Nintendo Engineer, Under the Gun, Successfully Designed Game Console

TOKYO — It was an unwelcome nighttime call from the boss that set Nintendo Co. video game engineer Masayuki Uemura on the quest that would make his reputation.

In that November 1981 call, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi said he wanted Mr. Uemura to develop a cartridge-based video game console and be finished in less than a year.

“At that time, I was skeptical, or really quite pessimistic about home video games,” Uemura recalled in an interview in 2016. Nintendo’s previous home consoles were plagued by technical problems, hampering sometimes the reception of the TV next door neighbor. Other manufacturers were already selling home consoles.

Then there was a breakthrough. A semiconductor maker, Ricoh Co., had extra capacity and an engineering staff full of gaming fans. Mr. Uemura used the Ricoh chip to produce the Nintendo Family Computer or Famicom, later sold in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Offering titles like “Super Mario Bros”, it is said to sell over 60 million units worldwide, a graphics-rich pioneer game with a playful soundtrack that has made Nintendo a household name.

Mr Uemura died on Dec.6 at the age of 78, according to the Center for Game Studies at Ritsumeikan University, which he led until early this year. The university and Nintendo have refused to release the cause of death or information on the survivors, citing the wishes of his family.

Mr. Uemura was born in Tokyo on June 20, 1943. In a 2016 oral history interview with researchers from Hitotsubashi University, he said his father was a fabric merchant, including in occupied China. Japanese before the end of World War II, then opened a record store after the war.

Mr. Uemura said he had many half-siblings because his father had two homes, one in Osaka and another in Kyoto where Mr. Uemura’s mother lived. He grew up in Kyoto, the former capital of Japan and home of Nintendo. He remembered the thrill of turning on a radio he had assembled and hearing sound come out.

After obtaining an engineering degree, he joined the company now known as Sharp Corp.

in 1967. A year later he visited Nintendo and got involved in a project to develop a light pistol. It was a success despite the cost of the equivalent of almost $ 100 at the exchange rate of the time. Mr Uemura said he has discovered that toys can be a big business and appeal to both adults and children.

Masayuki Uemura at Nintendo Headquarters in Kyoto, Japan in 1985.


The Asahi Shimbun / Getty Images

He joined Nintendo in 1971. Founded in Kyoto in 1889 as a manufacturer of playing cards, Nintendo was trying to find its place in the new world of games. It introduced two home video game consoles in 1977 with built-in software, branched out into arcade games after the success of a rival game, “Space Invaders,” and sold a handheld device called Game & Watch.

After his mission as the president of the company, Uemura approached the main Japanese chipmakers, but they refused to cooperate, probably seeing the new product as too uncertain, he recalled.

Then he got a call from Ricoh. According to a 2013 book, “Famicom and Its Times,” co-authored by Mr. Uemura, a Ricoh copier project was at a standstill and the company had reserve capacity in advanced chips. Mr. Uemura visited the factory and met an engineer who had taught Nintendo circuit design years earlier.

Ricoh engineers turned out to be keen gamers and used a type of central processing unit that had never been seen in the games industry in Japan before to bring the quality of arcade video games to the home. .

“It was an incredible coincidence. If the timing had been shifted a bit, I guess Famicom would never have seen the light of day,” Uemura recalls.

The product was introduced in 1983 in Japan and two years later in the United States. Under the impetus of “Super Mario Bros”, Nintendo quickly became one of the world’s leading video game makers.

Mr. Uemura followed five years later with another hit, called Super Famicom in Japan and Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States. Another idea in 1995, a satellite game download service, failed because it was ahead of its time, but Mr. Uemura loved it. anyway.

“Information raining down from space and catching them on earth is in itself magical and a lot of fun,” he said.

Kenji Ono, general secretary of the International Game Developers Association Japan, helped Mr. Uemura with the 2013 book and said that the engineer was essential to Nintendo’s success. Mr. Uemura understood both that toys should be fun and that “no matter how brilliant the idea is, it won’t be realized without the technology to make it happen,” Mr. Ono said.

Mr. Uemura retired from Nintendo in 2004 and moved to Ritsumeikan University Center, the first academic institution in Japan to study games.

Write to Chieko Tsuneoka at [email protected]

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