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Cover Story: NES Creator Masayuki Uemura on the Birth of Nintendo's First Console

The man who designed Nintendo's revolutionary console recounts the system's birth and the challenges of building an international business.

Profile by Jeremy Parish, .

Originally published October 2015.

You wouldn't know by looking at Masayuki Uemura, mild-mannered engineer and professor, that he changed video games forever—or that his work set the standard for an industry that nearly died just as its was finding its legs.

Uemura's mild demeanor seems particularly remarkable coming from someone whose work not only reached into hundreds of millions of lives but also established the cornerstone for the video games industry as we know it today. In a medium whose loudest contributors are frequently egoists and rockstars who preen over having created a new iteration on someone else's established genre formula, it's a little surprising to find that one of the giants upon whose shoulders everyone else has stood for decades appears to possess so little ego or pretense.

Masayuki Uemura.

Surprising, yes, but welcome... and, more to the point, wholly appropriate. After all, Uemura didn't come up with just any old invention; he was the driving force behind the Nintendo Famicom, the system that came to America 30 years ago this month as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). He comes off as warm, approachable, and thoroughly good-natured, like most of the rest of Nintendo's core talent—only, perhaps, more so. His recent presentation at NYU's Games Center on the occasion of the NES's 30th anniversary (and the debut of an NES-centric exhibition at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY) was characterized by charming personal anecdotes and self-effacing humor.

In person, these traits come across even more clearly than in a public setting. I have no doubt that Uemura has fielded the same questions about the NES from thousands of young men and women who cut their teeth on one of the controllers he helped design, yet he fields them with more than mere grace: I saw a twinkle of genuine pleasure in his eyes as he addressed a room of college students, recounting his work designing what would become by far the best-selling game console of the 1980s. Rather than seeing lifelong NES fans digging for anecdotes as a nuisance, he indulges them all with the same pleasant grace.

Of course, unlike Nintendo's other pivotal designers, Uemura has the benefit of distance from his work. Being a decade older than the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, he retired from the corporation years ago to become a professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Uemura no longer has to worry about staying one step ahead of the competition, and queries about his older work don't get in the way of PR messaging about new games and consoles. Instead, he's able to connect with awestruck young adults who associate his work with endless hours of happy childhood memories. There are worse ways to spend a retirement.

The Nintendo Entertainment System [Source].

A life's work

In a sense, Uemura sees the NES's 30th anniversary celebration as a capstone for his accomplishments.

"Honestly, today is going to be a really important memory for me," he told me shortly before presenting his lecture on the NES's development at the NYU Game Center. I had asked Uemura if he had any particularly fond memories of working on the Famicom. After thinking about it for a moment, though, he admitted that of all his recollections of working to create the console, coming to NYU meant the most to him.

"To tell you the truth," he told me, "development is a bit boring, actually, because if the thing that you’re making doesn’t sell well, you’re in trouble... and if it sells too well, you’re also in trouble." He chuckled. "You’ll get praise if you create something that sells really well, but it’s never going to please 100 percent of the people, and all those claims or complaints that people have end up coming back to the developer at some point.

"In a way, forgetting all of those things related to the development in the past, today has a bit of finality about it for me."

"Development is a bit boring, actually, because if the thing that you’re making doesn’t sell well, you’re in trouble... and if it sells too well, you’re also in trouble."

Uemura's philosophical response caught me off-guard, but perhaps it shouldn't have. Despite the warm humor with which he recounts the origins of the console, it's not hard to imagine that those must have been stressful times. Both the Famicom's birth and its transition to become the NES worked out against long odds and numerous setbacks. Later, he spoke of long hours fueled by free udon noodles—Nintendo paid for employees' meals when they worked overtime, and it sounds as though Uemura frequently worked late into the night on the system. And, of course, all of this happened the watchful eye of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the late, former president of Nintendo Corporation Ltd., famous for his demanding personality and exacting standards.

Certainly the feast-or-famine scenarios he mentioned loomed over the Famicom's birth. The Famicom project came about in large part because Nintendo's primary product at the time—the Game & Watch line of handheld LCD games—initially exploded in popularity, but sales soon began petering out. Yamauchi assigned Uemura to come up with a console based on interchangeable cartridges, one that would hopefully have longer legs than the dedicated game devices the company had been producing to that point.

The Japanese NES: The Family Computer, better known as the Famicom. It debuted in Japan more than two years before the NES made its way to the U.S. [Image source]

Yamauchi set a target of one million hardware units sold of this new console; according to Uemura, it ultimately sold 14 million in Japan alone. And, as Uemura alluded to, even that success brought with it a unique set of challenges. The system became glutted with third-party software of questionable quality. Chip shortages delayed popular games. Nintendo, a small toy manufacturer with a handful of short-lived hits under their belt, wasn't really prepared for the sheer scale of Famicom's success around the world.

Yet Yamauchi's faith in Uemura paid off. In the end, he proved himself not only capable of leading the Famicom project, but uniquely capable. His history as an engineer, his design choices, and his personal relationships all helped steer a seemingly impossible project through hazards that likely would have undermined any other designer and resulted in a well-intended failure of a product.

For starters, Uemura already had extensive experience working on Nintendo game consoles. His first creations were a pair of Pong clones typical to the mid-’70s: The Color TV-Game 6 and Color TV-Game 15, which (as their names indicate) respectively featured six and 15 variants of video table tennis. Uemura ruefully admitted these products weren't particularly popular; there was no shortage of Pong-alikes by the time these devices made their debut (1977), and nothing about Nintendo's variants particularly stood out from countless other TV machines.

Rather, it was the company's next dedicated console—the Color TV-Game Block Kuzushi, or Breakout—that set the stage for the Famicom, in more ways than one.

Of all Nintendo's pre-Famicom television game systems, Block Kuzushi is the best known. The gently rounded console and its appealing display icons came about as the result of the work of a young artist named Shigeru Miyamoto: The future game design legend's first big project at Nintendo. However, according to Uemura, what shipped inside Block Kuzushi proved to be just as important to the company's future as the talent behind its graceful shell.

"In between the Television Game 6 and 15 and the Famicom, we made something in the block-breaking genre called 'Breakout,'" says Uemura. "With the Television Game-6 and 15 devices, I was the person in charge of development. However, we had purchased the chip sets from Mitsubishi. Nintendo kind of packaged them up and then brought them to the market.

"This was the step at which Nintendo started to learn, and which I started to learn the technology behind connecting a game system to a TV and having your images display on a TV. This allowed us to grab hold for the first time with this idea of using the television for something other than watching TV. That wasn’t really a concept people had in Japan at the time from both a technological perspective and also from a business perspective. We were kind of getting that idea out there."

"At the time, Atari was having great success with home games in America and we started wondering if this would be something we could do in Japan as well."

Having learned the ropes of console design by observing the work of Mitsubishi's designers on those early Pong clones, Uemura saw in Block Kuzushi a chance to take Nintendo's game development processes to the next step.

"At the time, in between the TV-Game 6 and 15 and the Famicom, the tabletop version of Atari's Breakout was very popular at arcades in Japan, and we got a lot of requests from people saying, 'Well, is this something that Nintendo could craft?' So all the engineers, including myself, set to work on making something that you could play in the home that would allow that same type of gameplay.

"[The chips for Block Kuzushi] were all made in-house. So, in that way, the engineers at Mitsubishi were teachers to us at Nintendo."

Nintendo looked to Atari's 2600 for its next inspiration, even though that console's fortunes were beginning to wane.

Having looked to Atari for inspiration on both the Pong-style TV-Game systems and the Breakout-like Block Kuzushi, Nintendo's engineers naturally began contemplating Atari's next big breakout: The Video Computer System, colloquially known as the 2600. The 2600 hadn't been the first console to feature interchangeable cartridges—that credit goes to the late Jerry Lawson and his Fairchild Channel F, which debuted a year before the 2600—but Atari's creation definitely established the market for ROM cassettes.

"At the time, Atari was having great success with home games in America and we started wondering if this would be something we could do in Japan as well," recalls Uemura. "We did think that with the 6, 15, and the Breakout game that we’d made, we established enough understanding among users in Japan that playing games on a television at home was something you could do."

Nintendo began serious research and development into their own standalone unit, but it wouldn't debut for another four years.

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Comments 20

  • Avatar for alanmichael09 #1 alanmichael09 A year ago
    Wow, amazing article. Please continue to do deep and meaningful pieces like this.
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #2 benjaminlu86 A year ago
    I wanted to go to this! Sadly, I was out of town for another conference. :(
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  • Avatar for link6616 #3 link6616 A year ago
    Pieces like this are the reason I love you guys here so much.
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  • Avatar for Spectreman #4 Spectreman A year ago
    Another parallel with the Atari 2600 is how both were build to reproduce the typical games from your time (Donkey Kong on NES and Pong style games on 2600) but during your life time expanded to games far beyond the initial scope. You don´t have such huge variation on SNES games, for example.
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  • Avatar for The-Fool #5 The-Fool A year ago
    Yet another fantastic article, Mr Parish.

    Thank you very much.
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  • Avatar for himuradrew #6 himuradrew A year ago
    I loved this article. While we in Asia were weaned on the Famicom, it's always so interesting to see what it was like on the NES side of things.
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  • Avatar for wooden-spoon #7 wooden-spoon A year ago
    Phenomenal article. It seems rare to get these kind of first-hand accounts of that era at Nintendo, so it's great to see such a candid perspective from a central figure. Absolutely top quality work.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @jae-illcho13 Ah, play nice. Kotaku runs plenty of great features. Did you see that Destiny piece last week? That was basically the Destiny article everyone wanted to write for the past year, and they pulled it off. Credit where it's due, man.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #9 jeremy.parish A year ago
    Deleted October 2015 by jeremy.parish
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  • Avatar for Pieter-Jan #10 Pieter-Jan A year ago
    Great article mr. Parish!

    So the American market was among Nintendo's priorities from the get-go! As a Belgian, I just have to wonder why Europe only received a mere fraction of their focus?!

    I get that the US market had some clear marketing advantages (a common language, a more homogeneous culture [enforced through education, politics, media ...]) over us. But still, Europe must have offered quite a promising consumer market ... not?

    Viewed in this light: It's not at all surprising that the Master System had so much more succes here!
    - The US got over 700+ titles compared to our 300+ (on par with the Master System)
    - None of the grear NES RPG's (DQ, FF, Sherazade, ULtima, ...) made its way over here! Ok I get that text-heavy games like these benefit from a language-wise uniform market (translation costs). But still how hard could it have been to bring over their already finished US translation to the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia, Holland and Flanders (there is at least passive universal knoledge of English in those last 3 regions)

    I just don't get it
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #11 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @Pieter-Jan Nintendo had an established distribution network and marketing division in the U.S. dating back into the 1970s, so the already had a foothold in America. The large number of regional languages and technical challenges of the PAL standard probably had a lot to do with it, too.
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  • Avatar for Pieter-Jan #12 Pieter-Jan A year ago
    @jeremy.parish

    Thanks for clearing it a bit up for me! This is one of the things I love so much about this site: You guys are accessible and knowledgeable !

    I'm quite technology-illiterate, so this might come of as a dumb question/remark ... But was the PAL-thing really such a big hurdle? If you're able to circumvent the region-lock, American games seem to run like they're supposed to on our PAL consoles.

    I just listened to the Retronauts podcast, And there you offered yet another argument: The home computer market was thriving in the Uk. With loads of good and cheap games available. (I have no idea whether this holds up for the rest of Europe as well).

    I would love to get my hands on some in-depth analysis (in the Jeremy Parish vein) about the European game market. Especially the RPG shortage over here (translation costs? different tastes?) Do you happen to know of a European Parish equivalent? ;)

    And hell why not: The game market in countries/continents (Africa, Latin America, Asia) where in general people had less disposable income (and so less profit was to be made). Was it mainly import? bootlegs? regional alternatives?

    You're doing a tremendous a job! Keep up the good work!
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #13 VotesForCows A year ago
    Fascinating article, thanks!
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #14 Mooglepies A year ago
    This is the kind of article I really love reading - great stuff.

    Fascinating to hear all of this from the engineer's perspective, and particularly the issues bringing the NES to market in the US. I'm from the UK (had an amiga and then a SNES) but find this era of consoles very interesting to learn about as there was so much I missed.
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  • Avatar for docexe #15 docexe A year ago
    This was a fantastic article. It’s always fascinating to learn more about this period of the history of the medium, and better yet from one of its key central figures. Thank you.
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  • Avatar for clearancesticker17 #16 clearancesticker17 A year ago
    Hilarious. I never even realized how much it resembled a VCR. I love genius in simplicity.

    Incredible article!
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  • Avatar for Mega_Matt #17 Mega_Matt A year ago
    Fantastic! Great job.
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  • Avatar for D-Lo #18 D-Lo A year ago
    Best article I have read in ages. Nice one!
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  • Avatar for WiegrafFolles #19 WiegrafFolles A year ago
    Dear USGamer staff,

    I can't handle all the top quality articles you've been publishing at the end of this year. It's too much goodness for me to read, but I just want to say I'm blown away by what you do.
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  • Avatar for dedypurwanto84 #20 dedypurwanto84 9 months ago
    Japan is one of the pioneers and founders of the company are already very global game so many businesses are plunging into the world of gaming. jual sepatu cibaduyut
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  • Avatar for ratin #21 ratin 3 days ago

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