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Nintendo Through the Years: 1889-1983

The transition of Nintendo’s primary business focus wasn’t as simple as cards into video games.



Having written about the latest happenings from the video game world on a weekly basis for the last six months, it was all beginning to get a bit samey. Loot box this, microtransactions that; some PR guy says something stupid on Twitter, some execs aren’t happy with their live service game’s performance. It’s all such a depressingly negative world that I felt like we all needed a break (me especially). I subsequently decided to get historical on all yo’ asses and we’re now going to take a look at the crazy ride Nintendo has been on since its inception in 1889.

These articles will follow the same formula as ‘This Week in Gaming News,’ (with all the sarcasm and swearing you come here for) but will instead cover the main stories for each year of Nintendo as a video game company. I know what you’re thinking already – this first one is covering almost 100 years. Well just hush up, yeah? Unless you really want to read five separate stories about Hanafuda cards, I suggest you thank me for glossing over the early days and ending this one with the release of the Famicom in Japan. You’d also have a semi-legitimate claim to ask why I’m bothering with 1889-1979 when they didn’t even make video games, but if I don’t get to talk about Nintendo’s sex hotels, then I just don’t want to do this at all, alright?


Right, let’s talk about playing cards. Playing cards are absolutely nothing special, but if it wasn’t for them, then we’d have never played a Mario or Zelda game. Ever. Clearly, Nintendo couldn’t make video games in 1889 when they were formed by Fusajiro Yamauchi, because people were still getting entertainment out of sticks and dirt back then (Probably. I mean 1889 is, like, super ages ago. I wasn’t even born then or anything). Instead, Yamauchi-san’s company was founded on that age-old principle of making the materials that miserable bastards can use to gamble all their money away with. Truly, a noble pursuit.

Before the Portuguese pissed off Japan with all their Christianity during the Edo period and went and got themselves ‘permanently’ expelled (I assume that’s been lifted now), they had introduced the land of the rising sun to Western-style playing cards in the 16th century. Around the 1800s, Japan’s favorite game of their own making used Hanafuda cards. It was these cards that Nintendo successfully churned out, and they were legitimate pioneers in the business, becoming the first company to ever produce the cards out of plastic.

Doesn’t look as fun as Metroid, does it?

As almost all of you will be aware, Nintendo basically translates to the phrase ‘leave luck to heaven,’ although in the case of Hiroshi Yamauchi, it seems he had to leave luck to catastrophic illness, taking over the company in 1949 from grandpappy Fusajiro after he suffered a stroke. It would, however, be the catalyst for Nintendo’s eventual success in worldwide markets, but we’ll get to that. Hiroshi had himself a vacation to the States in 1959 and, upon witnessing the mass appeal of Disney’s anthropomorphic critter mascots, agreed in a meeting with Disney execs to license their characters for Nintendo’s own Hanafuda cards. The mascot seed had been well and truly planted, but wasn’t ready to grow just yet.

Sex, Taxis, Grabby Hands, and Other Ventures

The transition of Nintendo’s primary business focus wasn’t as simple as cards into video games. Oh no, they tried a whole heap of mental shit before they got to the real money maker. You might be recalling that the Japanese have a bit of a reputation for taking their time making decisions and being somewhat pessimistic when it comes to wholesale change. This would, therefore, make you question whether some of the Yamauchi family may have been perfectly happy with their lot as a card manufacturer. It turns out that didn’t really matter, as Hiroshi demanded that all other Yamauchi family members (and any executives) be shit-canned before he took over from his grandpa. The business world is a harsh mistress, but Yamauchi was harsher.

Fact: this is the closest Yamauchi ever got to a smile.

With everything going his own way, Yamauchi was free to be a hard-nosed tyrannical bastard all he wanted, and he was notorious for making tough decisions with little to no remorse. Having grown up in the era of Japan’s disastrous defeat in World War II, Yamauchi would be damned if he himself was going to lose at anything. In 1962 he took Nintendo public and further pushed the company into more and more new ventures; learning from his failures with each one fueling his desire to succeed even more.

Among those failures were restaurant chains, taxi services and sex hotels – the latter ironically being something that would likely make serious bank if Nintendo decided to go back into it now, with its full branding and characters getting down and dirty with the punters. Ew, you sick bastards. Once Nintendo put its collective dick back in its pants, the focus was truly shifted into the toy market. No longer were their playing cards being made for dingy gambling dens, as the bright and colorful Disney characters were being lapped up by young lads and lasses by the bucket load.

Actually, based on that red peripheral, maybe this was designed to grab penises

The company’s first proper toy was the Ultra Hand, and was another example of Nintendo leaving luck to whatever celestial body you pledge allegiance to. It was initially just a side project created by some chump working maintenance at one of Nintendo’s factories, but Yamauchi saw it in action and took a gamble. The Ultra Hand – a plastic, extendable grabbing device that almost certainly saw its way to pinching more than one Japanese lady bum in its time – went to market in 1970, launching the career of the lowly maintenance guy and changing his life forever. The man in question, Gunpei Yokoi, would later go on to create a little-known grey plastic handheld gaming device that we may or may not get to in the future.

Stupid Ape

With a burgeoning toy business now fuelling Nintendo’s rising success, they finally decide to try tapping into Japan’s video game market. They began by securing the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan and eventually, in 1975, created their first arcade game – EVR Race. The company carried on creating arcade games exclusively in Japan for another six years, churning out such originally-named titles as Space Firebird, Space Fever, and Space Launcher – none of which were trying to capitalize on the popularity of Space Invaders or anything ridiculous like that…

Alongside their arcade machines, the Rain Man of the maintenance world, Gunpei Yokoi, was cooking up another hit of his own. You see, Yokoi was living in the sort of barbaric, medieval time where downtrodden salarymen would slave away in the big cities and have nothing to do on their train journeys home aside from staring at their calculators like morons. Noticing this, and assumedly after getting bored of writing 8008135 on his own calculator every evening, Yokoi harnessed the LCD screens of the math machines to create the simplistic, yet incredibly popular, Game & Watch.

I’m still not convinced this is more fun than writing 8008135 on a calculator

Nintendo was soon ready to go international, and Yamauchi called on his son-in-law Minoru Arakawa to spearhead Nintendo of America. After all, ‘Mino’ was living out in Vancouver with Yamauchi’s daughter Yoko, spoke English, and had a graduate degree from MIT. Mino needed to decide on the first game Nintendo would launch in the States and, having moved down to New York to set up the NoA office and realized how much of a cesspit of crime and murder the city was at the time, he plumped for Nintendo’s biggest hit of 1980 – the shoot ‘em-up Radar Scope.

The game did…fine. It broke even, but Arakawa was only able to shift a third of the 3000 arcade units he’d been shipped. Yamauchi needed some fresh blood on the ideas front, so back in Kyoto he solicited ideas from the entire company and somehow came across Shigeru fucking Miyamoto (I know, right? The luck of this guy!). Miyamoto impressed Yamauchi so much that he was set up with Yokoi to work on a new game. Initially, the two decided to capitalize on the upcoming Popeye movie, assuming that securing the rights would be a walk in the park. Well, assuming things makes an ass out of you and Miyamoto, and when Nintendo couldn’t get the Popeye licence, the assets were quite literally monkeyed with, and thus Donkey Kong was born.

Despite starting out in just a couple of Seattle bars, the future Cranky Kong quickly became a sensation. Arakawa and his team had initially hand-converted the remaining 2000 Radar Scope machines into DK cabinets, but by the end of 1981 there were 60,000 of them in North America. By 1982, 50 of them were being made a day, with the game making Nintendo $280 million over those two years.

Of course, you can’t make a fat chunk of change with a game about a giant ape called Kong for long without pissing off the rights holders of King Kong, and sure enough Universal came a-knocking with lawyers in tow on June 26th, 1982 to sue Nintendo for copyright infringement. Yamauchi, the hard-nosed bastard that he was, wasn’t just going to settle matters, so off to court, the two companies went. Future lawyers reading this need to pay attention to the following point: if you’re going to sue a company for copyright infringement over King Kong, make sure you definitely didn’t prove that King Kong was public domain in 1975 so you could make the movie in the first place. Because that would be really fucking stupid.

The Brooklyn Bros.

Of course, Donkey Kong wasn’t all big monkeys and frivolous lawsuits; there was another crucial element at play here, and his terribly literal name was Jumpman. For where there cannot be Popeye, there can be a mustachioed handyman in overalls to slayeth the beast. Despite later being cast as the villain (and now named after the manager of the warehouse where arcade machines were being built in the States – Mario Segale) in Donkey Kong Jr. Mario would eventually get his very own arcade game for his eponymous role in 1983’s Mario Bros. He even got a ‘brother’ by way of a palette-swapped doppelganger known as Luigi. I would say that only the elite amongst you will know that Mario was replaced by Stanley the exterminator in Donkey Kong 3, but he’s had such a huge and iconic gaming career since then that I’m sure you’ve all got a tattoo of him already.

Lord alone only knows what the hell was going on with the Miyamoto household’s water system if he thinks that crabs and turtles are the cause for most plumbing emergencies, but the game was set in a sewer with loads of pipes, so Mario and Luigi are plumbers now, right? Shut up. The inclusion of the green guy meant that Mario Bros. was, of course, a multiplayer title, inspired by 1982’s Joust.

Later added into Super Mario Bros. 3 as a minigame, almost everyone reading this will know how simplistic Mario Bros. is, albeit in a distinctly charming way. This, ultimately, would go some way to highlighting just how overcrowded and strong the arcade market had become. For all the success Nintendo was having with its Donkey Kong games, there was always another Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Gradius or Asteroids sequel around the corner. It was time to expand further into new markets. New players. New…homes.

Good Ol’ Fashioned Famicom Entertainment (Systems)

Moving into the home video game market wasn’t an entirely new venture for Nintendo, and it certainly didn’t appear to be the smartest idea in the wake of the infamous video game ‘crash’ of 1983. If the arcade market was over-saturated, the home market was a claustrophobic clown car clusterfuck. More bloated than my gut after a curry, Atari’s domain had seen literally over a hundred competitors emerge and nearly bleed the industry dry with countless shit stain consoles not even good enough to bury in a New Mexico landfill.

Companies were going bankrupt, gamers were going anywhere else and toy stores were going right off letting any more home consoles take them for a ride. Crucially, none of this put Nintendo off, for the video game market in Japan was actually very healthy indeed – largely because North America’s was so bollocksed. Thus, in 1983 they released the Famicom in Japan. In fact, with all these companies doing themselves in, Nintendo was free to veritably waltz in and take over. And take over they bloody well did.

This wasn’t a snap decision so much as it was just lucky timing. Yamauchi had been planning a home console for years – before Donkey Kong, even – and he truly believed this was the future of the company, cancelling Nintendo’s arcade division to pump all the company’s resources and expertise into the Family Computer. The console released in Japan on July 13th, 1983 with three launch titles: the arcade ports of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and, yes, Popeye – the licensed game Miyamoto had finally been able to make.

For the first time in this tale, it seems that heaven was dishing out bad luck rather than good. Unlucky for some it certainly was, as the version of the Famicom that launched on the 13th was…well, it was pretty fucked. A faulty chip was causing games to freeze and crash, and retailers were pissed. So, too, was Yamauchi, who definitely didn’t want his company associated with a bad product right at the beginning of their attempt at global success. He ordered a recall of all shipped consoles – including those that weren’t even broken – and offered gamers the chance to send their machines to Nintendo for a free repair.

I’d fire my entire family from my Grandad’s company to get one of these…

The botched launched could have killed the company, but Nintendo’s acts of good faith with their consumer had impressed across the board. A tech company was taking responsibility for its mistakes – the Famicoms pulled from shelves were all rebuilt from scratch – and fixing them for free. Sales for the end of 1983 were reciprocal. Over 500,000 consoles were sold. Nintendo’s maiden voyage into the home console market had been rocky, but they’d steadied the ship for the journey ahead, and we’ll get to that next time.

Crotchety Englishman who spends hundreds of pounds on video game tattoos and Amiibo in equally wallet-crippling measure. Likes grammar a lot, but not as much as he likes heading out for a sesh of Bakamitai karaoke in Kamurocho. You can hear his dulcet tones on the A Winner Is You game club podcast right here on GoombaStomp!