Tribute to Nintendo engineer Masayuki Uemura

It is not entirely fair to call engineer Masayuki Uemura, who died on December 6 at the age of 78, a little-known architect of the global gaming industry. He is widely known among gamers for his design work for the Family Computer, the game console that became Nintendo’s entertainment system overseas, and its successor, the Super Famicom, known outside Japan as Super Nintendo. After retiring from Nintendo in 2004, he remained deeply engaged in the industry, leading the Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies in Kyoto until his resignation in March of that year.

Despite the envy that Uemura’s machines aroused in customers young and old alike who coveted them, his creations were inevitably overshadowed by the content they were meant to serve: the games themselves, the virtual adventures that were avidly consumed by countless players from all over the world. But these games wouldn’t have reached their destination without Uemura’s consoles. Like bridges between worlds, his devices for delivering fantasies linked Japanese and Western imaginations, with repercussions that are still felt today.

Nintendo is revered as the home of Mario and Pokémon, a forge of fantasies with truly earthly pull, from Animal Crossing to The Legend of Zelda. But the company, founded in 1889 as a manufacturer of traditional playing cards called hanafuda, fought for relevance in the postwar era. In spurts of experimentation, Nintendo had little success exploring new markets for playing cards, board games, and toys. Uemura joined in the early seventies. Nintendo’s R&D manager, an engineer by the name of Gunpei Yokoi, dispatched him to Sharp to help build amusements using light guns, in which customers fired beams at projected targets. on a cinema screen.

Nintendo, chasing what was then a new emerging trend, turned to video games. The company’s initial offerings were run-of-the-mill clones of the work of more innovative competitors, such as Uemura’s Color-TV Game 6 in 1977, a colorized knockoff of Home Pong, or Space Fever, a close copy of Space Invaders’ smash. Taito from 1978. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Nintendo found its rhythm, when original arcade games like Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. started to gain attention and increasingly sophisticated quarters of gamers. These titles were the brainchild of a young designer named Shigeru Miyamoto, whose work would become the face of Nintendo for decades to come. But it was Uemura who delivered these digital dreams to homes around the world, empowering creators like Miyamoto to reach more hearts and minds than ever before. It was his work that allowed Nintendo to develop, as a Pokémon gradually reaching its most evolved form, from a regional company to a global entertainment powerhouse.

Uemura’s family computer, better known by its nickname, the Famicom, was born out of a nighttime conversation with Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi in 1981. about cartridges, ”Uemura explained to me in an interview. in 2019. “He always liked to call me after a few drinks, so I didn’t think much about it. I just said ‘Sure, boss’ and hung up. It wasn’t until the next morning that he approached me sober and said, “That thing we talked about, are you there?” then it struck me: he was serious.

It’s a testament to Uemura’s competence as an engineer and manager that he was able to create “this thing” in just two years. The Famicom was, in essence, a miniaturized Donkey Kong machine, modified to accept cartridges, which could be plugged into a television. Although the Famicom represents an improvement in computing power and design over American systems such as the dominant Atari 2600, it looked almost disarmingly colorful in its tan and brown plastic shell – colors that had were chosen by President Yamauchi on the basis of a scarf he loved. carry. At the press conference announcing its release in the summer of 1983, Uemura answered aggressive questions from journalists unconvinced of the Famicom’s toy appearance. Industry wisdom has held that dedicated home gaming machines are a passing fad, soon to be replaced by personal computers. “What’s so interesting about this?” Uemura recalled that a journalist had pressed him. “He doesn’t even have a keyboard!” After his years of trying, “I was so deflated,” he recalls.

But, it turned out that Uemura’s machine had arrived with strange timing. Alarmed by the attraction the arcades had on young people, parents and educators pressured lawmakers to pass new laws regulating them. In 1984, Japanese lawmakers were forced, by amending a long-standing ordinance called the Business Regulation Affecting Public Morals Act, which regulated entry to bars, casinos, and adult stores, to include also video game rooms. The change came into effect in early 1985 and was one of the first efforts by a country to regulate access to video games. Parents and teachers have stepped up their local efforts to ban games, lest children end up in one of these dens of digital inequity. As a result, young Japanese people turned to home game consoles instead, fueling what would come to be called the “Famicom Boom”. The Famicom turned out to be so global that a book called “Super Mario Bros .: The Complete Strategy Guide” topped the Japanese non-manga bestseller list for two consecutive years.

The American version of the Famicom debuted in the fall of 1985, redesigned in sleek grays and blacks meant to evoke high-tech consumer electronics, and renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System. The consensus among US toy and gaming industry insiders was that Nintendo was dumb. It was two years after the shocking collapse of the US titan Atari, which until recently controlled around eighty percent of the US games market. The California-based company was, in many ways, the prototypical Silicon Valley startup, with a founder in his twenties and a culture of hard-work-party-hard work. (One of its first recruits, a young Steve Jobs, recalled that “the smell of marijuana flowed freely through the air conditioning system.”) Atari was the pioneer who made the first successful arcade game, Pong. , in 1972, and then the mega-hit home game console Atari VCS (later renamed Atari 2600), in 1977. But, by the dawn of the 1980s, a combination of mismanagement and increased competition from personal computers took hold. overturned the fortunes of the company. A disproportionate investment in a hasty and ill-received adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s film “AND the Extra-Terrestrial” devastated the company’s finances. Supply exceeded demand so much that Atari buried thousands of unsold copies of the “ET” game in a landfill. The industry leader’s implosion rocked rivals and suppliers alike, ushering in what is now known as the 1983 video game crash. America’s industry began to look like radioactive ruins at the end of a cycle. of Missile Command: A multi-billion dollar market shrunk to a fraction of what it was before in the space of a few years.

In the aftermath of the crash, according to David Sheff’s “Game Over,” the sole mention of home play was taboo among toy buyers. “It would be easier,” a former toy manager told a Nintendo representative who wanted to sell the Japanese console in the United States, “to sell Popsicles in the Arctic.” However, thanks to this crash, Uemura’s idea arrived on American shores with virtually no real competition. I was thirteen when rumors of a new gaming machine began to swirl around my American suburb, spurred on by news reports, magazine articles and the schoolyard whisper network. Once we heard about the NES, my friends and I knew only one thing: We wanted this new gadget, and we really wanted it.

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