Gunpei Yokoi x Kenji Eno - Developer Interview
This charming discussion with pioneering creatives Kenji Eno and Gunpei Yokoi was originally featured in an "Eno-themed" special edition of Game Hihyou in 1996. The actual interview took place in August of that year, mere days before Yokoi would retire from Nintendo to start his own development studio. The first part of their talk revolves around the Virtual Boy before opening up into Yokoi (and Eno's) other works.
Gunpei Yokoi is the creator of the Game & Watch, Game Boy, and the newly released Virtual Boy. Today he speaks with Kenji Eno about what went into making the Virtual Boy.
Eno: I'd like to talk to you today about the Virtual Boy. Given all the options you must have had for what to develop next, why did you choose the exceptionally difficult path of 3D visuals?
Yokoi: Ever since the Famicom came out, I've had the suspicion that one day, the reign of tv console games would come to an end. The year after the Famicom was released, I was worried that people would get bored of it, and so I went and created peripherals like the Light Gun… but even without that, the popularity of the Famicom persisted. Then the next year I thought, surely now, people must be getting tired of this thing… so I created the Family Computer Robot, but that too ended up being unnecessary. So I've been creating "countermeasures" like that all along the way.
One of those ideas—which relates to a more general concern over how to extend the life and interest in tv console games themselves—was to see if we couldn't do something with three-dimensional visuals. They have a completely different technological lineage from console games, and I wanted to create a unique three-dimensional world, something that wouldn't be compared with console games. Unfortunately it's ended up being seen as another "Nintendo console" though…
Eno: Right. People labeled it according to their pre-existing notions.
Yokoi: Yeah. If you simply compare it with video games, there's no colors… and a lot of other downsides. If you look at it from that perspective, it can't compete with a traditional video game console.
Eno: What was your overall concept for the Virtual Boy, then?
Yokoi: In the 8-bit Famicom era, video games were something that everyone could enjoy. Then people who felt a certain confidence about games moved on to the Super Famicom, and of those folks, a subset—the really hardcore gamers—went on to the 32-bit consoles.
I saw this happening, and was concerned that at this rate, you were going to get a kind of "maniac pyramid", and the overall population of people interested in games would shrink. To once again bring the masses back to games, I felt something else was necessary, something different from a "video game" per se. That was my goal for the Virtual Boy.
However, when the Virtual Boy was released, it received a lot of complaints from hardcore gamers. At the initial launch event, kids and regular people played it, and they really enjoyed it. But the middle and high school gamers completely ignored it. So I feel like I fell short of my lofty ambitions.
Eno: My sense is that the launch software largely decided the fate of the Virtual Boy.
Yokoi: I feel that way too. I'm not sure if there was a launch title capable of rivaling normal console video games. Console games can have lots of colors, polygons, and the Virtual Boy hardware isn't capable of all that. I've long held the belief that games are about more than "colors" or graphics, and I hoped that everyone would use their own imaginations to compensate for the limited graphics of the Virtual Boy. However, when the gamers disowned the Virtual Boy, it influenced others to turn away from it, I think. If Nintendo came out and advertised that the Virtual Boy was not for gamers, I think that could rekindle people's interest.
Eno: I wonder if the "Virtual Boy" name wasn't the best, too.
Yokoi: Yeah, part of me feels like it would have done better if it hadn't been sold by Nintendo. The association people have between Nintendo and TV console video games is just too strong.
Eno: It's like when Steven Spielberg releases a new movie. (laughs) If it's some experimental film, everyone will scratching their heads "huh…?" because they were expecting another blockbuster.
Yokoi: That's because everyone's image of Nintendo is that they can only make games for general audiences. I don't think that should be the case though—I think if Nintendo wants to put out something made especially for musicians, for instance, why not? You could make a number of titles with niche appeal, and then just make something with mass appeal after that. Even when you make a game that's meant to be for everyone, there's no guarantee everyone's going to love it. In that sense, too, I think Nintendo has just gotten too big, so even if they suddenly came to me and said "let's put something smaller out", it would be very difficult.
Eno: Honestly, if I'd had multiple development lines at WARP, I would have liked to make a Virtual Boy game. We've only got two groups, so we couldn't work on any N64 titles either. Thanks to Panasonic we were all tied up for two years. (laughs) I think if developers like Artdink, Chunsoft, WARP—developers capable of creating off-kilter or weird things—were given the Virtual Boy development kits, they could make something very different. Another issue I see with the Virtual Boy is that it doesn't easily facilitate communication between gamers. It's too bad it wasn't a handheld machine, that way your friends could look on from the side. With the Game & Watch and Game Boy, two or more people could crowd around the player and watch them play, which I think increased their appeal.
Yokoi: But there's also an experience you can only have by yourself, and that is the sense of immersion when you get when you're playing alone in a room with the lights all out. During the Virtual Boy development, I did an experiment to see if that was something we could use. For the test we prepared a scary scene to be played back on the Virtual Boy. When you're in a pitch black room, and you can't see anything, it really feels like you're sucked into that world. I tested it out on my daughter and she turned pale. (laughs) With a TV, no matter how frightening the scene is on-screen, there's still light being emitted, and your friends are there around you… you're safe, because everything is happening in "that" world on the screen. But when you peer into the Virtual Boy, it feels like what you're seeing is a part of you, inside you. If we can make some software to capitalize on this, I think it could be really interesting.
Eno: Lately I feel like imagination has been sorely lacking in video games. We've gone from 32bit, and now 64bit, and what we can express in video games has grown ever more detailed and realistic. On that note I feel that in your work, Yokoi, you've placed the emphasis on the power of imagination, and I always look forward with great excitement to what you'll do next. The new game I'm producing now for the Sega Saturn has no visuals at all. When it loads up you see the Saturn logo, and after that, it's a completely black screen. It's a game you play from the sound and voices alone. It has a 3D soundscape that you listen to on headphones. It's really great. And you don't need to follow the text as you would in a sound novel. With text you still have to read it yourself, but sounds we perceive without any voluntary action of our own.
The feedback we've received from your "everyday player" has been good so far, and I think they're reacting on the basis of imagination. Your "gamer" is looking for a specific gaming experience; but everyday folks, I wonder if they're not more interested in imagination generally. If you look at the total population of Japan, gamers don't make up a huge percentage of it, so I think the majority out there play games for the imagination they provoke: a creative, rather than analytical experience. Games are not one of the necessities of life, after all, and that being the case, I think they should be lighter and freer in their design. On that point I'm very optimistic about the direction handheld games are going in. I think the future lies there, somehow.
Yokoi: Many futures, in fact. (laughs)
Eno: When rumors first started circulating about the Virtual Boy, I heard that sound would be a main focus of it, and that seemed like quite the challenge to me. "He must be trying to go in a different direction from normal 'video games'", I thought.
Yokoi: I remember I asked a doctor whether the Virtual Boy would worsen people's eyesight, but surprisingly, he thought it might actually improve their vision! In fact, he talked about potentially using it as a kind of "visual orthodontics" to steadily improve one's vision.1 That conversation felt like we were trying to evade Product Liability laws or something. (laughs)
Eno: The Virtual Boy controller is great too, very ergonomic.
Yokoi: Thank you. I can't remember when, but someone was asking me whether the controller was designed for adults' or kids' sized hands. The truth is, it was designed for my hands because I wanted to enjoy it myself. (laughs)
Eno: The direction pad itself was something you invented with the Game & Watch multi-screen, wasn't it.
Yokoi: That's right. At the time I was struggling with the question: "How could we fit a joystick in a person's pocket…?" I created a number of different prototypes, including one that resembled a woman's breast. In the end, the model that best allowed players to know, by touch, which direction they were moving, was the cross-shaped directional pad. I never thought it would become the standard though. (laughs) As a project it wasn't something I took that seriously, relatively speaking.
Eno: I see. Today it seems like the de facto global standard.
Yokoi: The truth is, we used the directional pad for the Famicom because of budget considerations. (laughs) It was the cheapest option for us then.
Eno: And yet, by the same token, the Famicom also had features like the microphone. (laughs)
Yokoi: There was a lot of waste, yeah.
Eno: I'd like to see TV remotes be used as game controllers in the future. I feel like it would be interesting to see everyday items like that, which everyone owns, get used in a gaming context. By the way, Yokoi, when did you join Nintendo?
Yokoi: It's been 30 years since Nintendo hired me. I've done a lot of different things in that time. I often get asked about how I see my creations, my attitude towards them. For example, when I made the light gun ("Zapper" in the US), it became a big hit, and naturally other companies saw that and imitated it. What normally happens next is that one tries to come up with an "even better" light gun to out-do the competitors, but my approach was different: I would always start working on something brand new. There's so many kinds of entertainment, so there's no need to fight over scraps, when you can simply go out and make something new. It's much quicker and more direct to create a new world rather than fighting with each other—that's always been my philosophy.
Eno: After releasing the first Game & Watch handhelds, it was awhile before you released any more.
Yokoi: That's because our focus has always been whether the game is interesting, above all else. When the Game & Watch proved to be a hit overseas, it wasn't because of the price point, but because it was interesting and fun, I think.
Eno: I've collected a number Game & Watches myself. Back in the day I was really into Manhole, I remember playing it for hours and hours. It was a digital device, yet it had a responsive, analogue feel to it, where it wasn't 100% "perfect" in the way digital can be. I liked that aspect of it. With other companies' games, if you played them for an hour, you'd end up seeing all the patterns, but Nintendo's Game & Watch, despite seeming simple at first glance, actually had a lot of gameplay depth to them.
Yokoi: The Game & Watches were all made that way, but the big thing that I emphasized myself was the "situation". As a game, Manhole consists of just four buttons you press to prevent people from falling into a hole. It's an extremely silly situation, but it's also a scenario that sounds funny just by hearing it, and that was a quality I aimed for.
Eno: Ones like Helmet made me feel a sense of danger.
Yokoi: That inspiration came from the image I had in my head of American animation. Stuff like Tom and Jerry, I love the ridiculousness of that. For the "situations" of the Game & Watch games, I wanted people to be able to tell right away whether they were funny, or weird, or whatever. Games like Fire depict a life and death situation, but in the world of comics and cartoons that is allowed.
Eno: The Game & Watch handhelds eventually evolved to having two screens.
Yokoi: Yeah, the multiscreen Game & Watches.
Eno: I loved the little click as you opened it up.
Yokoi: We added the extra screen because wanted to distinguish the new Game & Watches, but figuring out what to do with that was a challenge. To just take a single-screen game and play it on two screens, would actually make the single-screen game feel kind of worse, in a way. However, when we connected the gameplay to the second screen in a meaningful way, it became many times more fun.2 Naturally, our ideas for games expanded once we had two screens. This unexpected fortuitousness is something unique to the world of games and creative development, I think.
Eno: And this led to the development of the Game Boy.
Yokoi: That's right. When we released the Game Boy, people often said "Oh, they must have wanted to make a portable Famicom", but that wasn't the case. My goal in developing the Game Boy was to go from the one-hard-one-soft model of the Game & Watch to a one-hard-multi-soft system. That is also why we chose to make it a black and white system as opposed to the full-color Famicom. I've been interviewed many times, and I'm often asked about the difference between monochrome and color games. For example, consider a monochrome game like othello or shogi: the truth is, whether a game is interesting or not doesn't depend on whether it's color or b&w.
Certainly, color makes things more visually impressive and can draw people in, but once you begin playing, what color the characters are doesn't really matter. As I mentioned a moment ago, to my way of thinking, color need not be the main attraction of a game. When you think about it, b&w can actually be better than color, since a color screen would drain the batteries faster and would be harder to see under bright lighting. For those reasons, the choice of screen for the Game Boy wasn't really a technical problem, but was more about the integrity of the product concept, which was meant to be b&w. When I look back on it now, it was a tremendous success. If we had made it color, I don't think the Game Boy would have enjoyed such enduring popularity.
Eno: I hope we see more and more games come out with short playtimes, compared to lengthy RPGs and the like. Give me ten Tetris-like games on my Game Boy Pocket, and I feel like that would be enough for me to enjoy myself on a desert island.
Yokoi: I feel the same way. Like the difference between a weekly magazine and a book, there are things you settle in and read slowly, and those which you read in your spare time, in a piecemeal fashion. A "novel" length experience wouldn't fit the Game Boy Pocket.
Eno: I'd love to see handheld devices get even easier to carry, and cheaper. The Game Boy Pocket is great.
Yokoi: Awhile back, some businessmen came to Nintendo and they had all portable phones. They said these were brand new, and when I asked them why they bought them, they said it was because they'd gotten smaller. I thought about that, and tried applying it to the Game Boy. Having sold billions of software, we wanted to see how thin, light, and small we could make the Game Boy. I was also thinking about how when we go on vacation, and how 10 hours of battery time should be enough for traveling, so we made it only take 4 batteries. And that allowed us to make it even smaller.
Eno: But could you make a 3000 yen version, like the one-hard-one-soft Game & Watch?
Yokoi: I bet we could.
Eno: Look at disposable cameras. They're fairly expensive but people buy them without a second thought. I think it would be cool if you could make a "standalone Game Boy" that you could buy at a kiosk for about 3000 yen. It would be like, "today I'm taking an overnight bus to Aomori, so I'll pick this up" or "ah, I've got nothing to do on my flight to Kyushu so I'll grab one for the trip."
Yokoi: That's a good idea. And it doesn't pose any technical challenges, so you'd be free to follow where your ideas led you.
Eno: I'd love to form a software production team for a console like that, and make something really interesting. If we could release one "Eno Produced" game every three months, it could make a whole collection. That would be cool.
Yokoi: Eno, please come work with me at Nintendo! (laughs)
Eno: You know Yokoi, when I saw your name "Gunpei", 3 I thought you would be an intimidating person. (laughs) But I can tell we have similar sensibilities. I mean, I just love the games you create.
Yokoi: Well, if Nintendo can have people like Miyamoto making big, grand games, then I think there's room for someone like me who makes games you can enjoy in your spare time.
Postscript by Kenji Eno
Several days after this interview, Gunpei Yokoi left Nintendo, a company he had worked at for 30 years. The newspapers claimed that the slumping sales of the Virtual Boy was the main factor in his departure, but Nintendo stated that "Yokoi had indicated he wanted to do something new once he turned 55, as part of his personal life plan. He has left us the wonderful Game Boy Pocket as a parting gift and we wish him well in his new endeavors." Yokoi has told me he intends to start a new software company. I look forward to whatever he does next!
The first portion of this interview was commissioned by Jose P Zagal who gave his generous permission to host it here!
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!
This may be based on research showing that red light exposure can help boost declining vision in the elderly.↩
"Gunpei" is a masculine, strong-sounding name in Japanese, especially with the first kanji meaning "military."↩