Gunpei Yokoi’s last major release at Nintendo was the Virtual Boy. It was a massive failure, and there has long been speculation that it caused Yokoi to resign. In an article he wrote before his tragic death, Yokoi explained why he left the company. The Virtual Boy’s failure was not the reason.
The Virtual Boy was released in Japan on July 21, 1995, to dizzy players and poor sales. Nintendo forecasted 3 million units sold for its first holiday season, but a year after release, it was discontinued. Yokoi left Nintendo on August 15, 1996, less than a month before his 55th birthday. He then set up his own company called Koto and worked on the WonderSwan handheld for Bandai.
In the November 1996 issue of Japanese magazine Bungeishunju, which Livedoor recently republished, Yokoi addressed the issue and also discussed his career.
“After over thirty years, I left Nintendo,” Yokoi wrote. “After graduating from university, I was at Nintendo the entire time working on playthings, but at the 55-year-old juncture, I thought about working at a job that would allow me even more freedom with my ideas.”
Yokoi was ready for a new phase in his long career. However, with the recent Virtual Boy disaster, the optics were not good.
“The day before I retired [from Nintendo], The Nikkei did a big feature on me,” Yokoi wrote, adding that the paper said he was doing so to take responsibility for the Virtual Boy’s failure. “In reality,” Yokoi continued, “I did not resign to ‘take responsibility for the Virtual Boy’s failure.’”
“Since before that, I was thinking that when I turned 55, I wanted to become independent.”
“To put it another way,” Yokoi wrote later in the article, “I came up with a lifetime of ideas and continued making playthings. To continue tweaking Nintendo’s corporate philosophy of ‘niche-type playthings’—that’s the only reason I resigned.”
It sounds like Yokoi was referring to “lateral thinking” with mature, inexpensive technology to focus on fun gameplay, which is something his former company continues to do to this day. Sadly, however, Yokoi’s post-Nintendo career was cut short when he killed in a traffic accident on October 4, 1997, at the age of 56.