Monday, April 5, 2010

Yokoi Gunpei's House of Gaming: The Toymaker (Part 1/3)

I have been fortunate to gain access to Yokoi Gunpei's House of Gaming (横井軍平ゲーム館). The book details the creative history of the mastermind behind Nintendo, Gunpei Yokoi. Upon reading it, I was struck by the man's charm and the intangible effect he has had on the gaming industry as whole. A tragic traffic accident in 1997 cut his life and career short at the age of 56, but there is still much that we can stand to learn from him, both as producers and consumers.
Gunpei Yokoi was Nintendo’s most prolific designer, having developed classic applications such as Game & Watch, Donkey Kong, and the Game Boy. Many are familiar with his mantra of "lateral thinking of withered technology," which entails discovering new uses for outdated, cheap technology. However, this is only half of the story. This series shows his design philosophy grow organically alongside technological constraints and an inborn impishness. Imagine if Uncle Fester was a toy maker, and you won’t be far from Yokoi’s true nature.

Ultra Hand (1966)

BOING! This is the Ultra Hand! It extends and contracts and... BOING! It can grapple many things!

Cobbled together out of boredom during his frequent down time between menial machine testing tasks, the Ultra Hand was Yokoi's first commercial success and a taste of things to come. Something about the extending and contracting motion grabbed people by the heart and wouldn't let go. His future creations would likewise pull the inner child out of unsuspecting passers-by. Boing!

Ultra Machine (1968)

The Ultra Machine brought baseball from the backyard into the living room—literally. Inspired by a youth spent hitting things with sticks, his indoor pitching machine gave mothers across the country a free pass to spank their children. Its no-setup design complete with pre-packaged retractable bat helped it sell over 7 million units and established his position as breakout idea man.

Love Tester (1969)

The device operates under the same principle as a polygraph test. Two people each hold onto one of the metallic sensors and it measures the flow of electricity through your bodies. On the surface, a totally innocuous toy. The crux of the design hangs on the fact that you need to physically complete the circuit for the glorified galvanometer to work.

Yokoi, in his infinite wisdom, created the Love Tester as a vehicle to carry out every young man’s mission—an excuse to hold a cute girl’s hand! The instruction manual goes so far as to suggest the couple try kissing to pump up the meter. Before you cry foul, consider this—the added excitement will cause your hands to sweat, increasing conductivity and topping off the scale. Practicality blends seamlessly with necessity.

NB Block Crater (1970)

Any moron can make a Lego rip-off. It takes a genius to make one that self-destructs. The craters were more like land mines—drive your car over it, and watch it pop like Perfection. Yokoi sanitized the sadistic glee of knocking one’s completed model off the table to watch it smash and scatter on the linoleum.

Lefty RX (1972)
Yokoi pursued practicality in all things. Practical price, practical production, practical usage. The twist is the impractical ways he went about achieving his goal. Remote controlled cars were prohibitively expensive when they first hit the scene. Yokoi lowered the barrier of entry to an elementary level by stripping their mechanical guts down to the barest essentials: One control channel, meaning the car can only turn one direction—left. Kids were smart enough to realize that one direction is all you need on a circular racetrack, making his economic alternative an instant hit.

Wild Gunman (1974)

Don't be intimidated by Yokoi's impressive bandoleer of light guns—aside from the NES Zapper, its mostly festooned with creative oddities such as Wild Gunman. An arcade simulation of a Wild West shootout, this cabinet was revolutionary for its duel movie projectors that displayed film of real actors and switched reels depending on success or failure. Draw from the hip in time and put the cattle rustlers out to pasture. Loose your nerve and the town will need a new sheriff.

The 1973 oil crisis kept Wild Gunmen from reaching its full market potential, and despite its popularity, only around one hundred cabinets were produced. Rarer still is its secret love child, Fanaticism, a strip shooting game commissioned by male-dominated press clubs. Much like Wild Gunmen, it uses footage of live actors, except this time your bullets are blasting the clothes off of a blonde Swedish model. All this a decade before Bubble Bath Babes!

Ten Billion Barrel (1980)

Yokoi designed this spinning puzzle as a roundabout answer to the Rubik Cube. Ironically, he didn’t know the solution himself, reasoning that “if the balls begin lined up correctly, you should be able to put them back to where they started!”

In Germany, the toy was called The Demon’s Stone. The puzzle was so wickedly devious it must have been placed on earth by God himself as a test for man. Subsequently, Yokoi was credited not as the designer, but the discoverer, of the devilish device.

If his thought process is so free and easy in designing toys, you can only imagine what puckish impulses would surface dealing with something even more frivolous—video games! Next time we’ll explore how Yokoi helped stitch together a Frankenstein’s monster of an industry that would bring equal parts disappointment and fulfillment, grief and joy.

On to part 2!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post about Yokoi. Wish there was more information available about his legacy and the man himself..