The first development group at Nintendo Company Limited was the Research & Development 1 Division. The first employee was the legendary inventor and designer Gunpei Yokoi. In 1965, Yokoi was hired by Nintendo as a maintenance engineer with duties of supervising and servicing the assembly-line machines used to manufacture its Hanafuda cards. Hiroshi Yamauchi, President of Nintendo at the time, came to personally inspect the hanafuda factory Yokoi was stationed. Yamauchi's keen eye noticed a toy resembling a mechanical extending arm, which Yokoi designed during his personal time. Yamauchi ordered Yokoi to develop it as a proper product for the holiday season . The Ultra Hand was a commercial success, and Yamauchi presented Yokoi with further assignments to create the succeeding line of toys for Nintendo. This began the career of Gunpei Yokoi, the inventor and designer. Further toys followed including the Ultra Hand, Ultra Scope, and N&B Block.
With Nintendo's revenue increasing through their line of toys and gadgets, Hiroshi Yamauchi realized that hanafuda playing cards were becoming a thing of the past. Yamauchi responded to the trend accordingly, and placed the General Affairs Manager Hiroshi Imanishi with the task of assembling the Research & Development 1 Division, mainly surrounding Yokoi with a talented group of personnel. Initially, the engineering aspirations relied on a variety of industrial designers and artists from the Creative Department to assist with the projects. While Imanishi transferred over most of the designers of the Creative Department, it became Yokoi's task to find technologically savvy developers capable of assisting him in the development of new products. Gunpei Yokoi understood that the majority of Nintendo's creative staff had educational backgrounds in design, and that his vision involved approaching development from the perspective of an engineer.
Yokoi found great success with his analog gadgets and toys, but was also affixed with using ingenuity and technology to conceive the entertainment of tomorrow. Yokoi began researching a solar cell technology developed by Sharp Corporation. Yokoi became very familiar with a sales representative from Sharp Corp. named Masayuki Uemura. The two men conversed on the possibilities of integrating solar cell technology with some of the future products Nintendo was developing. The technology powered a new invention called the Nintendo Beam Gun SP which was a toy gun that emitted a short flash of light when triggered, and was coupled with a target that would register the light and calculate a "dramatic" hit when aimed right.
Nintendo Beam Gun SP
The prototype went into full production and spawned several different versions. More than one million units of the Beam Gun games were sold in Japan. Nintendo put all its resources into the production of this exciting product and hired Masayuki Uemura from Sharp Corporation into Nintendo Company Limited to cement the foundation of Research & Development 1 Division. This evolution of consumer products would inspire Hiroshi Yamauchi to move the company forward into video games.
Research & Development 1 Division continued working with solar cells but on a bigger scale. Capitalizing on the popularity of skeet shooting in Japan, Yokoi and Uemura began developing a commercial application that would turn bowling alleys pools halls into electronic shooting ranges power by the solar cells. The project was bigger in scope and introduced the third chief engineer into the project, Genyo Takeda, who was just hired by Nintendo after answering the newspaper want ads. The fruition of the three engineers and supporting design team culminated with the 1973 release of the Laser Clay Shooting System which would be featured in venues called Laser Clay Range, the first electronic shooting range in Kyoto, Japan.
Laser Clay Shooting System
After opening, Nintendo encountered several problems that threatened the longevity of the Laser Clay Shooting System. The system mechanics encountered a glicth that resulted in the players actions not properly registering. The newly recruited Genyo Takeda came to the rescue and physically adjusted the scores and controlled the clay pigeons when the players hit the target. Takeda salvaged any negative press to stem from the mishap, and the engineering team properly addressed the situation shortly after.
Nintendo's jump from home products into commercial entertainment venues paved the way for the company to formally enter into arcade arenas. Hiroshi Yamauchi and Hiroshi Imanishi relished in the initial success and responded by further investing into the development sections of Nintendo. Gunpei Yokoi, Masayuki Uemura, and Genyo Takeda parted ways as each would operate their own section of development. Gunpei Yokoi remained as General Manager of Research & Development 1 Division, Masayuki Uemura was assigned the Research & Development 2 Division, and Genyo Takeda was assigned the Research & Development 3 Division.
All three divisions were developing independent products for both the arcade market and home consumer. Gunpei Yokoi drafted a new supporting engineering chief named Satoru Okada. While Yokoi had some personnel working on arcade games, the creative energy of the group went into another mysterious product. Following the heed of President Yamauchi, Yokoi was focused on coming up with something new. Yokoi was looking to move opposite of the big bulky arcade machines, and into something smaller and inexpensive. One day while riding on the train, Yokoi took notice of how entertained an adult was just tinkering around with his watch. The inspiration resulted in the development of a small game device that could fit in the palm of a child, and since it also had a tiny digital clock in the corner, it was named Game & Watch.
The first model intially featured a left and right button, but to compensate for more complex movement the cross-shaped pad now known as the digital pad was created. This same digital pad would become synonimous with the Nintendo control mechanisms, and later synonimous with all general controllers. Project leader Gunpei Yokoi and his assistant Satoru Okada created the concept, input mechanism and housing of the Game & Watch. But a new team inside of Research & Development 1 Division would design the actual games.
In 1975, the chief design of Research & Development 1 Division was Makoto Kano. Kano joined Nintendo in 1972 and his initial work was design on several toys and analog games. Kano teamed up with newly hired electrical engineer Takehiro Izushi on the Nintendo Beam Gun Custom which was an evolution of the Nintendo Beam Gun SP series. Makoto Kano designed the dolls, and Takehiro Izushi crafted the solar cell functions to create products like Beam Gun Custom: Gunmam and Beam Gun Custom: Lion.
Gunman and Lion from the Nintendo Beam Gun Custom Series
1978, the Research & Development 1 Division welcomed Masao Yamamoto, who was another electrical engineer. The first two sound designers were also working in the division, Yukio Kaneoka and the recently hired Hirokazu Tanaka. By now, the core team consisted of of Gunpei Yokoi, Satoru Okada, Makoto Kano, Takehiro Izushi, Masao Yamamoto, Yukio Kaneoka, and Hirokazu Tanaka. Development at the time was described as each member not having a specific duty, but instead doing a little bit of everything. Yokoi and Okada were the hardware chiefs and overall technical producers. Kano was the industrial and graphic designer. Yamamoto and Izushi were the programming gurus. The beeps and bloops came courtesy of Kaneoka and Tanaka.
Arcade projects at Research & Development 1 Division were powered through a different core. Gunpei Yokoi enlisted the the services of Kenji Nishizawa, a computer programmer to help direct and coordinate techology. More importantly, another young designer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto was asked to join the development effort. Miyamoto previously aided the success of Genyo Takeda and the Research & Development 3 Division with Sheriff and Space Firebird.
Research & Development 1 Division and Shigeru Miyamoto created Radarscopewith hopes of finding great appeal in the booming arcades in the West. Unfortunately the potential success was greatly overestimated as more machines were manufactured than the demanded. Gunpei Yokoi and designer Shigeru Miyamoto decided to salvage the surpluss of machines and convert it into a very different type of game titled Donkey Kong. The smash success of Donkey Kong propelled two Research & Development 1 Division sequels with Shigeru Miyamoto at the healm.
Radarscope and Donkey Kong
In the early 1980s, Nintendo recruited several new employees in to Research & Development 1 Division including Hiroji Kiyotake, Hirofumi Matsuoka, Toru Osawa and Yoshio Sakamoto. This new generation of designers were better skilled for pixel based design graphics over the older design team initially working with Yokoi. Most of the design staff immediately joined Game & Watch and arcade projects for a short duration. Kiyotake and Sakamoto each joined Makoto Kano as assistant designers on Game & Watch projects like Pinball, Donkey Kong, and Snoopy. Kiyotake and Sakamoto would also go on to aid Shigeru Miyamoto with some of the latter arcade titles developed under Research & Development 1 Division.
The home console provided a pivotal platform for Gunpei Yokoi and the young design team. Arcade development and Game & Watch development had very similar blueprints. There was a definitely a difference in the graphical scale between the two platforms, but the designs yielded similar types of experiences composed around simple and short bursts of action. The Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System received a plethora of arcade ports and similarly inspired titles for the first couple of years. It was Yoshio Sakamoto who helped change the direction of game development inside the department.
By the middle of 1985, Sakamoto and several designers from the R&D1 team were working overtime to create "new exciting games" for the popular Famicom. Sakamoto recalls the original design for Metroid as a "dark shooting game in space". Sakamoto was actually working on Gumshoe at the time, and was not part of the original conception of Metroid. Senior designer Makoto Kano and programming chief Masao Yamamoto were originally in charge, but the game became overly ambitious and without direction. Yokoi reassigned several of the R&D1 designers back on Metroid to help finish the game. Sakamoto contributes his involvement to Metroid as introducing the item-exploration design focus and helping design some enemies and maps.
Shortly after designing Metroid, and contributing to Kid Icarus, Sakamoto embarked on a career altering decision with a game titled Nakayama Miho no Tokimeki High School. Sakamoto stated that around his fifth year in the company, he developed an interest in creation story based adventure games. When a small Japanese company called Square approached Nintendo in hopes of collaborating on a telephone adventure game, Sakamoto took interest during the initial discussions and approached his boss Gunpei Yokoi asking to be in charge of the project. Sakamoto took charge of the project and decided instead of creating a character, they should use a famous celebrity that would create a big buzz. The game was a surprise success, and pleased Gunpei Yokoi, who encouraged Sakamoto to make more games like it. Yokoi advised Sakamoto to make a game based on a "detective mystery". The encouragement launched Yoshio Sakamoto into creating the cult classic Detective Club series for the Famicom Disk System. Sakamoto and several other of the designers of R&D1 decided to create a coterie group inside the division called Team Shikamaru, which would be a scenario planning and character creation group. Makoto Kano, Yoshio Sakamoto, and Toru Osawa were the creative directors of the cult group "team shikamaru" which was made-up section inside of R&D1, but spiritually it promoted an identity for the design team away from the original arcade roots of R&D1. Sakamoto was a bit nonsensical in the name association he wished to use to identify his involvement on games with, for later he would go on to use the "Team Deer Force" monicker, "Team Battle Card", and most recently the "Project M' monicker.