Born in Kyoto, Japan on September 10, 1941, Gunpei Yokoi began working at Nintendo in 1965 when the company was mainly manufacturing hanafuda and playing cards. He had various jobs at the factory, including being a janitor, but filled his spare time by experimenting with machinery, even creating an extendable arm toy. Gunpei would go on to be a pivotal piece of Nintendo’s DNA, and yes, he is the original designer of the Game Boy, the first in a long line of best-selling handhelds from the company.
This is that time the Game Boy was invented by a janitor.
I will admit right off of the bat that this title is a bit misleading. Sure, Gunpei Yokoi did serve as a janitor while working at the factory, but this was during a time where many of the employees had multiple roles, especially in a country like Japan where even the managers and owners tend to do more than what is expected of them.
Gunpei Yokoi was born and lived Kyoto, Japan, where Nintendo Headquarters has been located since the beginning. He went to a private university in the area called Doshisha University and received his degree in electronics, so the man was well educated and had a clear interest in electrical engineering, among other things.
Gunpei was hired by Nintendo upon graduation in 1965 to maintain the assembly line machines that printed and cut the cards they were producing. During this first year, Gunpei helped with many areas of the factory outside of his main position, including janitorial work, but he was able to find time to create an extendible arm toy that the president of the company took notice of when visiting the factory in 1966. Gunpei simply made the arm for his own amusement, but Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo at the time, ordered Gunpei to develop the product and get it out before the Christmas rush.
After some tinkering, the toy went on the market as “The Ultra Hand” and sold well over one million units, becoming a huge commercial success for Nintendo.
Because of The Ultra Hand becoming a massive hit, Gunpei was asked to work on other Nintendo toys for the next many years. It was not until the late 1970s when Gunpei began playing around with an LCD calculator. This gave him the idea of creating a device that would serve as a watch and would double as a miniature video game system. This began the development of the now famous Game & Watch brand that Nintendo has produced more than 60 variations of and sold millions and millions and units worldwide since its inception.
In 1981, Gunpei began supervising video game development and supervised games like Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Kid Icarus, and Metroid during this period. In 1985, he designed R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) for the Nintendo Entertainment System while on the R1D1 team, which was an amazing piece of hardware for the time, but it did not see much commercial success.
After R.O.B., while still with the R1D1 team, Gunpei began working on a new device that would earn him global notoriety and a big position at Nintendo. He pitched the idea to Yamauchi, and as soon as they both understood that playing video games was fun, they knew that a portable device had to be made. In 1989, Gunpei’s greatest invention to date was released, and the Game Boy launched with such titles as Alleyway, Baseball, Super Mario Land, Tennis, Tetris, and Yakuman.
The Game Boy would go on to sell more than 118 million units worldwide, setting the course for handheld gaming and an area Nintendo would dominate to this very day, despite the existence of smart phones.
After the Game Boy, Gunpei’s next big creation was the commercial flop known as the Virtual Boy. He had actually retired from the company right before the Virtual Boy released in 1995, and many speculated that the 32-bit tabletop portable video game console’s failure was directly linked to Gunpei’s departure. Of course, both Gunpei and Nintendo denied this, as the Virtual Boy was just not a great release among the super-popular consoles that were present at the time, like the SNES and SEGA Genesis, and of course the Game Boy.
Sadly, Gunpei Yokoi’s life ended in tragedy, as he was killed in a freak accident. On October 4th, 1997, Gunpei was riding in a car driven by his associate Etsuo Kiso on the Hokuriku Expressway, when the vehicle rear-ended a truck. After the two men had left the car to inspect the damage, Gunpei was struck and fatally injured by a passing car. Gunpei’s death was confirmed two hours later, and his driver suffered only a fractured rib.
Gunpei was only 56-years-old when he died leaving behind a true legacy that is unmatched in many ways. He directly gave us some amazing toys, the Game & Watch, R.O.B., the Game Boy, and yes, even the Virtual Boy, and he also indirectly gave us characters like Mr. Game & Watch and left behind a genuine stamp on the DNA of Nintendo that still exists to this day.
It was an extremely sad day when Gunpei Yokoi died, but we can be thankful that he provided so much joy for the world. His heart for creation and love for his company only strengthened his gifts, and his successes (Game Boy) and failures (Virtual Boy) speak more into his desire to make fun things than to make profits.
In many ways, he and Shigeru Miyamoto shared a lot of similarities, especially in their child-like minds and their heart for fun.
Gunpei’s story shows that amazing things can come from seemingly average individuals, and within one year of his employment with Nintendo, his curiosity got him noticed. Whenever you play your handheld Nintendo devices, remember where they started and who pushed for portable gaming. Gunpei Yokoi should be the first person to come to your mind, because he deserves it. A truly brilliant man.
Thank you for stopping by Nintendo Link and enjoying this “That Time” article. What do you think of Gunpei Yokai and the creation of the Game Boy? Let us know what you think in the comments below! Happy gaming, everyone.
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My name is Jason Capp. I am a husband, father, son, and brother, and I am a gamer, a writer, and a wannabe pro wrestler. It is hard to erase the smile on this simple man.