Building a Prototype with LED Bulbs
Iwata: Now that we've discussed how the ideas for the games were created, let's discuss the next steps.
Kano: Everybody brainstormed a setting for the game, and once that was decided, Mr. Yokoi would say "I leave the rest up to you." (laughs)
Izushi: And when he said that, it was definitely you he was leaving it up to, Mr. Kano. (laughs) We would draw up a rough draft of the game on the blackboard, and Mr. Kano would clean it up for us. At that point the game would start to look like fun, and we'd think "let's do this!"
Kano: (taking out a folder) As it happens, I brought some old files, too... These are those rough drafts, the mock-ups.
Iwata: This is another amazing treasure you've brought out. (laughs)
Izushi: This old relic!?
Kano: These documents have all faded with age.
Izushi: This is from "Manhole."
Iwata: And this is from "Fire."
Yamamoto: This is from "Octopus."
Izushi: This really takes me back...
Kano: This is the hand-drawn copy we used to build the prototypes.
Iwata: I've heard that those prototypes were much larger than the final Game & Watches, and lit up. How were they made?
Yamamoto: First, we would take the mock-up Mr. Kano made for us to the darkroom, and have it exposed onto film.
Iwata: You took it to a darkroom? (laughs)
Yamamoto: Yes. We'd make a negative exposure onto film.
Izushi: Then, we'd lay the film down over a 5mm-thick acrylic board, cut out the pattern with a band saw, and lay the acrylic over a blank circuit board...
Yamamoto: And then we would fill up the holes with small LED bulbs.
Iwata: Were those the same kind of LED diodes used in model-making? This all sounds like an arts and crafts class! (laughs)
Yamamoto: That's just how it was. We had to be clever to fit all those lights in.
Kano: We used opaque acrylic, so that the light wouldn't bleed out of the holes.
Izushi: So, rather than software programming, the work was more about cutting, gluing, and cutting out holes. It was mostly done by hand.
Iwata: It sounds like a bunch of schoolboys in shop class making a huge Game & Watch. Just how big was it?
Kano: About the same size as the paper used to make the mock-up, so A4-sized.
Iwata: So with a giant, A4-sized Game & Watch, you checked that the game was fun to play?
Yamamoto: Right, we would try it out and say things like "we should change this," or "it's difficult to see what's going on here."
Kano: It was difficult to make the movements looks natural. If it wasn't good enough with the LED protoype...
Izushi: Yeah, we never got it right in just one try. Naturally, Mr. Yokoi's gave us feedback. We called it the "Yokoi Standard," and that feedback was strict.
Kano: Speaking of Game & Watch generally, out goal was to ensure that if the player made a mistake, they would think to themselves "that was my fault."
Izushi: So their next thought would be "let me try that again!"
Yamamoto: Right, so for example, if the player felt they caught the ball, but the game registered it as a drop, they would feel that the "bzz" sound the game made was unfair.
Izushi: So we wanted to make sure that whenever the player thought they had caught the ball, the system would register it as a catch. Even if the player actually missed by a little bit, we made the system register it as a catch.
Iwata: So you put some "play" into the system.
Izushi: That's exactly right. Our motto was "timing is everything," so we had to rework the game and tune it many, many times. Another colourful thing about Mr. Yokoi was that he would constantly ask to make changes to improve the game. When he was trying out the prototypes, he would say things like "you've got the timing OK, but what about adding some kind of obstacle here?"
Kano: As far as I'm concerned, it was good to have that kind of feedback at the prototype stage, with Mr. Yokoi telling us "Hmm... let's try again!"
Izushi: That was his catchphrase.
Kano: And at that point, he didn't care about the staff's opinions. We were very always reluctant to go back to the game's mock-up...
Iwata: These are the roots of "overturning the tea-table." (laughs)
Yamamoto: That's right. After you think you're done, start over...
Iwata: You had to go all the way back to the darkroom?
Yamamoto: Yes. Right back to the darkroom.
Kano: But after we tried again...
Izushi: Yeah, it turned out well.
Kano: Slowly but surely, the game would get better.
Iwata: It must have been a real pain, but to hear you talk about it, it sounds a little fun, too. (laughs)
Izushi: Everybody had a good time.
Kano: Yeah, it was great.
Iwata: How much time was there between the release of titles, back then?
Kano: Sometimes only a month.
Izushi: With Mr. Yamamoto and I taking turns writing the software, we could make a new product every month.
Iwata: That's amazing. These days, even though games are far more complex than they were back then, with one touch of the keyboard, you can make a change and test it out. In the era of the Game & Watch, on the other hand, you had to go back to the darkroom with your hand tools. It sounds like it was a lot of work. What was the programming like?
Yamamoto: Mr. Izushi and I were rookies until the fourth title, "Fire," but I do remember that at the beginning, the games weren't programmed as much as they were built in hardware.
Iwata: You mean the games weren't made by being programmed like they are now, but by building the actual hardware circuits.
Izushi: That's right. Actually, it was the same as it was for "Racing 112" and "Block Breaker." Keeping the gameplay in mind, you would put together a circuit schematic in your head, and pick up a soldering iron. That's how I made the prototype for "Fire."
Iwata: So you used a soldering iron instead of a keyboard. (laughs)
Izushi: I always thought it was faster that way. It was faster then, actually.
Yamamoto: It was, wasn't it?
Iwata: But at some point, you changed over to conventional programming.
Izushi. Yes. When I learned to use programming languages and started to make games that way, I thought "this is so much easier!" (laughs)
Iwata: It was easer and definitely faster. (laughs)
Izushi: It was faster, and I didn't have to get my hands dirty. (laughs)