Cursed Consoles

Gunpei Yokoi

Despite their bleeding edge trappings, video games have come into their own as a mature technology. The video game industry is now older than most of the people reading this post.

Like theater and movies, video gaming has amassed its own body of insider lore. This secret history runs the gamut from niche urban legends to startling synchronicities. Today, we'll explore one of the latter.

Legendary game designer Gunpei Yokoi started working at Nintendo in the late 60s. He was plucked from his job maintaining factory equipment when Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi learned of Yokoi's extracurricular toymaking pastime.

Yokoi scored early triumphs with the Ultra Hand and the Game and Watch - the grand daddy of all Nintendo handhelds. But it was his magnum opus the Game Boy that would propel him to rock star status.

Yet less than a decade after designing the Game Boy, Yokoi would be out at Nintendo. Slightly over a year later, he would lie dead in a freak automobile accident.

How did the genius responsible for Kid Icarus and Metroid fall so far so fast?

The official word from the notoriously tight-lipped Nintendo is that Yokoi had planned his early retirement years before, but had opted to stay on until after the launch of the Game Boy Pocket.

But video game researchers offer an alternate explanation. Rumors persist to this day that ascribe Yokoi's departure from Nintendo to one of his few failures. That story gains credence from the fact that the rare flop in question was one of the most spectacular in video game history: one of gaming's most cursed consoles, the Virtual Boy.

virtual boy

The Virtual Boy's tragic saga began in 1991 when American company Reflection Technology approached Nintendo about licensing their stereoscopic imaging hardware. The Big N jumped on the idea, and wonderworker Yokoi was assigned to oversee development.

The resulting console soon gained infamy as Nintendo's worst-selling console. Plagued by complaints of its monochrome red display, lack of immersion, health concerns, and high price, the Virtual Boy was discontinued a year after its 1995 launch.

Popular belief has it that Nintendo pinned the blame for the console's failure squarely on Yokoi. Never mind that Nintendo continually downgraded the Virtual Boy's capabilities while diverting more and more resources to their flagship N64 project. Yokoi is said to have disowned the released version as an unfinished prototype rushed to market to make way for the N64.

Whatever its faults, the Virtual Boy was a textbook example of Yokoi's trademark Lateral Thinking with Mature Technology approach to hardware design. He eschewed chasing the latest tech and instead combined known quantities in creative ways to give customers new gaming experiences.

The Wii and 3DS consoles, released a decade and fifteen years after Yokoi's departure from Nintendo respectively, would definitively vindicate his game design vision.

Gamers mired in a market dominated by AAA mud titles have Gunpei Yokoi to thank for the lone island of innovation that is Nintendo. When Microsoft and Sony have imploded, and Nintendo is left to rebuild the video game market once again, gamers will erect statues in Yokoi's honor.

One last curious note on this gaming ground zero tragedy: The accident which claimed the great inventor's life occurred in 1997.

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  1. Yokoi certainly worked with Iwata sinc3e they were both heavily involved in Nintendo's early '80s innovations. Had he not died from the car accident I'm almost positive Iwata would have had him consult on both the Wii and DS.

    It's a shame he got the Virtual Boy foisted off on him. the gaming industry's two biggest millstones around their necks have always been 3D and VR. They are never going to happen, but everyone insists on pushing them regardless. The 3D isn't what sold the 3DS, but the software did. Most turned the 3D off.

    Tech heads need to get over themselves and focus on the core experience first.

    1. I thought of your article when I read that the Virtual Boy project suffered because of Nintendo's obsession with the N64. That console really was the asteroid impact that plunged the industry into a nuclear winter.

    2. JD

      But but how will developers justify their billion dollar budgets?
      And egad man are you mad! Core experience over technological whizbangery? Next you'll tell me games should be fun and not immersive movies!

  2. I happened to have just watched a documentary on another video game urban legend. This one was about the infamous ET game cartridge dump in the New Mexico desert. Spoiler alert.......It was kind of true as cartridges were dumped, but only a fraction were ET. The game dump was a metaphor for Atari's demise shortly afterward. ET didn't cause Atari to fail, it was a symptom of that failure.

    1. Nor is E.T. the "worst game ever." I've reviewed it here before. If you learn the controls, it's not bad for a movie tie-in.

  3. Related: if you want what is perhaps the BEST deep dive into the Polybius myth and an investigation into its origins, I highly recommend this video by Ahoy. Absolute professional level work here https://youtu.be/_7X6Yeydgyg

  4. Ooh, are we talking gaming trivia? I'd like to nominate Ted Woolsey. Though some extreme Japanophiles disdain him for taking creative liberties with his translations from Japanese, his translations worked well, and nobody can question the influence of his work. His resumé is a veritable checklist of the best SNES RPGs (Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG), and if you played any of those games as a kid, his version of the story is most likely the one you fell in love with. He's sure an interesting figure, that much is uncontroversial.

    1. Woolsey is a legend. For a prime example of one of his rare misfires, look into 1999's Shadow of Madness, which he scripted and co-developed.