Masayuki Uemura, engineer famous for designing first Nintendo console

Masayuki Uemura, a Japanese engineer who has died at the age of 78, will be remembered for his role in shaping the modern gaming industry.

When a young Uemura was told by his notoriously tough boss at Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, to design a games machine with interchangeable game cartridges that would not have any competitors for three years, he rose to the challenge. Working late, though aided by Nintendo’s free udon noodles for work after hours, Uemura became the lead architect of Japan’s Famicom (short for family computer) games console, which was launched in 1983.

According to him, 14 million Famicoms were sold in Japan alone. The western version of the product was called the Nintendo Entertainment System NES. According to Nintendo Life, both devices together sold more than 60 million units.

The first iteration was by no means perfect, but it would help to establish Nintendo in the industry for the next decade. Beforehand, the company had been known for producing Japanese hanafuda playing cards. In 1990, the Super Famicom, the game’s successor, reached the market.

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Uemura’s design legacy is evident in today’s modern Nintendo Switch, which was released in 2017. Despite his achievements, many who interviewed the brilliant mind remarked on how humble he was.

In an interview with Eurogamer magazine in 2020, he said: “You know, it’s only when someone like you comes along and asks a lot of questions that makes me think maybe I was a part of some big thing.”

Uemura was born in Tokyo during the Second World War. His family left the capital for Kyoto to escape allied bombing raids. His father worked first as a kimono merchant and later ran a record shop. By Uemura’s own admission, he came from modest beginnings but was intrigued by design from a young age. “At a primary school age, a fundamental memory I have was creating a radio out of these components, so I dreamed of becoming an engineer,” he explained later.

He studied electronic engineering at Chiba Institute of Technology and after graduation, started working at Sharp Electronics. He was seconded to Nintendo as the companies considered their move into the electronic gaming market. Eventually, he became a full-time worker at Nintendo. Before he created the Famicom, he helped the company to design complex electronic light gun toys.

In 2004, he left Nintendo and took up a teaching post as director of the Centre for Game Studies at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

Speaking to US Gamer in 2015, he said: “If the thing that you’re making doesn’t sell well, you’re in trouble… and if it sells too well, you’re also in trouble. It’s never going to please 100 per cent of the people.”

Masayuki Uemura, engineer, born 20 June 1943, died 9 December 2021