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History Lesson: Intelligent Systems

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 30th Jun 2013 at 11:00 AM UTC

Not a day passes in our office without Intelligent Systems playing a part.

We're not talking about our ritual WarioWare: Smooth Moves morning warm up session, but rather a magic grey box that sits in the corner spitting out screenshots. All the 3DS screens that litter CVG and the likes of Official Nintendo Magzine? Wouldn't be possible without that grey box: an image-capturing device built by Intelligent Systems.

Intelligent Systems is as much about the hardware as software, no small thanks to the techy predilections of key Systems player Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi's tale could fill several history lessons, but to be brief - joins Nintendo, fixes hanafuda machines, designs toys, made head of Nintendo Research & Development 1, designs Game & Watch, meets Shigeru Miyamoto, trains Miyamoto, Miyamoto outgrows him, R&D1 needs to grow, Yokoi creates Intelligent Systems on February 18, 1984.

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The bonkers Super Paper Mario on Wii

Considering that the first game to officially wear the Intelligent Systems name on its title screen was 2000's Paper Mario, that means we have a good 16 years of mystery to deal with. Yokoi's R&D1 team worked so closely with Intelligent Systems that its exact canon of work is hard to nail down. Early NES titles Ice Climber, Tennis, Excitebike and Urban Champion all have ties to the team, though none are typical of its work.

If anything, some early software mediocrity - at least in comparison to Miyamoto's EAD Mario and Zelda output - encouraged the dramatic hike-up in quality that was to come in 1986. Metroid and Kid Icarus need no introduction, and 1988's Japan-only Famicom Wars nailed the future Advance Wars formula in an instant.

Hardware-wise, Intelligent Systems' work is easier to document. It developed ROB, the Robotic Operating Buddy, for the NES. Although a joke in the gaming world, ROB was vital in pitching the fledgling NES to US retailers, robo-magically pulling the wool over anti-gaming store-owner's eyes.

The arrival of Yokoi's Game Boy in 1989 should have seen his team blossom - a new branch, Game Boy R&D1, formed to deal with the machine - and yet it suffered in the shadow of Miyamoto's franchise success. Super Mario Land and Dr Mario (Intelligent Systems developed a taste for puzzlers while porting Tetris to the NES) were popular, but nothing more than new takes on Miyamoto's creations.

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Wario's first appearance as the final boss in Super Mario Land 2

A mascot was needed to free it from such design shackles: enter a garlic-belching fatso. Designed as the anti-Mario, Wario has been taken by many to represent the anti-EAD element of Yokoi's team. Created by Metroid and Kid Icarus designer Hiroji Kiyotake, Wario originally starred in the Wario Land games but Intelligent Systems eventually adopted him as the star of its WarioWare games, representing all that is 'out there' in the studio's work.

Behind Wario's scene-stealing turn is a network of specialised teams. Intelligent Systems was spreading out its console efforts, as Yokoi focused more and more on Game Boy. Most recognisable is Team Emblem who launched Fire Emblem onto the Famicom in 1990 (it would later develop N64's Paper Mario, after Emblem creator Shouzo Kaga left Nintendo when it canned Fire Emblem 64).

More varied is the work of Team Shikamaru. Having developed Mario Paint and Sim City for the SNES, the team paired up with Game Boy R&D1 to form the brilliantly named Team Deer Force (allegedly spawned from Shikamaru's name, which is Japanese for 'well-developed deer'). Its baby? Super Metroid.

The 'odd-jobbers' of Intelligent Systems, Shikamaru was soon drawn into the awkward task of supplying Yokoi's eye-ruining Virtual Boy with software. Not its most successful of missions; the Virtual Boy bombed, and Yokoi's resignation left Shikamaru's leader - Takehiro Izushi - to head up Intelligent Systems.

An image unfolds during this tale, an image reinforced by the Intelligent Systems we know and love today: at the heart of Nintendo lies a development team who wants nothing more than to be left alone by Nintendo. Look at Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, WarioWare and Paper Mario: these are the franchises free of Miyamoto's EAD team.

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