Sunday, May 22nd, 2022

Masayuki Uemura, a Nintendo engineer who helped define modern game consoles

Image: Nintendo Life / Damian McFerrand

Sad news was reported today that Masayuki Uemura, the chief architect of the NES and SNES, died on December 6th at the age of 78. — His hardware design credits date back to the 1970s, and his name also has a fair list of software producer credits. It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of players around the world have the engineering skills and expertise to appreciate the systems we played when we were young and the wonderful memories we formed with them. ..

Uemura was born in 1943, grew up in postwar Japan, and had a shortage of new products available in the years after World War II, so he started playing with and making his own toys from an early age. I was interested in. After graduating from Chiba Institute of Technology, he started his career at Sharp Corporation and joined Nintendo in 1972 in connection with Gunpei Yokoi. The two met and collaborated when Yokoi was investigating Sharp’s technology for use in light gun games in the early 1970s. Uemura clearly impressed Nintendo’s chief designer at the time.

As Mr. Uemura said, the design process of Nintendo, which was mainly a toy maker at that time, was naturally different from Sharp. Kotaku Via Matt Alt:

What surprised me when I moved from Sharp to Nintendo was that there was no development department, but there was a development warehouse full of such toys, mostly Americans.

Masayuki Uemura
Image: Nintendo Life / Sayem Ahmed

His first project at Nintendo included the creation of more complex electronic toys that lacked the technical know-how for existing staff to design — the company was previously focused on production. hanafuda Simple toys such as playing cards and Yokoi’s famous Ultra Hand. As part of the newly established R & D department, Uemura has produced several light gun products, including: Laser clay pigeon shooting system And the original Duck hunt (Finally a light gun game reconsidered for NES) Before finally becoming the person in charge of Nintendo R & D2. Yokoi’s R & D1 focused on arcade development (and later games & watch handhelds), and Uemura’s division developed home video game consoles, including the Color TV Game series.

It was these consoles that Uemura expanded his knowledge and began to develop more ambitious hardware plans for cartridge-based systems. “This is a step that Nintendo has begun to learn, and we have begun to learn the technology behind connecting gaming systems to TVs and displaying images on TVs,” he told Jeremy Parrish. In an interview with US Gamer.. “This gave me the idea of ​​using TV for purposes other than watching TV for the first time. It wasn’t a concept people had in Japan … Atari was at home at the time. It was a huge success. I started thinking that this could be done in Japan at the match in the United States. “

Gunpei Yokoi's Game & Watchline will inspire NES controllers
Gunpei Yokoi’s Game & Watchline will inspire NES controllers (Image: Nintendo Life)

It took a lot of experimentation and observation to integrate Nintendo’s first cartridge-based console idea into a concrete project. The design was ultimately inspired by Gunpei Yokoi’s Game & Watch handheld line, and Uemura’s team size was reduced as staff were relocated to Gunpei Yokoi’s handheld department. Kotaku, Competition between two men was not a problem:

R & D 1 and 2 weren’t really there! Only Yokoi and Uemura. There was no rivalry! Yokoi found me and hired me for Nintendo.He is my senpai.. It was Yamauchi who made us a rival. It’s symbolic and important to any corporate organization. That’s why he created R & D 1 and 2.

Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo, knew that the success of games and watches would never last. Perhaps looking at Atari’s VCS, he called Uemura in 1981 and turned the NES cartridge-based home video game console project into a green light.

Speak in Interview with Mr. Iwata, Uemura discussed Yamauchi’s instructions:

I understood it would be an extension of [TV Game 6 and TV Game 15]However, Mr. Yamauchi made various regulations. The game isn’t built in, but he said he plans to adopt a cartridge system, which is becoming mainstream. Besides, he told me to build a machine with no competitors for three years.

The console’s directives included a hardware design capable of running the solid ports of Nintendo’s biggest arcade hit, Donkey Kong. Uemura spent time disassembling and researching rival devices and understanding how they work and, critically, how they can be improved.

The trouble is that there was a shortage of semiconductors at that time. — And his attempt to collaborate with his former employer, Sharp, was unsuccessful. Uemura discussed with Satoru Iwata:

Their official reason was just before the RAM production of word processors and personal computers was significantly increased … but I think the honest answer was “I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know”. I really understand what I want. “

NES and controller
Image: Nintendo Life

The existing relationship between Uemura and Ricoh’s chief engineer, a high-tech maker, not only allowed Nintendo to manufacture NES chips, but also because Ricoh’s employees worked diligently on Donkey Kong. It led to a partnership that benefited the project. “Ricoh engineers seemed hungry to work on new technologies,” Uemura told Iwata. “More important to them was the idea that if they worked there, they could take Donkey Kong home!”

Ricoh provided Uemura with component advice, especially regarding getting Donkey Kong’s excellent ports on the system. It was a Ricoh engineer who proposed the NES’s unconventional 6502.7 CPU. This was the catalyst for the early adoption of Satoru Iwata, thanks to his expertise in that particular chip. This is a coincidental adoption that will shape the future of Nintendo for decades to come.

As system specifications and technology began to merge, attention was focused on input control and the appearance of the console housing. The NES controller has become an industry standard template for consoles and was born out of experiments with multi-screen Donkey Kong games and watches.Talk to Uemura Jeremy Parish:

At that time, we were prototyping various ideas for NES hardware and controllers. I quickly realized that this idea, which was used to control Donkey Kong games & watches, was run on a NES prototype using the same style of controls. There is something good about this. In other words, there are actually a few people who can claim to have invented the NES controller!

However, as Mr. Uemura said, the inspiration for the red and white color scheme of the Japanese system came from outside the development team. Matt Alt:

The color is based on the scarf that Mr. Yamauchi liked. true story. There was also a product from a company called a set-top TV antenna DX antenna that used a color scheme. Looking at the signboard with Mr. Yamauchi on the Hanshin Expressway in the suburbs of Osaka, Mr. Yamauchi said, “Yes! Those are our colors!” Like a scarf.

The system, which branded the Family Computer (Famicom for short), was launched in 1983 and put Nintendo at the forefront of home video games in Japan. A redesigned version of the hardware created by Lance Bar — changed to look like a VCR following the 1983 North American video game crash (also from a potential electric shock, according to Uemura). (To protect children in the west) — Launched in North America, the Nintendo Entertainment System, coupled with Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros., has mapped the company in the United States, and Uemura’s hardware itself has been everything since then. Lay the foundation that the major home video game consoles have built.

Uemura continued to design Japan-only Famicom Disk Systems and Satellaview add-ons, and was the producer of various software releases in the mid-1980s, including many of the “black box” NES titles such as Ice Climber and Golf. , Tennis, and — of course — Donkey Kong.

He is also responsible for the 16-bit of the Super Nintendo, the successor to the NES. SNES changes its appearance in North America, but in contrast to the obvious difference between NES and Famicom (typically a non-removable controller), the basic hardware is about the same across regions.

The refined elegance of the SNES design has become an important favorite for retro gamers, both inside and outside. The taste of Japanese / European or Boxer North American consoles may depend on what you play and grow up, but Masayuki Uemura has experimented with stunning and iconic mass market technology and game designers. Recreated a great canvas to create.

When we talked to us in 2020, Uemura’s favorite memories of his time at Nintendo were from the early tough times of NES design and manufacturing.

The best time I can remember was when the development was complete [the] NES. I didn’t know if it was popular at the time, but I was very happy with the completion. That was my first mission. I was happy because I did it to make sure the device development was completed.

He was clearly pleased with his work, but he also Told US Gamer The joy of seeing a creative way for software designers to use his system in ways he didn’t expect or explain:

“Taking the F-ZERO game for Super Nintendo as an example, the people who created the game for Nintendo finally discovered a scroll function that does not include the entire screen, but one horizontal line moves. It’s done. In Super Nintendo games like F-ZERO, you can see that by moving tracks and so on.

“In a sense, this is actually a kind of bug, because it was exploited by people who later created the game because they didn’t realize it could be done at the design stage. But this is actually the biggest bug. I think it’s one of them. I was excited to make something new about such a system, but I gave it to the people who make the game. They tackle this challenge. It was invented by the creator of the system, “I was really excited to see something like that. “

Uemura retired from Nintendo in 2004 and served as director of the Ritsumeikan University Game Studies Center in Kyoto for several years. In recent years, he has talked extensively about the development of Nintendo’s early consoles, giving a glimpse into the formation company and its history.

NES
Image: Nintendo Life

What is clear enough by revisiting those interviews is that it seemed like how much Uemura enjoyed his work. Without his research and engineering expertise, video game landscapes may look very different today. Nintendo, and the video gaming industry and the entire community, are doing so much to thank him.