Friday, 26 August 2011

Arrogance and the Industry Five - Nintendo Kicks A Legend Upstairs

Now, everyone these days has their preferences for game companies, but even those that love Sony and Microsoft have to begrudgingly admit that video gaming today wouldn't be what it is without Nintendo; hell, it might not even exist at all.

The Big N brought video games back from the brink with the NES after the great crash that left most corporations and the public thinking that video games were a now dead fad. Nintendo has done a lot, and for that I am grateful. But they also perpetrated one of the most heinous examples of arrogance that I can really think of - not to mention the one that bothers me the most.

When I say Nintendo and tell you to think of the people behind the games, you probably instantly gravitate to Shigeru Miyamoto the creator of Mario and Zelda, or perhaps even Masahiro Sakurai who made Kirby and Super Smash Brothers. But a lot of people tend to forget one of the people that allowed Nintendo to gain absolute dominance in a market that until very recently has never come into question.

They forget about Gunpei Yokoi.

Yokoi was with Nintendo years before the NES brought the industry back from the brink. He helped create the Game and Watch series of electronic devices which in a way were a precursor to Nintendo's console and handheld offerings. Yokoi even took Miyamoto under his wing when he was assigned to supervise the creation of a game that Miyamoto was working on: Donkey Kong. It was thanks to Yokoi speaking up that Nintendo had one of its first smash arcade hits. Not one to rest on his laurels though, Yokoi developed some ideas of his own. Perhaps you've heard of or even played one of the games in a series that he originally designed, a little known title called Metroid. Or maybe you're a fan of Kid Icarus, another one of his creations.

It wasn't game development that Yokoi would leave the most enduring mark on though, as good as the titles that he produced were, they paled in comparison to his greatest achievement in hardware: the Game Boy. The old sturdy game brick that played in monochrome swept the world by storm and was basically THE source of portable gaming as we know it today, having itself been inspired by the Game and Watch machines that Yokoi had developed earlier. The Game Boy was a huge success, granting Nintendo domination of the handheld market in the face of competition that ranged from Sega's Game Gear to Sony's PSP. The games were solid, the design well executed, and the survivability legendary. After the release of the Game Boy and still riding high on the success of the Super Nintendo Nintendo could seemingly do no wrong. But all good things must come to an end.

1995 saw the release of another one of Yokoi's inventions, the Virtual Boy. Touted as the first 3D capable console, the entire project proved to be an embarrassing flop and Nintendo's first real taste of failure in the industry. Although the system did have potential, the red monochrome and the obtuse design proved to be off putting, and the lack of games that really took advantage of the advertised capabilities meant the the Virtual Boy quickly floundered after the public was rather unimpressed by the showing it made. However, signs indicate that Yokoi never meant for the Virtual Boy to be released in the state that it was put out in. Nintendo seemingly rushed the development of the system in order to focus more fully on their next big console the Nintendo 64. As a result an idea that in all likelihoods was not complete and never meant to be shown to the public in the form it debuted in was thrown out as a sort of stop gap to keep people talking while Nintendo prepared to wow them with it's next console.

Perhaps they thought that the system was more capable than it was. More likely it seems is that they thought that people would buy it despite of the fact that it was more of a technical demo that showed some interesting capabilities than a full fledged system. But regardless of what Nintendo had thought or perhaps even hoped, the system bombed, and Yokoi was blamed.

The failure of the Virtual Boy meant that Yokoi became part of the madogiwazoku, or “the window seat tribe”. Given a place in middle management without much control and next to no creative input, Yokoi, a man that surely had an integral part in making Nintendo what it was, was set to live out the rest of his career at Nintendo without any opportunities to make anything innovative ever again.

Rather than stay at Nintendo, Yokoi left to start his own company and went on to develop the Bandai Wonderswan before his untimely death at the age of 56 in a motor vehicle accident.

The story of what happened to Yokoi has always been one that I’ve found particularly depressing. The fact that Nintendo pretty much applied a “one strike and you’re out” concept to someone that helped make the company what it was seems incredibly harsh. You might argue that if that mistake is the Virtual Boy then perhaps it’s deserved, but given some of the accounts it seems to be as much of the fault of Nintendo itself than of Yokoi, if not more. Besides, one failure in the face of such successes just seems to be a hollow reason to stifle someone who’s had such a brilliant career to that point.

I know that speculation is arbitrary, but I can’t help but feel like many others that Yokoi still had more creative spark left in him than some people hold throughout there entire lives, and while it’s impossible to say what would have happened had he never been “retired upstairs”, I find it a true waste that he had to leave under those circumstances. There are some cultural differences that need to be taken into account, but it still doesn’t stop the entire thing from seeming like a real waste of a man’s genius.

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