The Designer Of The NES Dishes The Dirt On Nintendo’s Early Days

The Designer Of The NES Dishes The Dirt On Nintendo’s Early Days

Posted by Aaron on 14th Jul 2020


When discussing Nintendo’s rise as a digital dreamsmith in the ‘80s, game designers like Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi get most of the limelight. But it was the hardware designed by Masayuki Uemura that served up their fantasies to millions around the globe.

With a design based on the arcade hardware that powered Donkey Kong, the Famicom quickly revolutionized home gaming in Japan when it was released in 1983. As the NES, it revitalized the home video game market in the United States after the Atari market crashed. From then on, it proceeded to deliver a steady stream of Japanese fantasies into the hearts and minds of people around the world. It’s hard to imagine a world today without Uemura’s machine.

Kotaku: What was Nintendo like when you joined the company?

Masayuki Uemura: One of the things that surprised me when I moved from Sharp to Nintendo was that, while they didn’t have a development division, they had this kind of development warehouse full of toys, almost all of them American.

Kotaku: What were your impressions of Nintendo’s former president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who ran the firm from 1949 to 2002?

Uemura: He loved hanafuda and card games. I remember once, early on, a birthday party for an employee and he showed up and got right into hanafuda with everyone. He was a Kyotoite. It’s a city with a lot of long-running businesses, some maybe five or even six hundred years old. In the hierarchy of the city, traditional craftspeople rank at the top. Nintendo, as a purveyor of playthings like hanafuda or Western playing cards, originally ranked down at the very bottom. Doing business in that environment made him very open to new ventures. He wasn’t interested in specializing. He was keenly interested in new trends. Here’s an example of what I mean. In 1978, he bought around 10 tabletop versions of Space Invaders and placed them in headquarters and our factory. The idea was that we’d playtest them as a form of research. But what ended up happening was the entire company got so obsessed playing it that we couldn’t get a turn in. It was like a fever. Everyone abandoned their posts and stopped working. I was just bummed out that we hadn’t made it ourselves. Shocked and annoyed [laughs].

Kotaku: What led to the decision to export the Famicom abroad?

Uemura: There’s a rule in the game industry that fads last for three years. That’s why President Yamauchi targeted America—to get around that. The prevailing sense at the time was that television games would fade into history as they were replaced by personal computers. So we were shocked that the fad kept going. It was Kudo-san, the president of a company named Hudson, one of the Famicom’s first licensees, who said to Yamauchi, “this is a culture.” Yamauchi was like, “What are you talking about?”

Kotaku: Japanese games swept the globe starting in the late 70s: Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong. Why do you think this made-in-Japan culture resonated with people all over the world?

Uemura: Actually, that’s what I want to ask you [laughs]. Super Mario Bros. isn’t set in Japan, but the character’s Japanese. The name Mario sounds Italian, but he isn’t Italian. They were really able to capture that ambiguity. The number of dots you could use to draw the characters was extremely limited, so Miyamoto was forced to use colors to differentiate them. He spent a lot of time working on the colors. In the end, it became the template for how a designer might express themselves through a game. It was a whole new world.