Masayuki Uemura, who designed the first Nintendo console, dies at 78
TOKYO — Masayuki Uemura, an engineer who developed the Nintendo Entertainment System, which helped start a global revolution in home gaming and laid the foundation for today’s video game industry, died on Thursday. He was 78 years old.
His death was announced by Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, where Uemura headed the Center for Game Studies. No other details were given.
Video game consoles enjoyed a moment of popularity in the early 1980s, but the market collapsed due to shoddy quality control and uninspiring software that failed to deliver the thrills arcade hits like Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Truckloads of unsold game cartridges ended up in landfills, and retailers decided that home gaming systems had no future.
But in 1985, the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States changed the industry forever. The unassuming gray box with its distinctive controllers became a staple for an entire generation of kids and prompted Nintendo’s virtual monopoly on the industry for the better part of a decade as competitors pulled out of the market in response to corporate dominance.
Nintendo of America is based in Redmond, Washington.
Uemura was the mastermind behind the Nintendo console, which was released in Japan in 1983. He also helped create its successor, the Super Nintendo, as well as the company’s other lesser-known products.
“Nintendo has succeeded in the United States because of the quality of its software, but that software would never have entered the hearts of gamers without the hardware created by Uemura,” said Matt Alt, whose 2020 book, “Pure Invention : How Japanese pop culture took the world by storm,” recounts the rise of Nintendo.
“He was a true titan and an architect of the global gaming industry,” Alt added in an email.
The machine made Nintendo one of Japan’s most profitable companies, and the games it ran, such as Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda, became classic franchises.
Its runaway success also established the video game console as a viable commodity and led to the development of the current $40 billion console gaming market.
Masayuki Uemura was born on June 20, 1943 in Tokyo. Her father, a kimono merchant who later owned a record store, moved the family to Kyoto (the home of Nintendo), hoping to avoid the bombings that ravaged Japan during World War II.
As a child, he showed an interest in technical pursuits. He built his own radio from components purchased for him by a student who was boarding with his family, Uemura said in a 2016 interview with Hitotsubashi University. He earned money by carrying bundles of firewood from the mountains around Kyoto and built his own pachinko machine. , a game that looks like a fusion of slots and pinball.
After graduating from high school, he studied electrical engineering at the Chiba Institute of Technology with the goal of designing color televisions.
He was working as a salesman at Sharp in 1971 when Gunpei Yokoi, chief engineer at Nintendo at the time, recruited him to join the company. It was then a small manufacturer of playing cards and other traditional Japanese games, with the ambition to create innovative toys.
Uemura was inspired by Nintendo’s serious approach to gaming. But he had another motive for taking the job: he had recently married, and Sharp planned to send him to the United States without his wife.
His decision to stay in Japan was transformative, both for him and for Nintendo.
In 1981, when Nintendo was cashing in on the popularity of the arcade game Donkey Kong in the American market, the company’s then president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, asked Uemura to create an affordable entertainment system that would bring the home arcade experience.
The result was a red and white box known as the Famicom, short for “home computer”. While other consoles had blocky graphics that stuttered and jerked, the Famicom had smoothly animated characters and backgrounds, almost like a cartoon. His version of Donkey Kong resembled the one from the arcade. And unlike other gaming systems that beeped and blooped, it could play music.
At first, the console, with a price tag of 14,800 yen (about $65 at the time), received mixed reception in Japan — only a few hundred thousand units were sold in the first year. In interviews decades later, Uemura admitted he had been skeptical of the Famicom’s success. The first version of the system had been riddled with problems: among them, the controllers had square buttons that tended to stick. He got his first taste of the system’s potential when his son told his classmates that his father was the designer of the machine, and the neighborhood asked Uemura to make house calls to repair their consoles.
“There were so many requests that I realized ‘This thing really sells,'” he told Weekly Famitsu magazine in 2013.
The system didn’t really take off until the introduction of Super Mario Brothers in 1985. Its thrilling gameplay, catchy music and design – inspired by Japanese animation – sounded like “gasoline on a fire”, has Uemura told Nintendo Dream Web in 2013.
He then created an improved and redesigned Famicom for the American market, and this sealed the success of the system, turning Nintendo into a giant not only in gaming but also in Japanese industry. In the early 1990s, the company was using 3% of Japan’s semiconductor manufacturing capacity and making more money than all the American movie studios combined, wrote author David Sheff in his book “Game Over : How Nintendo Conquered the World” (1993).
The company then asked Uemura to design another upgrade. In 1990, he delivered the Super Famicom, known as Super Nintendo in the United States. The machine sold over 49 million units worldwide, cementing Nintendo’s reputation as the world’s most influential games company and one of the most successful entertainment companies of all time.
Uemura retired from Nintendo in 2004 and joined Ritsumeikan University, where he served as director of the Center for Game Studies until his death.
Information about his survivors was not immediately available. In a 2013 interview with video game website Polygon for the 30th anniversary of the Famicom’s release, Uemura said working on the project had been transformative.
“I used to be just your typical office grunt,” he said, “but then I came across toys, and it changed my outlook on life.”