Obituary: Gumpei Yokoi

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Gumpei Yokoi, electrical engineer, inventor of video games: born Kyoto, Japan 1941; married; died Komatsu City, Japan 4 October 1997.

"Space Invaders", "Pacman", "Super Mario Brothers" - every British schoolboy knows these names of video games. But who were their inventors? Gumpei Yokoi, killed in a car crash, was one of the most ingenious and prolific. His name is forever associated with the electronic computer company Nintendo, based in the old capital city of Kyoto.

Yokoi studied electrical engineering at Doshisha University in Kyoto and graduated in 1965 with a very poor degree. So he tried in vain to find a job in some big company. Then one day he saw that the small Nintendo company, specialising in the manufacture of playing cards and hanafuda - those pretty little pictorial cards familiar to us from gambling scenes in yakuza movies - was looking for an engineer.

The Japanese law had just been changed, stipulating that machines with more than 30 KVA (kilovolt-amperes) had to be tended by a qualified technician. Yokoi got this humble task, which he found almost unbearably tedious. So, as there were lathes and engraving machines in his workshop, he whiled away his spare time making toys.

One day, the president of the company, Hiroshi Yamauchi, spotted one of these toys and called Yokoi to his office. Yokoi went there in fear and trembling, expecting to be scolded and sacked, but instead Yamauchi expressed great interest in the toy he had seen, and asked Yokoi to develop its possibilities. This was the first step towards international fame taken by the Nintendo company. Gumpei Yokoi invented a new toy called "Ultrahand" or "Magic Hand" which was at once a big hit, selling nearly one and a half million at a time when such gadgets were considered a success if they sold 100,000.

Yamauchi set up a special department for Yokoi, and gave him an assistant. Soon the company's speciality became toy-making. It was such a big success, many companies started head-hunting Yokoi offering him fabulous salaries and gigantic bonuses, but he refused to leave Nintendo, a fairly small company known as a "crevice industry" - one that discovered unexploited new outlets.The firm concentrated on planning and creating ideas. I well remember passing its modest grey building and wondering how such a renowned name could be housed in so small a space. Manufacturing was done by outside firms.

Yokoi's first invention was known in Japan as "game and watch", a miniature electronic game that could be held in the palm of the hand, with a 2cm square screen. At first the business and advertising departments had rejected the new toy, saying it would never sell. But Mr Yamauchi insisted that it be made. The company was run as a "one-man system" so that the boss had the final say in everything. In any other conventional big company, Yokoi's inventions could have been thrown out by minor officials before ever reaching consideration at top level. Yokoi always praised the beauty of this system.

"Game and watch" was a huge triumph for Nintendo, which had accumulated debts of 800 million yen. But they were able to pay off this colossal debt within a year, and still have four hundred million left in the bank. Yokoi had hoped to sell a hundred thousand: it sold 50 million.

Mr Yamauchi, a great gambler at heart, used the profits to pioneer a new invention, "Famikon" (family computer) which was also a great market success. Chance had a lot to do with these great leaps forward into international fame, and the name Nintendo can be translated as "Leave it to Heaven". The company went on to capture a world-wide market with "Super Mario Brothers," "Game Boy" (introduced in 1989) and other hand-held video games. But Gumpei Yokoi, after 30 years with Nintendo, felt the urge to strike out on his own, in order to give even greater scope to his creative genius. When he resigned last year, Nihon Keizai Shimbun splashed a big article over the front page, saying he had been sacked because of the failure of his new game "Virtual Boy", or that he had left in order to accept responsibility for its lack of success.

But in a long interview in the monthly magazine Bungei Shinju Yokoi explained that he had left of his own free will in order to start his own small company. He wanted it to remain small, so hired only 30 staff -"Small is Creative" might have been his motto. He wrote lamenting the extreme rarity of true creative genius in contemporary Japan.

It is a tragedy that such an innovator both in work and life should have disappeared at such an early age, leaving behind him a young company called Koto - the former name (as in the title of Yasunari Kawabata's novel) for the ancient capital. It is surely a paradox that such innovatory companies as Nintendo and the ceramics giant Kyocera should be housed in a city of traditional crafts. But they all have that common bond of being small, and creative.

Comments