Gunpei Yokoi – Inventing the Game and Watch

Gunpei Yokoi – Inventing the Game and Watch

In this essay from the book Gunpei Yokoi’s Game Museum, the late toy and game designer recounts the creation and success of the Game & Watch, Nintendo’s handheld LCD game line that saw almost 60 variants across eleven years and sold well over 40 million overall units worldwide. While the technology and sensibility of the Game & Watch has been relegated to antiquity, Nintendo continues to reference and pay homage to the Game & Watch to this day.

Envisioned on a Train – Realized in a Car

I first came up with the idea for the Game & Watch (hereafter, G&W) while riding the shinkansen. I saw the salarymen trying to passing the time by fiddling with their calculators, and thought to myself, “Hmmm… what about a small game console you could kill time with…” That was the very first seed of the G&W concept. However, at the time I didn’t consider it an especially amazing idea on its own, so I just put it in the back of my mind where I could mull it over later.

As for how the G&W actually came to be, that’s a funny story. I’ve always loved cars, and at that time, I owned a used import car, one with the steering wheel on the left side. Back then, the President of Nintendo used a cadillac as the company vehicle. One day his chauffeur got sick with a cold and couldn’t come in. The President had a meeting at the Osaka Plaza Hotel that day, but there wasn’t anyone who knew how to drive a car with a left-side steering wheel… except me. So the personnel department head came over to me and said, “I’m very sorry to ask this, Yokoi, but would you mind being the President’s driver just for today?”

At that time I was a Development Section Chief, so naturally I had my pride to consider. I wasn’t some two-bit driver! So while we were driving, I thought I should take the opportunity to talk about work, and I related my story to the President about seeing the salarymen on the shinkansen killing time with their calculators. “I think it could be really interesting if we made a little calculator-sized game console,” I told him. “Up to now, our philosophy with toys has been ‘the bigger they are, the better they sell’, but I think a slim, small game device like this would allow even salarymen like us to play games discreetly.”

A young Gunpei Yokoi; he joined Nintendo in 1965, long before their ventures in electronic games.

I made my case, and the President listened politely, but I didn’t get the sense that he was particularly impressed with my idea.

However, at the meeting, by chance the President happened to be seated next to President Saeki of Sharp Corp. Apparently our President told Sharp, who was then the top calculator manufacturer in the world, about my idea for a calculator-sized gaming device. Then about a week later, we were visited out of the blue by one of Sharp’s top executives. He seemed very excited, but I had no idea what was going on. The President then turned to me and said, “That calculator-sized game device you were talking about… Sharp’s the expert in that kind of stuff, so I called them over to discuss it.” From there, things moved rapidly and the G&W soon became a reality.

For me personally, it had just been a passing idea, one that I only brought up with the President because of my pride as Development Section Chief. If none of those later events had chanced to transpire, I might have completely forgotten about the idea over the next several months. It proves the old canard, that timing is everything in this life. If the President hadn’t happened to sit next to Saeki, or if the driver hadn’t gotten sick that day, the G&W might never have been!

An ergonomically-correct way to kill your time

A salaryman like me would never pull out a big game machine in the middle of a shinkansen. He’d be too embarrassed. How, then, could we design a game device that you could play without drawing attention to yourself? Well, first off, when humans are in a seated position, they naturally hold their hands in front of them. I believed something you could play in that posture would be best.

Given those conditions, playing with your thumbs was going to be the only option. And that’s how I came to the horizontal, rectangular form factor. As I said, the G&W’s design was meant to be something you could play discreetly. I had the sense that, once you reach a certain age, playing games on the shinkansen out in the open just wasn’t socially acceptable anymore.

That’s also why I initially opted for buttons for the controls. Later, when the multi-screen G&W was released, public sentiment had shifted such that playing games was no longer something one needed to hide, so we added a directional pad for games like Donkey Kong. By that point, whether you hid it or not, kids were going to buy it anyway. For that reason, the multi-screen G&W devices were not intended to be marketed towards adults: the market for children had become sufficient in its own right.

Series and Synergies

I had zero intention of making the Game & Watch into a series. I thought no further than the game we were making at the time, Ball. However, the President told me, “If we’re going to do this, then I want you to come up with 2 or 3 different ideas for games.” Just creating Ball had been hard enough, so I quickly threw together a whack-a-mole style game to satisfy the request.

Synergy can be a dreadful thing though… you see, creating three different games in that initial launch left a big impact (and expectation) on the public, and all three of them sold very well. “Good job, now come up with another three or four!” From there it snowballed, and the G&W series was born.

By that point, I had sort of figured out a solid approach, and my ideas for different G&W games really started flowing.

The very first Game & Watch, 1980’s Ball; Nintendo produced a 30th anniversary replica in 2010 which was available via Club Nintendo.

Exaggerating the Absurd: The Secret to a Fun Game

I think we ended up releasing close to 60 different G&W titles, and about 50 of those were my ideas. At the time, I spent part of everyday wringing out new ideas from my mind. Of those I created, the ones I think of as little masterpieces would be Ball, Manhole, Fire, and Turtle Bridge, to name a few.

Turtle Bridge was a game with turtles in a pond that you’re trying to use as stepping stones to get across. The turtles themselves will dive underwater to chase after fish, so you have to keep an eye on the turtles near the surface as you make your way. It’s just like that tale The Hare of Inaba.

Exaggerating the absurd is the key to making things fun, I think. The basic gameplay of these G&W titles had largely been exhausted, so I became focused–enamored even–with the process of creating interesting “backgrounds”1 against which to set the games. In that sense, anime provided a great many inspirations for me.

Creating those new “backgrounds” was itself very challenging, and the President would just casually walk over and say, “It’s that time again Yokoi! Make me another three G&W games!” I found the casualness of those requests exasperating, and privately, I thought, “Come on, it’s not that easy! Consider the guy who has to actually think all this up!”

Before G&W, I used to draw out the blueprints for my games on my drafting table. I realized, however, that this approach tended to encourage lots of fussing over minor details and took too long, so sometime around G&W, the focus of my work shifted to management. When it came to coming up with the ideas, though, I would get the designers together and have them sketch out my concepts, so I was still involved in the nitty-gritty in that capacity.

In the beginning I drew the characters myself with a compass and ruler, but somewhere along the way I entrusted that work to one of my staff who was skilled at drawing manga. That change signaled a big increase in the breadth of expression possible, and the games likewise became more fun.

Oil Panic: The Multi-Screen Masterpiece

I believe the multi-screen idea originally came from the President. If I recall, he said something like, “It would be neat if you could play two games at once.” Unfortunately, this was much easier said than done. To create a G&W console with two LCD screens was simple enough and could be done at a reasonable increase in cost; the trouble was coming up with an actual game idea to justify the use of two screens! I didn’t think it would be easy.

And so, after wracking my brain, I came up with Oil Panic. Oil Panic was a game where you had to keep track of what was happening on both screens at once; even I thought it was a wonderful idea. (laughs) It’s amazing how the two screens are connected by the gameplay—here was a game that could only exist on a two-screen device. Indeed, I see it as the game which justified the very existence of the two-screen hardware.

1982’s Oil Panic, the first “Multi Screen” Game & Watch game. Players control the character on the top screen, with the goal being to catch drops of oil in their bucket and then toss them out the window to the character patrolling outside, whose movements are visible on the bottom screen.

Donkey Kong

However, once again, the President informed me that “One’s not enough. I want you to make another game with this layout.” Somewhat annoyed, I told my staff to try and re-make Donkey Kong, which I had previously made for the arcades, in a two-screen G&W format. The gameplay of Donkey Kong didn’t really require you to look at two screens at once, though. As such, we just hamfistedly split the playfield down the middle and split it onto two screens. For that reason I consider Oil Panic the superior multi-screen game.

Donkey Kong, on the other hand, used a directional pad, and the content of the game itself was also well-done, and it ended up selling like hotcakes. It’s still considered a classic today, in fact. I believe it sold upwards of 7 to 8 million copies.

Looking at Donkey Kong, I can say that if the LCD had been oriented vertically, we could have made that game with just one screen. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that by splitting the screen in two, we had inadvertently created another synergistic effect. The interaction with the two screens in Donkey Kong itself is really quite simplistic. And yet somehow the simple act of splitting the screen had served to make the game 10 or 20 times more fascinating to players. Donkey Kong for the G&W taught me that in game design, there are sometimes mysterious, hard-to-predict interactions like this.

A game that wouldn’t have wouldn’t have warranted any special attention on a single vertical screen, suddenly became far more interesting on a split-screen. What had happened? Well, when the player glances up at the top screen, it creates an urge to look down at the bottom screen. This push-and-pull of your attention turned out to be a huge plus for the gameplay. Were the two screens joined, there’d be no such effect, but once separated, you found yourself more drawn in to what was happening on the opposite screen, and consequently having more fun.

Game & Watch: Savior of the LCD…?!

At that time, I don’t think Sharp had thought much about uses for LCD screens outside of calculators. Nor do I think they had considered using them for personal computer applications as we do today.

Sharp themselves had been competing with Casio, and recently the demand for LCDs had fallen off steeply. Thus the timing of the G&W, from Sharp’s perspective, couldn’t have been better. Even now, many years later, executives from Sharp will often reminisce with me on the importance of that time: “If the Game & Watch hadn’t come along then, Sharp’s LCD business would probably not be what it is today. Our LCD factories were in the process of contracting when the G&W came along and breathed life into them, so even our TFT business today is partially owed to the G&W’s success.”

Game & Watch Donkey Kong, the second Multi Screen Game & Watch game and the first gaming device to feature a cross-shaped, four-input button for directional input, now commonly known as the “d-pad”.

Imitation is the Highest Form of Praise

We made a whack-a-mole style game for the G&W series called “Vermin.” Around that time G&W knock-offs began to appear. They were made in Taiwan, and were basic soccer games.

When I first saw them, I wrote them off as unworthy, cheap knock-offs, but one of the beeping sounds they made caught my attention… now where had I heard that before? Wait… that sound was the exact same sound Vermin used!

There’s no way, I thought to myself… but then I went and pried the LCD off this Taiwanese soccer game and replaced it with the Vermin overlay, and sure enough, it was the exact same game. I guess they’d somehow gotten ahold of the CPUs and simply replaced the LCD overlay with a soccer theme. I was very surprised.

Discovering a knock-off like that made me very happy, though. Once you reach a certain level of popularity with a product, it’s almost more of an insult if you aren’t copied by someone. There were some worries that these knockoffs would affect our sales, but after a thorough investigation the impact turned out to be minimal. I don’t think Nintendo made much of a fuss about it either. They were probably a little afraid that if they left it alone, though, it would eventually eat into their market share.

Creating a knock-off takes about as much work as creating something original. That’s why when I see something wonderful that another person has created, my inclination is not to try and copy them, but to make my own original creation from scratch–and this way is actually quicker, I think. Thus when I see a knock-off of something I’ve made, it’s proof that my work has made a big impact, and that makes me very happy.

Sorry, not-for-sale

With the Game & Watch series, Nintendo took their first step into global sales and marketing. This market was pioneered by Nintendo’s bouekibu (foreign sales department). Our sales efforts reached distant lands like Sweden. I never imagined the G&W would be so successful in Sweden.

I remember one funny incident from one of my business trips to Sweden. I was sitting at the airport waiting for my plane, and I took a prototype G&W out of my bag and started to play it. The person next to me peeked over and said, “Hey, where did you buy that?”
“Sorry, it’s not for sale,” I replied.
“How did you get it then…?” he asked.
“I made it!”

One of several Japanese TV commercials for the Game & Watch (subtitled). As revealed in this interview, the actors and celebrities in each commercial would mime playing the Game & Watch for the close-up shots while the developers, hidden inside a cardboard box, would remotely control the units using a unit connected via a hidden cable.

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  1. He specifically uses the word “background” here and below, but what he really means are the themes for each game–ie being a fireman, juggling balls, preventing pedestrians from falling into manholes, etc.

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