Maybe it is about being in the proper place at the proper time. How else to elucidate how Masayuki Uemura, an engineer born in wartime Japan to a humble background, got here to alter the course of online game historical past? Uemura is the man who designed the Famicom, a pivotal piece of plastic whose legacy might be seen all through the trendy business; in some ways, it is the machine that outlined trendy Nintendo. “You know, it’s only when someone like you comes along and asks a lot of questions that makes me think maybe I was a part of some big thing,” he says with no small quantity of modesty as we chat in a small, quiet house on the floor ground of Sheffield’s Castle House.

The proper place to be late final month was most positively The National Videogame Museum, the place the 76-year-old Uemura made the lengthy journey from Kyoto to offer a chat. The museum presents a thoughtfully curated assortment with loads of fascinating offshoots, from informal ephemera to an actual, reside Nintendo Dolphin devkit. And there are NES consoles, after all, the western model of the Famicom that took the world by storm all through the 80s and established Nintendo as a large of the leisure business.

The Nintendo that Uemura joined in the early 70s was nonetheless focussed on the commerce it had been plying for the earlier 80 years. “Back then they were only really manufacturing hanafuda cards,” says Uemura. “That was it. They had top share for the hanafuda, but that was limited in terms of the size of the market, and it was decreasing constantly. That’s why Nintendo decided to move into a new direction and into the toy industry.”

Uemura inspects a later era of Nintendo {hardware}.

Uemura was at the forefront of that shift; seconded from electronics large Sharp, he shared the affinity many youngsters who grew up in wartime Japan had of creating play issues of no matter was at hand. “We had nothing, really,” says of his childhood. “It was proper after the battle, so we simply performed with stuff like stones and bamboo sticks – however at main faculty they began having rail prepare fashions and primary radios we created.

“At a primary school age, a fundamental memory I have was creating a radio out of these components – so I dreamed of becoming an engineer. When I joined Sharp, after graduating from college, I started selling solar cell batteries. Back then steel mills were using this technology – and that’s how I started, selling these devices on. At Sharp I was able to sell this photo-cell technology to a lot of companies, including Nintendo. If I’d have moved to create semiconductors, it might have been a very different life…”

Nintendo and Sharp noticed potential in the photo-cells for utility in toys – particularly a light-gun sport that Gunpei Yokoi went to work on. “The idea of making it a game was our proposal,” says Uemura. “But the one thing that did surprise us was how fast Yokoi turned it into a prototype. To create a light-gun mechanism, the light has to be on pulse, so you can get the response quickly. If the pulse isn’t being used correctly, then the sensor will detect luminescence from natural light, which will make it impossible for the light-guns to work properly. And it took only one week for him to do it. It was so quick – he was an amazing guy.”

Nintendo’s Kôsenjû SP sequence would show to be an outstanding success all through the early 70s – sufficient to see over one million items bought, and for Uemura to be invited onboard full-time. “There was something different about Nintendo,” Uemura recalled of the firm he joined in David Sheff’s Game Over. “Here were these very serious men thinking about the content of play. Other companies were importing ideas from America and adapting them to the Japanese market, only making them cheaper and smaller. But Nintendo was interested in original ideas.”

“The success of the light-gun did change the strategy for us – after that we started focussing more on electrical toys,” he tells me. “That’s why they wanted electrical engineering, and that is why they requested me to affix. And when Nintendo determined to shift their technique from hanafuda to electrical toys, there have been no employees out there other than myself. I ended up coordinating personnel, as I used to be the just one who understood electrics and all the points round it, so I wanted to search out corporations and companions to work with.

“The one thing I remember fondly is that those guys who had no experience with electrics were willing to learn and study and support me. From that perspective, it was a great company. And let’s say I was at a regular electrical company – maybe I could design semiconductors, LSI, things with certain functions. To do the same thing at Nintendo – well, you could come up with a lot of ideas.”

Uemura quickly took up one in every of a number of key positions inside Nintendo: Gunpei Yokoi headed up R&D1, the place the Game & Watch could be birthed, Genyo Takeda headed up R&D3 whereas Uemura led R&D2 the place his concepts could be put to make use of throughout one other basic shift inside the firm. Having discovered some success distributing the Magnavox Odyssey, R&D2 partnered with Mitsubishi to create with the Color TV Game 6 – its first foray into devoted gaming {hardware} – in addition to a handful of successors. They have been reasonably profitable, although the actual game-changer was simply starting to take form.


As gross sales of the Game & Watch slowed, Uemura was tasked by Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi with making a house console that might use sport cartridges, giving it an extended shelf-life than the machines the firm had been making in earlier years. It was to be a machine made to Yamauchi’s exacting requirements – and to be purchased in at underneath 5000 yen per unit. Working for Yamauchi – a famously stern chief – could not have been with out its challenges, although Uemura has nothing however reward for his former boss.

“He was very respectful to the engineers,” says Uemura. “He listened to our opinion really well. An engineer is someone who will prove whether or not we could do it – and of course, in many cases we failed. But Yamauchi would always give us an alternative – if it didn’t work this way, then maybe try it this way.”

Yamauchi’s brashness and boldness helped Nintendo – then a minor participant in the house – to success with the Famicom, as evidenced in a few of his eye-opening methods. When negotiating to associate with Ricoh for the manufacture of the console, Yamauchi persuaded them into enterprise by playing on a assured order of three million chips – of venture that should have positioned fairly some stress on Uemura’s shoulders. “I felt relieved,” Uemura says with a lightweight chuckle, “because it was a presidential decision and I wasn’t involved in making it!”

It wasn’t the final daring choice Yamauchi made relating to the Famicom – Nintendo famously recalled the first run of the console after a 1 % failure price was detected, at nice price to the firm – however its success would go on to be legendary. Even then, Uemura nonetheless has some regrets relating to its design. “I didn’t want to compromise on the graphics or sound capabilities,” he says. “One factor I felt like I did not achieve was having controllers ingrained into the {hardware} – the cable was straight hooked up to the console, and it could not be indifferent.

“We tried, but from a technological perspective, and cost-wise, it didn’t make sense. A connector was always expensive, and we had to ingrain the controller using a cable attached. And we thought we could only have one controller, on the first attempt, but we ended up with two. In a lot of cases, controllers ended up broken – and as you couldn’t detach them so you had to send the whole system to Nintendo.”

The Famicom nonetheless retained its quirks, too – equivalent to the microphone included on the second controller, and sadly underused all through the console’s lifespan. It’s a quirk that is at all times fascinated me, and I’ve at all times puzzled what it was meant for – and whose thought was it? Uemura sheepishly raises his hand. “That was me…” he laughs. The intention was to capitalise on the karaoke growth in Japan at the time, although in the end its most well-known use was in Will Wright’s Raid on Bungeling Bay by which gamers may name for assist by way of that mic in the second controller.

Indeed, having two controllers feels included seems like one other consider shaping the Famicom’s success, and in making it a tool to be loved by complete households reasonably than remoted gamers. “That was the president, Yamauchi,” Uemura says. “The president needs to listen to us, and listen to the software designers – after that he could make a decision. The president tells the departments to cut cost, but also asks the software engineers what’s the most ideal way to design the hardware – and they wanted this two-player mode as default. That’s why he made sure to tell us the Famicom would support two players.”

Presenting to the packed-out room inside the National Videogame Museum.

You can nonetheless see traces of the Famicom in Nintendo’s trendy consoles – certainly, one in every of the most putting was the Switch, a console first pitched round the thought of social play that, like the Famicom, shipped with two controllers hooked up to the fundamental machine. It’s half, Uemura says, of the pure evolution course of.

“When I developed the Famicom, I put all the basic functions that were necessary to make it as a gaming device,” he says. “For the Switch, it’s inherited all that over the years. All the successes and failures of the Famicom are inherited by the next generation of consoles and onward.”

Uemura had left Nintendo by the time of the Switch – he formally retired in 2004 and took up educating at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University – however maintained an advisory position that meant he was celebration to seeing it take form. “The idea for the Switch came around about five years ago,” he says “The employees have been asking for recommendation on what the subsequent era of Nintendo needs to be, and amongst them the thought of the Switch was already there. With Switch, the thought of a Game Boy-like machine and a console-like machine are built-in collectively. All the concepts of console video games, and all the concepts of handheld units, are pressed collectively. There’s lots of house in how one can play a sport with that form of console.

“It’s an interesting cycle – handheld games came about with Game & Watch, aimed for personal use, then the Famicom came and we thought it was a game for people to play themselves by the TV but what happened was that families came together to play games, and socially-oriented games was the idea. Then the Game Boy came along for personal use – and then the Super Famicom, a mix of personal use and family or social use. It’s an evolution process.”

The Nintendo of right now is, understandably, very completely different to the one which Uemura joined in the 1970s. Yokoi and Yamauchi are sadly with us no extra, whereas Takeda retired in 2017. The outdated spirit stays, although. “There are still remnants of that culture there,” says Uemura. “When you try and use a new technology, or apply it to entertainment, it has a lot of substantial influence on other industries and businesses. Nintendo’s a really flexible company, they could change and evolve – when it’s the right time, they’ll change.”

As for Uemura himself, I do not suppose I’ve ever met a extra pleasant interviewee. Happy, humble and with a wealthy historical past he is at all times prepared to impart, he is the modest engineer who helped take Nintendo from card producer to toymaker and nicely past. It’s a life’s work he has each proper to be totally glad with. “In my spirit, I’m always an engineer,” he says as our transient assembly attracts to an finish. “But being an engineer only, it would not be possible – the passion for toys, that’ll always be an important part of Nintendo.”

Thanks to the National Videogame Museum for serving to make this interview attainable – and if you would like a complete historical past of how the NES was made check out Jeremy Parish’s wonderful interview with Uemura on USGamer.