Satoru Okada - 2022 Retrospective Interview
This lengthy Satoru Okada interview was originally featured in a two-part series at 4gamer.net. It covers Okada's career, from his early days joining Nintendo to his important contributions to 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.
Early Life and Nintendo
Okada: I was born in 1947 in Akita. Of my early life in Akita, all I remember is that there was a forest railroad that transported logs, and I saw an American military helicopter once. After that, when I was 4 or 5 years old, we came to Osaka, but there was nothing there then. I remember there was a streetcar running there.
After graduating from Kansai University, my professor arranged an interview for me with a medium-sized electronics company, but I was rejected and the professor was extremely angry with me (laughs). I think it was because my school exam grades weren't very good. I couldn't speak English at all.
A friend of mine had applied for the Nintendo entrance exam through the student affairs office at his university, but he changed his mind and decided he didn't want to take it. The problem was, the school would get angry if he told them that, so he instead asked me if I would take the test in his place. I didn't know what Nintendo did, but I wasn't doing anything else so I thought, sure, why not, I'll take it. Plus the ad said Nintendo would pay my commute expenses and one day's wage. (laughs) I believe that was the first year Nintendo started looking for developers to hire.
On the day of the test, I couldn't find the location of Nintendo's offices. I also took the wrong train and was late. When I finally got there and told the security guard that I had come to take the test, he gave me a hard time and said, "What time do you think it is? You're too late!" But he was kind and called for me anyway, and the person in charge of the test said, "There's only 30 or 40 minutes left, but if that's OK then you can come take it right now."
The test was surprisingly easy! The questions at that time seemed to have been made from a book I was using to prepare for the entrance examination, and I remember thinking "these look familiar…" while I was taking it. After I joined the company, I asked why I was hired, and they said, "You scored well on the test." (laughs) Another factor may have been that I was good at soldering, and I also did crafts to make materials for experiments in my university laboratory. I think they recognized that.
I joined Nintendo right after graduating college, in March of 1969. I didn't really know what I would be doing there, but I guess I might be involved in product manufacturing, or maybe they needed a dedicated electronics guy.
The atmosphere at Nintendo then was very free and informal. One rumor I often get asked about is whether Shigeru Miyamoto helped create signage for public baths back in the day. I don't know about public baths, but he was asked to design a sign for a nearby café. That café finally closed many years ago, unfortunately.
The N&B Block and Kosenju SP
Okada: When I was hired, I immediately got assigned to work on planning the N&B Block. I was still new then, so I wasn't in charge of the project and don't know all the details, but I think the N&B Block idea was originally another company's idea, which was brought over to Nintendo. Although we eventually won the lawsuit against Lego, the N&B Block wasn't a very good product. The quality was low, and even within Nintendo they talked about how it was inferior: "Man, legos are just better" … "Maybe it's the die molds we're using." (laughs)
Later, I began working with Yokoi, and in 1970 he brought me his plans for the Kosenju SP lightgun. "I want to make something like this," he told me, "but I don't have an electronics guy, so you do it."
Since it was designed by an amateur, the Kosenju SP could not be mass-produced. No matter how many we made, defects kept popping up. It was designed based on what we had learned in school, so we didn't think about the consistency of the size of the parts when they were assembled, or quality control or anything like that.
Still, if it hadn't sold well, we could have handled the repairs individually in due course, but it ended up being a huge hit and we couldn't keep up with the repairs. And there were a lot of returns. President Yamauchi even called me directly to his office: "What are we going to do about this?!" (laughs)
Normally, we would make 10,000 units first, see how they sell, and then decide what to do next. But when President Yamauchi personally thought something would sell, he would suddenly say "Let's make 1 million!" And the higher volume did lower the production costs, to be sure. At the time, I didn't really understand that kind of thinking, so I got caught up in the enthusiasm and believed it would sell as much as he said. But in reality, about half of the units were defective.
We also sold the Kousen Denwa LT (the Nintendo "Light Telephone") at the same time. Personally, I didn't think something like that would sell. But Yokoi saw my prototype and said, "This looks like fun, we should sell this. Let's show President Yamauchi right now." Unfortunately, as I'd predicted it didn't sell very well. This is something I heard from others, but it seemed that Yokoi would sometimes judge where a toy would sell or not based on my reaction. That's because there was no one at Nintendo who was really interested in what Yokoi was doing then.
Up to then, Nintendo's sale strategy had been to make a single toy, and if that didn't sell well, just go back and make a different toy. Nintendo was in the middle of trying to break out of this business model when, by chance, the Game & Watch became a huge hit. Now here was something we could turn into a series, we thought.
The Game & Watch
Okada: At the time, I saw other companies releasing game devices with fluorescent screens, games like Simon, and I thought we could make a game with a computer chip like this. But one thing was very apparent to me, which is that these games were all aimed at children… adults would never be caught dead playing that.
So then there was that whole conversation about salarymen playing with their calculators on their train commute home, and I thought, hey, if we could build a device like that which adults would play, then they'd take it everywhere with them. Right around that time, I got ahold of a newly released Mattel game which used an LCD screen. It was very fun, and I thought, if we an use a screen like this we could make a truly small-form, miniature game device.
We wrote a proposal up, and when we showed it to President Yamauchi, he said "Let's have R&D2 handle this." 1 But when we took our plans to R&D2, they rejected it: "This looks too difficult, it's not technically possible." We had been expecting that reaction from the start, though. R&D2 was new and only half-way understood how to develop eletronic games and calculators, so I knew they weren't really an option for this.
Knowing that our plans on paper weren't enough to convince anyone, we set out to first build our own working prototype with an LCD screen. At the time we didn't have a PC, so first Yokoi drew a mock-up of the screen he imagined for Ball, then grabbed a light and put it behind that paper, turning it on and off to simulate what the game would look like. I then took that idea and converted it into actual electronic form. Up until then, I'd never programmed anything, but I knew I would need those skills eventually, so I bought an NEC TK-80. I created a drive circuit to power the LCD lamps, and programmed everything on my own.
At that time, R&D1 was just me and Yokoi, and I believe R&D2 had a dozen or so people. But after the Game & Watch came out, people kept getting added from other departments: "oh, you don't have enough people, take this guy, and this guy here…"
In those days watches were a luxury item, and they were subject to heavy excise taxes. You also had to deal with some bureaucratic applications related to their accuracy as timepieces. Anyway, I knew the Game & Watch would be subject to excise taxes as well, so I went down to Kyoto's tax office to negotiate with them directly. "This is mainly a gaming device," I explained, "and the watch components only cost 50 yen." In the end I was successful in convincing them to treat it as a 50 yen "watch" for the purpose of that tax.
That negotiating experience also proved helpful with the Famicom, too. Back then there were a lot of product defects in toys, so the government required they submit to inspection before sale. But the Famicom was closer to a computer than a toy, I thought, so I again went to negotiate directly, this time with the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. This Ministry has a lot of different departments, and I figured if I could speak with the department that handled computers, they might by more supportive of our endeavors. In this way, I was able to grease the wheels for the products I helped create at Nintendo, and we were basically given a blank check to do whatever we wanted.
Okada: When the Game & Watch development calmed down, I helped out on arcade game development. Donkey Kong Jr actually started as a way to get rid off the excess Donkey Kong pcb stock we had. "Do something about all these!", President Yamauchi ordered us. Sometimes it seemed like that was the only kind of work that came my way. (laughs)
The problem was, we didn't have the source code for Donkey Kong. The programming for Donkey Kong was not created by Nintendo. If I recall, the development department rejected the plans they'd been given, and Ikegami Tsushinki ended up programming it.
So the Donkey Kong Jr. development began by reverse engineering the original programming. I didn't know anything about video game programming… I was like, "uh, how are we supposed to make this?" So then we had three highly skilled programmers from Iwasaki Giken Kougyou come to our offices, and we spent our entire Golden Week confined to the office working on it.
I didn't know anything about the source code, so we just used the programming data as-is. The source code contained Ikegami Tsushinki's company name, the person who wrote the code, and a phone number. If we had converted the code to text we would have found that out, but we didn't. Because of that, the fact that we'd used the Donkey Kong source code was discovered, and it turned into a copyright infringement claim. 2
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.
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.
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. 3 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.
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.
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."
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,4 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.
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R&D2 was founded in 1979 to focus on electronic projects, and was originally headed by Masayuki Uemura. It was a brand new department at this point.↩
The editor of the original Japanese interview helpfully noted that copyright law surrounding programming wasn't clarified in Japan until 1985.↩
I'm not certain how appliance store business affected Nintendo but that is what Okada says.↩
Laser Clay was a laser rifle shooting range facility Nintendo operated in the early 70s.↩