Masayuki Uemura – The Man Who Created the Famicom
This interview with Nintendo engineer Masayuki Uemura, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 78, was originally featured in Used Games magazine in 2000. Uemura would retire from Nintendo in 2004 and move on to a teaching position at Ritsumeikan University, but here he reflects broadly on the development history of the Famicom, Game Boy, and Super Famicom.
—Uemura, what kind of work did you do before the Famicom?
Uemura: I made toys, and during the Invader boom I worked on arcade games. I was in Development Division #2, where I and several others did arcade game development. The microprocessors were 8-bit, and very cheap too, and in those days we’d buy all the audio and visual components ourselves from different sources, then assemble them on these huge circuit boards and program it all there.
—And I’ve been told this is what led you to develop the Famicom.
Uemura: The IC design was handled by Ricoh, but I suppose you could call me the supervisor… basically, it was like a joint development. During the Space Invaders boom arcade games had become very popular, so I think there was a rush, around the world, to develop something of comparable quality that could be used in people’s homes.
—I see. The Atari console would be one example. There were lots of those early consoles.
Uemura: We acquired a sample Atari console and played it, but it amazed us to see such a product. (laughs) I just didn’t think those kinds of circuits used in the Atari could deliver. So I went back and looked at the circuit diagrams of the arcade games I’d played and brought them to Ricoh, and asked them, “Can you make an integrated circuit based off these?” I showed them the diagrams and the games too… however, they told me it couldn’t be done within the price range Nintendo had set for development.
—Right, and the Famicom ended up being sold for 14800 yen (~148.00 USD).
Uemura: Our original plan was to sell it for 9800 yen (~98.00 USD) (laughs). In terms of material costs, that meant we needed to keep development costs to around 4000 yen (40.00 USD), but in those days using just two ICs would cost 4000 yen alone, so that price point just wasn’t looking very realistic.
However, the person-in-charge at Ricoh was really on-board with the whole idea. He thought it was fascinating. So we did the all the software programming on our side, as well as the updated hardware specifications, and somehow or other we were able to have Ricoh add the ICs within cost. When I think back on that whole episode I’m really proud of the work we did.
—Once the Famicom was released, what kind of games did you make for it?
Uemura: Me personally, I did very little coding myself. I supervised and oversaw everything. The game that stands out most in my memory is Baseball. There was a person at Nintendo who loved baseball, and he worked as what we would today call the “director” for this game. When we were making Baseball the programmer would always work late into the night, night after night falling asleep at his desk. The director sitting next to him would be frantically trying to wake him up, “Get up! Get up!” but the programmer didn’t hear. Those were the days.
In any event, back then, the games we made were the ones we really wanted to play ourselves. About the only baseball game available was Epoch’s Yakyuuban. Whether it be baseball, or mahjong, everyone had their dream game they wanted to make. These weren’t the kind of things you could make as a regular toy or board game, you know? But after Baseball went on sale, we discovered a huge problem.
—You mean, a bug?
Uemura: If you hit a ball under certain conditions, the white lines on the field would disappear. When we investigated it, we discovered there was a fault in the IC itself that the software couldn’t handle. We had to do a recall.
We got smarter after that, and learned clever new ways to avoid those problems on the software side, but because the original Famicom hardware had been created in the way it had, we never had a lot of room to maneuver. There were issues with heat and so forth. But later we upgraded the Famicom hardware itself, too.
—Speaking of sports games, there was also Golf and F1-Race…
Uemura: Golf was done by Satoru Iwata of HAL Laboratory. He had some interesting ideas about modeling those physics. “If we calculate the friction of the course like this, the ball should roll exactly this far…” Unfortunately, in the end it came to naught, and he only finished Golf after significantly re-working his original plans. He veered away from attempting to make it realistic, and instead focused on simply making it fun. Lies and truth co-existing side-by-side, you could say—and that experience was a first for everyone then, too.
With F1-Race, it was thought that you couldn’t make a game like that on the Famicom. It uses horizontal scrolling to make the road ahead look like its bending. That was done through a bit of programming trickery.
—Your mastery of the hardware was improving.
Uemura: Action games have very fast movement and the computer processor can’t always keep up. With arcade games, extra hardware could increase the speed, but wasn’t an option on the Famicom. You had to do it all on the software side. I think it spurred us to take on those challenges though. Namco, they had a very deep grasp of the Famicom, and produced a nearly arcade-perfect port of Xevious.
—With the groundwork thus laid, next came the Famicom boom. What are your thoughts on that period, Uemura?
Uemura: If I’m being perfectly honest, I have no idea why it took off. (laughs) Before the boom, the feeling at Nintendo had been more pessimistic: “maybe this whole console business is a bust.”
Before the Famicom, there was the MSX, and that had sold very well I think. Tomy had the Pyuuta (Tomy Tutor). The name was cool! Compared with the “Family Computer”, which just sounded kind of lame. (laughs) They both had keyboards attached too. There was a big debate over whether to have a keyboard for the Famicom, actually, at Nintendo. Once we decided to create a keyboard, we had Hudson create the Family Basic language and cartridge.
—Was the Disk System also created in response to the threat you felt from systems like the MSX?
Uemura: That was made to extend the life cycle of the Famicom hardware. (laughs) On the original Famicom, we were limited in the different types of games we could create, and the cost of ROM production was very high. We also saw how the volume of programming data was only increasing. With disks, not only were they cheap, but you could always just add an extra disk for your game if you needed more space.
—And yet, in the latter days of the Famicom, ROMs also expanded their storage capacity…
Uemura: That’s right. Nowadays we have our own factories where we make our game hardware, but back then we were dependent on the semiconductor market to produce ROMs. However, just around the same time, Japanese word processors were starting to proliferate through Japan. They required ROM chips in order to store the kanji libraries, and the resulting mass production ended up lowering the price of ROMs, solving the problem for us before we knew it.
Later, Sony came to Nintendo and tried to sell us on their Mavica floppy disks—it was Ken Kutaragi who came, actually. (laughs) We were in the middle of debating whether to use them for the Super Famicom, but the Mavica technology, too, was soon undercut by the new ease and abundance of ROM production. That was the second time our plans for using disks were undermined. So yeah, as you can imagine…
—You seem to have a lot of bitter memories surrounding the FDS and disk technology.
Uemura: Now I’m wondering if the exact same thing will happen again with DVDs.
—What were you developing after the Famicom Disk System? The Super Famicom?
Uemura: Yeah, let’s see. There was a network system that used the original Famicom that I worked on, and I worked together with Nomura Securities to develop the Famicom Trading software. I also worked on a system to purchase JRA horse racing tickets.
The Famicom was a dedicated gaming console, but it was also a very user-friendly piece of hardware, and I wondered if we couldn’t use it to tap into the market for other practical uses. I also felt a certain uncertainty about the software that was being developed, so before the Famicom became obsolete, I felt we needed to explore new markets and attract new users. That was one of my responsibilities at Nintendo, so I spent my energy there.
—I see. Using network connectivity to expand beyond the gaming market is something we often hear from companies today, as well.
Uemura: From where I stand, the success of the Famicom was extremely unusual. Disks are one thing, but even when the ROMs became expensive it continued to make money. That’s mysterious to me.
—When I look back now, I think it was because great games kept coming out one after another.
Uemura: But even so, you wouldn’t expect a product to continue being profitable for so long, right? I mean, there are other things that are fun, that people could always spend their money on.
—To be sure, the typical “lifespan” of a single game is only about a month. But right when you were getting bored, you’d hear a rumor from a friend about some awesome new game that’s out, and then you’d save up some money and buy that one. As I said, I think it’s all because good games just kept coming out.
Uemura: But why did those conditions persist for as long as they did, I wonder? Some of the games that third party companies put out really blew me away. Dragon Quest was one that surprised me. It was reminiscent of a computer game… would console players really be into this, I thought? But it turned out to be far more fun than it looked and as we all know, everyone loved it.
In the era from the Famicom to the Super Famicom, home console games were still an unexplored frontier. There was an excitement just in seeing what would come next, you know? From our perspective as developers, it offered various challenges that spurred us on. Like with that trading software, we wanted to see what would happen if we made that. Would it become a big hit too?
The FDS was the most interesting to me. Things like the Disk Fax version of Golf. It had a column that showed where the data had been submitted from. A lot of people came to the Mitsukoshi in Tokyo from Hokkaido, you could actually get a sense of where people were moving around. I kind of see it as a forerunner of today’s networked world. It was a wonderful time to be dreaming of the future, for both the players and developers alike.
—In what ways did your experience and know-how from developing the Famicom inform your development of the Super Famicom?
Uemura: Within Nintendo, there were a lot of divergent opinions and conversations being had. There were people who thought “Everything’s got to be super!”, and some people, on the other hand, pointed out that everything came down to the quality of the software, so why not just put two Famicoms together and call it a day? People had all sorts of ambitions for it. Ultimately we went with the following design principle: “The exterior will look like the Famicom, but the interior will be SUPER”.
—I see. And indeed, the basic aesthetic was similar, plus it used the same cartridge system.
Uemura: Well, the idea was fine, but what does “SUPER” really mean, you know? In truth, we actually wanted the Super Famicom to be able to play Famicom games too. We used a CPU that’s equipped with a 6502 emulation mode and everything. However, the sheer amount of games released for the Famicom, plus the fact that they often used different types of ROMs and chips made it too difficult to produce a perfect conversion. When that fell through, a big pillar of our design ideas fell with it.
—It’s interesting, you were trying to be a forerunner in backwards compatibility too.
Uemura: Looking back on it now, I sort of think… it didn’t need to be perfect. We could have released it even without 100% compatibility. (laughs)
So the next “SUPER” thing on our list was the graphics. I thought, surely this alone won’t justify people buying a brand new console…! But I was very wrong: the superficiality of the world can be quite cruel. Everyone jumped from the Famicom to the Super Famicom right away. Anything for a pretty face, as they say. (laughs) We’d simply put lipstick on an old idea, but it was highly praised in any event.
—But to be fair, the graphics were a clear step up from the Famicom.
Uemura: Game play is very important too, but graphics and visuals are what seize the heart and mind—that’s something I saw very clearly then.
—What kind of work are you up to nowadays?
Uemura: Right now I’m making Game Boy1 and Game Boy Advance software.
—There’s things about the Game Boy which really capture that old-school gaming feel.
Uemura: The internal architecture was exactly like the Famicom. Likewise for the new GBA, the architecture is based on the Super Famicom, and it’s very easy to create for. On top of that, although we were able to do wired network technology pretty convincingly in the Famicom days, wireless wasn’t possible—until now. I get the feeling there’s still a lot of unexplored territory there. The fact that a session of Game Boy can be fit into small spaces of free time is very likely to lead to new possibilities in gaming. I feel that very strongly when I actually play it.
—Please offer a final message for readers.
Uemura: When console games were popularized and presented to everyone, it felt like we were all exploring a new frontier of dreams together. Although some people may occasionally have wasted their money on a bad game here or there, both creators and players were obsessed with games then. I believe there’s still wonder to be found in that older generation of games. Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto has recently started the GAP (Game Archive Project), where they’re preserving and studying this history.
In the future, as technology moves forward and new environments are constructed, it’s very likely this innocence will be forgotten. I’d like to be involved in creating some kind of organization or system that people could refer back to if they wanted to know what it was like.
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Given the timeline, he’s probably talking about Game Boy Color development.↩