Gunpei Yokoi is one of the most important figures in the history of Nintendo. One of the engineers who helped turn the company into what it is today, Yokoi produced some of its most significant releases - including the iconic Game & Watch series and the world-beating Game Boy.
Sadly, Yokoi was killed in 1997 in a road traffic accident. He and a friend were involved in a collision and exited the car to inspect the damage. Yokoi was hit by another vehicle and fatally injured.
Yokoi didn't conduct many interviews during his life, but one from 1997 - the year of his death - has just been translated into English by shumplations. A conversation between Yokoi and Yukihito Morikawa of developer MuuMuu (perhaps most well known for the PlayStation game Ganbare Morikawa-kun 2 Gou, AKA: Pet in TV), this text covers a wide range of subjects.
First up is Yokoi's rather negative outlook on game development of the period, where he laments the lack of true "gameplay" and states that RPG titles aren't his cup of tea:
There's a huge variety of console games out now, but to me, the majority of them aren't actually "games". The word "game" means something competitive, where you can win or you can lose. When I look at recent games, I see that quality has been declining, and what I'm seeing more and more of are games that want to give you the experience of a short story or a movie.
This is most obvious with role-playing games, where the "game" portion isn't the main focus, and I get the feeling that the developers really just want you to experience the story they've written. So when you ask what I think of games today, well, it's a very difficult question for me. I end up having to say that games today just aren't games to me.
The essence of games is competition, and I think that's a remnant of our past as animals, and the competition of the survival of the fittest. I think you see it reflected all through human history, how people with wealth and power want to have harems, acquire women… that kind of thing is at the root of humanity.
Yokoi then mentions two of his final projects - LCD keychain games not entirely dissimilar to his work on the Game & Watch range at Nintendo:
When I ask myself why things are like this today, I wonder if it isn't because we've run out of ideas for games. Recent games take the same basic elements from older games, but slap on characters, improve the graphics and processing speed… basically, they make games through a process of ornamentation. That's where we're at with console games today, but I believe there are still more basic varieties of competitive gameplay to be discovered.
I said the same thing when I quit Nintendo and started my own company, Koto Laboratory; however, when it came down to it and the staff asked me "well, what should we do then?", in reality I found it to be extremely difficult to think of new things. But when we released the keychain game Kunekuneccho, which is really an old style game, and it was commercially successful, then I felt like my ideas were somewhat vindicated.
Yokoi also challenges the idea that more realistic visuals result in better games - something that was becoming of increasing important back in 1997 as the industry began to embrace 3D graphics more forcefully:
Do these playworlds really need to be that photorealistic, I wonder? I actually consider it more of a minus if the graphics are too realistic. There's a similar line of thinking in the entertainment world—using soft focus lenses when women are filmed, for instance. When that is done, each person can project their own conception of "beautiful" onto the woman being filmed, and everyone will see their own personal Venus.
If things are too realistic, there's no room for your imagination, and the reality of those faces you thought were beautiful will be revealed. Or to use another common expression, it's actually more erotic when a woman leaves some skin covered. Even if a video game doesn't have the power to display very complex graphics, I believe your imagination has the power to transform that perhaps-unrecognizable sprite called a "rocket" into an amazing, powerful, "real" rocket.
Morikawa then steers the conversation onto what many will feel is Yokoi's lasting achievement: the Game Boy. Phenomenally successful and the first in a line which would sell millions of units worldwide, the production of this system was, as Yokoi reveals, not as easy as many believe:
Morikawa: Hearing you say that, I feel like I understand a little better why you chose to make the Gameboy monochrome. And it wasn't a technological problem that made you choose a monochrome screen, right?
Yokoi: The technology was there to do color. But I wanted us to do black and white anyway. If you draw two circles on a blackboard, and say "that's a snowman", everyone who sees it will sense the white color of the snow, and everyone will intuitively recognize it's a snowman. That's because we live in a world of information, and when you see that drawing of the snowman, the mind knows this color has to be white. I became confident of this after I tried playing some Famicom games on a black and white TV. Once you start playing the game, the colors aren't important. You get drawn, mentally, into the world of the game.
Morikawa: That's a very bold decision. It reminds me of the first Macintoshes with monochrome screens.
Yokoi: Actually, it was difficult to get Nintendo to understand. Partly, I used my status in the company to push them into it. (laughs) After we released the Gameboy, one of my staff came to me with a grim expression on his face: "there's a new handheld on the market similar to ours…" The first thing I asked was: "is it a color screen, or monochrome?" He told me it was color, and I reassured him, "Then we're fine." (laughs)
Morikawa: Color screens also drained the batteries very quickly too.
Yokoi: When we were designing the Gameboy hardware, we took into consideration what kind of software was going to be made for it, and I think that approach resulted in a very efficient product. Hardware design isn't about making the most powerful thing you can.
Today most hardware design is left to other companies, but when you make hardware without taking into account the needs of the eventual software developers, you end up with bloated hardware full of pointless excess. From the outset one must consider design from both a hardware and software perspective.
Finally, Yokoi speaks about future projects he'd like to undertake, including a move back towards traditional "phyiscal" toys like the Ultra Hand he created during his early years at Nintendo:
In any event, I've been thinking about moving away from television with my future work. Imagine if I show you a toy on the table here, you'd see it and think "oh, that looks fun to play with." But if I take the same toy and put it on a television screen, suddenly people think "wow, this looks dumb." And that's what I mean about reality having such a stronger pull than television visuals can ever hope to match. One never tires of the basic movements of a real toy doll or human figure. Now I'd like to create something real like that, even if it's something simple and cheap. If people find it entertaining, they'll play with it for a long time.
Of course, such ideas were never acted on - shortly after the interview was conducted, Yokoi would be dead. His career at Nintendo may have ended on a sour note due to the commercial failure of the Virtual Boy, but Yokoi remains a legend in the gaming arena, and this freshly-translated interview makes for essential reading. Make sure you check out the whole thing.