Monday, April 12, 2010

Yokoi Gunpei's House of Gaming: The Maverick (Part 3/3)

Yokoi's untimely death coincided with release of the ill-fated Virtual Boy and his departure from Nintendo, casting a tragic shadow over the last chapter of his life. Yokoi Gunpei's House of Gaming (横井軍平ゲーム館) illuminates this dark episode, alluding to ways in which Yokoi continues to be even more relevant now than in life.

Sometime during Nintendo’s transition from the pixel-perfect Super Nintendo to the anti-aliasing-unfriendly N64, Yokoi lost interest in creating current-gen games. In his eyes, all the good ideas had run their course, and future reiterations could only rehash what had come before. There is the common misconception that the commercial failure of the Virtual Boy forced Yokoi to leave Nintendo. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yokoi, over 50 at the time, had long since planned to retire and establish Koto Laboratory to focus on design he believed in. The Virtual Boy’s mission was twofold: Firstly, offer a parting gift to the company who graciously took him in like the stray he was all those years ago. Secondly, give a wake-up call to an industry driven mad by processor speeds and flashy graphics.

Despite being lauded for its 3-D capabilities, the Virtual Boy was never intended as a next-gen system. Rather, it tried to take gaming back to its arcade roots while crafting a new experience with enhanced visual depth. Once again, Yokoi stripped technology down to the bare essentials to make gaming more accessible for the masses. The result, of course, was disastrous. Though well meaning, all the lateral thinking in the world couldn’t save the system from itself.

The Virtual Boy’s failure was a blow to his ego, and couldn’t have come at a worse time. If he went ahead with his retirement as planned, the public would take it at face value as admission of defeat. If he stayed at Nintendo to scrub out the blemish on his track record, he would be developing for systems he didn’t believe in.  

Yokoi opted for a concession. His last job for Nintendo would be producing the Game Boy Pocket, a New Game+ that would take him back to his origins with his integrity intact. The circle was now complete.

The success of the Game Boy Pocket kept the door from hitting his ass on the way out, but more importantly, it validated Yokoi’s design philosophy. The Game Boy’s core technology, on its last legs when first released in 1989, managed to stand up against proportionately behemoth systems over half a decade later. Push the hands of time further forward, and titles from that intermediate dark period between sprites and polygons are nearly unplayable in retrospect. Yokoi didn’t need the Virtual Boy to wage his guerrilla war against the N64 and PlayStation. The Game Boy was the only  armament he would ever need to dominate on all fronts.

There's something familiar about this clamshell case.
Media publications allude to the fact that Yokoi left Nintendo out of shame, his legacy cast to the wayside. In some ways the company is still living in the shadow of its once golden child. Yokoi, being the OG that he is, continues to put out greatest hits posthumously. The Game & Watch Donkey Kong's dual screens projected the future of the company’s handhelds from way back in 1982. Similarly, Donkey Konga is a not-so subtle homage to the Ele-Conga electric bongo. Most recently, the buzz surrounding the upcoming 3DS makes you wonder if the only sin committed by the black-and-red sheep of the family, the Virtual Boy, was of being born too soon.

I'm not chiding Nintendo for cribbing Yokoi’s ideas. That’s exactly how the man would have wanted it. He was neither a technical wiz nor a business mogul. He was a product developer, and only smart enough to know that he needed to farm out the heavy mental lifting to actualize his inventions. Patents were a boring nuisance that he happily relinquished to anyone up to the mind-numbing paperwork. Yokoi understood the inherent limits of a sonority-ruled system that smothered the creative spark of young inventors. He would rather give them the kudos for his work and help them up the totem pole to a position where their voices could be heard. Raising the next generation of designers up on his shoulders was a far greater reward than empty accolades.

Yokoi has contributed more to video games than we will ever know. They may not exist in the west in their current capacity if not for him. The market crash of 1983 made parents and investors leery of anything branded as a “video game.” The American public had been burnt one time too many by shoddy ports and fly-by-night operations. Nintendo of America circumvented this fallout by presenting itself not as a gaming system, but as an entertainment system. Backed by Yokoi’s peripherals, such as the zapper and R.O.B, the NES promised to be the next step in interactive entertainment, far removed from the shady game systems of yesterday.

A million-seller used to signify a bonafide classic. Now it’s the low water profit mark for a studio to stay afloat. Developers are feeling the squeeze of exorbitant production coasts, inflated to make the best out of bloated system specs. Consumers seem listless as well. The Wii and the DS domination over the X-Box 360 and PSP, not to mention a glut of retro remakes and downloads, suggest that consumers want something simpler from their virtual realities. The pendulum swings back and forth between elegance and opulence. It’s only a matter of time before its lateral trajectory takes it back to Yokoi’s simplified sensibilities.

BONUS STAGE: Speculation Surrounding His Death

Yokoi was killed in a car crash on October 4th, 1997. He was being driven through Komatsu City in the Ishikawa prefecture by Etsuo Kiso, a Nintendo businessman, when they came across a minor fender bender in the road. The pair stepped out to investigate when a third vehicle slammed into theirs, crushing Yokoi between the cars.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death have led many to wonder if Nintendo didn't take out a hit on their ex-employee. Unlikely, yes, but don't be so quick to discount Nintendo's mob connections.

Nintendo, based in Kyoto, got their start producing hana-fuda playing cards, a facet of Yakuza gambling houses. Urban legend has it that this tied them in with Kyoto's most powerful Yakuza family, the Aizu-Kotetsu Kai, going so far as to suggest that many of their factory workers were in fact gangsters! Likewise, it's whispered in the bowels of 2-chan that Nintendo flexed this muscle to rub out Yokoi for both the failure of the Virtual Boy and his betrayal with the Wonder Swan.

Consider the step-up:

The Ishikawa prefecture is a mere six hour drive from Kyoto, putting it well within reach of the Aizu-Kotetsu Kai. Why was Yokoi on a road trip with his past employer, in a backwater town like Komatsu of all places? And what of the third mysterious car that slammed into him with all-too-perfect timing? There is a suspicious lack of concrete information regarding the accident. Of course, claims made by the whistle-blowers are equally insubstantial. The truth has long since been buried together with the man's potential for innovation.


  1. Wah, he was killed in Komatsu? Heh, wonder if there's a gravestone there, it's an important place in gaming history!

    Why do you write "the" Ishikawa prefecture anyway? Isn't it just Ishikawa prefecture?

  2. wow, interesting. if the rumor about his death is true, i curse nintendo!! >:( he was too great to be killed by yakuza.

    btw game watch natsukashiiiii!!!