20 years ago, gaming lost a creative visionary

Nevertheless, the principles pioneered by Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi shape the games we play even today.

Twenty years ago last month — Oct. 4, 1997 — video games as a medium suffered one of its first significant brushes with mortality when former Nintendo engineer Gumpei Yokoi died in a highway accident. Yokoi and a friend had experienced car troubles while traveling; when they stepped out to inspect their vehicle, a passing car fatally struck Yokoi. 

In the years since, we've lost many influential giants such Jerry Lawson, the African-American engineer who invented interchangeable game cartridges, and Ralph Baer, who more or less came up with the idea of television gaming in the first place. But October 1997 was the first time I can recall reading about the death of a video game designer. Certainly it was the first time I felt thunderstruck at such news.

Back in 1997, I didn't have enormous familiarity with the names of game designers. The idea of game makers as superstars had only just begun to take hold on the medium. I certainly knew the names of a fair few American and European game makers ranging from the Bungie staff behind Marathon to the iD team behind DOOM and Quake to more outspoken types such as Peter Molyneux and Trip Hawkins. Yet those visible gaming celebrities were more of an exception than a rule. Japanese developers I knew even less about; I could give a positive I.D. on Shigeru Miyamoto after all the press he received following Super Mario 64, and I'd heard of Sonic maestro Yuji Naka. Beyond that, though, the staff rolls of the games I loved largely washed incomprehensibly over me… though certainly the Japanese industry's fondness for pseudonymous credits didn't help. I still don't know who Mega Man 2 team member Fish Man was.

Yokoi's name, however, I knew well: He was the creator of two of my all-time favorite games, Metroid and Super Metroid. Well, that was how I understood it at the time, and certainly that's how the internet of the age framed his claim to fame. (In truth, I'd later come to realize, he had very little direct say over the direction of those games, instead acting as supervisor over the division inside Nintendo that had been responsible for their design.) He'd also been in the news a fair amount at the time for having left Nintendo to establish his own company in the wake of his pet Virtual Boy project's resounding failure. So news of his death hit on multiple levels — not only had he played a critical role in two games that profoundly affected my life, he'd also been taken right at the cusp of what could have been a fresh start for his career. I suspect Yokoi's untimely death hit me the same way John Lennon's assassination did people of my parents' generation.

Over time, I've discovered that while Yokoi didn't really have much to do directly with the design of Metroid (that had more to do with folks like Yoshio Sakamoto and Hiroi Kiyotake), his influence over games had been far greater and more significant. Likewise, Yokoi is often referred to as the father of the Game Boy — a term I'm sure I've used somewhere in the course of my Game Boy Works videos — but in truth the system owed its design largely to Satoru Okada, Yokoi's lieutenant. Yokoi's most important inventions actually happened far earlier in his career, before Nintendo went all-in on video games. And the principles behind those creations continue to shape the company's product line even today; Yokoi may be long gone, but there's a whole lot of his spirit in the Switch. 

Yokoi liked to create gadgets. More than that, he liked to come up with clever hacks. He had a keen eye for simple but unexpected ideas that would translate into fun toys, along with an unerring sense of how to make those products affordable for the widest audience possible. Rather than saving costs by using cheap materials, Yokoi preferred to match low prices to premium quality production by making cuts at the conceptual level. My favorite invention by Yokoi might be the Lefty RX, a remote-control race car that Nintendo priced far below the products offered by their competitors. It wasn't made of cheap or brittle plastic, so what was the secret of its friendly price tag? The hint is in the name: The car could only turn left. Yokoi realized that race cars on a looping track basically only turn in a single direction, so he simplified the steering chassis and remote control inputs to create a car suited for that environment. While it lacked the ability to drive freely and shift into reverse the way pricier competitors could, Lefty RX gave kids an entry-level opportunity to play around with a remote-control car at a price anyone could afford.

And let's not forget the role his Duck Hunt concept played in Nintendo's history over the course of a difficult decade:

That same philosophy shaped the Game Boy. This was a portable gaming device made of thick, high-impact plastic, capable of being treated more or less like a football and still ticking away. But it was marvelously affordable because Yokoi pushed for a low-power processor (the ’70s-vintage Z80, which had almost entire been phased out of the computing industry by the time Game Boy launched) and a laughably pathetic screen better suited for cheap timepieces than action-packed video games. The Game Boy could display four miserable shades of green-grey, and the screen suffered from unbelievable ghosting thanks to its passive-matrix refresh tech. The Atari Lynx, which launched around the same time, contained a powerful blitter chip that could push an enormous number of sprites on a full-color screen with far less display lag. But the Lynx also cost twice as much as Game Boy, chewed through twice as many batteries as Game Boy did at three or four times the rate, and lacked day-one must-haves like Tetris and Super Mario Land.

Nintendo has almost always succeeded when its hardware design operates on Yokoi's principles of compromise. The GameCube and Wii U were quite competitive in terms of power with their contemporaries (at least at the time of their debut), and both flopped. Meanwhile, Game Boy and Wii and DS were pitifully underpowered… and crushed the competition. It's not only that less-powerful hardware results in more affordable pricing; being forced to work within technical constraints always breeds creativity. Nintendo's most meager systems present consumers with unique play experiences that help compensate for those devices' failure to drop jaws on the technological side of things.

We can see the same thing happening with Switch. When Nintendo announced the console and revealed its specs, a common thread of dismissal by pundits was that the system essentially amounted to an Nvidia Shield. Not only would Switch be woefully underpowered next to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (to say nothing of those consoles' new incremental upgrades), it was a technological framework that had already made its way to market and failed to impress anyone. But that reading buys into the fallacy that sheer power alone sells video games… the same fallacy that causes a game to go down on record as a "failure" or "disappointment" after selling multiple millions of copies. Yokoi understood that technology simply serves as a vehicle for ideas and experiences, and that fun doesn't have to be synonymous with pushing the envelope of hardware horsepower.

The Switch may have the same fundamental tech as the Shield at its core, but what makes Switch desirable in a way Nvidia never experienced has to do with everything Nintendo has built around that core. Switch offers flexible play options, fluid local multiplayer support, a marketing campaign centered heavily around the joy of sharing great game experiences with friends, and an enormous amount of appealing software that only tangentially intersects with the kinds of works that factor heavily into Sony and Microsoft's marketing. The Xbox One X will definitely find its audience: The people who enjoy hashing out tech specs on forums and debating the particulars of image quality. Switch, on the other hand, seems to resonate with a broad swath of people who want to share goofy screenshots online. 

No one else really seems to be interested in Nintendo's niche; even mobile games, which ate the 3DS's launch in that system's early days, have largely drifted away from the gaming space Nintendo has carved out for itself. And therein, I think, we find Yokoi's greatest legacy: The fact that trends and tech come and go, but fun is timeless. Yokoi may be 20 years gone now, and we're all the poorer for his death; but in life, he established a basic truth of video games that far more of the industry should take note of. Namely, that making simple, inventive entertainment as accessible to as many people as possible will never be bad business.