Gumpei Yokoi (横井 軍平, occasionally also known in English as Gumpei Yoko or Gunpei Yokoi), born September 10, 1941, was one of the main figures in shaping Nintendo into the company it is today. He was the creator of Metroid and Kid Icarus, the chief designer of the Game & Watch and Game Boy and SNES and Virtual Boy (and later the Wonderswan, after leaving Nintendo), and the founder of R&D1, a development house at Nintendo until after Mr. Yokoi's departure. (R&D1 is mostly notable as the home of Mr. Yokoi's pet projects, but is also notable in that R&D1 defectors formed Intelligent Systems, the company that developed Nintendo Wars series, the Fire Emblem series, Tetris Attack, and others.)
Gumpei Yokoi was hired by Nintendo in 1965, long before anyone outside of Japan had ever heard of the company. He was hired for a low-level job, as a maintenence worker on the assembly lines for Nintendo's plastic-covered playing cards, the lucrative market Nintendo had discovered a few years before. He spent several months as the head of a maintenence crew consisting only of himself, to boot.
Eventually, in 1970, he was reassigned to the games division, with instructions to give Nintendo a big hit toy for that Christmas. He gave them the Ultra Hand, an extension hand for grasping. The simple toy, much-duplicated since, sold 1.2 million copies that Christmas. He followed this up with a series of Ultra toys, a love tester, and a light-based shooting game used in shooting galleries (the early inspiration for the Zapper, and the reason there is a clay-shooting game in Duck Hunt), but neither of those really brought him to prominence.
What brought Mr. Yokoi to prominence was when he was assigned to help a newly promoted staff artist find a use for the cabinets and hardware for a failed game called "Radar Scope". That staff artist was named Shigeru Miyamoto, and the game he would create would be named Donkey Kong, the breakout arcade hit for then-unknown Nintendo.
His next success came in 1980 with the Game & Watch. The Game & Watch LCD games each had a game and a built-in alarm clock, and could easily fit into a pocket. They were an unqualified hit in Japan, and built up a following in the US, as well. For the Game & Watch, he concieved the "D-pad," the four-directional cross later used for the NES, since a joystick won't fit on a portable system. This design would be patented by Nintendo, and used in the design of the Famicom's controllers
The Famicom would bring Mr. Yokoi his next successes, as he developed the password system Nintendo would use in several games. Two of these were produced by Mr. Yokoi himself: Metroid and Kid Icarus. The team he formed to create these games was R&D1. (R&D1 collaborated heavily with Intelligent Systems; only appropriate, as Intelligent Systems was formed largely of R&D1 defectors.) With R&D1 and Intelligent Systems, he would go on to develop quite a few successful games, including the next two Metroid sequels, Dr. Mario, and Panel de Pon, as well as bombs like the Super Scope 6 and Mario Paint.
While Metroid holds a soft place in many gamers' hearts, Mr. Yokoi's biggest contribution to Nintendo came in 1989. After he grew dissatisfied with the limitation of the Game & Watch, he and R&D1 began development of a handheld system that used cartridges like the NES's. This would become the Game Boy, and, with the help of a launch title that set the world afire, would go on to become the most successful gaming system ever. Later, Mr. Yokoi also designed the Game Boy Pocket, a slimmer version of the Game Boy.
His next hardware ventures were not so successful. While his failure with the Super Scope 6 was relatively small-scale, it would be the Virtual Boy, in 1995, that would sink his future at Nintendo. The Virtual Boy, a 3-D system that fit over the eyes, got bad press, had bad games, and gave gamers headaches. It didn't even last a year, and less than two dozen games were developed for it. At E3 1995, Gumpei Yokoi and his Virtual Boy were utterly ignored in comparison to the buzz over Nintendo's Nintendo64.
Mr. Yokoi remained a "respected elder" at Nintendo after this, but it was clear that he was seen as disgraced, by both himself and many of his coworkers. He retired from Nintendo in August 1996 to save face, and went on to found his own company. KOTO, his new company, was most notable for the development of the Wonderswan, Bandai's failed competitor to the Game Boy. In fact, their first title for the Wonderswan was titled Gunpey, in his honor.
On October 4, 1997, Mr. Yokoi was killed in a car accident. He and a coworker, Etsuo Kisoo, were in a minor accident, one which involved no injuries. However, while they were examining the damage, he was struck by a third car, driven by a man named Iwao Tsushima. Whle Mr. Kisoo and Mr. Tsushima and his wife survived with relatively minor injuries, Gumpei Yokoi was killed.
His departure from Nintendo and later death can largely be blamed for delaying before a color Game Boy until 1998, a color Wonderswan until 1999, and any Metroid sequels until 2002. The Nintendo Masterpiece Puzzle Collection, released in 2003, was informally dedicated to him, as he directed or produced two of the three games on it.
In his time at Nintendo, he was responsible for...
- The founding of R&D1, the team that developed almost all of the games he oversaw
- The Ultra Hand and the rest of the Ultra series of toys
- The light guns for the Laser Clay Ranges (the precursors to the Zapper)
- The original Game & Watch (he oversaw the entire series until its cancellation)
- The Game Boy (and the Game Boy Pocket) and a number of its early in-house titles, including Solar Striker and Balloon Kid
- Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. (both in conjunction with Shigeru Miyamoto)
- Wrecking Crew and other Vs. Unisystem titles
- The Metroid series (until his departure), including Metroid, Metroid II, and Super Metroid
- The Super Mario Land series, including Super Mario Land, Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land, and Wario Land 2
- Dr. Mario
- Tetris Attack, Mario Paint, Fire Emblem 4, and a number of other Intelligent Systems titles
- The Super Scope 6 and the SNES mouse
- The Virtual Boy and many of its Nintendo-developed titles, including Mario Tennis
Later, at his own company Koto, he created the Wonderswan for Bandai and a handful of titles for it before his death.
(This list of credits isn't complete; any contributions would be appreciated.)
Sources: http://web.syr.edu/~renricos/pages/yokoipage1.htm, http://samsworld.com/n64/feature/feature1.html, Nintendo.com, the Nintendo node, Nintendophiles, and the Wikipedia.