Video game history could've gone a totally different way if Nintendo's corporate headquarters were somewhere else. "If Nintendo wasn't located in Kyoto, I wouldn't have been there," the man who lead the design of the Nintendo Entertainment System said last night. Good thing Masayuki Uemura's parents never relocated to another part of Japan. It's entirely possible that none of us would have any video games to play.
Last Thursday night, the one-time chief of research and development at Nintendo gave a talk at New York University's Game Center — where I teach an Intro to Game Journalism course — about the circumstances that led up to the birth of the most important games consoles of all time. Game Center director Frank Lantz introduced Uemura, setting the scene for the era during which Uemura's work happened. During the industry crash of the 1980s, Lantz said, there was a sense that video games were a fad that might go away, like "hulu hoops." But, as most people who love video games know, the NES ushered in a golden age of fascination and development that proved the medium could reinvent itself. "This machine maybe saved video games," Lantz said. From there, Uemura told a rapt audience about the creation of Nintendo's iconic home consoles.
After a brief run-through of the company's pre-digital history, the retired executive talked about how Nintendo's TV Game proto-consoles came about from a desire to develop viable imitators of Pong and Breakout. With the translation help of Aki Nakamura, Uemura also told the crowd that Shigeru Miyamoto was initially hired as an industrial designer. The Block Kuzushi product was the Mario creator's first industrial hardware design. "I don't know how he became a game designer!", Uemura chuckled.
Uemura talked about the effort that went into the creation of the Famicom — the NES predecessor that never made it out of Japan. The Famicom's core piece of hardware was the LSI chip, which Nintendo had a hard time finding a manufacturing partner for. Ricoh was the only company that agreed to make LSI graphic chips for the Famicom. Other companies were doing the same for personal computers, which were booming in Japan. Ricoh recruited people from Mitsubishi, some of whom had worked on the TV Game 7 and TV Game 15 proto consoles. CPU and sound chips were also created. Games usually didn't have dedicated sound chips, Uemura said, and most were only capable of producing beeps and boops. The thinking was that arcades were too noisy for anyone to appreciate good music/sound design. But the Famicom was aimed at a home market, which would be quiet, and a sound chip was deemed necessary.
Despite all the Famicom's innovations, Uemura said that the console achieved only middling sales in Nintendo's home country. Getting into the U.S. market was seen as a vital move and company execs looked at various ways they could repackage the Famicom hardware to become a success in America.
The arcade success of Donkey Kong in the U.S. augured well for a possible westward expansion but most people thought game-centric machines were dead. Consumers were pivoting en masse toward the home computer. Meanwhile, Famicom innards were used to make Nintendo's stand-up VS. arcade cabinets. According to Uemura, Japanese players didn't like the competitiveness of this offering but US loved it. NoA modified the cabinets without permission to make it so different Famicom cartridge game could be swapped out. This activity laid the groundwork for a positive reception of a new product.
VHS systems were sweeping the nation in the mid-1980s so designers came up with the NES's front-loading slot as a way to make the machine look more like those tape playback devices and less like the Atari 2600. And the reason that the NES was bundled with the Zapper? It's because Americans love guns.
The system's name was another loaded decision
When talking about NES launch game Gyromite, Uemura said that no one liked the game — meant to be played with the system's Robotic Operating Buddy — in Japan. But R.O.B. became a symbol of differentiation for the NES, a supposed innovation that showed how things had improved since the heyday of the Atari 2600.
Uemura offered a few other choice anecdotes. Talking about his early career goals, he said that he wanted to be in TV and/or audio design, with a job at Sony as his dream get. "What would have happened if I wound up there?!", Uemura giggled. "We didn't have helplines in Japan; we didn't need that," he also said. "But the US is a big country and it takes longer for information to get around." So a partnership with AT&T spawned the helplines that gamers could call when they got stuck.
Thirty years have passed since the NES' debut and Uemura thinks that the old games of that era preserve the play culture of the time. "You can really get the feeling of what Japanese culture was back then by playing these games." Given how the games that attended the system's launch have gone on to become classics, they are little pieces of culture that may very well live on forever, much like the accomplishments of the man who helped birth them.