Hiroshi Yamauchi and the Nintendo ethos of beautiful simplicity

Hiroshi Yamauchi, 1927-2013

“It’s a shame though
Nowadays video games ain’t the same bro
Too complicated and they ain’t worth the price
You know somethin they a lot like life”
-Random, “Grow Up”

It might be a little late but last night I decided to try out the most recent Tomb Raider game. Twenty minutes in and it was pretty amazing: the graphics were gorgeous, the voice acting was great, Lara is a compelling and, for the first time, realistic character, but the controls in the PC version of the game weren’t the best. Two hours and a dozen quick time events in and I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d reached the point where Lara is pounced upon by a wolf and has to fight it off. Unfortunately, the game didn’t indicate which button to press when. I tried it half a dozen times, stabbing my “A” and “D” buttons to struggle against the killer wolf and then, when the target appeared, repeatedly bashed the “F” melee button only to have my throat ripped out. I did it again but this time bashed the “E” button – throat ripped out. Again with the “F.” Again with the “E.” Tried with “Q.” Tried alternating “F” and “E.” Finally, after a string of loud profanities greater than Lara’s total number of deaths, I uninstalled and deleted the entire game from my drive.

Earlier this week the gaming world took a break from speculating on the next console wars and brutalizing pedestrians in GTA 5 to recognize the passing of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the man who presided over Nintendo for more than 50 years. Although reportedly difficult to work with, and often overlooked in Nintendo history in favor of Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, Yamauchi is the man who presided when Nintendo became a video game company after doing solid business in cards and not-so-solid business in taxis, food and love hotels. Despite leaving Nintendo in 2002, Yamauchi’s era is still something worth reflecting upon.

Screenshot from ‘The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’ (Nintendo Co., Ltd.)

No matter what age we are most humans tend to look back on the products of our childhood years as greater than those of our adult years. I am not one of these people. Not that I always favor new things over old, I’ll still listen to Fear of a Black Planet or Superfly over almost any album released in the last decade, I still think Citizen Kane is the greatest movie of all time, I still even read Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift for fun, but I’m not one of these nostalgic types who thinks gaming peaked with Zelda: Link to the Past. The games now are amazing: the technology, the graphics, the sound, the voice acting, and how each of these combine to create an immersive, visceral experience so lifelike that there are hundreds of serious, scholarly debates happening about whether or not avid gamers have their perceptions of reality altered by the games they play. Metroid was incredible but no one would ever blame hours of side scrolling Samus action for real-life violence. Even early FPS games like Operation Wolf and Wolfenstein 3D didn’t have anywhere near the effect, real, perceived or scapegoated, that modern games have. Games now have multi-million dollar budgets, multiplayer campaigns, challenge modes, customization and hundreds of options. That’s what makes them both incredible and incredibly frustrating.

While I know that every minute spent playing a game is one I should spend doing something else, I still really enjoy playing them. But I’m not that good. I can’t string together the long button mashing chains demanded by most modern fighting games, I can’t hair trigger a mouse or analog stick over a dozen targets spread across a shooter, hell, I can’t even play a Call of Duty or Madden game for more than a few minutes before a raging headache begins (although I enjoy watching other people play them). And I’m willing to bet there are a lot more people like me in the world than there are people with the twitch skills of a Marine core sniper or NFL quarterback.

The complex, chaotic mayhem that is ‘Call of Duty’ (Activision)

Sure, early games were simple because the technology was as well. “A” was jump and “B” was shoot because that was all input the system could handle. As technology developed so did the amount of options available to the gamer. I remember first looking at the SNES controller, with its four buttons and two triggers, and imagining all the possibilities. Now, when technology has made it possible to perform just about any function imaginable (although a lot of video game characters still can’t get through doors, no matter how powerful or well-armed they are), the list of options in video games is almost unimaginable. And they all have to keep in your head and at your fingers at all times or that damn wolf will rip your throat out over and over until you just quit. It’s this very complexity that keeps millions of people who would otherwise be interested in video games from playing them.

That’s where the genius of Yamauchi’s time at Nintendo is found. In the final years of Yamauchi’s tenure as president, Sony and Microsoft entered the home console market. They were quickly competing over who could make the most intricate and realistic games possible. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s GameCube emphasized the “game” part of video games and not the “video” part like its higher tech competitors. There are of course individual game exceptions to these generalizations, but by and large Nintendo games leaned more towards the simple and almost cartoonish while Sony and Microsoft went for the realistic and hardcore.

The GameCube was considered the loser in the 6th generation of console wars (Nintendo Co., Ltd.)

Although beloved by many gamers, the GameCube was largely considered a failure when compared to the other two. Yet as the three consoles were battling, Nintendo was ruling the handheld market with the Game Boy Advance, mostly on the strength of the Mario and Pokemon franchises, games which not everyone could master but anyone could play. Sony and Microsoft were trying to go bigger, louder and faster, while Nintendo was basically alone in handheld gaming until 2004. (I say all this, by the way, not as a Nintendo fanboy and, in fact, I was a PlayStation gamer, if only because Final Fantasy was exclusive to that system). Yamauchi stepped down a year after the disappointing launch of the GameCube, but fittingly made an unexpected move in naming designer Satoru Iwata as his successor and not a member of his family as had been done for him and his father. While he might not be the one who oversaw the next phrase of Nintendo’s development, his influence overshadowed the company’s future.

In 2006 Nintendo launched the Wii, and it became a global phenomenon. Recognizing its shaking position in the market after the GameCube, and that both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were fighting over the hardcore gamer market, Nintendo went in a different direction and introduced the most outstanding innovation of the seventh generation of consoles. Granted, the cartoonish, family-friendly style of most Wii games leads to it begin tagged as a toy or childish, similar to how people may view Pixar movies as for children because of their animation and lack of “adult” content.

The Wiimote controller: simple and elegant (Nintendo Co., Ltd.)

But the Wii-mote controller is a much greater innovation than any offered by Sony or Microsoft during that generation. Nintendo took the most basic element of gaming, the controller, and changed the entire way games are played; just look at how its competitors scrambled to develop their own motion sensor technology. If Nintendo had decided to compete on the same grounds as Sony and Microsoft, the company would have gone the way of Sega or Atari years before just as those latter companies tried to compete on the same ground as Nintendo and had failed. In the end, the Wii outsold both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 not by having the biggest, loudest, fastest, most difficult and bloodiest games available, but by the having the simplest and most enjoyable system which not everyone could master but anyone could play. It was the casual gamer, not the hardcore gamer, that ruled the last console generation.

Of course, the Wii-U hasn’t had anywhere near the same success, but that doesn’t mean the Nintendo ethos of emphasizing gameplay doesn’t stand. Several games which focus more on simple, compelling structures prove much more enjoyable and lasting than even AAA properties with hundreds of millions of dollars in development budgets. Last year, Journey, one of the most minimalist games possible was also one of the most talked about. The same with Portal, a game with only a couple of play options but hundreds of ways to use them. Going back farther, to the original Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero or to other platforms as with Angry Birds, it’s rarely the overly complex games which become pop cultural phenomena. It’s also the later iterations of these games, when they become more convoluted, that the franchises fall apart. Even Grand Theft Auto, as sprawling and limitless as it may be, is a relatively simple game to play. One button to steal a car, one button to fight and shoot, one button to jump – the only complex button sequences are for cheat codes.

If the Nintendo ethos could be summed up in an image, here it is. (Nintendo Co., Ltd.)

This love of simplicity isn’t limited to games either. A couple of years ago the film Drive made cinephiles squeal like tweens at Feminist Ryan Gosling posts. The straight ahead approach and raw brutality was refreshing against the overproduced, sanitized blockbusters of the summer. (Personally, I found the film boring, shallow and predictable, but that’s just me.) A singer like Adele doesn’t need all the production tricks and auto-tune to become a bigger success than a dozen studio creations. Apple’s entire company was build upon sacrificing individualization for simplicity. Just because games, film, music, or even technology can include every bell and whistle imaginable doesn’t mean they should. Sometimes all we need is one button to jump.

Under Yamauchi, Nintendo proved that it takes vision to strip down a product rather than dress it up. It’s much more lasting and, pun intended, game-changing to focus on the basics. It’s also a lot more difficult. The line between refreshing and shallow, or exploitatively nostalgic, is thin. When simple goes wrong, game over. When simple goes right, game on.

Through all its recent successes and failures, Nintendo has always emphasized innovation and ease of use. Hopefully, as the gaming world reflects on Yamauchi’s passing, they remember what made his company such a success.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.

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