Nintendo: the history behind the gaming pioneers

Nintendo - gaming pioneers

At the beginning of July 2015 Satoru Iwata, the CEO and President of video game giant Nintendo, passed away. Iwata had been leading the company since 2002 and his recent loss is a big blow not only for Nintendo, but also its legions of fans. So, where did it all begin?

Nintendo has been in business for over 100 years (since 1889), but interestingly didn’t start out as a video game company. Nintendo originally produced hanafuda playing cards, nicknamed “flower cards”, which were used to play a variety of Japanese card games with. The company achieved a lot of success with these cards and even partnered with Disney to produce modern playing cards with popular Disney characters on. Towards the 1960s Nintendo started branching out. Some of the ventures that the company pursued included a taxi company called Daiya, a love hotel chain, a TV network and even a food company selling instant rice.

However, in 1966 Nintendo started up their Nintendo Games department as part of its pursuit of success in the Japanese electronic toy industry. Some of their early releases included an extendable arm called the Ultra Hand, a relationship game called the Love Tester, and a series of light gun games. They also subsequently branched out into the emerging arcade scene by creating family entertainment venues in abandoned bowling alleys. Here they released a Laser Clay Shooting System which used their light gun technology.

It was this light gun technology that secured Nintendo’s first involvement in the video game industry.  In the 1970s Nintendo was roped in to help the American company Magnavox develop and produce a light gun accessory for the release of the company’s video game console called, Magnavox Odyssey. Nintendo acquired to rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey in 1974 in Japan. Soon after, Nintendo released their very own game console, the Color TV Game. It was only ever available for sale in Japan and became the most successful first generation Japanese game console, outselling all other competitors. Four versions of the Color TV Game were created and each had a few variations of a single game included on it.  This was the beginning of Nintendo’s shift towards the home and arcade video game industry with visible success both at home in Japan and in America.

It wasn’t until the 1980s when Nintendo had another big breakthrough in the gaming industry with its creation of the portable handheld video game console. Long-time Japanese video game designer Gunpei Yokoi observed a fellow train commuter playing on a portable LCD computer. This observation led to Yokoi creating the Game & Watch handheld video game series. The first game made for the Game & Watch was called Ball. Later on the modern D-pad controller, where the buttons form a cross shape, was created specifically for playing Donkey Kong.

The first home video game console from Nintendo came in 1983 in the form of the Famicom (Family Computer). It was later rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for its worldwide release. This was the most popular console of its time and was solely responsible for reviving the ailing video game industry. It was created to combine the portability of the Game & Watch series and the versatility of removable game cartridges. It was the NES system that also gave Super Mario Bros. their worldwide popularity with the inclusion of the game through bundling.

Game Boy was the next star product to come from Nintendo in 1989. It was created to merge the Game & Watch’s portability with the cartridge interchangeability of the NES console. Its release came with the third party game Tetris, and as we all know that was, and still is, a major success with its now retro-appeal.

During the era of the Game Boy and NES, Nintendo hired a student product developer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto and it turned out to be one of the best decisions they ever made. Miyamoto created some of the biggest and most popular games ever, including Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, Metroid Prime and the Wii series.

In 1995 Nintendo produced its one billionth game cartridge, and the following year it released the Nintendo 64, the first 64-bit home video game system. Despite facing stiff competition from the likes of the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn, popularity of the Nintendo 64 proved that the company was still making headway in the very competitive video game industry. During this time the popular Game Boy handheld console also received many upgrades and revamps, including adopting a colour screen and running games specifically made for the system. It also released a new game for the Game Boy, called Pokémon, which became a huge hit amongst Nintendo fans. By 2000 the Game Boy became the most popular selling console ever.

In 2004 Nintendo released its fourth major handheld console, the Nintendo DS. It had a dual screen with touch screen capabilities which meant the console could be activated with controllers, a finger or a stylus. The release of the games Mario Kart DS and Nintendogs on the DS console proved to be majorly successful for the company. Later on the lightweight Nintendo DS Lite was released with improved battery life and a brighter screen.

The Wii home video game console made its appearance in 2006 and was supposed to be a direct competitor for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the Sony Playstation 3 consoles. However, Nintendo intended the Wii to target a much broader demographic, and it did not disappoint with record breaking sales in the month it was released. It even surpassed its own NES console. The Wii proved there was now games for every audience with the likes of Wii Sports, the Zelda series and, of course, Super Mario Bros.

With the Wii came the Wii Remote controller, a handheld pointing device that fulfils the same purpose as that of a traditional controller. However, the Wii Remote is able to detect movement in 3 dimensions with motion sensing capability. It recognises gestures and pointing through the use of an accelerometer and optical sensor technology. In 2008 Nintendo released the Wii Balance Board alongside Wii Fit and various other accessories, such as the Wii Wheel with Mario Kart Wii, to simulate arcade game playing at home.

In 2012 Nintendo launched its eighth generation console, the Wii U. It was the first Nintendo console to feature high-definition graphics and has a Wii U gamepad and embedded touchscreen. The console got mixed reviews from critics. After releasing first-party titles like The Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. to the Wii U, the console slowly gained popularity.

Nintendo has certainly come a long way since its playing card days and found a place in many homes around the world, loved by both traditional video gamers and new fans alike.  Constant upgrades to consoles, new game features and the fact that many of its favourite games have celebrated its 25th anniversaries, think Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda, is proof of one very successful video game company. Even so, stiff competition in an ever emerging market has meant lagging sales for the company and the late CEO Iwata was in the process of turning things around.

Future plans for Nintendo include the expansion into the smartphone industry, a move initiated by Iwata to boost declining console sales. The company is collaborating with Japanese company DeNA to produce games for smart devices. A project with the codename “NX” was announced for release in 2016 and will be a dedicated games platform. There are also plans for Nintendo-themed attractions and rides to be unveiled at Universal Parks and Resorts in Japan, Singapore and America.

Did you know?

  • Nintendo roughly translated means “leave luck to heaven”.
  • The company still produces playing cards, now mostly with their own characters on it, such as the special edition Mario cards.
  • The “ii” of the Wii is supposed to resemble two people standing side-by-side, as well as represent the Wii Remote’s shape.
  • Many NES games were created to be especially hard to ensure that the games last longer in the hands of gamers. The term “Nintendo Hard” was coined to describe particularly difficult games in honour of that era in gaming.
  • Duck Hunt was known as the “other game” that came on the same cartridge as Super Mario Bros. and was a remake of a popular children’s toy by Nintendo from the 1970s.
  • Mario first appeared in Donkey Kong and his original name was Jumpman. In the game Mario was the hero out to save the damsel in distress by jumping over barrels being thrown at him.
  • Mario’s profession in the game was supposed to be a carpenter and not a plumber as is the case now. The only reason he has a moustache and wears a hat is because that made him easier to draw.
  • Game Boy was the first video game console played in space by Russian cosmonaut Alexsandr Serebrov and he played Tetris.