Nintendo has always had a wide variety of internal and semi-internal development teams: from Retro Studios and Brownie Brown to Intelligent Systems and HAL Laboratory, the different directions and approaches emphasized by each of these quasi-autonomous developers has always been evident. This system of development teams has its roots in the early days of of the NES.
Before the hugely successful launch of the Famicom, Nintendo created and marketed a variety of products, from playing cards to light-beam games. In 1969, Nintendo manager Hiroshi Imanishi was tasked with creating a division of the company that would focus on electronic toys and games. This new unit was appropriately referred to as Nintendo R&D1. Gunpei Yokoi joined the team in 1970 and with his colleagues, including Genyo Takeda, went on to create a variety of arcade games and electro-mechanical toys. Nintendo’s arcade games, such as EVR Race and Sheriff, were successful, and the 1980 release of Yokoi’s popular Game & Watch product cemented Nintendo’s reputation as a video games company, with R&D1’s creative output driving their success.
Today, Shigeru Miyamoto is a household name and the most well-known game designer in the world, but in 1977 he was an industrial designer, working on arcade cabinets for Nintendo. When a Nintendo arcade game, Radar Scope, sold far below projections, Nintendo was left with a large amount of machines in stock. Miyamoto, with Yokoi’s backing, proposed the conversion of the unsold Radar Scope cabinets to a game of his design. Miyamoto sketched out a simple story about an angry escaped gorilla, supplemented by (at the time) radical gameplay, with multiple screens, cut scenes, and a main character who could jump using the now-standard joystick + single button combination. The game, Donkey Kong, was a runaway success, and Miyamoto was rewarded with his own design team. It was known at the time as R&D4, and its descendant today is Nintendo EAD, the largest single development team within Nintendo. Miyamoto and his new team were given the opportunity to produce many more games for the NES, including Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda—often regarded as among the best ever made.
Working behind the more glamorous R&D1 was the R&D2 team, formed in 1972. During the 1980s, the team was led by hardware guru Masayuki Uemura, an electronics engineer. The team concentrated on producing console versions of Nintendo’s arcade games, such as Popeye and Donkey Kong. As one of the “hardware” teams, they were also responsible for the design of the NES console and peripherals such as the Zapper. R&D2 had experience in light-beam-gun technology, like that of the Zapper, from producing several light-beam arcade games in the 1970s.
A third team, R&D3, also focused on hardware. The team was led by Genyo Takeda, who had spent time as part of the R&D2 team and had proven himself to be a capable leader. Although the team, with 20-25 employees, was the smallest of the R&D teams of the time, R&D was responsible for innovations that greatly extended the capacity of the NES. The most important was probably the MMC (‘memory management controller’), a series of chips that extended the NES’s capabilities and allowed for the development of games with features beyond that of the standard console.
Several of the MMC chips have become well-known in their own right. MMC2 was used in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! to animate the large sprites of the opposing boxers. MMC3 allowed programmers more freedom with scrolling—a player’s character could scroll through the gameworld freely while a status bar could remain ‘fixed’ (a classic example of MMC3 being used this way is in Super Mario Bros. 3).
MMC5 is probably the chip that provides the most obvious upgrade in capabilities. This chip, although expensive, allows for vertical and horizontal scrolling simultaneously (a la Castlevania III), additional sound channels (often used in Koei’s historical epics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms), and vastly increased memory options for graphics. Although developers disliked it because of its high cost, in the hands of a creative developer like Konami, the MMC5 allowed for the creation of extremely impressive games.
Nintendo’s typically monolithic public face, as well as the language barrier that exists between the home company and most North American consumers, tends to have the effect of dehumanizing Nintendo’s early games. As a result, it is easy to forget that some of Nintendo’s most memorable games and products are outgrowths of the individual personalities of their designers.
All of the original ‘R&D’ teams have been folded into other divisions or renamed as Nintendo has grown over the last thirty years, but the spirit of friendly competition and collaboration between various internal units continues to thrive today.