Late last week, eight floors above a Five Guys in a common space of a completely mistakable building, the man who created the most famous game console spoke to a crowd of maybe 100 people. Masayuki Uemura was responsible for designing the Nintendo Family Home Computer, or Famicom, as well as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which was sold in America. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the console's US release, he was taking part in NYU's Game Center Lecture Series at Brooklyn's MetroTech center.
"This story took place about 30 years ago, so some of you may not have been born," Uemura laughed as he started up his PowerPoint presentation. "Maybe 30 years from now somebody in this place will come up here and do a similar talk."
Speaking through a translator, Uemura presented to an anxious crowd of NYU students and faculty, many of whom were sneaking photos or taking notes when they weren't completely wrapped up in the designer's lecture. And while the story of Nintendo's first console isn't a new one, Uemura shared some unique insights and anecdotes about his experience designing the NES.
Uemura sold Nintendo the technology behind the Light Gun before he worked for them
Right before joining Nintendo, Uemura worked for Sharp. He was involved with a project that developed photosensitive cells, the same that would eventually be used in Nintendo's light gun. An early version, called the ray gun, was manufactured by Nintendo and used these Sharp-made photo cells. Uemura also sent these cells to the various Japanese companies that were licensing Sharp's technologies. "And then I ended up sending myself to Nintendo," he laughed.
"I ended up selling myself to Nintendo."
The older ray gun was sold before anyone had figured out how to make it work with a television. Instead, it was sold alongside a dartboard-like target, which is what housed the photo cells. Magnavox eventually licensed the technology in order to make its own home entertainment system, and moved the photo cells onto the gun itself. It was an early hit. "I learned from them," Uemura said.
The ideas for Nintendo's earliest video game successes were all lifted from somewhere else
Some of Nintendo's earliest video game consoles were TV Game 6 and TV Game 15, which Uemura called a "virtual imitation of Pong." Another game called Block Kuzushi was modeled after Breakout. "This was how we learned how to create video games," he said. But while there was a strong demand for these games in Japan, they were hard to manufacture because TV inputs hadn't proliferated yet. The hardware had to actually broadcast the game on the TV over its antenna. Uemura said it was "through these products we were able to learn what kinds of issues and what problems the customer will face" when buying a gaming system.
The handheld Game & Watch system was a similar story. It was created by Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi after he saw Sharp using LCD technology in its calculators. Nintendo (Shigeru Miyamoto, in fact) designed the hardware, and Sharp provided the electronics. Uemura says this was a watershed moment for the company. Before then, the same engineers had to create both hardware and software. Uemura said separating the two was "really revolutionary."
Game & Watch inspired two big parts of the Famicom
Game & Watch handheld consoles were a hit, but they also had lasting effects on the Famicom's design. When Nintendo released the multi-screen Game & Watch (essentially the progenitor of the Nintendo DS) the company realized that gamers were comfortable with two things: the new directional pad, and the idea of looking up at a second screen — not down at their hands — while they played. The D-pad and button layout was basically ported directly over to the Famicom's controller, and this, coupled with the knowledge that kids would feel comfortable using it while looking up at a television, helped push the Famicom's development forward.
The Famicom might not have been sold in the US, but it was here anyway
The Famicom system was actually all over America even though it was never sold in the country. In the 1980s, Nintendo launched a system of dual-screen arcade cabinets known as Nintendo Vs. (Vs. as in, "versus.") It was an early take on multiplayer in the arcade, and while the idea sunk in Japan it was a hit in the US. ("Japan didn't like this idea, fighting each other," Uemura said. "But the US loved it.") What arcade-goers didn't know, though, was that the Vs. cabinets were powered by the Japanese Famicom.
The only people who clued in on this were a few arcade owners who realized they could change the games inside the cabinets, eliminating the need to order new ones — a move Uemura didn't seem too pleased with.
The NES design came from VCRs
In Nintendo's and Uemura's eyes, the top-loading Famicom looked too much like a game console. They feared it would instantly fail in the US, where the early video game industry was crashing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Atari had run an infamous ad for its 2600 console with big block lettering that read: "This is not a toy," and eventually the company started calling its systems "home computers." Coleco started marketing the ColecoVision as a "family computer system" — a phrase that Uemura says rankled Nintendo executives.
So Nintendo decided to change the Famicom's design, and Uemura looked to home entertainment systems for inspiration. The NES' front-loading design came from VCRs, which were booming in the US at the time. The thinking was that Americans would be more willing to buy this design, especially since it was being sold as an "Entertainment System" — another conscious choice by Nintendo to break the stigma being associated with game consoles at the time.
The Light Gun helped sell the NES because "America loves guns"
One of the funniest moments of the lecture came when Uemura was detailing the different ways that Nintendo tried to play to the US market. In his eyes, bundling the Light Gun with the NES was a big reason why Americans fell in love with the machine. "America loves guns," he said, to which the room responded with the loudest laughter of the night.
"America loves guns."
Americans didn't know how to hold the NES controller at first
Most of the early video game consoles were operated with joysticks or knobs, so when Americans got their hands on the NES' blocky controller they apparently had no idea how to use it. Uemura showed a (very amusing) photo from the Japanese news of an American man pinching the buttons with his right hand while gripping the D-pad with his left, holding the thing almost like an Atari joystick. "It's kind of different, but I guess it's okay," he laughed. Case in point: