It can be hard now, from the outside, to really picture the time in video games when Nintendo wasn't one of the top names in the business. For Masayuki Uemura, the engineer who designed the Famicom and NES, it's just a matter of remembering his years at Nintendo in the seventies.
In a new interview by Matt Alt published at Kotaku, Uemura shares some enlightening stories and anecdotes about those years in the late seventies and early eighties where Nintendo made the leap to making video games and game hardware. Uemura's tales are all a delight to read. Now the director for Kyoto's Center for Game Studies at Ritsumeikan University, he recalls those heady days at Nintendo with clarity and detail, including the time that Space Invaders brought productivity to a screeching halt.
Asked about Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo's President for over 50 years, Uemura mentions that Yamauchi bought 10 tabletop Space Invaders machines from Taito in 1978. "The idea was that we'd playtest them as a form of research," he explains. "But what ended up happening was the entire company got so obsessed playing it that we couldn't get a turn in. It was like a fever. Everyone abandoned their posts and stopped working. I was just bummed out that we hadn't made it ourselves."
That Space Invaders moment seems like it was a wake-up call for the company (though maybe it also led to the flop that was Radar Scope). Uemura says that since Nintendo wasn't in Tokyo near Taito and other seventies game giants, "none of that filtered down" to its headquarters in Kyoto as easily.
Uemura also shares how the Yamauchi kicked off development of the Famicom. In 1981, with Game and Watch on the market and Donkey Kong machines in production, Uemura got a phone call from Yamauchi asking him to start making a cartridge based console. Initially, he dismissed it: "He always liked to call me after he'd had a few drinks, so I didn't think much of it. I just said, 'Sure thing, boss,' and hung up." The next morning a sober Yamauchi asked Uemura about the console idea again, and the rest is history. Today, in 2020, you can even find a Space Invaders collection for the Switch.