The gaming world was shaken by the news that Masayuki Uemura passed away on December 6, 2021. Uemura designed the legendary Famicon and Super Famicom consoles, which came to the US as the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo Entertainment System, respectively.
Uemura’s legacy as one of the architects of the modern video game industry is undeniable, but who was he? How did he end up creating some of the world’s most beloved consoles?
Uemura was born in Tokyo in 1943. He attended the Chiba Institute of Technology as a young man, where he studied electronic engineering. He started his career at Sharp Electronics, a TV manufacturer in Japan. At Sharp, he worked with photocell tech, impressing clients like Nintendo.
Nintendo executives were so impressed that they hired him in 1971 to work alongside Gunpei Yokoi. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Yokoi designed the original Game Boy handheld system.
In the 1980s, Yokoi headed up Nintendo R&D 1, while Uemura was the lead of R&D 2. Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi reportedly encouraged the inter-company rivalry between Uemura and Yokoi, pushing each of them to release better-selling products than the other.
Home Console Development
Uemura’s role in the company changed in 1981 when Yamauchi tasked him with creating a new game system that could read information from cartridges. Nintendo’s arcade games, like Donkey Kong, were massive successes in the US. Yamauchi wanted to develop a home console to allow players to bring the games into their living rooms.
At the time, the company just wanted to capitalize on a booming market. Neither Yamuchi nor anyone at Nintendo would guess that Uemura was about to make a system that would redefine home video game consoles for generations.
President Yamauchi told me to make a video game system, one that could play games on cartridges. 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. It wasn’t until the next morning when he came up to me, sober, and said, “That thing we talked about—you’re on it?” that it hit me: He was serious.Masayuki Uemura, in an interview with Kotaku
The video game industry crash of 1983 had shaken retailer faith in video games as an industry.
In the early 80s, many store owners in Japan and the United States viewed video games as a fad that had outlived its 15 minutes of fame. In Japan, retailers viewed video games as toys for children. As such, the only shops that stocked video games were toy stores. Since these retailers didn’t stock televisions, owners would only reserve shelf space for handheld LCD devices, like Nintendo’s Game and Watch systems.
These systems sold poorly throughout the early ’80s, leading to the perception that video games had outlived their welcome. Then the Famicom hit the scene and ignited the country’s love for home consoles.
The Famicom wasn’t the first home system to read information from cartridges. However, it was the most advanced system with this capability in the early ’80s, impressing Japanese gamers with its colorful graphics and fast-paced gameplay. Compared to the rudimentary Atari 2600, the Famicom was a revolution.
The Video Game Crash of 1983
As bad as the situation was in Japan, it was even worse in the West. In one of the most notorious failures of the early game industry, Atari overproduced cartridges for the video game adaptation of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. It was programmed in only six weeks to meet the holiday 1982 release window. It’s remembered as a symbol of the recycled game design and boring levels that defined Atari’s output in the early 80s.
ET sold so poorly that Atari eventually dumped thousands of cartridges in a landfill in the Mojave Desert. For decades, video game journalists considered this story a myth until a team of filmmakers discovered the landfill outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico. In short, the US had buried video games and considered them an outdated relic.
This perception changed when Nintendo rebranded the Famicom system for the West. It reignited public interest in video games by prioritizing high-quality, polished games over rushed licensed fare. Nintendo’s flagship title, Super Mario Bros, drove the NES to nearly 62 million global sales. Mario became a household name overnight in 1987, pushing the nascent video game industry back into the limelight.
Nintendo’s focus on high-quality, third-party games helped mark the company as different from Atari in fundamental ways. Atari’s upper management in the ’80s was made up of business people who wanted to gain a competitive edge with licensing agreements. Nintendo, meanwhile, was staffed by people with genuine enthusiasm for gaming as a medium.
Super Mario Bros. was the first of many first-party smash-hits for Nintendo on the NES. The legendary side-scrolling platformer was packed-in with the console, making it many American gamers’ first experience with Nintendo. The company’s next big hits made their North American debuts in August 1987.
On August 15 of that year, a sci-fi adventure called Metroid introduced fans to the dark and moody adventures of Samus Aran. Players guided Samus across the fictional planet Zebes, battling space pirates like Kraid and Ridley. The game’s difficult side-scrolling gameplay and sci-fi plot fascinated players and cemented the game as a Nintendo mainstay.
Incredibly, Nintendo launched another all-time great NES game only a week later. On August 22, 1987, The Legend of Zelda hit store shelves in the US. This top-down adventure title was styled after tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. Its open-world design and clever puzzles introduced a legion of fans to a new kind of action-centered role-playing game.
The NES’s final major release before its successor hit the market was Super Mario Bros 3. On February 2, 1990, the game was released to rave reviews and brisk sales. It pushed the NES’s hardware to the limits and showed off what the system could do in the hands of Nintendo’s masterful programmers.
Uemura’s life changed drastically following the NES’s success.
“I was getting paid more, but the flip side was my job got a lot harder,” Uemura would later tell reporters. “President Yamauchi’s attitude played a big part in this, but my feeling was one of ‘seize the day.’ Just go for it.”
Lightning Strikes Twice
Uemura’s next project was the Super Famicom, the highly anticipated sequel to the Famicom. Nintendo faced a unique challenge with the new system. How could they convince millions of people to buy another machine for their video games? After all, the company only recently convinced both Japanese and Western markets that video games weren’t just a fad.
The NES sold over 60 million units and made Nintendo a household name, but would that be enough to push customers to buy another expensive home console?
When your killer app is Super Mario World, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Fans consider the Famicom—and its Western counterpart, the SNES—one of the greatest game consoles of all time. It sported a charming design and unique graphical capabilities that set it apart from its competitors. The system was released in Japan in 1990 and in the US in 1991.
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System boasted brighter and more colorful graphics than its predecessor. It also had more audio channels, allowing for robust sound quality. Fans agreed that this was a Super Nintendo, a worthy follow-up to the console that made Nintendo famous. Of course, the system’s endearing aesthetics and powerful processor wouldn’t have meant much without stellar games to back it up.
All-Time Great Catalog
The SNES might have the greatest catalog of games in history. It launched alongside Super Mario World in the West, which would have been enough to prop the system up for its entire five-year lifespan. Nintendo also released sequels to its other NES hits: Metroid and The Legend of Zelda.
On April 13, 1992, Nintendo released arguably the most impressive video game ever made. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past brought Link into the 16-bit era with a bang. The game offered players a chance to explore a sprawling overworld and provided numerous dungeons to stump adventurers. The puzzles were more involved, the combat was swifter, and the graphics were equal parts charming and impressive.
A year later, the company released Super Metroid, the follow-up to the 1986 classic. Super Metroid introduced new features like the Spring Ball, the Speed Booster, and the Grapple Beam. Fans remember Super Metroid as one of the best video games ever made, owing to its moody atmosphere, tight gameplay, and superb graphics.
At the time, the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo was fierce. Despite competition from the Sega Genesis in the early 90s and the Sony PlayStation in the late 90s, the SNES was a resounding success. Nintendo reports that it sold over 20 million SNES consoles in the US alone. The aging Genesis struggled to compete with the SNES’s graphics and processing power. By the mid-90s, the system was flush with stellar first-party titles that made Sony’s PlayStation look unimpressive by comparison.
Remembering Masayuki Uemura
Uemura retired from Nintendo in 2004 to pursue a teaching career, becoming the director of game studies at Ritsumeikan University. The university announced Uemera’s passing on Thursday, December 9. They didn’t publicly announce the cause of his death. “We offer our heartfelt appreciation for Mr. Uemura’s huge contributions to the development of the game industry by introducing a variety of video game consoles including family computers,” the university wrote in its official statement. “May he rest in peace.”
Masayuki Uemura was 78 years old. His long and illustrious career with Nintendo resulted in the creation of two generation-defining game systems. Fans around the world were saddened at the news of his passing. May he rest in peace. Thank you for the games, Uemura-san.