Masayuki Uemura and the Family Computer projectPosted on April 30th, 2013 4 comments
I mentioned in Episode 1 of FUN that Masayuki Uemura, chief hardware designer for many of Nintendo’s consoles, did an interview with Weekly Playboy magazine in Japan last week to commemorate the Famicom’s 30th anniversary. (I said that the Famicom came out 1982 in the podcast; it was actually July of 1983.)
As Uemura explains in the interview, he began work on the console that became the Famicom in 1981, not long after Donkey Kong hit arcades:
“I was in the arcade-game development department, and the president at the time [Hiroshi Yamauchi] sent us a missive to ‘make something that’ll let you play arcade games on your home TV’. I, personally, really didn’t have any prospects of success.”
“The Game & Watch series was flying off the shelves at the time, so I figured Game & Watch was where our company was going to go for a while to come. Just the fact you could carry those around and play whenever you wanted, I thought that was huge. What’s more, they were taking more and more people away from my department to work on Game & Watch, so my team only had three people in it. So we were given this mission when it was already like we were fighting a losing battle. I still have my notes from the early stages of the project, but it’s filled with all of this pessimistic stuff, like ‘I don’t see any future in this’.”
So Uemura and his gang of three got to work, starting by examining other home consoles of the time. Given this was 1981, you could guess what he looked at first.
“The Atari 2600 was a big hit in the US at the time, so I thought I could just use that as a reference and coast on the project a little that way. But, unfortunately, the 2600 wasn’t any sort of good technical reference for us. So we got all defiant and decided we’d make a machine so high-quality, it’d live up to the arcades.”
Were there any surprises or particularly difficult points in development?
“We had trouble finding a chipmaker willing to work with us, and once we did, there were bugs with the graphic display because of issues with the chip designs we worked with. Also, development began with the goal of getting the sale price to be 10,000 yen or below, but that was just too hard costwise; it was looking to be more like 20,000 or 30,000 yen. We pared it down to the barest of features, though, and released it at 14,800 yen.”
The Famicom famously sports a garish white-and-red color scheme that many people (including myself) claimed was because those were the cheapest colors of plastic available in bulk at the time. But Uemura emphatically denied this in the interview:
“That’s actually an error. It’s the opposite, in fact, because originally we were going for a cheap steel casing for the unit, but it was too flimsy so we had to switch to a stronger plastic. The dark red color was simply an order from the president. He had this dark red scarf that he liked to wear a lot; it was just a color that he liked. For an executive like him, the external design is one of the easier ways to put his mark on the project, so to speak. That’s the truth of it.”
Where the name “Family Computer” originally come from?
“I came up with that name. We didn’t really have a marketing department, so the developers got to name their own projects. Terms like ‘personal computer’ and ‘home computer’ were popping up in the media pretty frequently at the time, and I realized one day that ‘family’ hadn’t been used yet. It evoked this image of families sitting around the kotatsu and playing games with each other, so I thought Family Computer would work well.”
This was abbreviated by the Japanese media to “Famicom” almost immediately, although Nintendo still officially called it “Family Computer” right up until it dropped support for the console in 2007.
“Actually, as I was discussing this name with my family, my wife said ‘Why don’t you just call it the Famicom? You know that’s how Japanese people are going to abbreviate it anyway.’ I liked that a lot, so I proposed that as the name of the console, but my boss turned me down. His reasoning was along the lines of ‘Famicom? I don’t know what that means. Family Computer is a lot easier to understand’. “
The 69-year-old Uemura now serves as senior hardware advisor on Nintendo’s board, as well as a research professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. 30 years after the Famicom was launched, he views the system as offering a fundamentally different experience from modern consoles:
“With all the limits the specs forced on them, developers had to deal with some pretty basic graphics as they worked hard on their games. But I think players were able to fill in the gaps with their imaginations. For better or for worse, modern consoles offer movie-like beauty in their visuals, so in a way the creator’s really forcing too much of their own image on players. With the Famicom, every player views the world presented to them in a different way.”
Interesting interview, thanks for posting it.
I do wonder what influence the original Cassette Vision may have had on them, though. It was selling quite well right out of the gate from mid ’81, was quite inexpensive and had also had a bit of a toy-like appeal. It’s hard to imagine that Nintendo didn’t want to blow Epoch out of the water before they really had a chance to completely take over that segment of the market. The imported American consoles and various “game pasocons” that were springing up around that time were certainly not getting the job done over there, and the handheld and arcade sides of the market were totally dominating. So, I’d guess that nipping the Cassette Vision in the bud may have been their real motivation.
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