Satoru Okada – 2022 Retrospective Interview

Satoru Okada - 2022 Retrospective Interview

This lengthy Satoru Okada interview was originally featured in a two-part series at; this is the latter half which focuses mainly on the Game Boy, GBC, and GBA developments. Okada offers a wealth of interesting anecdotes about Nintendo's internal dev process, including some comical moments with presidents Hiroshi Yamauchi and Satoru Iwata. Next month we'll translate the first part, which covers Okada's early days designing toys and the Game & Watch.

Developing the Game Boy

Okada: Like me, Yokoi also had the idea of a "portable Famicom" with separate hardware and software. But at that time we were beholden to various scheduling constraints, so he said he wanted to make it a one-off product that would be an extension of the Game & Watch.

We got into a fight over that. Yokoi felt I wasn't listening to him, and when it came to a head, he said, "Go put your own team together then. I'm going to transfer to another department."

Later, after explaining Yokoi's stance to President Yamauchi, I offered my opinion: "I don't think we should rush this new product out in a year. I think we should do 2-3 years of preparation, lay the groundwork, and then release something new." Yamauchi agreed. It was from this period that I started to realize that Yokoi's way of thinking was very different from mine.

While we were negotiating with Citizen over the new LCD technology, we also had several conversations with Sharp to see what they could do. We didn't need them to make the exact same thing that Citizen had proposed, just something approaching it, and I made a lot of suggestions about things to tweak as those talks went on.

I also personally showed Sharp our prototype Game Boy, which they seemed to find interesting. After that they took the project more seriously, and before long we'd reached a plan that we could both agree on.

Sharp had been taken aback by the aggressiveness of Citizen's sales, so they felt they couldn't let them take this business. The profit margin on transactions with Nintendo was apparently very high. With calculators, one can compare price and performance with competitors, but the LCDs for the Game Boy were custom-made, so there was no "market" price. That meant they could get whatever they asked.

After realizing the first LCD screens Sharp delivered us were too dark, we immediately consulted with Sharp's technical team. If the Game Boy release got cancelled it would be a huge loss, so Sharp was desperate to fix it too.

When designing the Game Boy, the first thing we did was line up all the internal components side-by-side. I asked the person in charge to think of the best, most compact way to fit all these into one device. The winning answer was this vertical form-factor. Originally I'd been imagining a horizontal form-factor that would be easy to hold in your hands. But they said horizontal presented too many problems with fitting the components, so they choose vertical. I remember when we brought the vertical prototype to the designers, they started saying they wanted to make one of the corners more rounded. (laughs)

We originally wanted to have cross-compatibility with the Famicom, so we were thinking of using Ricoh's microcomputer for the CPU. But Mr. Uemura (Masayuki Uemura, then General Manager of Nintendo's Development Division 2) told us not to use Ricoh's resources, which were tied up in the Super Famicom, which was also under development at the time.

Over 30 years later, the dream of the "horizontal" Game Boy was finally realized...! It looks pretty comfy.

So we ended up making a set deal with Sharp for both the LCD displays and the CPU. Their processor had a simple communication feature, and I wondered if we couldn't use it for head-to-head 2P games.

The programmers at Nintendo were saying the programming is too difficult and there was no way link play would work. And in fact, it was a major challenge. (laughs) But I created the libraries and showed them, see! It's possible. I created a prototype of Alleyway with link play. I even created a special controller for it. But at the time we released the Game Boy, I honestly wasn't thinking much about how the link-play function would end up being utilized in the future.

Software Development

Okada: With the success of the Famicom, Nintendo's business model shifted to a focus on releasing new software for existing hardware. We no longer had worry about things like "what should we do for next year's product lineup" or hoping appliance stores would update their rice cooker or washing machine models. 1 This change catapulted the software development group to the top echelon of status at Nintendo.

In the beginning, we hadn't given much thought to third-party developers. We thought we would be the only ones able to develop software for the Famicom. Owing to that mindset, we hadn't created any kind of SDK or manual for developers. This made it cumbersome, even within Nintendo—the programmers were constantly coming to the person in charge with every little problem that came up. I also was enlisted by Uemura, who was making a light gun game for the Famicom and wanted my help. I had Miyamoto help out with the artwork while I acted as producer.

For Famicom Tantei Club, President Shigeru Saitou from Tose came to us with the idea for that game. I think he had played a PC game in America, some adventure game involving a circus. We took the amnesia theme from that game, and everyone tried to think up a story. We got out a whiteboard and brainstormed everything out. With that looking good, from there we set out to write a real plotline.

For the plot, we thought we might want to enlist the help of an established mystery writer, maybe someone like Jiro Akagawa. We started looking around and it turns out Shigesato Itoi was interested! But when we actually met up, all he did was talk about the game MOTHER that he wanted to make… so we realized this wasn't gonna happen, and we introduced him to some people at another department. (laughs)

I don't play many games myself, but I did like the PC adventure games Ohoktsk ni Kiyu and Karuizawa Yuukai Annai. When I put together the idea for Famicom Wars with Kenji Nishizawa, I actually had our General Affairs department negotiate with SystemSoft, the copyright holders of the Daisenryaku series, to see if we could release it as a Daisenryaku game. But System Soft had already sold the Famicom porting rights to Bothtec.

Famicom Wars for the Famicom. Incidentally, a complete English translation patch was just produced this week.

Later I went to President Yamauchi, to tell him that we'd come up with ten titles, but none of them were very good. At that meeting he said to call it Famicom Wars. Actually, President Yamauchi was responsible for naming many of the titles at Nintendo, including the Game & Watch. We had all these ideas for it, but we just couldn't decide on one. At first, President Yamauchi was against using the word "watch". When he heard that word, he said, "You guys have no sense! Everyone already owns a watch." He was actually pretty mad at us. Then, just before it was to be released, I guess someone talked to him or something, because he did an about-face and told us, "I want you to use Watch in the title." Ever since then he would always tell people that the 'watch' part was his idea. (laughs)

Behind the Scenes at Nintendo

Okada: When the Game Boy was released, Nintendo decided to make supporting third-party developers a priority. We created a specific position for someone to handle documentation, and memorialized all our instructional and guidance materials into a sort of manual. We also created more development tools.

Nintendo started using e-mail in the latter half of 1990. That was something I initiated on my own, actually. I scrimped and saved with our development budget, and purchased a 10BASE-T ethernet board for the office, which in those days cost almost 100,000 yen (~1000.00 USD). (laughs)

I tried very hard to explain how convenient e-mail was to the people in accounting, admin, and management who had experience working with the general-purpose machines in the computer room. But I wasn't getting through to them. One or two people showed an interest, so I latched onto them and from that foothold, steadily made in-roads with the others… it was fun! (laughs)

You see, whenever I wanted to put one of my ideas into action, I had a method I often used. First, I would leak my idea to different people around the office to see their response: "I've been thinking about this idea…" The people who thought it was bad, I didn't waste my time trying to convince them. Instead I focused on the people who had showed a positive response. That was how I would find my allies, both within and outside of Nintendo.

So after I'd dragged a few people into my e-mail schemes, I spoke with one of the directors about it. "I don't use it," he said. "It seems interesting but I'm fine with this," pointing to the memo notepad on his desk. However, sometime later after the e-mail system was introduced company-wide, he told me "Hey, this e-mail thing is great! It's so convenient!" (laughs)

I remember too, there was a factory manager who had been saying he wouldn't use the new e-mail system. One day I got a phone call from him, "Hey, I wrote an e-mail." But when I asked him if he'd sent it himself, he replied, "No, I had my staff do it. I won't touch it." (laughs)

I introduced a lot of other similar reforms at Nintendo. I built the system that allowed you to call other staff internally from a networked telephone registry, and I developed a system for viewing digital copies of the HR and admin documents. I was also responsible for launching the official Nintendo website in 1997, working alongside our PR manager.

The Game Boy Color

When Sharp came to us promoting their new color screens, at first we considered an 8-bit CPU, and then that changed to a 32-bit CPU, which we made a prototype for. It was a working prototype, but we weren't using integrated chips so it was humongous in size. But all-in-all, it was the total price that made us realize we couldn't sell it. In fact, I don't think we ever actually presented the prototype to President Yamauchi or the other higher-ups.

President Yamauchi used to come by and say, "You guys should just go to sleep! You're just wasting our money working this much. Don't be thinking up things we don't need." (laughs) Of course, he wasn't completely wrong: developing something brand new could cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

The prototype Okada discusses here is probably "Project Atlantis", which you can read more about here.

In 1997, in response to the situation with the Wonderswan, Nintendo held an executive meeting with almost all the top directors from every department. I was also called to this meeting, and President Yamauchi told me: "Sharp's color LCDs look affordable, so use those and make a color version of the Game Boy." I remembered the prototype we'd made earlier, and using that experience as a basis, I thought up a way to develop something we could bring to market quickly and reliably. That's why the Game Boy Color has almost the same specs as the regular Game Boy. The only added features were the color display and a slight improvement to the CPU clock.

The software developers at Nintendo were unhappy with this, though: "We've already completely exhausted the possibilities with the Game Boy, and the only upgrade you bring us is color?! What were you thinking?!?!" That kind of resistance at Nintendo was, in those days, something of a tradition. Even if the President himself said "make this!", the devs back then would say "Sorry, I'm busy right now" and wouldn't get started right away. Though if it was something we were personally interested in, of course, that was a different story.

The Game Boy Advance

When we adopted the horizontal form-factor for the Game Boy Advance, Miyamoto called me up to ask about why we made that change. I told him, "I decided it. Is it a problem?" And he responded, "Oh no, it's not." (laughs) Miyamoto and I were on good terms, you see; we used to do things together outside of work, like go on ski trips.

When I proposed the Game Boy Advance SP with its rechargable battery to a meeting of 10 people, however, the feedback was almost entirely negative. "The battery will be too expensive", "if it's so small and thin, it will be too fragile"… they were convinced it would be a flop. So I said "thank you for your comments" and brought the meeting to a close.

When I spoke to the engineer who would be responsible for the hardware design and layout of the SP, I told him: "I don't want you to worry one cent about the feasibility of manufacturing this—I just want you to make it as small and thin as possible. Treat it purely as a conceptual model, don't worry about anything beyond that." In the next meeting, when I showed that model to the same group of people, they completely changed their tune, and the project proceeded more smoothly from there.

The Two Presidents

Okada: Nothing is ever decided at meetings, I believe. In terms of leadership, President Yamauchi would often give his opinion about things. But for the final version of the product, he would leave it up to us. He was fine so long as we created something that met our own expectations.

President Iwata, on the other hand, had a more cooperative style. When we couldn't decide something even after many meetings, we would ask Iwata to make the call for us. But then he would say "OK, let's have a meeting about it"…! For me personally, he over-valued cooperation, and the result was that we often went around and around in circles.

Personally, I have a tendency to want to make decisions myself and do things on my own. President Iwata never got mad at me exactly, but he did give me warnings: "From now on, I want you to follow the proper procedures." I was like… when I did that, things turned out badly. (laughs)

President Iwata knew what things were like for the developers on-the-ground, you see. And he also had to be concerned about what sales and management thought. But the developers should not be guided by them, I believe. One example I can give… when we brought the Game Boy Advance prototype to show Nintendo of America, former NoA President Arakawa said, "If you bring something like this to America, it's going to be a problem for us. It will eat into the sales of the Game Boy Color, which has been a huge hit here." At that time, even I wasn't sure. I said "OK, well, we are only going to sell it in Japan, so don't worry about it", and I flew back home.

However, I remember how several years later, I was attending some development meeting or other with Arakawa. I asked him, "tell us what management thinks of this project, Arakawa." And he replied back, "No, we should leave the development details to the developers. Management is only looking at what's right in front of us. We aren't looking at the long-term picture, like the developers are." He then told me, "If you hadn't gone ahead and created the Game Boy Advance like you did back then, Nintendo would not be where it is today."

When Okada retired in 2007 he paid a visit to former President Hiroshi Yamauchi, where this picture was taken.

Creative Freedom

Okada: When I quit Nintendo, Iwata came to me. "I've seen many people come and go over the years here, and most are lucky to have had just 1 or 2 hits in their career. Please… tell me your secret, how did you keep putting out hits?" But all I could say in reply was, "I don't know." (laughs) When I think back now, I realize that while I was often ordered to do this-or-that by management, those tasks that I thought were a waste of time I just didn't do. I would avoid it by pretending to do it. (laughs)

My policy was to only do things I that I could find satisfaction in. One example would be Nakayama Miho no Tokimeki High School. One day the President of Square, Masafumi Miyamoto, came to Nintendo to meet with President Yamauchi about this new idea he had for a tie-in game with an idol. I was called into the meeting too, but when I heard the idea, I thought to myself, "this sounds no good, we shouldn't do it."

But later, when the idea was vetted internally at Nintendo, Yoshio Sakamoto suggested the phone number tie-in idea. He put this record on which had an idol chatting, and said, "Wouldn't it be cool to hear this voice for real?" Now that idea sounded cool to me, so not caring if it would sell or not, I said OK, let's start drawing up plans.

We called up Dentsu and had them create a list of available idols for us, but the top-class idols of the time, people like Kyoko Koizumi and Yoko Minamino, their schedules were completely packed. Miho Nakayama wasn't quite as popular but she was available. Even so, she could still only meet for a couple hours at a time, on different days spaced over about a year.

Anyway, things are more restricted for Nintendo employees today. If they have some idea for a game they want to talk about, it's like "if I bring it up, it'll conflict with what the other departments are doing, so why bother." Or they're concerned about NDAs. On the other hand, I've had people run their game ideas by me, and I've said well, why not make it on your own and see how it goes? And they tell me if they do that, people will get angry with them. I mean, I understand that's Nintendo's official position and all, but I feel like the younger employees are too bound by compliance considerations.

Almost Leaving Nintendo

There were two times I seriously considered quitting Nintendo. The first, it was maybe my third year at Nintendo? We were struggling to figure out what our next toy should be. Around this same time, Nintendo dropped me from the Laser Clay team,2 and when I went to complain about that, they told me, "Well, if it's so bad you want to quit, we'll re-assign you." And so I got put back on the Laser Clay team working alongside Gunpei Yokoi.

The second time I thought of quitting was just before the Game & Watch. Nintendo's business wasn't going well, and I'd been looking for other work. I'd actually advanced to the interview test stage at a semiconductor company, thanks to a friend's connection.

However, around that time I ran into the President of one of Nintendo's subcontracting companies at a bar. I told him, "Everyone's starting to quit at Nintendo, I'm thinking of jumping ship myself…" and he replied to me, "You shouldn't do it." This guy had originally been the head of his labor union, and when his company went bankrupt they reorganized under the Corporate Rehabilitation Act, and he became President of the company. "Look at us," he said. "Companies don't go bankrupt that easily. Things might look dicey now, but Nintendo isn't going down. Try and hang in there a bit longer." So I took his advice to heart and decided to stay on.

An image of Nintendo's Laser Clay leisure facility, a converted bowling alley. This blog links to an excellent twitter thread that dives into this little-known era of Nintendo history (with more pictures!)

If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!

  1. I'm not certain how appliance store business affected Nintendo but that is what Okada says.

  2. Laser Clay was a laser rifle shooting range facility Nintendo operated in the early 70s.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *