Gunpei Yokoi, Game Boy creator: Our competition has a color screen? 'Then we're fine'

An excerpt from the book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein:

From a technological standpoint, even in 1989, the Game Boy was laughable. Yokoi’s team cut every corner. The Game Boy’s processor had been cutting edge in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, home consoles were in fierce competition over graphics quality. The Game Boy was an eyesore. It featured a total of four grayscale shades, displayed on a tiny screen that was tinted a greenish hue somewhere between mucus and old alfalfa. Graphics in fast lateral motion smeared across the screen. To top it off, the Game Boy had to compete with handheld consoles from Sega and Atari that were technologically superior in every way. And it destroyed them.

What its withered technology lacked, the Game Boy made up in user experience. It was cheap. It could fit in a large pocket. It was all but indestructible. If a drop cracked the screen—and it had to be a horrific drop—it kept on ticking. If it were left in a backpack that went in the washing machine, once it dried out it was ready to roll a few days later. Unlike its power-guzzling color competitors, it played for days (or weeks) on AA batteries. Old hardware was extremely familiar to developers inside and outside Nintendo, and with their creativity and speed unencumbered by learning new technology, they pumped out games as if they were early ancestors of iPhone app designers—Tetris, Super Mario Land, The Final Fantasy Legend, and a slew of sports games released in the first year were all smash hits. With simple technology, Yokoi’s team sidestepped the hardware arms race and drew the game programming community onto its team.

The Game Boy became the Sony Walkman of video gaming, forgoing top-of-the-line tech for portability and affordability. It sold 118.7 million units, far and away the bestselling console of the twentieth century. Not bad for the little company that was allowed to sell hanafuda.

Even though he was revered by then, Yokoi had to push and shove internally for his “lateral thinking with withered technology” concept to be approved for the Game Boy. “It was difficult to get Nintendo to understand,” he said later. Yokoi was convinced, though, that if users were drawn into the games, technological power would be an afterthought. “If you draw two circles on a blackboard, and say, ‘That’s a snowman,’ everyone who sees it will sense the white color of the snow,” he argued.

When the Game Boy was released, Yokoi’s colleague came to him “with a grim expression on his face,” Yokoi recalled, and reported that a competitor handheld had hit the market. Yokoi asked him if it had a color screen. The man said that it did. “Then we’re fine,” Yokoi replied.