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Former Nintendo designer on the creation of Game & Watch, Game Boy, DS

Posted on December 29, 2016 by (@NE_Brian) in DS, General Nintendo, News

This month’s issue of Retro Gamer features an interview with Satoru Okada, a former designer at Nintendo. Okada worked at the company for about 40 years, and was directly involved with the creation of various hardware.

Some excerpts from the interview are now available. Below, you can read excerpts from Okada about the Game & Watch, Game Boy, and DS. You might be surprised to learn that late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata wasn’t initially interested in the idea for dual screens…

On Game & Watch…

“It is true that Yokoi wanted to create a toy when he saw a man playing with his calculator on the train But to say that this is the sole reason for the Game & Watch is not true. What this memory from the train really created was the will to create a discreet toy for adults so they could kill time while on public transport. The idea to use a calculator screen actually came much later, especially since Yokoi’s knowledge in electronics and screens was rather limited. For me, the real thing that gave birth to the Game & Watch is when we managed to get our hands on an MB Microvision. I loved this machine and played the Breakout clone a lot. But we did not understand why the machine had to be so bigl So we first tried to make a portable console that people could really carry in their pockets, Except that the screen resolution was very poor and the graphics were very abstract. Besides, we also thought that the idea of interchangeable cartridges was interesting but because of the Microvision’s limitations, all the cartridges looked the same, both with their graphics and the concept of the games. So we said to ourselves: ‘Why not have just one game per machine but with good graphics at least.’ And this is when the idea of using a calculator screen became self evident. All of this led to the birth of the Game & Watch. Yokoi would design the games and l was in charge of the technical part, the electronics even and coding the games.”

On Game Boy…

“When was young, I was rather stubborn and often became angry at my superiors when was trying to defend my ideas. The best example of this was the Game Boy. The Game Boy you know today actually had nothing to do with the one Yokoi had in mind. He saw the Game Boy as a direct follow-on from the Game & Watch, which meant a rather cheap toy, without any real business model and no long-term ambition. To give you a clear comparison, Yokoi wanted a Game Boy that would have looked like the Microvision and would not have lasted more than one or two seasons. For instance, he did not care if there were third-party editors or not. Furthermore, he only wanted ‘quick games’, quickly completed and quickly forgotten. I wanted the Game Boy to have more ambition, closer to what the R&D2 had managed to with the Famicom: a machine built to last, with hardware that was good enough to play a variety of quality titles. I was the assistant director of R&D1 and we had many arguments over this. In the end, he gave in and angrily told me: ‘Okay, do what you want!’ l then asked him: ‘Fine! But are you givng me full responsibility?’ and since he said ‘yes’, I made the Game Boy project my own. Yokoi just gave his seal of approval. In the end, the Game Boy is much more similar to the Famicom than the Game & Watch. The hardware was good enough to offer a wide range of games and we were ready to welcome third-party editors, with a real development kit, instruction booklets, some real support, etc..”

On Nintendo DS…

“Actually, after the SP, we were working on the newest model in this range. The code name for this new Game Boy was IRIS, like the flower. The explanation for this name is simple: since it was for us the fifth generation of Game Boy, we chose the symbol of May (the fifth month of the year). In the Hanafuda playing cards, the month of May is symbolized by the iris. The project was moving forward at a good pace but during the development, something at unexpected happened. President Iwata then came to see me. He was obviously bothered and he said: ‘l talked to Yamauchi-san over the phone and he thinks your console should have two screens… A bit like the multi-screen Game & Watch, you see?’ Everybody is aware of this, but what people do not know is that at the time, everybody hated this idea, even Iwata himself. We thought it did not make any sense. Back in the Game & Watch days, it was different because a second screen allowed us to double the playing area and the number of graphic elements on display. But with the modern screens, there was no point. We were free to choose the size of our screen, so why bother splitting it into two? Especially considering that it was impossible to look at both screens at the same time. This is why we did not understand his idea.”

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