Gunpei Yokoi was NOT the driving force behind the Game Boy as we know it (The History of Nintendo, vol. 4)

Kilrogg

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For all his genius and how instrumental he was to Nintendo's success, it turns out Gunpei Yokoi is not responsible for how great the Game Boy ended up being. That's according to Florent Gorges's L'Histoire de Nintendo, volume 4 : 1989-1999, l'incroyable histoire de la Game Boy, which came out a few months ago in France but has yet to be translated into English.

As the book goes through the history of the Game Boy, it reveals that Gunpei Yokoi was much less instrumental to the creation of the Game Boy than previously thought. Instead, the author finds out - much to his confusion as a Yokoi scholar - that, without Satoru Okada, Takehiro Izushi and Yoshihiro Taki, and if Yokoi had had his way, the Game Boy would have looked like an evolved Game & Watch, a toy meant to provide some throwaway fun, rather than a fully-fledged system with many games.

Here are a few quotes from the book, all translated by yours truly. Keep in mind that these are all unofficial translations (though I am a native speaker).

There were two camps [within R&D1] in constant conflict with each other: Gunpei Yokoi (the director of the division)'s camp and Satoru Okada's (the assistant director). The two men strongly disagreed with each other as to what direction the DMG project [i.e. the Game Boy project] should take. Meetings would end in disaster with people calling each other names on a near-daily basis.
Okada says:

Satoru Okada said:
I was completely against Yokoi's vision, and even though he was my immediate superior, I would always stand up to him. [...] One day, during a meeting, he finally snapped. He was fed up, and so he said to me: "Okay, I've had enough! Do what you want!" So I replied: "Fine! Are you giving me full responsibility for everything?", and since he agreed, the Game Boy project took the path that seemed safest to me..."
Since Okada might be biased, the author further asks Hip Tanaka (who was involved in many projects across divisions, including R&D1) to confirm or deny:

Hirokazu Tanaka said:
I don't think I'm wrong in saying that Okada was the one who pushed for the Game Boy to use interchangeable ROM cartridges and a link cable for data transfers. Yokoi wanted someting much more simple, much closer to a toy. He let Okada convince him and greenlit his ideas. However, I recall that Yokoi didn't want Famicom-like interchangeable cartridges initially, and he hadn't come up with the idea of the link cable... The cable came from Okada, really."
Okada adds:
Satoru Okada said:
To give you a concrete comparison, Yokoi's Game Boy would have been reminiscent of Milton Bradley's Microvision handheld. [...] For instance, Yokoi didn't care whether the Game Boy would have third-party games or not. For him, the Game Boy would be a short-lived project, much like the Game & Watch games [...] On the other hand, I really wanted the Game Boy to resemble what R&D2 had achieved with its Famicom. [...] I was really motivated by the prospect of making an actual, enhanced portable Famicom, with an even more powerful Ricoh CPU. Sure, the screen would probably have been black and white still, but this would have allowed us to port games easily!
The book goes on to say that there was an unhealthy competition between Yokoi (R&D1) and Masayuki Uemura (R&D2, which was responsible for the Famicom and, later, the Super Famicom). The two of them simply didn't get along with one another, and Yokoi's pride, the author muses, wouldn't allow him to make the Game Boy into a "portable Famicom" like Okada wanted, because that would be like admitting that the much younger Uemura's Famicom was a brilliant idea. Uemura joined Nintendo much later than Yokoi, so this would have hurt at a time when seniority was such a core concept of operating a Japanese business. It'd be an admission of inferiority, essentially. Okada didn't care about the feud between Yokoi and Uemura, of course, so he did all he could to get closer to his ideal of a portable Famicom. Mind you, this notion of pitting different divisions against each other in a highly competitive fashion was Yamauchi's strategy, but it seems that competition was especially unhealthy between Yokoi/R&D1 and Uemura/R&D2 apparently. I'm assuming that volume 2 (NES) goes into this too, but I haven't read it yet.

In other words, it's not just that Yokoi was only one of several main contributors to the creation of the Game Boy - as big projects like this always are a collective effort -, but that his vision would have actively hurt the end product. "Yokoi is the creator of the Game Boy" is, quite simply, a myth at this point. I suppose if you were to designate one person, it would be Okada, but again, it was a team effort.

The rest of the book is just as good, and honestly, some parts are movie material. It gets into the dirtier side of Nintendo's internal and external dynamics. The section about how the Game Boy screen was chosen is mind-blowing. I never imagined how much trouble the whole project ran into, and how it came this close to being cancelled altogether. To think the Game Boy almost never existed! It's just so fascinating to me. If you can read French, you have to read it.

Lastly, please note that the point is not to act like Yokoi sucked or anything. He's a visionary, a great inventor, and he helped shape Nintendo into what it was back then. The point is to show how his mentality (i.e. that of a craftsman with little regard for ambition who didn't take pressure well), while good in some respects, also had its flaws, and to show that other contributors deserve more credit in this particular instance (the book goes over them as well, with many direct quotes from them).
 
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CoolestSpot

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Oct 25, 2017
14,627
Every strength of a creator is also their weakness, the best pieces of art are often created with some element of collbrotation even if not known in public eye.

Thanks for translating this, crazy to see how much was going on and it wasnt always planned to be like a portable NES
 

Dr. Zoidberg

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Oct 25, 2017
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Decapod 10
Very interesting. Thank you. I hope these books get translated.

I’m reminded that Yokoi was primarily a toy maker so it makes sense where his opinions came from.
 

Stopdoor

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Oct 25, 2017
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Neat. Always interesting to hear diverse perspectives on how things like the Game Boy were put together, the give-and-take are much more interesting than attributing it to just one person's vision.
 

justiceiro

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Oct 30, 2017
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I guess I now see why yamauchi put everyone against everyone inside nintendo. He, being a "foreinger" himself, knew that if he allowed senior menber to take full direction over what the entire company would be doing, good ideas would be shut down in favor of not having anyone been a outlier. However, since they were competing with each other, they had to speak up and come up with their own project because they had no garantees that the company doing good mean they would be safe in their jobs. So they need to be creative and be brave to talk against their superiors.
 

brad-t

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Nov 23, 2017
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I guess I now see why yamauchi put everyone against everyone inside nintendo. He, being a "foreinger" himself, knew that if he allowed senior menber to take full direction over what the entire company would be doing, good ideas would be shut down in favor of not having anyone been a outlier. However, since they were competing with each other, they had to speak up and come up with their own project because they had no garantees that the company doing good mean they would be safe in their jobs. So they need to be creative and be brave to talk against their superiors.
This would be the idealistic outcome, yes — but as we see in this story, it can also lead to a lack of collaboration between divisions. I always think of this Bloomberg article about Sears (paywalled now :( ) and how its competitive factions basically destroyed the company from within.

Thanks for sharing this story OP. Hope these books will be translated someday!
 
Oct 25, 2017
4,462
I have to learn to read French. :(

I gather that none of the books in this series are translated into English yet from reading the responses. Thank you for sharing this interesting information.

I find it hard to believe (though obviously it is true) that Yokoi didn't see the potential in a full-on handheld system. I would assume that just looking at the popularity of Tiger Electronics' handhelds would be enough convincing to try something a bit more complex than that in the market.
 
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Kilrogg

Kilrogg

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I need these books in English and on my kindle ASAP!

Thanks for posting this I will keep track of them now!
Unfortunately, what I'm reading doesn't inspire confidence:
- volume 3 has yet to be translated, let alone volume 4
- few copies of volumes 1 and 2 were printed, and they seem more or less out of print (that said, grab at least volume 1 if you can)
- the quality of the translation is kinda subpar it seems. Can't confirm myself though
- customers have complained that customer service isn't the greatest, and the company hides behind their supposed lack of marketing and distribution experience (apparently, the books didn't perform as well as they hoped outside of France)

Honestly, if I were a professional translator and they were interested, I'd translate them myself lol.

SinCItyAssassin : I tried to see if there was already a thread about this, but I couldn't find one.

[EDIT] UnapologeticallyBLK : volumes 1 and 2 exist in English, but they might be hard to come by.
 

wrowa

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Oct 25, 2017
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Do they have voiced any interest in translating volume 3 and 4? It’s such a shame the release of 1 and 2 turned out to be such a mess for everyone involved.
 

Dark1x

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Oct 26, 2017
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I'll have to check these out. I can read French fairly easily now and this is a topic I know well.
 
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Kilrogg

Kilrogg

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I'll have to check these out. I can read French fairly easily now and this is a topic I know well.
While writing this thread, I genuinely wondered if you'd read the books since you used to live in France. Glad it caught your attention. And yeah, definitely read those books. They're beautifully made, to boot.

What does it say about the game boy screen?
The gist of it is:
- Nintendo initially wanted to buy a screen from a screen manufacturer called Citizen
- Nintendo and Citizen eventually concluded a deal, because Citizen's screens were basically super cheap and way better than what Sharp (Nintendo's historical partner and Citizen's main competitor) could offer; Citizen was well ahead of Sharp
- As the Citizen execs and the Nintendo team walked out of the meeting room at Nintendo's offices, they crossed paths with some Sharp people, who were heading for Yamauchi's office; they had no idea what was happening, but they had a bad feeling about it
- Once Yamauchi was done talking to Sharp, he told his teams that they would work with Sharp after all, so the Nintendo team had to find a way to cancel the deal with Citizen without losing face (or making Citizen lose face); we'll never know what Sharp and Yamauchi told each other in Yamauchi's office
- Citizen ended up working with SEGA... Yep, you guessed it, Game Gear ended up having Citizen screens
- not only that, but the contrived plan Nintendo had come up with to cancel the Citizen deal involved showing them plans for a supposed second handheld Nintendo would release the year after the Game Boy. Nintendo would work with Citizen for that second handheld. Said plan was of course just a mock concept, as Nintendo had no plan to release another system
- interestingly enough, the Game Gear looked suspiciously like that mock plan Nintendo had shown to Citizen; make of that what you will ;)

tl;dr: the Game Gear's design looks like a mock concept by Nintendo, and uses the screens Nintendo was supposed to use before cancelling the whole deal.
 
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Kilrogg

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Interesting that the books were not digitalized. :(
To be fair, the physical books are just so well-made that a digital version would lose a good chunk of its value. The quality of the cover is top-notch, the inside uses high-quality glossy paper, the layout is extremely pleasing, and there are tons of pictures.
 

Unknownlight

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Nov 2, 2017
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This is incredible. I've never even heard of these books, let alone things I'm learning here. How did the author manage to get so much inside information?
 

Setsune

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Oct 27, 2017
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To be fair, the physical books are just so well-made that a digital version would lose a good chunk of its value. The quality of the cover is top-notch, the inside uses high-quality glossy paper, the layout is extremely pleasing, and there are tons of pictures.
That's nonsense. You read a book for the contents, not the glossy paper. The layouts and pictures don't have to be changed.

Edit: To clarify, a nice physical edition can be a bonus on top of an excellent book. But unless your contents rely explicitly on the physical medium involved, a nice physical edition isn't a reason to not have a digital edition. (And I'm aware those don't happen automatically, they require extra work and extra rights clearance.)
 
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Kilrogg

Kilrogg

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That's nonsense. You read a book for the contents, not the glossy paper. The layouts and pictures don't have to be changed.
You don't have to convince me, I love ereaders. I'm just saying that this is not just a novel, and that extra care was taken to make the book pleasing to the eye. So if you were to digitalize them, those versions would have to be made for tablets (possibly smartphones) specifically. Unless you're making a much cheaper ebook with no pics obviously.

Unknownlight : from the blurb in the book: the author speaks Japanese, is a translator/interpretor and has been the European correspondent for the Japanese magazine Nintendo Dream. He's also the author of the official biographies of Yoshitaka Amano, Yoshihisa Kishimoto (Double Dragon), Tomohiro Nishikado (Space Invaders), Suda51 and others. He's written many other books, and cofounded the publishing house that publishes The History of Nintendo. He's a veteran on the same level as, say, Chris Kohler or Jeremy Parish in the US.
 

Blackpuppy

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Oct 28, 2017
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Aren’t you an American living in Germany? So, you managed to learn both German and French? That’s some true dedication.
His wife is French.

And that's not to diminish his accomplishments! I'm merely saying that there's a reason he can read in French.
 
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Zonic

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Oct 25, 2017
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It's an absolute shame we'll never get this, let alone vol. 3, translated into English. I was super lucky to get vol 1 via Amazon for like $30ish & then vol 2 directly from Pix'n Love for $50 after shipping before learning about thr publisher being real bad about actually sending their stuff & seeing how much both volumes go for nowadays. Nuts to see Amazon selling used copies for about $180-$200 at the cheapest.
 

N. Tyranno

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Nov 6, 2017
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Didn't something like this also happen with Super Metroid? Like, at some point he threw up his hands and said "what, are you trying to create a masterpiece?!" in regards to how large the game was?
 

Antony

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Oct 25, 2017
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I’ve been preaching the name Satoru Okada for years! He was amazing and responsible for the creation of every handheld upto the 3DS, meaning his work culminated in the absolute pinnacle of handheld design with the Nintendo DSi.
Nobody cares though. It’s only Yokoi who gets the credit.
 

Tamazoid

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Oct 28, 2017
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Shame that the first two books are so expensive now. I passed on them back in the day because of criticism about the translation quality (if I recall correctly). The prices they go for now is absolutely insane.
 

Zonic

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Oct 25, 2017
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There's a part FOUR? I haven't even read three. Is three available in English?
Nope, and I doubt it'll ever happen. Something happened with Pix'n Love and they basically stopped translating books from what I can tell. Poor customer service, which I hear they try to hide behind by saying due to poor sales in the US.

Shame that the first two books are so expensive now. I passed on them back in the day because of criticism about the translation quality (if I recall correctly). The prices they go for now is absolutely insane.
The first book has a few spelling & grammatical errors, but it was still perfectly readable. 2nd book was a bit better and doesn't have as many errors.
 
Jun 2, 2019
772
I mean. Look at what Yokoi's philosophy was, and then take a look at what the Game Boy is, it makes you raise an eyebrow at least.

Still, fascinating, but somehow Yokoi being a proud old mofo doesn't surprise me in the slightest
 

Prof Bathtub

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Apr 26, 2018
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Yokoi's plans for a G&W style GB have been known for a little while, which makes it more frustrating that he's always called "the father of Game Boy." And how his adage of "withered technology etc etc..." is always brought up when discussing Nintendo handhelds in particular. Not that he wasn't massively influential in other ways.
 
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Kilrogg

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I mean. Look at what Yokoi's philosophy was, and then take a look at what the Game Boy is, it makes you raise an eyebrow at least.

Still, fascinating, but somehow Yokoi being a proud old mofo doesn't surprise me in the slightest
I'm watching a French show where Florent Gorges (book's author) is a guest right now, and he says that the reason why pretty much everyone believes the "Yokoi is the creator of the Game Boy" mantra to this day is because the official biography of Yokoi (which was translated into French by his publishing house and, I assume, into English and many other languages as well) presents him as such. But when he tried to dig deeper and ask other people (such as Okada, Izushi and Taki) about it, they pretty much all told him "you know, that biography is all fine and good, but you shouldn't take it at face value". In the book, one of them even says that he read it once and never again because it's too soft, and doesn't reflect the harsh realities they had to go through back in the day.
 

riq

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Feb 21, 2019
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Awesome that Okada's insight is being recognize and even though he initially disagreed, I don't see how this diminishes Yokoi's involvement since he was R&D1's leader. Glad that team ended up giving us handheld gaming as we know it.

JeremyParish check this out!
 
Jun 2, 2019
772
I'm watching a French show where Florent Gorges (book's author) is a guest right now, and he says that the reason why pretty much everyone believes the "Yokoi is the creator of the Game Boy" mantra to this day is because the official biography of Yokoi (which was translated into French by his publishing house and, I assume, into English and many other languages as well) presents him as such. But when he tried to dig deeper and ask other people (such as Okada, Izushi and Taki) about it, they pretty much all told him "you know, that biography is all fine and good, but you shouldn't take it at face value". In the book, one of them even says that he read it once and never again because it's too soft, and doesn't reflect the harsh realities they had to go through back in the day.
It makes him sound Yamauchi-esque, wich sure is something haha

Damn I hope I can get ahold of the book, my French is a bit rusty but I'm sure I'll be able to read it. I'd love to.
 
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Kilrogg

Kilrogg

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Awesome that Okada's insight is being recognize and even though he initially disagreed, I don't see how this diminishes Yokoi's involvement since he was R&D1's leader. Glad that team ended up giving us handheld gaming as we know it.

JeremyParish check this out!
It's not that it "diminishes" Yokoi's accomplishments: the guy was still the head of R&D1, and so he helmed the project. What it does is break the myth that Yokoi is the inventor. The reality, according to the author and to Okada, is that Yokoi was the genius of old Nintendo, i.e. Nintendo as a toy company. For that old Nintendo, Yokoi's ideas were pretty much all genius. But as soon as the Famicom, which was Uemura's project, became successful and started to turn old Nintendo into modern Nintendo (i.e. the worldwide video game/tech company), he basically lost his edge and remained stuck in the past. He did not become entirely irrelevant, but he'd basically become the old guard, while Okada, Uemura et al were Nintendo's future. And he did not like this new direction (which is why he eventually left).
 

tolkir

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Oct 25, 2017
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Three first books are translated to Spanish. You can find them as "La Historia de Nintendo". Very good work of localization and the vol. 3 includes some pieces of NES story in Spain. I hope we get the fourth one.

It can be learned the Nintendo past since the foundation with these books.
 

wrowa

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Oct 25, 2017
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Nope, and I doubt it'll ever happen. Something happened with Pix'n Love and they basically stopped translating books from what I can tell. Poor customer service, which I hear they try to hide behind by saying due to poor sales in the US.
The English releases of The History of Nintendo and the Mario book were a wild ride, to say the least. My memory is a bit rusty, but I think only the first issue of History of Nintendo released according to plan. Then... everything went weird. Pixnlove became silent, ignored requests from the international community, at some point actually released Volume 2, only to then go dark again - and everything repeated itself. At some point they claimed that someone stole all of their money and that's why they couldn't release the other books they collected money for, but that they're keen to deliver the goods regardless. They ended up releasing the Mario History book and even gave away a free copy of another Mario book (collection of Mario merchandise) as an apology, which was a nice gesture.

They never released the Yokoi biography though, which I think was available for pre-order too. (Oh yeah, that's the important part: you had to pay for the book when you preordered them and they mostly ignored refund requests)
 

Neo C.

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Nov 9, 2017
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Yeah, old Nintendo was crazy. David Sheff had also told about the competition between the different divisions. Fortunately Iwata changed the structure quite a bit, made it more modern and apparently more cooperative.
 

godofcookery

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Oct 25, 2017
566
It's not that it "diminishes" Yokoi's accomplishments: the guy was still the head of R&D1, and so he helmed the project. What it does is break the myth that Yokoi is the inventor. The reality, according to the author and to Okada, is that Yokoi was the genius of old Nintendo, i.e. Nintendo as a toy company. For that old Nintendo, Yokoi's ideas were pretty much all genius. But as soon as the Famicom, which was Uemura's project, became successful and started to turn old Nintendo into modern Nintendo (i.e. the worldwide video game/tech company), he basically lost his edge and remained stuck in the past. He did not become entirely irrelevant, but he'd basically become the old guard, while Okada, Uemura et al were Nintendo's future. And he did not like this new direction (which is why he eventually left).
Does this change perspective on the Virtual Boy at all?
 

Zonic

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Oct 25, 2017
16,685
The English releases of The History of Nintendo and the Mario book were a wild ride, to say the least. My memory is a bit rusty, but I think only the first issue of History of Nintendo released according to plan. Then... everything went weird. Pixnlove became silent, ignored requests from the international community, at some point actually released Volume 2, only to then go dark again - and everything repeated itself. At some point they claimed that someone stole all of their money and that's why they couldn't release the other books they collected money for, but that they're keen to deliver the goods regardless. They ended up releasing the Mario History book and even gave away a free copy of another Mario book (collection of Mario merchandise) as an apology, which was a nice gesture.

They never released the Yokoi biography though, which I think was available for pre-order too. (Oh yeah, that's the important part: you had to pay for the book when you preordered them and they mostly ignored refund requests)
Oh god, right, I forgot about the Yokoi book never getting released. I managed to get their History of Sonic & Mario Goodies Collection via Amazon with no issues, thank goodness. Really wish someone else would pick these up & translate them, it always seems like the UK has the more interesting gaming related books.
 

daCuk

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Oct 27, 2017
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Three first books are translated to Spanish. You can find them as "La Historia de Nintendo". Very good work of localization and the vol. 3 includes some pieces of NES story in Spain. I hope we get the fourth one.

It can be learned the Nintendo past since the foundation with these books.
Thanks for the info, tolkir!
Are they available from Amazon Spain (digitally or not)?
 

daegan

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Oct 27, 2017
700
god, I wish they actually would have figured out how to do this in english in a way they were happy with. shocked to be honest that, say, Read-Only Memory hasn't stepped up to do it the way they have with so many other projects.
 

Kelanflyter

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Nov 9, 2017
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This is incredible. I've never even heard of these books, let alone things I'm learning here. How did the author manage to get so much inside information?
Hé is a true journalist and made some hard investigations directly in japan ( also hé speaks japaneese that help)
Hé is one the best specialist in the world about nintendo history
Hé also have some contacts with older Nintendo France people like eve-lise blanc deleuze