts and stuff. And at any rate, there’s so many knockoffs of the game going around that Taito starts basically accusing the other game companies of ripping them off, which is really not something that was done back in time. And in this documentary, President Yamauchi is interviewed and is like, “You know, I don’t think you should even be allowed to patent a style of play at all. I think once one video game company comes up with a really key game mechanic, they should give it to all the other game companies because you know, a rising tide lifts all ships. We’re all in this together.” So forget patents forget gameplay. It’s all for everybody! You know, there’s no such thing as copying! And you know, then…
Frank Cifaldi 32:48
And now Nintendo shuts down fan games. [Laughter]
Matt Alt 32:50
Yeah, well, that’s the thing, right? Of course, we all know now that the minute Nintendo’s Famicom became the premier game system in Japan, Yamauchi ran that project with an iron fist.
Frank Cifaldi 33:03
Matt Alt 33:03
Not only to the point of like, you know, taking legal action, or– He didn’t even have to take legal action because he could basically blacklist people just by virtue of the fact, “Oh, you support him? Well, you can’t make me for the Famicom then, bye!” It was basically behavior that would have been illegal in the United States, I think, under anti-monopoly laws and stuff, but was allowed in Japan. And Yamaguchi basically made game developers pay for the cost of manufacturing the cartridges through Nintendo factories with huge… So, there was all the systems he put in place to ensure that Nintendo and only Nintendo was controlling the flow of content in to Famicoms, which is a far cry from this interview 1980, where he’s like, “Hey, man! Information just wants to be free,” you know? It’s just a great moment and just goes to show you what a Wild West the the game industry was in the in the ’80s, and what kind of a copycat Nintendo was in the late ’70s. Pre-Donkey Kong, I don’t think anybody… If you had if you had asked like the the most intelligent and witty observer of the game industry in 1979, “Who’s gonna be the big player a decade or two from now?” Nobody would have said Nintendo.
Kelsey Lewin 34:24
Right! They were a copier and a licensor of things.
Matt Alt 34:27
Kelsey Lewin 34:28
They were just kind of… I mean, they licensed Disney characters for playing cards, they were ripping off Breakout and ripping off Space Invaders and ripping off any technology that looked profitable. And that’s, I mean, you can see that when, as you mentioned earlier, you have Yamauchi doing all these weird ventures like instant noodles and stuff. He is literally just looking at things that are doing well and deciding he’s going to do that too.
Matt Alt 34:52
And you know, just just to be clear: I actually LOVE Hiroshi Yamauchi! I think he’s great. He’s such a character, you know what I mean? He wasn’t creative in the sense that like, you know, Miyamoto was or Gunpei Yokoi was. But he was a real artiste when it came to business, and that’s why he’s trying all these different things. From instant noodles and rice, all the way up to like, “Oh, wow, television games, that’s an interesting new thing!” And so, he was he was a really forward-looking guy. And, you know, apparently a very playful guy. Uemura, when I interviewed him, told me that he would often show up at employee weddings and like, get down in the trenches playing Hanafuda with everyone. So, he’s a guy who appreciated play. Like, we think of him wearing those kind of, you know, half-shaded sunglasses with the slicked back hair and being like, “Come, yes. Kiss the ring,” kind of thing at Nintendo in the in the ’80s and ’90s. But he was definitely a guy who was not afraid to take risks and try new stuff. So that’s the really cool thing about him.
Frank Cifaldi 36:02
And I don’t know how true this is, but I remember from reading David Sheff’s Game Over that he was the one who sort of personally put a “Yes/No” stamp on Famicom games. And he was not one who played games! He could just look at them and sort of understand if it might be a hit or not.
Matt Alt 36:21
Yes. Wait, David Sheff’s book? Are you talking about the book about how “Nintendo Enslaved America’s Children and Zapped Your” – what is it? – “Stole Your Dollars and and Zapped an Entire Industry?”
Frank Cifaldi 36:34
I have that first print over here somewhere… [laughter]
Matt Alt 36:35
I love that literally every single subtitle… And I love Sheff’s book, I think that subtitle was foisted on him by an editor somewhere.
Frank Cifaldi 36:41
Oh, yeah, no doubt!
Matt Alt 36:42
NONE of those things are true! Like, America zapped its OWN industry!
Frank Cifaldi 36:47
That subtitle is what shut Nintendo up for the rest of time.
Matt Alt 36:53
Yes, because they really gave him a lot of access. Like, there’s some beautiful scenes in Sheff’s book (which is I believe out of print now, unfortunately) where he’s like, in Yamaguchi’s garden, you know? Or sitting down at headquarters there, and they don’t give interviews to ANYBODY now. Anybody.
Frank Cifaldi 37:12
That was it. That was our one chance.
Matt Alt 37:14
Yeah, that was it. And Sheff, ya screwed it up for us, man. [Laughter] No, I’m just kidding; it’s a great book. When it was reprinted later they took that off, and it’s like, how “Nintendo,” I forget, “Conquered the World” or something.
Frank Cifaldi 37:27
“Raised Your Children Correctly.” [laughter]
Matt Alt 37:29
Yes. Exactly! “How Nintendo Made Your Children Better Children and Reinvigorated the American Game Industry.” [laughter] I think the other point I wanted to make is – this is true of Yokoi’s Game & Watch, it’s true of these Invader game knockoffs and it’s going to be true of Donkey Kong: Nintendo didn’t actually even make any of these games! They came up with ideas and then they contracted with another company, or multiple other companies. In the case of the Game and Watch, Yokoi came up with the ideas for the gameplay, but it was actually Sharp who implemented them. And when it came to their arcade games, they subcontracted with a company called Ikegame Tsushinki, which is still in business today. They make pro-grade, broadcast-grade cameras and equipment for television stations. But it was actually Ikegame [Tsushinki] who did all of the wiring and and actually made these ideas of Yokoi and later Miyamoto come to life. They didn’t make their own video games, they just kind of came up with the ideas.
Frank Cifaldi 38:46
Well they did the software engineering as well, right?
Matt Alt 38:49
Well, they came up with the gameplay and they had some kind of idea, but I think even the software engineering was outsourced to Ikegame Tsushinki.
Frank Cifaldi 38:58
Yes, for a while. Right, exactly.
Matt Alt 39:00
Yeah, well, you know, the truth of the matter is, is that somebody like Miyamoto Shigeru would never have been hired at Taito or Namco or Atari. He was a graphic designer. He didn’t have any background at all in game design or anything like that. You know, he’s very creative guy, but didn’t have that background. And at that time, it was believed that only programmers could make good games,
Kelsey Lewin 39:25
Right, they didn’t have (I mean, and I guess this certainly doesn’t really exist anymore), but there wasn’t like, “We’re gonna hire the idea guy!”
Matt Alt 39:32
Yeah! So you had to be somebody who was a crack programmer, like whether you’re Nishikado, who made Space Invaders, or… I forget her name, the really awesome woman who made Centipede [Dona Bailey]? You had to be somebody who is a programmer and a designer. And a sound person, like, kind of all at the same time. And you know, those people are unicorns. Like, they exist, but they’re not really any way for an industry to grow because you have to wait for somebody like that to come along. And so inadvertently, Yokoi kind of came up with this more of an assembly line strategy where it’s like, “We have the ideas! So we’ll come up with the ideas” – and when I say we, I mean Miyamoto – “we have this young guy who’s kind of a cool designer and stuff, let’s use this designs let’s let him kind of think up. And then outsource all of the hard stuff to Ikegame Tsushinki.” And that was a kind of revolutionary way of making games back then, I think. It wasn’t how it was done anywhere else. The idea that that the person who is best suited to design a game wasn’t necessarily the best person to make a game, if that makes sense.
Frank Cifaldi 40:43
Right, yeah. I think that might be true. I mean, the the notion of a video game designer, you know, was not… I don’t know if it was necessarily invented in this moment but, I mean, it very well could be. I’m racking my brain trying to think of other examples, but for the most part…
Matt Alt 40:58
Yeah, if you’re talking about somebody who is a designer who didn’t actually work on the programming, you know? And I mean, even going as far back as like… I mean, I guess you could say like the original Breakout was based on an idea by Nolan Bushnell and then like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak actually made it, but I didn’t know.
Frank Cifaldi 41:18
Right, and I don’t think [Toru] Iwatani did the engineering of Pac-Man. But I think he did at least, you know, the pixel art and stuff like that.
Matt Alt 41:28
Yeah. Well, Nishikado certainly did the engineering of Space Invaders.
Frank Cifaldi 41:32
Kelsey Lewin 41:33
He kind of was the only one who knew how at that company.
Matt Alt 41:35
Yeah, exactly. So you know, you have this situation where it’s kind of a quantum leap. And it all started with a Popeye cartoon! That’s the really interesting thing, which is that Yokoi had seen… Popeye was really big in Japan. Before Japan’s first domestically produced anime (which is called Astroboy) came out in 1963, they showed imported cartoons, like Tom and Jerry and stuff like that, on Japanese TV. And Popeye was huge. It started broadcasting in the late ’50s. So you know, Yokoi would have been pretty young when he first saw it. And just like in America, they kept showing it and reruns and stuff like that. And that idea that this kind of hero-type guy could eat something and power-up ended up having this huge impact on that first wave of designers. It’s where Iwatani got the idea for the energizer pills for Pac Man. And it’s where Yokoi got the idea for Donkey Kong. In the sense that, there was this Popeye episode where Popeye and Bluto are fighting in this unfinished building while Olive Oil sleepwalks through it. And they’re trying to both protect her and both, you know, knock each other off the girders. And you can literally see where Donkey Kong comes from in this. And initially Donkey Kong, started as a licensed Popeye game, famously. Yokoi wanted to make a Popeye game, and when that fell through… They couldn’t get the license at that point, they eventually did for a different game. But they decided, “Well, whatever, let’s just use the mechanic and instead of Bluto being Bluto, he can be this big gorilla and instead of Popeye being Popeye, he can be this little plumber Jump Man guy.”
Frank Cifaldi 43:23
Yeah, even if it’s not directly Popeye, clearly the inspiration is Western cartoons.
Matt Alt 43:29
Oh yeah. Well, it’s called “A Dream Walking,” and you can actually find it on YouTube. If you look up “Popeye: A Dream Walking,” and if you watch that episode, you can just, “Oh, girders… Wow, there’s like a flaming oil barrel, you know, whatever.” It’s like all of these little moments.
Kelsey Lewin 43:46
The pieces are there.
Matt Alt 43:46
Yeah, the pieces are there. And so your Koi is the one who gave that kind of design brief to Miyamoto. And Miyamoto took it and ran with it. But that was, like, their big kind of transformative evolutionary moment where Nintendo created something totally new for the first time. Although it was initially intended to be this licensed Popeye game. That’s the really funny thing.
Frank Cifaldi 44:11
Yeah, yeah. I mean, they accidentally made something new. FORCED into making something new.
Matt Alt 44:17
“Oops, we innovated!” [laughter]
Frank Cifaldi 44:20
Something that we have in our archives here – and this might be a coincidence, I don’t know – but we have an issue of the magazine Popeye, which I’m sure you’re familiar with.
Matt Alt 44:30
Frank Cifaldi 44:31
Which, I mean, is it fair to say is basically a Western fashion magazine at the time?
Matt Alt 44:35
Oh, sure. Yeah, yeah. It’s still around today.
Frank Cifaldi 44:37
Yeah. And it’s an issue from mid-1980. And the guy on the cover is meant to be a construction worker, and he’s got blue overalls and a red shirt and red hat and a mustache.
Matt Alt 44:52
Are you sure he’s not the Prime Minister of Japan? [laughter]
Frank Cifaldi 44:58
He’s a construction worker. Like, it strikes me as a magazine that’s saying, “This is what a construction worker looks like.”
Matt Alt 45:05
Right, right. And it’s, yeah, ’cause they basically rewrote the book on what plumbers and construction workers look like with Donkey Kong, you know?
Frank Cifaldi 45:16
No, this is pre-Donkey Kong, is what I’m saying!
Matt Alt 45:18
Oh, this is pre-Donkey Kong? Oh wow, well then you got to scan this, I want to see this!
Frank Cifaldi 45:21
OK, I’ll send it to you! Maybe we’ll put it in the podcast notes.
Matt Alt 45:25
It’s interesting. So when we saw Donkey Kong, it seemed to come out of left field. But it was obviously incorporating all of these things like Popeye and what you’re talking about, that magazine cover where probably Miyamoto saw it and incorporated those design elements into his game? This is actually true of the music later on. Like, you know, the Super Mario Brothers music sounds so iconic, but it’s actually based on like a bunch of city pop music that was popular at the time. And there’s a couple YouTube pieces out there like doing side by side analyses of famous ’80s game music against, especially from Nintendo against city pop songs of the era. And it’s just interesting; this stuff hit us like a like a hurricane because we didn’t know any of the references.
Frank Cifaldi 46:14
Oh, right, yeah. Especially when the when the NES hit here, it just seemed like it came from – Super Mario Brothers especially right? – seemed like it came from another planet.
Matt Alt 46:24
Yeah, yes. Definitely. “Where’s this coming from?” And you know, in Japan, it’s this synthesis of Western cartoons and Japanese pop music, and tropes from anime and manga. And like, we didn’t know any of this stuff. And I think that’s one of the big reasons why Nintendo and Japanese game designers were able to pick up the pieces where the American game industry imploded around 1983 and turn it into this entire vibrant, new genre of entertainment and escape in a way that the Americans hadn’t been able to. Because they had such a rich tradition of illustrated entertainment and they were such voracious consumers of pop music, imported cartoons and all sorts of things. So yeah, that was really the fuel, I think.
Frank Cifaldi 47:15
So picking Yokoi’s narrative back up. Nintendo sort of becomes a software development company. Maybe not entirely, but you know, R&D in particular, right? Like, Yokoi’s department is essentially just a software development company for a while, here. We see Yokoi working on some iconic games, right? Like, I believe he was the producer of Metroid.
Matt Alt 47:41
Yes. Well, famously there’s two R&D departments in Nintendo: there’s R&D1 [Research & Development 1], which is headed up by Yokoi, and there’s R&D2 [Research & Development 2], that’s headed up by Uemura. It’s often portrayed in Western and American media, or mass media, that Yamaguchi did this to foster some kind of rivalry between the two. But you know, in fact, Yokoi hired Uemura. And Uemura told me when I was interviewing him that there wasn’t really any rivalry per se. Of course, you know, you saw the other guys have a big hit, and you’re like, “Damn, when’s my big hit coming?” But they weren’t, like, stealing from each… It wasn’t a toxic rivalry or anything like that, at least. The lines are really blurred, because Uemura’s team was tasked with developing the Famicom. And at first, Yokoi’s team was just all making Game & Watch-type stuff and arcade-type stuff. But then the lines started blurring when the Famicom took off. And the Famicom famously, its design spec was that it had to be able to play Donkey Kong. That was literally the design spec. And there was a brief period where Uemura’s like, “I’m gonna import the ColecoVision and just use that as the Nintendo Entertainment System,” because ColecoVision at the time had the best port of Donkey Kong. It turned out for a variety of reasons they couldn’t do that. But you know, Yokoi’s hand is just like behind the scenes in everything because he had been so key and making Donkey Kong. So even when it’s R&D2 working on the Famicom, they’re still kind of working with Yokoi’s ideas. And at the time, the Game & Watches are just exploding still. Like, that’s Nintendo’s cash cow, and Donkey Kong in the arcades. So Yokoi is kind of on top and Uemura is the kind of underdog. And then when the Famicom comes out that quickly flips, because the Famicom’s emergence coincided with the Game & Watch’s boom fading. The bubble popped.
Kelsey Lewin 49:44
But you also have something really interesting happening there, like at exactly the time that the Famicom – or I guess a little bit after when the Famicom – comes out. You have something that really solidifies that it’s like, “People should be staying home and playing video games.”
Matt Alt 50:00
Yes, so you’re referring to the change in the law?
Kelsey Lewin 50:04
Matt Alt 50:04
Yeah. Video gaming was seen as this kind of scourge of society in the early ’80s in Japan. After a lot of lobbying I think from parents groups and PTA groups and things like that, the government passed a law that basically prohibited kids from being in video game arcades. And this coincided with the Famicom coming out. You know, if you told kids, they couldn’t play video games in arcades, it wasn’t like they’re, “OK! We’re not gonna play games anymore!” Of course, they wanted to still…
Kelsey Lewin 50:41
“Guess we’re over that!” [laughter]
Frank Cifaldi 50:42
“Parents don’t want us to do that? Okay, cool.”
Matt Alt 50:42
“Yeah, that’s done, done, we’re done with that. We’re just going to go back to smoking and doing drugs or whatever kids are supposed to do with or not in arcades!” [laughter] But of course, they’re not going to stop gaming. What actually happened is, by passing this law, the government is basically compelling young kids to stay inside and play video games. It was, like, the best possible thing that could have happened to Nintendo. And Nintendo was really poised to take advantage of this. Because this is when a lot of their key early, really amazing games are coming out, like Metroid and a certain other game you might know of called Super Mario Bros., which HUGELY swept Japanese society to the point where the Super Mario Bros. strategy guide became the best selling book two years running in Japan. Like nobody, no author, no JK Rowling, no Haruki Murakami has ever managed to duplicate that feat. Like, nobody. Mario is literally the best selling author in Japan. Two years running, still never beaten.
Frank Cifaldi 51:47
Mario wrote the book? Wow. [laughter]
Matt Alt 51:49
I actually I think it was Famitsu’s editors who wrote the book, but let’s not… It was Mario as far as I’m concerned. [laughter]
Frank Cifaldi 51:58
So, let’s get to Yokoi’s arguably most famous invention, the Game Boy.
Matt Alt 52:06
Yeah. He spent the ’80s kind of moping around, you know, watching Uemura’s team get all the credit for turning Nintendo around and like being the kind of, you know, the celebrated geniuses of the company, and Yokoi’s like, “Man… what’s going on here?” He writes about this in his, in his autobiography where he’s – and he’s not mad or anything like that! It’s just kind of like, you know, “What am I going to do next?” And what ended up being next was the technology advanced enough that he could start using active LCD screens, and he decided to try to come up with a portable. He’d always wanted to make a Game & Watch that you could swap games into, instead of having to buy an entire new Game & Watch.
Kelsey Lewin 52:53
And this was inspired heavily by the Microvision, which was something they imported. And he saw that you could swap out the little things on the Microvision, and of course that screen is terrible. Just, you know…
Frank Cifaldi 53:05
Well, not only was the screen terrible. It’s like, you can play five or six games, which is Block and then there’s like, “Block Block” and then “Block 2” and then like, “Large Block,” “Return of Block…” “The Revenge of Block…” [laughter] they were all like, blocky, right? And it’s like no, it’s cool. It’s great. Okay? Like, I love the Microvision. I desperately wanted one as a kid. I never got it. It’s probably why it turned out the way I did. Did you guys have it? No, I never had a Microvision.
Kelsey Lewin 53:32
I have one now.
Matt Alt 53:33
They’re tough to get now. I wonder if they even still work?
Kelsey Lewin 53:39
Eh… mine doesn’t, but… [laughter]
Matt Alt 53:43
That was a tough period to be a kid, you know, because you desperately wanted some kind of immersive game experience? But inevitably, there were just these LCD games or Atari 2600 games, you know, where my E.T. keeps falling into a pit over and over and over again. And it really wasn’t until Nintendo came around that we started getting actual home game experiences that rivaled what were going on in arcades. And so Yokoi’s dream – and it wasn’t just his, there were a lot of other companies trying to do this – was to make the video game experience portable. And he had a lot of competition at the time. You know, Atari’s Lynx was the arguably cutting edge and it actually beat the Nintendo Game Boy to market I believe. It came out… do you remember exactly when that came out?
Kelsey Lewin 54:32
Yeah, that’s right. It did beat it to market, though I can’t remember exactly by how much.
Matt Alt 54:36
I think Yokoi and like the others actually, they went and saw it. I seem to recall, like, they looked at it and it was believed that this color LCD technology would would just sweep the market. But it was really expensive and those things… God, Lynx’s, ate batteries. Like… they just ate them. You had, like, an hour of gameplay or something, and there’s like fifteen AA batteries in there, the thing was like the size, the weight of a cinderblock. (God, I love that thing!) But anyway, Yokoi is obsessing over, “How do we make it cheap?” Or a reasonably priced, portable game system. And so he decided to stick with this tried-and-true and very reasonably priced – but not particularly cutting edge – passive, non-backlit LCD. And he, in his autobiography, talks about how he stressed out so much over that screen that he stopped eating and he developed these really bad sores in his esophagus and stomach or something like that. And he actually was on the edge of considering suicide. It was a really, really bad time for him.
Kelsey Lewin 55:47
And especially because (and this is just something he says in his book) he messed up, and when he was talking to I believe it was Sharp about the specifications of the screen and everything, he gave them a weird angle to cut it at that would have made it significantly worse than it already was.
Matt Alt 56:08
Kelsey Lewin 56:09
And so he, for a while, thought that they were printing tens of thousands of these things, they’re manufacturing all these things with a screen that you couldn’t even play!
Matt Alt 56:18
Yeah, and in that same section I believe, where he talks about how he keeps bringing the prototypes to Yamaguchi. And when Yamaguchi… Yamaguchi would like, kind of look at it from an angle that was a little bit off. And when he couldn’t see the screen clearly, he’s like, “No. Just N-O. Get out of here.” And that’s what was, you know… He was desperate to come up with a screen that had a usable viewing angle. Now, all of these problems have been solved. You can look at an iPhone or whatever from any angle, but back then the technology was a lot more limited. And Yokoi really, really struggled to kind of color inside the lines. He wasn’t trying to think outside… He was thinking outside the box in terms of application, but he wasn’t thinking outside the box in terms of the technology. He very much was deliberately constrained to these kind of design specs that he used.
Kelsey Lewin 57:09
And part of this is because you have to make it cheaper than the Famicom, right?
Matt Alt 57:12
Kelsey Lewin 57:12
It’s like, you can’t sell a handheld version, a smaller machine, which is gonna be less powerful; no matter what, you can’t sell it for the same amount as the Famicom or even close to the same amount as the Famicom. It just doesn’t look right, you know?
Matt Alt 57:28
Especially not back then. It’s like, “Well, it’s portable!” Like, now we know that smaller doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper.
Kelsey Lewin 57:34
Matt Alt 57:35
It’s like, “Wait a second, why is my iPhone costing more than a Nintendo Switch?” if you start looking at it that way. And of course things have changed. Back then, yeah. And cost was always the big deal. Uemura told me, I was like, “Why did you choose these specs for the Famicom?” He’s like, “Oh, well, they told me, it had to be this price. It couldn’t be any more expensive than this, it had to be cheap.” So we think of these kind of game-changing, world-changing products, and it’s fun to imagine that the geniuses who came up with them had every resource at their disposal to do it. But that’s not the case. They actually had to work within very, very, very tight restrictions to pull these things off. And Nintendo was kind of genius as a company at skirting that line between making something that could be profitable and making something that seemed like it was really high tech and really cool. [Doorbell ringing] Well, that’s my doorbell. Did you guys hear that? Did that actually come from?
Kelsey Lewin 58:30
Frank Cifaldi 58:30
Yeah, it did.
Matt Alt 58:30
The Ghost of Gunpei Yokoi! He’s coming in! Come on down, man! [laughter] No, sorry. It’s probably just the FedEx driver.
Kelsey Lewin 58:38
“We have many questions for you!” Do you need to go get that?
Matt Alt 58:41
No. No, no.
Frank Cifaldi 58:42
OK. So, obviously, Game Boy is a success –
Matt Alt 58:47
Frank Cifaldi 58:48
– both from a design and commercial perspective. Is there really… I don’t know what Yokoi’s up to between the Game Boy and the Virtual Boy. Does anyone?
Matt Alt 59:00
He… it’s in that book. I mean, I think he was working on some Game Boy games, for sure.
Kelsey Lewin 59:06
He’s mostly just making games at that point.
Frank Cifaldi 59:08
Matt Alt 59:09
Because I don’t think there’s any big hardware there. And, you know, I just want say for people who might not have been there in real time, the Game Boy was revelatory.
Frank Cifaldi 59:19
Matt Alt 59:19
I remember the first time I saw that thing, like I… You know, yes, the screen did suck, it was this kind of green and blurred. But like the idea that you could play Super Mario Bros. in your hand was just the craziest thing. Like, none of us could believe it. I mean, we just thought it was the most amazing thing. And that design is so timeless, you know what I mean? The grey and…
Frank Cifaldi 59:42
Yeah, and I can’t imagine it without Tetris now, but that was sort of a late-comer, even, getting Tetris on there. But that game and that technology together, you know… That was that was very much a new thing in the world, that was like the iPhone coming around or something.
Matt Alt 1:00:00
Definitely, and I think it also… It’s like, the design is almost kawaii, you know? Cute? The Lynx seems like something like a teenage boy would whip out to impress his friends. Like, “Dude, check this out, man! It’s all black! It’s got, like, chrome! It’s called Lynx! It’s like a carnivore just like me!” kind of thing, right? And then like, on the other hand, you have this, like, “I’m the Game Boy! I’m grey with these little red buttons and I’m so cute!” And it’s so easy to see this thing wearing, like, a bow tie and like walking around like Hello Kitty. And that was such a genius design move because it was a cool piece of technology that didn’t alienate anybody. You know what I mean?
Frank Cifaldi 1:00:42
Kelsey Lewin 1:00:42
And was, I mean… we don’t think of it is being that small today, but this was so much more portable than the other systems on the market. And especially the Lynx, but the Game Gear too, I mean… Yes, their handheld, but you don’t have a pocket big enough to put a Game Gear in. That’s huge!
Matt Alt 1:01:00
It’s impossible for me to imagine an alternate reality where Hillary Clinton is bringing an Atari Lynx on board the Air Force One. But here’s a great photograph of her playing the Game Boy aboard Air Force One! And George Bush is playing the Game Boy famously as he recovers from heart surgery. You know, I can’t imagine him with like a you know, a PC Engine Mini – what was that thing called? – Turbo Express, right! As much as I want to imagine George Herbert Walker Bush playing R-Type or something like that, no. But how ironic is it that like, you have a president and a first lady playing this Soviet video game, Tetris, on a Japanese game system aboard Air Force One or in the White House? Like that’s, that’s globalization right there in a nutshell, you know? Everything kind of started from that.
Frank Cifaldi 1:02:00
The Game Boy really brought us all together, yeah.
Matt Alt 1:02:09
As a species, as a species. [laughter]
Kelsey Lewin 1:02:12
And the other thing, of course – and we sort of touched on this, but it’s really important to understand – this thing actually lasted more than a couple of hours on its batteries. And like, if you have something that you’re going to want to play away from home, that part is so important. And this is another thing that comes out of that biography, but Yokoi kept this comic that I think was in Famitsu that he clipped out and put on his wall, and it was a it was a Game Gear introducing itself and being like, “I’ve got all these colors! I’m so cool! I can do all this cool stuff!” And then in the middle of its speech about how great it is, it shuts off, runs out of power. [laughter]
Matt Alt 1:02:55
Right, ’cause it runs out of batteries, right? [laughter] And also, your parents wouldn’t get pissed at you! Batteries are expensive!
Kelsey Lewin 1:03:01
They’re still expensive!
Matt Alt 1:03:02
And it’s like, “Mom! I need another 12-pack of D cells to like, run this thing.” It’s like “What again?!” And the Game Boy could like… not only could the Game Boy last forever on four AAA’s, it was like, indestructible. You could drop it. Famously, that one gotten blown up in a bombing in Kuwait and is still playing, it’s still usable. It’s all melted and charred, but it’s at the Rockefeller Center. The Nintendo store in the Rockefeller Center, I think, or was until recently.
Kelsey Lewin 1:03:33
Yeah, it’s still on display.
Frank Cifaldi 1:03:34
It was, a Nintendo Power reader submitted that photo and I love that Nintendo went and acquired it!
Matt Alt 1:03:40
Kelsey Lewin 1:03:41
They were like, “This is an important thing, we need to showcase this.”
Matt Alt 1:03:44
Yes. And it literally, it’s melted. Like you can’t even… But it’s amazing the screen didn’t melt! I, like… just a crazy moment.
Kelsey Lewin 1:03:52
And it kind of speaks to how they think of things in the future, too. Like, the DS pretty famously had to go through like some extremely rigorous drop tests before they put that out for sale. Because, you know, it’s got a hinge! Like, that thing was going to shatter. And of course they’re not indestructible, but like… the indestructibility of the Game Boy I think was kind of like a, “Yeah, that’s important. I see that the competitors systems are dying and breaking and all of that stuff, we should continue to make sure that ours are like tanks.”
Matt Alt 1:04:28
And that comes from Yokoi’s grounding in decades in making physical toys. Like, this is a guy who was making, like, a Lego blocks, you know? He knew that things had to be kind of durable and how kids played. So yeah, I mean, it’s difficult to imagine a world where Nintendo invented the Game Boy or became as much of a fantasy powerhouse as it did without Yokoi.
Kelsey Lewin 1:04:56
Yeah, I mean, to me, his impact is… I mean, obviously, the Game Boy is huge and the Game & Watch is huge and all of that stuff. But it’s not so much the specific things he made but the kind of philosophies he imparted on the company that they still carry today. We’ve talked a little bit about the “lateral thinking with withered technology,” but just this not forgetting that this is about play. We’re talking about playfulness. We’re not a cutting-edge technology company, we’re a company of play and fun. And that is still, you know, a deeply rooted part of Nintendo today. And of course a lot of this gets passed on from Yokoi to Miyamoto, who Miyamoto calls Yokoi his greatest influence.
Matt Alt 1:05:46
Oh, big sempai, like… “notice me, sempai!”
Kelsey Lewin 1:05:47
Matt Alt 1:05:48
No, no but he is! He’s like, the big sempai of the entire games division there, you know?
Frank Cifaldi 1:05:53
Yeah, and to Kelsey’s point, it never stopped. I mean, the Wii, you know? Twenty years after the guy left the company, right? The Wii is absolutely coming from this philosophy of withered technology being used in a playful way. You know? Like, what other video game company would have made this underpowered thing with a motion control, right?
Matt Alt 1:06:16
Right. And it’s a testament to the people who remained behind after he left and unfortunately died in 1997, I believe it was. It’s a testament to how much the people who he left behind respected him, that they kind of continued this philosophy and continue it even to the present day. I mean, I think if Yokoi saw the Switch, I think he would just be blown away. I think he would see it as a culmination of everything he ever wanted to do in a lot of ways.
Frank Cifaldi 1:06:47
Yeah… digital delivery would… He would love that! [laughter]
Matt Alt 1:06:51
Yeah, it’s just… And you know, Yokoi is somebody who I think is… He would be getting a lot more attention if he hadn’t passed away so unfortunately in that automobile accident in the late ’90s, just before the internet took off. Just before this first generation of gamers grew old enough to start digging in the crate, so to speak, and learning more. He was already gone.
Kelsey Lewin 1:07:18
Yeah, Miyamoto became a celebrity and that’s because he was the the remaining big face. And yeah, I mean, I think that had the late ’90s and early 2000s come around and Yokoi is still alive, I think that that would have absolutely happened with him too.
Frank Cifaldi 1:07:34
Well, and especially because he’s independent at that point, right? Like, he’s no longer attached to Nintendo. He might have come around to, you know, I mean… This might sound like a crappy way of putting it, but he might have come around to wanting to use that status to further his career, right?
Matt Alt 1:07:52
Oh, I’m sure you would have!
Frank Cifaldi 1:07:53
Yeah, so he might have gone out in public and done a lot of interviews. And… yeah.
Matt Alt 1:07:57
And this is, you know, just from a purely selfish standpoint: I just really wish he’d been around when I was researching my book, Pure Invention because it’s… One of the most difficult things when you are writing about pop culture and researching pop culture is that the bigger and more successful a company is, the less it wants to talk to anybody, except on their own terms. And Nintendo just doesn’t give interviews unless it’s in service of selling a new product or something like that. They don’t make anybody available to anybody.
Frank Cifaldi 1:08:30
Yeah, you have to ambush Miyamoto during a press tour for a new game to talk about anything old.
Matt Alt 1:08:37
Or you need to talk to somebody who’s retired, like Uemura-san. Mr. Uemura was a fount of information because he’s been retired from Nintendo for so long. And he now is a, he runs the Ritsumeikan University Center for Game Preservation and Studies.
Kelsey Lewin 1:08:52
And of course, you know, people in Japan famously leave their companies all the time, so… [laughter]
Matt Alt 1:08:56
Well, this is the thing. So especially in that generation, that wasn’t really common to leave your company. But obviously retiring is! Because these gentlemen are all kind of in their 70s now. So when I was researching, for instance, the Walkman for the chapter on the Walkman in Pure Invention, Sony wouldn’t talk to me. They eventually did and provided some kind of PR photos of the old Walkmans and stuff that I needed, but nobody who worked on the Walkman then is still there now. They’re all retired. And so I tracked those guys down, and they love talking about it! They love talking about how they came up with a name for the Walkman, or like how nobody thought this is going to be a success or whatever. So tracking down these kind of retired people, and now for everybody out there who’s listening and might be a writer or whatever, now’s your chance to find these people who created awesome stuff in the ’70s and ’80s. They’re still around, you know, we need to find them and talk to them before it’s too late.
Kelsey Lewin 1:09:50
I want to know if the Game Boy name came from the Walkman.
Matt Alt 1:09:53
Yeah, it sure seems that way, doesn’t it?
Kelsey Lewin 1:09:56
Frank Cifaldi 1:09:57
It must have… there’s no way…
Matt Alt 1:10:00
It really, really does. And, like, that’s the kind of thing you’ll never get out of anybody. I’m sure if Yokoi was around you would, but… It’s hard to imagine it wasn’t, you know? And it’s funny because they named it Game Boy, it still doesn’t seem very masculine. Like, you can be a woman or a girl and play with that and not feel like you’re, I don’t know, playing with some kind of blinged-out macho device. I think that’s really key to its success. Nintendo has always been so approachable that way, and that naming… “Game Boy.”
Frank Cifaldi 1:10:33
Yeah, and even the competitors just never were able to… I mean, I’m just even thinking about Sony with like the PSP and the Vita, just are these cutting edge looking sort of–
Matt Alt 1:10:44
Frank Cifaldi 1:10:45
– you know, no offense to them, but they’re very much like, “This is a video game console. It plays serious video games.”
Matt Alt 1:10:52
Yes. Well, now they do. You know, the original PlayStation didn’t look anything like that. And like it was famously derided in the press, I remember, like as a “toilet seat.” Remember? It had that it had that big, round CD loading tray? And I seriously remember people dissing it is looking like a toilet. And now we don’t think about that at all. But it’s interesting. Now they’re all, like, black and chromed and grays and like this kind of like, “This is cool!” kind of design philosophy. But the original PlayStation 1, I think was a kind of almost an homage to the Game Boy style. You know, it was gray, it was rounded.
Frank Cifaldi 1:11:30
Well, that’s what Sony knew at the time. It was a Nintendo-Sony partnership. To Sony, Nintendo is video games. So, let’s make something that looks like a Nintendo.
Matt Alt 1:11:40
Yes! And famously, Sony only greenlit it because they thought it would be a karaoke machine in most people’s houses. That’s… I love that story.
Frank Cifaldi 1:11:48
I hadn’t heard that one! Wow.
Matt Alt 1:11:49
Yeah, yeah. I mean, of course, I’m sure a bunch of you know, calculuses went into the decision to greenlight the PlayStation. But like, there was a lot of ambivalence in Sony. Especially after Nintendo pulled out, there was a lot of ambivalence about whether it made… Because making your own game system and kind of jumping into the console wars is a very cash-intensive sort of thing to do. It’s a much different beast than, like, “Let’s make a game division and start making games.” Like, you have to make this whole ecosystem.
Kelsey Lewin 1:12:19
And to sort of bring this back to where we were talking about a Yamaguchi and how he was kind of pissing everyone off and ruling with an iron fist, I mean… A lot of Sony’s success with that, because they didn’t have their own ecosystem yet, came from the fact that Yamaguchi had pissed Namco off a lot and they were looking for a brand. [laughter]
Matt Alt 1:12:36
Yeah, definitely, definitely. And let’s be brutally honest. Sometimes, as great as lateral thinking with withered technology is, that is the mindset that kept Nintendo from making the leap to CD-ROM in the early ’90s. And that is why basically game companies, game designers who wanted that extra capacity and the ability to put actual recorded music into their games jumped ship from Nintendo to PlayStation. To Sony. Because it offered them more opportunities to innovate. So Yamaguchi’s desire to have an iron fist control over everything definitely combined with that, “Well, let’s just keep things off the shelf, there’s no need to really push the limits,” started to seem really outdated in that kind of early half of the ’90s. And Nintendo was really struggling back then, you know?
Frank Cifaldi 1:13:28
So Matt, we were just talking about Yokoi today, but your book, you know… Kind of tell us a little bit about your book and how Yokoi sort of ties into what you’re talking about?
Matt Alt 1:13:40
Yeah, so my book is called Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. But more accurately, it’s about how the entire world turned more Japanese through our encounters with what I call “fantasy delivery devices,” which are products that nourish our dreams and changed our lifestyles and, in so doing, also transformed our realities. Things like Japanese toys, or the karaoke machine, the Walkman, Nintendo products, Hello Kitty, digital forms of expression like the emoji and like tamagotchis and things like that. Anonymous image boards. People think of, like 4chan, and 8Kun and all of that as being American innovations, but they’re actually all based on something that happened in Japan at the turn of the 21st century.
Kelsey Lewin 1:14:28
People thing something called 4chan is American…?
Matt Alt 1:14:31
Yeah, I know. Isn’t that funny? Well, 4chan was founded by an American who was obsessed with anime, which you may know, that’s another fantasy delivery device in the book.
Kelsey Lewin 1:14:39
Matt Alt 1:14:39
But Nintendo plays a key role in that. And the Game Boy in particular at the very end of its lifespan when Pokemon comes out on it. That’s sort of a transition for America to get really big into anime and start consuming more real-time the same sorts of fantasies that Japanese people did. And Yokoi’s Game Boy was really, really key in making that happen. I don’t think Pokemon would have been anywhere near as big of a hit if it had come out on some cutting-edge new device that was expensive. Instead, it came out on this really creaky (it was already eight years old by that point) Game Boy that everybody… The Game Boy was already an installed base, you know, you didn’t have to be a cutting-edge kid. Maybe you even inherited it from your older brother or sister or something like that. And that really allowed Pokemon to flourish and become the kind of first massive global Japanese pop cultural hit. Even more so than you know, Pac-Man or Donkey Kong or anything, or Super Mario or anything like that, in a really transformative way.
Kelsey Lewin 1:15:41
Right. See, it’s the original cell phone that was in everyone’s pocket already.
Matt Alt 1:15:44
Yes, the Pokedex. It is, yeah, it really was. I mean, it’s hard to imagine the smartphone as we know it today existing without the kind of lifestyle changes that were paved by the Walkman and the Game Boy. And, you know, Steve Jobs was obsessed with Sony technology. I’m sure he studied the Game Boy too. I mean, he wanted to name the iMac, the Macman, as an homage to Sony. And he was quickly dissuaded from that. But that’s how much he wanted to make a Walkman. That’s how much he wanted to make a portable entertainment device, a portable escape. And you know, he did it with the iPod and he did it with the iPhone. But really, the Game Boy is also a key technology that kind of prepped us for that, if that makes sense.
Frank Cifaldi 1:16:33
So Matt, where can our listeners find your book? Learn more about it?
Matt Alt 1:16:38
Anywhere fine books are sold. Seriously, it’s a mainstream –
Frank Cifaldi 1:16:43
Since we’re stuck at home, where on the Internet?
Matt Alt 1:16:46
Well, there’s this place called Amazon. But also seriously, your local bookstores will carry it, like any. You know, support your local bookstores, please! But it’s available. Penguin Random House put it out, so it has very wide distribution. Just look up Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World, and it will almost certainly bring up a variety of ways for you to buy it. There’s also an audiobook version read by me, so if you like the melodious sounds of me on this podcast, you can hear even more – many hours more – recorded in literally the exact same place where I’m recording this now, my basement.
Frank Cifaldi 1:17:25
Do you remember how many hours?
Matt Alt 1:17:26
Oh man, God… So, like, recording an audio book is like a real stamina sport. I think it took three full days.
Frank Cifaldi 1:17:34
Matt Alt 1:17:34
Of like six to seven hours.
Frank Cifaldi 1:17:37
Having to hear yourself for three days…
Matt Alt 1:17:39
And your voice is just giving out, you know? You can’t you can’t read it like this: you can’t have a lot of “Hey! Whoa!” like, we’re in our talk right now. It has to be more, you know, “In the beginning was Nintendo…” No, I should have read it like that, like Gandalf style, but I…
Kelsey Lewin 1:17:54
Did you do a different voice for every chapter?
Matt Alt 1:17:58
Exactly. I should have done my impression of Yokoi, done my impression of Mario. Yeah, I should have read the entire Nintendo chapter in Mario’s voice. “It’s a-me!”
Frank Cifaldi 1:18:07
No. No one ever do that. Retire that voice.
Matt Alt 1:18:12
OK, how about Pikachu’s voice, I could have just don’t pick a Pika, Pika?
Frank Cifaldi 1:18:16
Matt Alt 1:18:16
No, it’s actually read it in English…
Frank Cifaldi 1:18:20
Instead of Pikachu language.
Matt Alt 1:18:22
Instead of Pikachu, yes. No, it’s standard, mid-Atlantic (where I’m from), Maryland English. And if you want to follow me on social media, I’m on Twitter @Matt_alt and I’m on Instagram @altMattalt. I’m on Facebook. I’m on the internet. I’m on the interwebs find me. Find me and interact with me. I love interacting with people.
Frank Cifaldi 1:18:46
Well, Matt, thank you for joining us on the Video Game History Hour!
Matt Alt 1:18:50
Thank you for having me. This has been a real pleasure.
Kelsey Lewin 1:18:53
Thanks for listening to the Video Game History Hour, brought to you by the Video Game History Foundation. If you have questions or comments for the show, you can find us on Twitter @gamehistoryhour or email us at email@example.com. Did you know that Video Game History Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and that all of your contributions are tax-deductible? You can support this podcast and all of our other work on Patreon or at gamehistory.org/donate. This episode of the Video Game History Hour was produced by Robin Kunimune and edited by Michael Carrell. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.