Founded in 1889 by Fusajiro Yamauchi, Nintendo started out not as a game development company, but rather as a card company. The company, named Nintendo Koppai, produced and marketed a playing card game called Hanafuda which shortly became popular. As demand grew for his playing card game, Yamauchi had to hire assistants to help mass produce these cards to keep up with demand. And although much of Nintendo’s focus is now on video games, they still continue to manufacture these Hanafuda cards till today and they even organize their own tournament called the “Nintendo Cup”.

Fusajiro Yamauchi retired at the age of 70, in 1929 and left Nintendo in the hands of his son-in-law, Sekiryo Yamauchi. However, in 1949, Sekiryo Yamauchi would suffer a stroke and had to leave Nintendo in the hands of his grandson, 22 year old Hiroshi Yamauchi.

67 years after Nintendo Koppai was founded, president of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi, visited the United States with the intention of learning from dominant playing card manufacturer, United States Playing Card Company. He however noticed that despite their success, they were still using only a small office. This was when he realized the limitations of a playing card company and thus began experimenting with new business ventures in various industries. Between 1963 and 1968, Nintendo set up a taxi company, a chain of love hotels, a food company and several other different ventures. These would all subsequently fail and after the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Nintendo would see their playing card sales drop. 

Gunpei Yokoi

Gunpei Yokoi

In 1966, Nintendo decided to venture into the toy industry. Their first product was the Ultra Hand, an extendable arm developed by a maintenance engineer in his free time, by the name of Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi would go on to design some of Nintendo’s most famous products, such as the Game & Watch and the Game Boy and supervise legendary game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto. He was transferred to the new ‘Nintendo Games’ department as a product developer and despite some success with some of their more popular toys, Nintendo could not keep up with the fast development and manufacturing turnaround and was left behind behind by firms such as Bandai and Tomy. 

In 1973, Nintendo shifted their focus to family entertainment venues with their Laser Clay Shooting System, incorporating the same technology used in their light gun line of toys. Following some success, Nintendo developed more light gun machines for the emerging arcade scene with games such as Wild Gunmen. Although Nintendo had to shut down their Laser Clay Shooting System due to high costs, Nintendo had found their calling.

 Nintendo began to develop their first console in 1977. Student developer, Shigeru Miyamoto was hired by Nintendo and was working for Yokoi to design the casing for their first console, the Color TV Game. While only being released in Japan and South Korea, the Color TV Game sold 3 million units for the period of 1977 to 1980. This would only be the starting point of Nintendo’s illustrious venture into video games with Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto at the forefront of Nintendo’s success.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Shigeru Miyamoto

 To this point, Nintendo had several small success in the video games industry. Nintendo moved into the video arcade scene with their own release, EVR Race, designed by Genyo Takeda. But the turning point came in 1981, with the release of Donkey Kong, designed by Miyamoto. The premise of Donkey Kong was simple, it is a platforming game where the protagonist Jumpman (renamed Mario), must rescue Lady (renamed Pauline) from the antagonist Donkey Kong. Nintendo president, Hiroshi Yamauchi assigned the project to then first time game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto. Miyamoto designed the scenario and game alongside with Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo’s chief engineer. The two men decided to use graphics as a means of characterization, using cutscenes to further advance the game plot and multiple levels to enhance the longevity of the game. Donkey Kong’s success would prove to be the deciding factor for Nintendo’s dominance in the industry until the mid 1990s.

Following the success of Donkey Kong, Nintendo created new hardware which banked on the following of Donkey Kong and brought it their handheld device, the Game & Watch. Nintendo would also continue to license out the Donkey Kong IP to a variety of other consoles in the following years. Consoles such as the Atari 2600, Commodore 64 and the IBM PC Booter. Nintendo would also go on to create the aracde game Donkey Kong Jr. which again featured Mario and later released on a variety of other platforms. All of these would culminate and cement Mario as the official mascot of Nintendo, cultural icon and would later be a star in his very own video game, Mario Bros.

Mario Bros., like Donkey Kong, started out as an arcade game which follows Mario and Luigi as they delve into the sewer systems of New York to exterminate monsters. Mario Bros. would also go on to be released on Nintendo’s next console, the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The Nintendo Entertainment System or NES, was a video game console which was released by Nintendo in North America in 1985. Prior to the North America launch, the NES was launched in Japan in 1983 under a different name, the Family Computer, shortened as Famicom. The NES would become the best-selling console of its time even helping to revitalize the US video game industry following the crash in 1983. The NES would set the standard for future consoles of its generation an  also allowed Nintendo to introduce licensing third-party developers and allowing them to produce and sell software for the NES. The NES would go on to sell a total of 61.91 million units worldwide and would continue to go into production until September of 2003, when Nintendo discontinued the popular console in Japan.

 After the success of the Game & Watch in 1980, Yokoi would again develop another sensational hit. The Game Boy. It was released in 1989 and while it was not the most technologically superior consoles as compared to the the Sega Game Gear or the Atari Lynx, which both featured color graphics,  it would go on to become the best-selling handheld of all time while remaining dominant for more than a decade. Game Boy also owed it’s success to developer Gamefreak for the Pokemon franchise which sold 23.64 million units. The Game Boy would also see variations of itself come into the market, such as the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Light and the Game Boy Pocket. 20 years after its introduction, the Game Boy was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2009. 

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System

One year after the release of the the Game Boy, Nintendo launched yet another home console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or the SNES. The SNES featured advanced graphics and sound compared with other consoles at the time and together with their Super FX chip, the SNES was the first console to ever run three-dimensional video games on consoles. Designed by Masayuki Uemura, designer of the original NES, the SNES was an instant success. With  an initial shipment of 300,000 units sold out within hours. The SNES and the Sega Genesis would become rivals which resulted in a console war. While no one console was able to maintain definitive lead for several years, the SNES had Donkey Kong Country in the waning years of the 16-bit console wars to pull ahead of the Genesis and to hold its own against the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn. 

At this point, it seems like Nintendo cannot fail. One of the reasons for Nintendo’s success was their policy to license third-party developers. This allowed third-party developers like Capcom, Square, Konami and Enix to develop and market games on Nintendo’s console. However, Nintendo would have to approve these games and would only allow each third-party developer to release a maximum of 5 games per year and not allow these games to be released on other consoles for another 2 years. This practice would however end in 1991 due to competition from Sega’s console and backlash from the developers regarding Nintendo’s strict licensing policies.

However, this would change in 1995 with the release of the Virtual Boy. Designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the Virtual Boy boasts that it was capable of displaying true 3D graphics by creating an illusion of depth using the effect known as parallex. The Virtual Boy was launched together with games such as Galactic Pinball, Red Alarm and Mario Tennis but despite strong promotional campaigns, the Virtual Boy was not well received by critics. Reviewers of the Virtual Boy considered the 3D feature a gimmick and that the games were basically 2D or even 1D. Many reviewers also experienced painful side effects when playing on the Virtual Boy. As a result, Nintendo only managed to sell 770,000 units before quickly discontinuing the Virtual Boy. This console would also be one of the deciding factor for Gunpei Yokoi to leave Nintendo in 1996, after 31 years with the company.

The Nintendo 64

The Nintendo 64

 Hoping the bounce back from the commercial failure of the Virtual Boy, Nintendo began to develop one of their most famous console to date, the Nintendo 64 or the N64. The N64 would be part of the 5th generation of console and competed with the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. Although the Nintendo 64 was the last to be released, it was the least technologically advanced console as compared to the Sony PlayStation or the Sega Saturn. Despite all that, the Nintendo 64 would go on to sell well. The Nintendo 64 controller introduced the analog stick and later introduced the Rumble Pak, an accessory for the N64 contoroller which produced force feedback with compatible games. The Rumble Pak was the first such device for the home console and would eventually be adopted by Sony as well with their DualShock controllers. In the first four month of its North America release, the Nintendo 64 sold 500,000 units and for 6 years after it’s launch, the Nintendo 64 sold 32.93 million units worldwide, emerging 2nd while the Sony PlayStation emerged 1st, selling 102.49 millions units in the 5th console generation.

With the conclusion of the 5th console generation, Nintendo has proven that they are able to innovate and lead the industry. With wildly successful home consoles and game franchises such as Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, Metroid and Donkey Kong, Nintendo has managed to establish a loyal fan base to bring in the new millennium. 

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  • Christopher Deleanides
    April 19, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Good read, quite enjoyable and a very thorough look into Nintendo’s past. Though I would argue that Nintendo 64 was on par technologically, considering all three consoles lacked in one department or another. Saturn was abysmal when it came to 3D graphics for example, and Playstation was incapable of rendering 2D sprites. Where N64 faltered was memory.

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