[HOT] : Masayuki Uemura, the Nintendo engineer who helped define the modern game console

Sad news broke today that Masayuki Uemura, the chief architect of the NES and Super NES consoles, passed away on December 6 at the age of 78. Uemura was instrumental in shaping Nintendo as the video game company we know and love today. – his hardware design credits date back to the 1970s, and he also has a good list of software producer credits to his name. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of gamers around the world have his engineering skills and expertise to thank for the systems we played in our youth and the fond memories we have formed with them.

Born in 1943, Uemura grew up in post-war Japan and developed an interest in playing with and building his own toys from an early age, in part due to the scarcity of new products available in the years that followed. followed the end of World War II. He studied at the Chiba Institute of Technology and after graduating began his career at Sharp Corporation before joining Nintendo in 1972, through his relationship with Gunpei Yokoi. The two met and worked together while Yokoi was studying Sharp’s technology for use in small arms games in the early 1970s and Uemura obviously impressed Nintendo’s chief designer at the time.

Mainly a toy maker at the time, Nintendo’s design process was understandably different from Sharp’s, as Uemura told Kotaku via Matt Alt:

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

Its early projects at Nintendo involved creating more complex electronic toys for which existing staff lacked the technical know-how to design – the company had previously focused on the production of hanafuda playing cards and simple toys such than the famous Ultra Hand of Yokoi. As part of the newly formed R&D department, Uemura has produced several small arms products such as the Laser clay firing system and the original Duck hunting (the lightweight gun game that would ultimately be reinvented for NES) before finally being named the head of Nintendo’s R&D2. Yokoi’s R&D1 would focus on arcade development (and later Game & Watch handhelds) and the Uemura division would develop home consoles, starting with the Color TV Game series.

It was with these consoles that Uemura broadened its knowledge and began to develop more ambitious hardware plans for a cartridge-based system. “This is the stage where Nintendo started to learn and I started to learn the technology behind connecting a gaming system to a TV and displaying your footage on a TV,” he said. he told Jeremy Parish in an interview with USGamer. “This allowed us to grasp for the first time this idea of ​​using television for something other than watching television. It wasn’t really a concept that people had in Japan… At the time, Atari was having great success with the games house in America and we started to wonder if this would be something that we could do in Japan as well. . “

It took a lot of experimentation and observation for Nintendo’s first ideas for cartridge consoles to merge into a concrete project. The design would ultimately take inspiration from Gunpei Yokoi’s line of Game & Watch laptops, whose success had reduced the size of Uemura’s team as its staff was reassigned to Yokoi’s wearable division, though, as he told Kotaku, the rivalry between the two was not a problem. :

There wasn’t really any R&D 1 and 2! It was just Yokoi and Uemura. There was no rivalry! Yokoi found me and recruited me from Nintendo; he was my senpai. It was Yamauchi who made us rivals. It was symbolic, which is important in any business organization. This is why he created R&D 1 and 2.

Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi knew that Game & Watch’s success wouldn’t last forever, and with one eye probably on Atari’s VCS, he called Uemura in 1981 and gave the green light to the console project of cartridge lounge that would become the Famicom.

Speaking in an interview with Iwata Asks, Uemura discussed Yamauchi’s instructions:

I figured it would be an extension of, but Yamauchi-san made various stipulations. He said that the games would not be integrated, but rather that we would adopt the cartridge system, which was then becoming mainstream. In addition, he told me to make a machine that would have no competition for three years.

The guideline for this home console included designing hardware capable of running a solid port of Donkey Kong, Nintendo’s biggest arcade hit. Uemura spent time taking apart and studying competing devices to understand how they worked and, most importantly, how they could be improved.

To complicate matters, there was a semiconductor shortage back then – sounds familiar to you? – and an attempt to collaborate with his former employer Sharp failed, as Uemura discussed with Satoru Iwata:

Their official reason was that the timing was right before a surge in RAM production for word processors and personal computers… But I guess the honest answer would have been, “We don’t know what to do”, “We don’t. I don’t really understand what you want “

An existing relationship between Uemura and the chief engineer of tech maker Ricoh led to a partnership that not only allowed Nintendo to have its Famicom chips manufactured, but also benefited the project in other ways, as employees of Ricoh were eager to work on Donkey Kong. “It seems Ricoh engineers were starving for the challenge of working on new technology,” Uemura told Iwata. “Even more important to them was the idea that if they worked there they could bring Donkey Kong home!” “

Ricoh provided component advice to Uemura, including getting Donkey Kong to the system properly. It was Ricoh engineers who suggested Famicom’s unconventional 6502.7 processor, which in turn was a catalyst for Satoru Iwata’s early enlistment through his expertise with this particular chip – a fortuitous hire that would shape the process. Nintendo’s future for decades to come.

As the specifications and technology of the system began to come together, attention shifted to the control input and the appearance of the console case. Famicom’s controller has become a standard model for consoles and is the result of experimenting with the Donkey Kong Game & Watch multiscreen. Uemura speaking to Jeremy Parish:

At the time, we were prototyping various ideas for Famicom hardware, as well as for controllers. When we took this idea that had been used for the controls with the Donkey Kong Game & Watch and made it run on the Famicom prototype with that same style of controls, we immediately knew, “OK, that sounds fair; there is something good about it. This means that there are actually a few people who can claim that they invented the controller for the Famicom!

The inspiration for the system’s red and white color scheme in Japan came from outside the development team, as Uemura told Matt Alt:

The colors were based on a scarf that Yamauchi loved. True story. There was also a product from a company called DX Antenna, a set-top box TV antenna, which used the color scheme. I remember driving Yamauchi down the Hanshin Freeway outside of Osaka and seeing a billboard for it, and Yamauchi said, “That’s it! These are our colors! Just like the scarf.

Dubbed Family Computer – Famicom for short – the system was released in 1983 and put Nintendo at the forefront of home video games in Japan. A redesigned version of the material created by Lance Barr – modified to look more like a VCR in the wake of the 1983 North American video game crash (and also to protect Western children from potential electric shocks, according to Uemura) – launched in North America in 1985. Coupled with Super Mario Bros. by Shigeru Miyamoto, the Nintendo entertainment system put the company on the map in the United States, and Uemura’s hardware itself laid the foundation upon which all major video game consoles have been built over the years. decades that followed.

Uemura continued to design the Famicom disc system only in Japan and Satellaview add-ons, and was a producer of various software versions in the mid-1980s, including many NES “Black Box” titles such as Ice Climber, Golf , Tennis and, of course, Donkey Kong.