|Born||June 20, 1943|
|Died||December 6, 2021 (age 78)|
Famicom Disk System
Nintendo Entertainment System
Masayuki Uemura - Biography
Masayuki Uemura is a retired Japanese engineer and video game producer that worked for Nintendo from 1972 until 2004. Uemura was appointed head of Nintendo’s Research & Development 2 division and was given the task to design Nintendo’s first cartridge-based home video game console. As the chief designer of the Family Computer, commonly referred to as the Famicom, Uemura had a profound impact on the home video game console industry by creating a console that would end up setting the standards for home consoles for decades.
Uemura was born on June 20, 1943 in Nara, Japan and grew up during a period where Japan was at war. Due to the bombing of Japan during World War II, his family was forced to move to Kyoto. Along with war came many hardships for Japanese families and for a child growing up during that period it was common for them to go without many things such as toys. As a child Uemura grew up with very little making it necessary for him to make his own playthings from whatever was on hand such as rocks and bamboo sticks. He lacked access to any form of toys or electronics until he began primary school where they had model trains and basic radios which they created.
During primary school Uemura along with other students created a radio out of spare components the school had available. The creation of the radio was something that Uemura enjoyed and was the beginning of his fascination with electronics. At an early age Uemura knew that he wanted to become an engineer and be involved in creating new electronical devices. His commitment to becoming an engineer never changed as he progressed through school and he ended up attending Chiba Institute of Technology.
After graduating from the Department of Electronic Engineering at Chiba Institute of Technology he was recruited by electronics company Hayakawa Electric, known today as Sharp. Uemura had aspirations of developing a television but instead began selling solar cell batteries when he joined Hayakawa Electric. Hayakawa Electric was renamed Sharp Corporation in 1970 and Uemura became involved in a project that developed photosensitive cells, a product that drew the attention of Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi.
Masayuki Uemura ended up selling Nintendo the technology that would be used in their light gun games. Nintendo manufactured a series of early light gun toys called Kôsenjû SP. The toy guns emitted a short flash of light when fired and if aimed correctly would activate a target in various ways based on the set which was purchased. When the sensor built into a target was hit by the light-beam it would trigger the target to respond, in the case of the Jumping Bottle target it would cause the bottle target to spring into two parts. This was accomplished by the bottle being constructed of two parts held together by an electromagnet until it was hit by the light from the gun.
Gunpei Yokoi formed a relationship with Uemura during the development of the toy light gun product line and ended up recruiting him away from Sharp. Uemura didn’t want to end up being transferred to Sharp’s factory in Tenri, Japan and decided to joined Nintendo in 1972. When Uemura joined Nintendo in 1972 they were not involved in creating video games but instead were still manufacturing hanafuda cards and had recently expanded into the toy industry. Nintendo’s Kôsenjû SP series light guns games became extremely successful selling well over a million units in the early 1970s. The success of the light gun games shifted Nintendo’s corporate strategy to start focusing more on electronic toys. While other companies were importing products from America and adapting them for the Japanese market by making them cheaper and smaller, Nintendo was interested in original ideas and innovating.
With the shift in focus to creating electronic toys came the need for electrical engineers which was one of the main reasons Yokoi recruited Uemura. When Nintendo made the decision to shift their strategy from manufacturing hanafuda cards and simple plastic toys to electronic toys there were no employees available with the required skill set other than Uemura. Since he was the only resource who understood electronics and all the aspects around it, he needed to find companies and partners to work with. When he joined Nintendo, they did not have a development division but instead had makeshift development warehouse full of toys, almost entirely made up of American toys.
From 1965 through 1972 Nintendo had a Creative Department that was focused on creating toys but with the shift to creating more sophisticated electronic based toys came the need for a Research & Development department. In 1972 Nintendo restructured and formed a Research & Development division, it would be this team that would venture into the creation of video games through early arcade cabinets. Gunpei Yokoi was assigned as the general manager of the new division based on the success Nintendo had with his inventions and creations while a member of the Creative Department. He led Nintendo’s first electronics development team as they shifted focus to develop arcade style games, ultimately beginning Nintendo’s involvement in the video game industry.
Most of the team’s arcade systems games centered around light gun shooting simulations. The first being the “Laser Clay Shooting System” which consisted of an overhead projector which displayed moving targets behind a background as players fired at the targets with a rifle in which a mechanism of reflections would determine whether or not the “laser shot” from the rifle hit the target. In 1978 Nintendo shifted their focus away from experimenting with projection methods using various film-based formats and followed the video game industry in creating video arcade games based on micro-processor technology with the release of Computer Othello. This shift in focus resulted in Nintendo dividing their development group into several different groups to expand their service offering as well as for each team to concentrate on particular products. Around 1977, Gunpei Yokoi was appointed head of R&D1, while Masayuki Uemura was appointed head of Nintendo R&D2. Yokoi’s R&D1 would specialize in the creation of arcade cabinets and handheld devices while Uemura’s R&D2 would specialize in dedicated home consoles and cartridge-based consoles.
R&D2 began the creation of several dedicated home consoles inspired by the popular dedicated based consoles that were released in North America such as Pong. The team’s first game consoles were the Color TV Game 6 and Color TV Game 15 which were dedicated home consoles that had the ability to play various “Pong” style games. The Color TV-Game series of consoles released exclusively in Japan on June 1, 1977 and performed quite well for Nintendo. Each model sold over a million units spawning Nintendo to expand the series with the development of three additional models, the Color TV-Game Racing 112 in 1978, the Color TV-Game Block Breaker in 1979 and the Computer TV-Game in 1980.
Nintendo’s R&D2 division partnered with Mitsubishi to create the Color TV Game 6 and Color TV Game 15, its first foray into dedicated gaming hardware. Nintendo purchased the chip sets for the two systems from Mitsubishi and packaged them into the hardware to bring them to market. Uemura learned how the chip sets were made by observing the work of Mitsubishi’s designers during the creation of the two consoles. The creation of the Color TV Game 6 and Color TV Game 15 was when Nintendo started to learn the technology behind connecting a game system to a television, having the images sent from the console to be displayed on the television set. Using a television set for something other than watching TV was a new concept at the time from both a technological perspective and a business perspective in Japan. As head of R&D2, Uemura was responsible for creating a product that was foreign to the Japanese market and had to introduce a completely new concept to the market in hopes to adopt a consumer base.
With an understanding of how the chip sets functioned within the Color TV Game 6 and Color TV Game 15, Uemura saw an opportunity to develop their next console fully in house. Their first two consoles were based on pong style game play and for their next console the team took inspiration from Atari’s Breakout. The tabletop version of Atari’s Breakout was very popular in Japanese arcades and the newly formed consumer base in Japan were looking to Nintendo to bring something similar into homes via a dedicated home console. Uemura assigned the entire R&D2 team to the project and began working on a system that could provide the same type of gameplay in the home. The team designed the system from the ground up and all chips sets were made in house without any outside consulting. The Color TV Game Block Kuzushi became Nintendo’s best-known console in the Color TV-Game series. The external design of the consoles shell was leaps and bounds ahead of the previous consoles, this was accomplished by a new young artist hired by Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto. This was Miyamoto’s first big project at Nintendo before moving into game design and developing Donkey Kong. While the exterior design of the console was sleek and very fashionable, the internal components of the console took Nintendo’s game development processes to a level of self efficiency.
Nintendo’s early home consoles were heavily influenced by existing products found in North America. By creating similar products often referred to as clone consoles allowed them to learn how to create video games and armed them with the knowledge required to start creating unique products that would end up influencing the video game industry.
Interview with Masayuji Uemura
In early 1981 Masayuki Uemura received a phone call from Hiroshi Yamauchi, the President of Nintendo asking him to design a video game console that could play interchangeable games that were stored on cartridges. Yamauchi wanted to try and capture the same success that the Atari VCS (a.k.a. the Atari 2600) was having in North America at the time. During that time the engineers at Nintendo were split between two team, one making arcade games such as Donkey Kong while the others were focused on making the Game & Watch handheld devices.
The overwhelming success of the Game & Watch series of handhelds placed a strain on Uemura as resources assigned to R&D2 were shifting over to Gunpei Yokoi’s R&D1 team due to the popularity of the Game & Watch. The result left only three resources within R&D2 to assist Uemura on all future projects. It was at that time that Nintendo President Yamauchi contacted Uemura to start working on the creation of a cartridge base home console.
Uemura began researching existing cartridge base systems immediately by purchasing the systems, taking them apart and analyzing each component to get a full understanding of how they functioned. Uemura hired a semiconductor manufacturer to dissolve the plastic covering on the chips found in systems such as the Atari VCS and Magnavox Odyssey to expose the wiring underneath. He took pictures of the circuitry and enlarged them to study how the systems functioned. He studied the chipsets, CPUs and patents filed by all of the system manufactures for approximately six months before beginning to design Nintendo’s first cartridge-based system.
Having had some experience creating arcade games Uemura knew that none of the designs of the existing cartridge-based consoles would help him in designing a new home console. The existing consoles did not have expressive enough graphics to accomplish what he had envisioned. Uemura’s goal was to create a system capable of producing like for like graphics as their recently released arcade hit Donkey Kong. Even though Donkey Kong would be ported to other existing cartridge-based systems such as the Atari 2600, ColecoVision and Intellivision while Uemura was designing Nintendo’s console those systems were not capable of simulating like for like graphics with the arcade game. All of the existing cartridge-based consoles had a monopoly on patents for their circuit structures and features such as scrolling. The systems were simply to old and outdated to be of any use in any meaningful way for the design of Nintendo’s new console.
By 1982 Uemura had finished his investigation of existing products, had a vision of what the console had to accomplish from a technological perspective and a preliminary design. As sales of the Game & Watch slowed Nintendo president Yamauchi wanted Uemura to pursue the creation of the system as a console with interchangeable games would have a much longer shelf-life than the dedicated handheld systems Nintendo was producing in the Game & Watch series. Yamauchi wanted the system to be affordable to make it appealing to a large portion of the population and set the manufacturing budget for the system at 5,000 yen per unit. With all required information and a set budget on how much all of the components within the console could cost, Uemura began the formal design of what would become the Family Computer a.k.a. the Famicom.
Uemura had a small team working on the project but felt that he had the right people required to create a successful product. He was able to leverage resources such as Shigeru Miyamoto who was instrumental in determining important decisions such as what types of colors would be used on screen. The color palette implemented in the system needed to be as effective as possible with the limited number of colors that could be produced by the hardware. Uemura was also able to leverage a few key design elements that proved to be very successful for the Game & Watch, the D-pad and button layout. The new directional pad and button layout found on many Game & Watch systems proved to work very well when placed in a controller and allowed for much better control than a joystick, this helped push the Famicom’s development forward.
Cost reduction without sacrificing key components or features became a major challenge. The objective was to build the entire system at a cost of 5,000 yen while retailing the console for 15,000 yen, a task that felt almost impossible to achieve. Uemura was able to achieve most of what he wanted to implement into the Famicom without making to many cost reduction-based sacrifices. He did not want to compromise on the graphics or sound capabilities of the system however one thing that plagued him was not being able to incorporate detachable controllers.
The team at R&D2 tried to figure out a way to incorporate detachable controllers but from a technological perspective there wasn’t a cost-efficient way to achieve this. All of the connectors they experimented with were to expensive leaving the team having to integrate the controller cable into the system. In retrospect implemented a connector may have proved to be more cost affective as there were many cases in which the controllers would end up breaking and since they could not be detach for repair the entire system needed to be send to Nintendo for warranty work. The first run of systems had an approximate one percent failure rate due to some minor defects which Nintendo chose to recall at a considerable cost. The recall made early Famicom units more recognizable by the square-shaped buttons on the systems controllers as all future production runs after the recall had improved circular buttons.
The Famicom made its debut on July 15, 1983 with Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior and Popeye as the system’s launch titles. The Famicom was quite successful when it launched however production had to be stopped after its first product run to address defects that were identified after the system’s launch. The recall of failed units needed to be repaired and the system needed to have modification made to the design before going into a second production run. Following the recall and the start up of the second production run the Famicom became a massive success becoming the best-selling game console in Japan by the end of 1984. Nintendo had originally launched the system with only first-party games, but after being approached by Namco and Hudson Soft in 1984, agreed to produce third party games for a 30% licensing fee.
With a design based on the arcade hardware that powered Donkey Kong, Uemura created a console that revolutionized home gaming in Japan when it was released in 1983. The system would soon be tailored for the North American market in the form of the Nintendo Entertainment System and would revitalize the home video game market in North America after the video game crash of 1983. Masayuki Uemura can arguably be seen as one of the most important influences in revitalizing the North American video game market after it struggled to maintain relevance from an over saturation of underpowered consoles with low-quality games.
In conjunction with designing the new Famicom console Systems Research and Development (SRD) was hired to work with Uemura and his R&D2 team to internally develop software development kits. R&D2 and SRD jointly began porting over R&D1 arcade games to the Famicom in preparation for the consoles launch. The success of the Famicom kept Uemura extremely busy as he needed to deal with repairs of defective systems, designing a disk based addon unit to allow for the system to play larger and more complex games as well as creating the redesigned Nintendo Entertainment System for the North American market.
In the early 1980s there was a rule in the game industry that fads last for three years, that is why President Yamauchi wanted to redesign the Famicom for the North American market, to prolong the success of the system by introducing it to a new market. The belief at the time was that television games would be a fad that would fade into history as they were replaced by personal computers. Everyone at Nintendo were shocked when the fad just kept going, it was Hiroshi Kudo, the president of Hudson Soft, one of the Famicom’s first licensees who identified video games as a culture opposed to a simple fad. That was around the time Super Mario Bros. came out in 1985 and would add fuel to the fire of what many believed was a passing fad.
Entering into the North American market was not going to be an easy task as both retailers and consumers had a negative attitude towards video games after the video game crash of 1983. The video game market fell to an all time low and retailers were having a hard time giving away an over abundant stock of Atari, Intellivision and ColecoVision games. At the same time consumers felt ripped off from purchasing low quality video games prior to the video game crash which was one of the key reasons for the market crashed in the first place. Uemura felt that the top loading Famicom looked too much like a standard video game console to be accepted as is in a market that saw video games in a negative light. The fear was that the system would be simply seen as the same as all other home consoles that came and went in the early 1980’s or as an overpriced toy.
In order to change the general public’s perception of a video game console Nintendo decided to change the Famicom’s design and Uemura looked to home entertainment systems for inspiration. The Nintendo Entertainment System’s front-loading design was inspired by the popularity of video cassette recorders (VCR) which were booming throughout North America at the time. Their belief was that the North American market would be more receptive to purchasing a video game system with a similar design as a VCR, especially when it was being marketed as an Entertainment System.
Prior to launching the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America Nintendo released the VS series of arcade systems which helped introduce the Nintendo brand to North America. Through observation of the market and the overwhelmingly positive reception of the VS series of arcade systems, Nintendo knew that there was a market for their specific brand of software in North America. Uemura’s redesigned console became a massive success and made the Nintendo brand a household name throughout North America.
As the head of Nintendo’s R&D2 team Uemura continued to lead the development team with console innovation and was the chief designer of Nintendo’s next home console the Super Famicom a.k.a. the Super Nintendo. Along with increasing the console’s graphical and audio capabilities, Uemura had the opportunity to correct the limitations that plagued him with the Famicom’s controllers having to be hardwired to the system. The Super Famicom did not only introduce detachable controllers in Japan but also innovated the controller in all markets by introducing additional buttons on the face of the controller in a diamond shaped pattern as well as two shoulder buttons. The improvements to the controller was a huge hit with consumers and ushered in a new standard which had become the basis of almost all future controllers across all hardware manufactures.
The importance of Masayuki Uemura’s achievements helped shaped the video game industry and his profound impact on the home console industry revitalized the video game market in North America. Uemura was instrumental in helping Nintendo transition from a small Japanese hanafuda card manufacture to a toy maker and ultimately to one of the most successful video game companies in the world. Uemura retired from Nintendo in 2004, and served as the director of the Center for Game Studies at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto until his death on December 6, 2021.