2010/12/5 - Gunpei Yokoi talks Donkey Kong in "Gunpei Yokoi's House of Games"

Despite the authorship of the book leading you to believe that it was penned by the master himself, 軍平横井ゲーム館 (Gunpei Yokoi Geemu Yakata - or "Gunpei Yokoi's House of Games") essentially consists of a transcript of an extended interview taking place between Mr. Yokoi and his longtime friend Takefumi Makino (who also released a biography about Gunpei Yokoi this year). Spanning Mr. Yokoi's entire career at Nintendo from his first creation, the "Ultra Hand," up until the creation of the Game Boy Pocket and then later delving into his personal philosophy, the book paints a vivid picture of Mr. Yokoi's personality and philosophy regarding creation. The book was originally published in 1997 shortly before the untimely death of the father of the Game Boy, and then went out of print shortly after, with copies going upwards of 30,000 yen on auction sites in the following years. However, due to popular demand, the book was finally reprinted and appended this year as "Gunpei Yokoi's House of Games RETURNS".

Though there's so much excellent content in here that it's hard to pick just one thing to translate (and mark my words, you can definitely expect more from the book on this site at a later date), with the recent release of Donkey Kong Country Returns, I've elected to revisit the tale of the original game's creation, designed by Mr. Yokoi and a then-fresh and relatively inexperienced game designer named Shigeru Miyamoto. Though there isn't a lot of new information regarding the development of the game itself, Mr. Yokoi's philosophy as a producer really shines in this piece, and his ideals regarding teaching the player how to play the game contextually instead of verbally is something that developers today would do well to take note of. It's strange to think that any games that manage to explain mechanics and objectives to the player without long-winded instructions or tutorials in this day and age are considered "revolutionary" when Gunpei Yokoi understood how to do this back in 1981!

The translation of this segment can be found below. The interview itself is spliced with interviewer commentary, and so Takefumi Makino's comments are left in plain text, with Gunpei Yokoi's text written in italics. As for a few general translation notes, the damsel in distress in Donkey Kong is referred to as "Princess Peach" by Mr. Yokoi in the book, even though I don't believe she was called as such until much after the game's release. I should also mention that the "appended" part of the reprint really amounts to a new introduction and a few footnotes regarding people and terminology to make the book more accessible for non-gamers, and since these are usually pretty basic I didn't bother to translate any of the footnotes found in this portion of the text. Just so you don't think you're missing anything, I'll mention that if you're here I assume you already know who Shigeru Miyamoto is and that you've played "Super Mario Bros." at some point in your life.

A striking characteristic of Mr. Yokoi’s work is the simultaneous development of the hardware and the software. In these days, obviously, the hardware end is handled by specialized technicians and the software is handled by programmers, but Mr. Yokoi is tasked with both designing the hardware and developing the software. Or, that is to say, the hardware and software combine to form a single “product.” Product development is Mr. Yokoi’s job. Throughout the course of the interview, he never once referred to himself as a “technician.” “It’s because I’m not really knowledgeable about newfangled technology or anything”, he answered with a laugh, but beneath that veneer, I could hear him confidently state: “I’m not a technician who creates only hardware, nor a programmer who develops only software. I make products.”

But with that said, Mr. Yokoi was by no means a renaissance man capable of both designing hardware and doing complex programming. Even for one with specialized knowledge, designing hardware is difficult, and he claims to know nothing about programming. This is a point of great interest- namely, that it seems he feels his duty is to create ideas for products while having others do what he cannot do himself. Often times, technicians and programmers tend to get so hung up on the technical aspects of the job that they lose sight of the overall “product”. My personal theory is that Mr. Yokoi’s job lies in synthesizing consumer demand with the goals that those on the technical end of the job are looking to achieve.

As another point of interest, while it could be said Mr. Yokoi’s job is simply to create products, in reality the number of people who can properly do such a job is overwhelmingly small. Mr. Yokoi himself claims that after he left Nintendo, he was initially surprised to have met so few people with the same previous experience.

The infamous arcade game “Donkey Kong,” made in 1981, is a work in which Mr. Yokoi’s mark as a producer truly shines. His ideals were realized through a talented game designer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto, and thus Donkey Kong was born.

Arcade Boards that Should Have Been Scrapped Transformed into Donkey Kong

“Not many people know that Donkey Kong’s beginning was spawned from an already existing arcade game for commercial use. Around the time we had created “Wild Gunman,” we felt as though we truly understood how to entice people into putting money into the machine. All we had to do was show the player within the time frame of a glance something that they couldn’t find in other games. If we could make them think, “Hey, how does this thing work?” then we felt we were successful. If people were to pay money to play our games, it would be because of that curiosity we had sparked; we felt that getting the player’s attention with just the content of the game itself would have been difficult. So we were also making things like “prize machines,” that is to say games that gave you a prize for playing them.

Around that time, a game someone at the company had made didn’t sell well, and we had about 3000 unsold arcade boards lying around. So I received an order from our company president asking if I could make a new game using the remaining circuit boards. What was I supposed to do with them? I was given this request just at the critical moment when I’d assumed all we could do was get rid of them. At that time I already had my hands full with designing the Game and Watch series, so I began the project with a pretty carefree attitude, having decided that out of the 3000 unsold boards I had before me, if I managed to sell even just a few of them, like 1000 or so, I’d be doing the company a favor as it was anyways.”

Originally a Game About Popeye and Olive

“In those days, Mr. Miyamoto’s job was package design. I called him over one day and told him “Let’s make a Popeye game for Game and Watch!”, and so we began ironing out the concepts. But due to the aforementioned circumstances we instead decided to put it out on the remaining circuit boards as quickly as possible. Pretty early on we had decided that Popeye would go on the bottom of the screen and Bluto would be on the top, thus establishing the framework for the game, but we would later discover that we wouldn’t be able to get the rights to use the characters after all. With no other options, we decided to keep the content of the game as it was and just change the characters. And so it was that those characters became Mario, Donkey Kong, and Princess Peach.

A considerable time later, when a certain movie company contacted me and said that our game was infringing on the copyrights to “King Kong,” I told them this story too; that we were originally trying to make a Popeye game.

Mr. Miyamoto created the character “Mario.” He said he was thinking about how he should change Popeye, and decided that since the setting for the game was a construction site that he would make a character wearing a work uniform. He was also the one who gave the character a moustache. At first though, we simply referred to the character as “Ossan” (Translator’s note: a slightly derogatory Japanese word for a middle aged man, meaning something along the lines of “pops”.), but when we sent the finished character design to Nintendo of America, there was talk that the character greatly resembled an employee working there named “Mario,” and before long the name stuck."

The Idea Came from “Sleepwalking Olive”

“There was an episode in the cartoon show for Popeye in which Olive was sleepwalking and wandered around a construction site. Whenever she was about to lose her footing, miraculously enough another platform would come out of nowhere and support her, and this left quite an impression on me. So we figured by using a construction site as the setting, there would be all kinds of things we could do, and thus chose that as the setting for our Popeye game.

Once we had established that the game would be set at a construction site, Mr. Miyamoto suggested, “Let’s make it a game where there are barrels falling from above, and the player has to dodge them.” At that time, he had a simple gameplay idea which was that whenever a barrel fell the player could get on ladder and avoid it. Once the barrel had passed, the player would get off the ladder and then back on the platform to continue climbing.

But if we went with that idea it would obviously get frustrating after a while, and so I told him to make it so that the player could jump over the barrels when they rolled towards him. This led to the idea of creating a “jump” button. At first we had doubts as to whether the idea of jumping over barrels using a button would really work, but once we actually tried it we discovered that it was pretty effective, and decided to implement it.

As for where the idea for barrels came from, Mr. Miyamoto had suggested, “if we need an object that rolls, how about barrels?” This led to the discussion of why on earth there would be barrels at construction site, and so it was suggested that we use oil drums instead. But we went with barrels anyways, I guess the reason probably being that their “rolling” animation was easier to draw.

Thinking about it now though, it seems that the imagery of the barrels we had used for the game left a strong impression. In the recently released “Donkey Kong Country”, for example, the barrel itself is actually kind of a motif, and spawned the appearance of pirate ships and other such things in the game.”

Donkey Kong began its early years as a Popeye game. As mentioned in the interview, the original idea was a game that would unfold using three characters- Popeye, Olive, and Bluto- at the construction site of a skyscraper. But due to problems concerning the rights to use the characters, Popeye became Mario, Olive became Princess Peach, and Bluto became Donkey Kong. Though this is a notably interesting episode in our discussion, it is also one that contains invaluable hints regarding game creation.

Recent games are overrun with “characters,” partly with those seen in popular boy’s comic magazines, such to the extent that their composition is like an equation of sorts: comics become cartoon shows, which become games, which are made to sell more character merchandise. However, if we view these games as games in of themselves, content-wise most of them are basically garbage, and many feel that this is leading to the decay of the gaming market as a result.

Of course, the use of a well-known character can become a selling point for the game, and is guaranteed to be at least enough to satisfy any fans of that character. But games that are over-reliant on characters cannot even be evaluated as “games”. Mr. Yokoi bravely states that “Much like shogi or igo (Translator’s note: These are Japanese board games, with shogi being very similar to chess and igo playing like a cross between Othello and Risk.), a video game’s “fun” is its life force, and I think that many recent games are simply obsessing over changing surface-level qualities.” This way of thinking is illustrated in the next discussion. Specifically, the idea that whether the main character is Popeye or Donkey Kong has no impact on the “fun” a game can offer.

Therefore, the following discussion is a particularly interesting one. Here, it is made known that explaining the controls to the player is the character’s role.

“How to Play” is in the Character

“Let’s say, for example, that there’s a game in which Mario moves along, enemies appear, and if he touches anything harmful then he dies. Even if the character were replaced with Mickey Mouse, the game still stands on its own. A more extreme way of putting it would be to think of the characters as symbols like “X” or “Y”.

Now, if characters in action games today were replaced with “X” or “Y”, on the screen they’d all be doing basically the same thing. This would mean that when put on the market, the player won’t be able to tell if “X” is the character they’re supposed to control or if “Y” is an enemy or an ally. Of course, you can always detail this within the instruction booklet, but if you don’t want to do this then you must make it so that the “Y” objects appear strong and dangerous looking to the player. Therefore, in the game world, the burden of teaching “how to play” is placed on the character.

If we think about Donkey Kong in these terms, we have Popeye on the bottom left of the screen and Olive and Bluto on the top. With that aside, how are we to make the player realize that he has to get Popeye to the top of the screen?

First, if we were to show the player a scene in which Olive is kidnapped when they first glance at the game, they’d probably have Popeye go after her. But Mr. Miyamoto and I thought very hard about what we should do in the event that even then there were users who couldn’t tell how to move their character.

So, we came up with this idea: once the player has jumped over a falling barrel that had come from above, next we’ll have a fireball appear from behind and chase after them. We figured that if chased from behind the player would climb upwards no matter what. Like this, we have attempted to explain how to play the game within the confines of the game screen.

The cutscene showing Donkey Kong climbing to the top of the screen originally wasn’t in the game. This is because at first it was a Popeye game, and so anyone playing it already understands his relationship to Olive and Bluto. But since it isn’t really clear who the antagonist is in the case of Donkey Kong, we had to show Kong as a villain somehow. And so we figured that, if we show the players a scene of Kong kidnapping a girl and then climbing upwards, when we quickly cut to the next screen and Kong is at the top, they should immediately understand to climb up after him.”

People Who Play Games Don’t Read Manuals

“When I was developing the Game and Watch, I constantly thought about whether the games would be something anyone could play without instructions. This is because people familiar with computers play games after reading the manuals, but I think the average person is different.

Later on, I would ask Mr. Miyamoto to create a game that I had designed called “Mario Bros.”. In an animated movie I saw, there was an amusing scene in which a turtle fell on its back and popped out of its shell, and I decided to make a game out of it. And so it became a game about turtles that get all discombobulated when you hit them from below. Aside from turtles, crabs also appear in the game. These are characters that Mr. Miyamoto came up with, and the whole thing feels like something that came out of a fairy tale.

Later though, he got famous when he made “Super Mario Bros.”, and so it became popular belief that “Mario” was his handiwork from the beginning. And because a lot of our employees know that I designed the first “Mario Bros.” game, they often say to me: “Why don’t you take credit for it, Mr. Yokoi?” (laughs). But I always tell them, “What’s the use in putting my name on something like that?” As far as I’m concerned, if the games I think up are well-received by the users then I’m satisfied, and so as for who made the thing, as long as there are a few people out there who know, then that’s good enough for me.”

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