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Gunpei Yokoi 1941-1997
In the USA the computer business got started by weekend hobbyists building things in their garages. In Japan the same phenomenon didn't occur because launching companies from garages wasn't part of the Japanese culture.
But Gunpei Yokoi loved building mechanical and electronic novelties. He had a degree in electronics and in 1965 he was hired by Nintendo to look after the machines that produced the playing cards.
In 1967, as part of Hiroshi's attempt to take the company into other markets, Gunpei was invited to join a new department - the games division. His brief was to make something that Nintendo could sell for Christmas. Gunpei was the first of many keen hobbyists that Nintendo would hire but surprisingly his first invention was prototyped in wood!
The Ultra Hand was manufactered in plastic
The Ultra Hand was an extending arm that could be used to pick things up or grasp another person. A television advertising campaign managed to sell 1.2 million of them! After this Gunpei's job was to think up things for Nintendo to sell.
His first electronic toy was a simple resistance meter - marketed as a love tester. A boy and girl held a handle each and then held hands - the measured resistance was taken to be an indication of the passion involved! Japanese culture was such that this was very risqué - and so it sold well!
Although products such as the love tester seem trivial Hiroshi was beginning to make choices that would make Nintendo a very big company. Unlike most firms, Japanese or American, he made his R&D department the most important. He hired people who had flair and individuality. For example, one of his engineers wore a polyester trench coat all the year round - even indoors in mid summer. This is not what we think of as the stereotyped "Japanese" approach to business but all of his engineers had a desire to do their best to please Hiroshi.
In 1943 another eccentric, by Japanese standards at least, joined Nintendo. Masayuki Uemura worked for Sharp selling silicon cells and he visited Gunpei Yokoi to try to sell some. In conversation the two agreed that they had potential in entertainment products with the result that Nintendo hired Masayuki. Together they built a shooting game based on the use of a light gun. It was another success and the company continued growing.
Then Hiroshi, Gunpei and Masayuki though of a new use for the many disused bowling alleys that were left over from the bowling boom of the early 60s - electronic skeet shooting. The electronics was a bit more difficult to perfect and on the day it was to be demonstrated to TV news crews it failed to work - but the ever resourceful Nintendo engineers made it work by hiding below the targets manually and closing switches to register hits.
Having been made to work the technology evolved. "Wild Gunman", from 1974, probably qualifies as one of the first virtual reality games. A 16 mm projector displayed scenes of a homicidal manic which players had to shoot at before they were shot at.
In 1973 the oil crisis hit Japan and money became short. The shooting galleries became less popular. Nintendo was on the edge of collapse. Hiroshi was desperate to find some new novelty that would save the company. It took until 1975 to find the solution.
Hiroshi learned about the revolution going on in the USA. Firms like Atari and Magnavox were breaking new ground in entertainment with video games. Nintendo negotiated a licence to sell a version of Pong from Magnavox and teamed up with Mitsubishi to produce the electronics. In 1977 they released the Video 7 and then the video 15. Both units sold 1 million units and established Nintendo's future. The video game business was a long way from printed paper cards.