Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gunpei Yokoi's Super Wonder Cross! Part 2

If you'll remember (or flip back to the last post), I left off with 1979 and the horrendously painful Intellivision controller.  Then I somewhat misleadingly said, "our liberation was only a year away."

That's kind of true.  The seeds of our liberation had been sown, and the first tender shoot was poking out of the ground.  This is what it looked like:
Behold!  Ball.  What is really important about Ball is, like so much else in history, not so much what it was in its own right as the shift in direction it portended.  The Game & Watch line of portable video games was a first entry into the video game industry by an old manufacturer of Japanese hanafuda cards, Nintendo Company, Ltd. (NCL).  Nintendo had recently expanded to sales of novelty items in hopes of diversifying and growing.  Nintendo's best designer at the time was Gunpei Yokoi, an electronics major and maintenance engineer who'd drawn the attention of the company's president with an extending-arm toy he'd designed in his free time.  When it turned out the arm toy (sold as the Ultra Hand) was ridiculously marketable, Yokoi was promoted to the product development team.

Yokoi spent the next few years coming up with quite a few toy designs, but probably the most significant of his ideas came to him one day on a train.  He saw a businessman fiddling with a calculator in the never-ending battle to stave off boredom and realized that there might be potential in a pocket-sized electronic device that was actually designed to entertain.  While this story's been told a million times, thanks to the strange synergy between internet and nerddom, I don't think the exact thought process Yokoi was experiencing at the time has ever been explored.  I think I can shed some light on this, though, so let me set the scene:

A quiet, observant man sits in one of a few tightly-grouped seats on a train.  Nearby, another man, his jacket off and flung over the arm of his seat, his sleeves rolled up, his tie loosened, pokes impatiently at a pocket calculator.  Occasionally he raises his head to look through the window nearest his seat, then, with a sigh, he turns his attention back to his calculator.  The other man watches this drama unfold several times, and it is obvious that he is quite interested in what is happening, though just why is not immediately clear.  Through the train windows, we see the Japanese countryside flashing by quickly as the train heads towards its destination, though it is plain that the destination cannot be reached soon enough for the second man.

Time stops.  The second businessman is motionless, his hand poised to strike one of the calculator's keys.  His gaze is intense even in its frozen state.  There is silence:  the sound of the train is no longer present.  The train windows now present still landscapes, images of interurban Japan.  The train is entirely stationary.

The one thing that remains in motion is the first man.  He looks around in surprise.  Why isn't the landscape still moving?  Why is everything so still, so quiet?  Suddenly, the man splits in two as a perfect doppelgänger of himself leaps away from him and turns to face him.

YOKOI 1:  Who are you?

YOKOI 2:  I am yourself.  We are ourself.

YOKOI 1:  What's happened?  Why isn't the train moving?

YOKOI 2:  Snap out of it, Yokoi.  This is an important moment for you--don't mess it up!

YOKOI 1:  What do you mean?

YOKOI 2:  Yokoi, what have you been doing since you got aboard this train?

YOKOI 1:  Well, nothing, I suppose.  I mean, I brought this newspaper--

YOKOI 2:  Forget the newspaper.  You haven't actually opened it, have you?  You've just been frittering away the whole trip.  You could have begun design work for your new toy for Nintendo; you could have read a book, but what have you actually done?

YOKOI 1:  Well, to be quite honest, I've really only been watching that man with the calculator.

YOKOI 2:  Right, and what have you learned?

YOKOI 1:  Learned?

YOKOI 2:  What does the man with the calculator show you?

YOKOI 1:  Well, I was thinking that it's strange he should find so much pleasure in doing sums repeatedly.  But then, I wondered if he's really just been doing sums this whole time.

YOKOI 2:  You're right--he hasn't.  What is he doing, then?  Why don't you have a look?

YOKOI 1 walks toward the man and leans down to take a closer look at the calculator.

YOKOI 1:  I don't think he's doing sums at all!  The calculator's display says ゲーム&ウオッチ.  Gemu-and-uotchi...Game and Watch?

YOKOI 2:  Game and Watch.

YOKOI 1:  Games?  Electronic games?

YOKOI 2:  And watches.

YOKOI 1:  Right, at least with the watch you could always tell what time it is.  Wait a minute!  Do you mean to tell me that people will play games on trains?

YOKOI 2:  Yes.  You should see trains in twenty-five years.  All iPods and iPhones and DSes and PSPs.

YOKOI 1:  What?

YOKOI 2:  Never mind.  You know what to do?

YOKOI 1:  I think so, but what game should I make?

YOKOI 2:  I leave that up to you.  Tama.

YOKOI 1:  What?

YOKOI 2:  Nothing!  Have fun!

YOKOI 2 vanishes, and YOKOI 1 walks back to his seat, sits down, and takes a small pad of paper and a pencil out of his briefcase.  He furiously begins a sketch of something.  He is so caught up in his work that he seems not to notice when the world around him lurches back to life.  The businessman with the calculator returns to his button-punching, the view of the world through the windows blurs again, and the sound of the train's passage once more pervades the scene.  In the midst of all of this, Gunpei Yokoi is an oasis of concentration, lost in his drawings.

Whatever happened on the train that day, Gunpei Yokoi realized that there was potential in the portable digital games market.  The market of digital games shifted from its previous emphasis on LEDs towards the use of LCD displays, primitive versions of what we now, believe it or not, use for watching TV or checking the internet.  The first Game & Watch game, Ball (1980), took a page (probably not deliberately) from the Game Brain design.  It used two buttons:  one that made the player's on-screen avatar move left, and another that made it move right.  This was not much of a change from previous forms of game control, but Game & Watch titles became quite a bit more complex with Donkey Kong (1982), a design that required four directional inputs and a jump button.  Yokoi knew that the solution would not be to integrate joysticks into the design:  they would be too difficult to use in a game of this size and would limit portability (is that a Game & Watch with a joystick in your pocket, or...?).  Yokoi invented a new control mechanism, surely unaware that this innovation would remain the standard for years to come.  This new mechanism is what we now call the D-pad, and you can see not only its implementation in the picture below of the Donkey Kong Game & Watch but also the forerunner of the design of the Nintendo DS, which was still more than twenty years away...
Next:  the Famicom/NES, the Game Boy, and, most importantly, what the D-pad means.

(Game and Watch:  Ball photo by Wikipedia user momopy; Game and Watch:  Donkey Kong photo by Flickr user Frenkieb)

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