Masayuki Uemura, the Mind Behind the Nintendo and SNES, Has Died

Video game consoles anticipated our virtual society.
Brad Bergan
The Nintendo system (left), and a screenshot of the game, "Super Mario Bros."1, 2

The world just lost the mind behind an indelible icon.

Masayuki Uemura, the lead architect for the Nintendo and Super Nintendo gaming systems (also called the Famicom and Super Famicom), has died, according to an initial report from Kotaku. The influence his life and work had on the gaming industry, popular culture, and our current state of interacting on virtual platforms like social media, is simply irreplaceable.

He was 78 years old.

Nintendo and the birth of an icon

Uemura was the director of game studies at Ritsumeikan University, Japan, after his career with Nintendo ended in 2004. His passing was announced on Thursday. The game system creator began his career at Sharp, where he sold photocell tech to several companies, including his future place of work, Nintendo. After he joined the most famous name in gaming, he worked with Gunpei Yokoi to integrate the photocell technology required to run electronic light gun games (remember "Duck Hunter"?). He eventually worked on more specific plug-and-play consoles, like the firm's Color TV-Game.

But his career changed forever when he got a phone call in 1981. "President Yamauchi told me to make a video game system, one that could play games on cartridges," said Uemura in a 2020 Kotaku report. "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." As origin stories go, the birth of the Nintendo gaming system might be the most casual in five generations of gaming.

Gaming systems changed the fabric of social reality

Needless to say, Uemura immediately set to work on what eventually came to be the Famicom, a new and innovative system that was converted for sales in the U.S. as the Nintendo Entertainment System. In case you missed it, the system became a major global icon. But Uemura enjoyed some of this success in his own life. "Well, my salary went up. That's a fact," he added in the report. "So I was getting paid more, but the flip side was my job got a lot harder. President Yamauchi's attitude played a big part in this, but my feeling was one of 'seize the day.' Just go for it."

Well, forty years later, it looks like he did. Naturally, there's no direct line between Uemura and our virtual communities of commerce and self-branding on social media. But as one of the first and most iconic forays into leaving the physical realities of malls, public schools, and town squares for a digital immersion in the virtual realities that brought us "Super Mario Bros.", "Metroid", "The Legend of Zelda", and so many more, you could say Uemura had a visionary finger on the pulse of human imagination. So the next time you make a post or pick up a gaming controller, it couldn't hurt to take a moment to remember one of the names in the line of those who helped bring this from the realm of sci-fi to our concrete reality, and the early-eighties phone call from a drunk boss to "make it happen."

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