It was 1983 and the American Video game industry was dead. (If you want to find out how – be sure to check A Pixelated Past – Part 1: Atari and the life and death of video games.)
Well, that’s the way it seemed anyway. Luckily a strange Japanese company, named Nintendo, always seemed to see things a little differently. They were about to save not only the American video game market, but by extension the video game world. However, who was Nintendo and where had it come from? Well for that part of the story we need to take a trip back in time. Back to 1889 Kyoto, Japan. So grab a DeLorean get it up to 88 miles per hour and let’s take a quick flux-capacitor-powered trip through Nintendo’s history.
Leave Luck to Heaven – Hanafuda Edition
Fusajiro Yamauchi, a 29-year-old entrepreneur opened a store in Kyoto Japan, named Nintendo Koppai. Right from its inception it was clear it was going to be an unique company. Hanafuda cards, the Japanese evolution of the western card games brought over by the Portuguese in 1663, were wildly popular in Japan despite the government banning them for large portions of their history due to their gambling and organised crime links. Despite this dark history, Yamauchi saw the huge potential in the Hanafuda cards market and with the ban now lifted, Nintendo Koppai began selling beautiful hand-crafted cards.
Not content with being found in just every Japanese home, as pointed out by Blake J. Harris in Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation, Yamauchi began to target casinos. Here, high stakes tables required that new packs of cards were opened for each new game and Nintendo would be the provider of the packs.
For the next few decades, Nintendo achieved unparalleled success selling cards. In 1929, Fusajiro Yamauchi passed on the company to his son-in-law Sekiryo Kaneda (who then took the Yamauchi surname). After experiencing a stroke in 1948, however, he handed over the company to his 21-year old grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi, and it was under his leadership, believe it or not, that things really started to get interesting
1950 to 1980: Cards, replaced by taxis, rice and love hotels
Once again, Nintendo was about to change and adapt in very unique ways. Hiroshi wanted to develop the company in his own image: Fresh and fast moving. He quickly fired all the older managers and replaced them with young men keen on transforming the company. In the fifties he consolidated all the card manufacturing into one centralised location, introduced plastic-coated playing cards in Japan and entered into a licensing agreement with the Walt Disney company. The Disney cards were of course a huge success, but the meeting with Disney and the importance of Mickey as the Disney mascot would have more important implications in Nintendo’s future.
Hiroshi was determined to search for Nintendo’s new direction. At first, this involved an instant rice company, a taxi service and even a love hotel. And yes, a love hotel is unfortunately exactly what you think it is. These ventures failed. However, as pointed out by Harris, they did help to emphasize one thing in Hiroshi’s mind. Whatever Nintendo did next would find success more easily if it made use of the distribution chain that Nintendo had developed over the years producing playing cards.
The Toy Industry was all about distribution. Searching within the company for talent, a young maintenance worker, named Gunpei Yokoi, with a knack for clever creations, was discovered. Yokoi invented Nintendo’s first toy – the Ultra Hand. Released in 1970, the Ultra Hand soon became a hit, and soon several more toys made Nintendo a player in the toy business. At the same time, the toy industry was being taken over by a new product – Video Games. Yamauchi wanted Nintendo to get involved.
Yokoi continued to show a flare for creativity, and with him at the helm, Nintendo adapted again and slowly became a video game company. After a series of attempts at home-based and arcade systems, Nintendo had their first video game hit in 1979/80 with Radar Scope. Radar Scope was an arcade cabinet Space Invaders clone. Shortly after this, Yokoi’s Game and Watch (a calculator-like LCD screen based gaming device) was released in 1980. This Yokoi invention was another massive success. Nintendo was doing so well, in fact, that Yamauchi started to look over the Pacific at the US market.
Nintendo in America: The Donkey Kong story
As explained in Gamearang‘s very informative video, The History of Nintendo, at first it did not go well for Nintendo of America (NOA). Not only were US gamers not impressed with the Nintendo import Radar Scope, but retailers and shop owners had not really heard of Nintendo and were more interested in selling products from proven names like Namco (Pac-Man) or Atari (the juggernaut at that time). According to some reports, by 1981 only about a third of the Radar Scope cabinets had been sold, and even those were not bringing much money. NOA wanted to give it one last try and it was decided that instead of shipping a new range of arcade cabinets, the Radar Scope cabinets would be converted into a new game.
Yamauchi once again looked for undiscovered talent within the company. Under Yokoi’s supervision, a young artist named Shigeru Miyamoto was tasked at coming up with the game. Lucky for the world and for NOA, Miyamoto turned out to be a bit of a game-creating savant.
Yamauchi wanted the new game to be based on a movie to boost sales. Popeye, staring Robin Williams, had recently been released and Yamauchi mistakenly felt they they would easily acquire the rights. Miyamoto latched on to the idea of the love triangle between Olive Oyl, Bluto and Popeye and quickly developed a game that was fun and unlike anything gamers had experienced before. Later, after their attempt at acquiring the licensing failed, Miyamoto did not skip a beat. Olive Oyl became Pauline, Bluto, became Donkey Kong and Popeye became Jumpman (later named Mario after the warehouse owner). Donkey Kong not only had cute love story as a hook, but instead of shooting and a single repetitive screens, the strangely creative game included jumping over barrels, using magical hammers and saving a damsel in distress – plus, it was really fun to play!
Within a year some 60 000 Donkey Kong machines could be found throughout the US. The game was so popular that by 1982 Nintendo was making 50 cabinets per day. In the first year, Donkey Kong earned $180 million, and in the second another $100 million. Miyamoto then created Donkey Kong Jr. – it sold 30 000 more cabinets. Then they licensed the original Donkey Kong to Coleco for use on their home console. Nintendo’s unique ability to adapt once again came to the fore, and now the odd little Japanese-based company was exploding in a strange new world.
However, 1983 was just around the corner…
Famicom in Japan, Grey VCR-like-Robot-Toy appendage in America
The American home video market crash of 1983 had less of an impact on Nintendo than one would’ve expected. Japan was mostly unaffected by the collapse, and even in America, arcade gaming (Nintendo’s current foothold) had not been as badly affected as with the home console market. In July that year NOJ released the Family Computer – the Famicom; Nintendo’s new home console in Japan. It sold 500 000 units in the first year, and in 1984 that number jumped up to 3 million. Yamauchi desperately wanted to introduce his new cash-cow to the massive US audience. However, American gamers and retailers were still reeling from the crash and were not interested in a new console.
1985 comes around and some 19 million Famicoms have now been sold. Yamauchi tells NOA to get the console onto shelves in any way they can. Nintendo adapts again – remodeling the Famicom to look more like a VCR machine. It is rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and disguised as an accompaniment to the ROB (Robotic Operating Buddy) toy. Still the market does not budge. In a final act of desperation, NOA goes over Yamauchi’s head and tells retailers that they can get full refunds for any unsold systems. Finally, retailers agree. After a relatively short time, 50 000 units are sold in New York. This process is repeated all over the country.
Slowly, the market is beginning to stir; Nintendo has got it going. However, it is not the new console on its own. Many credit the game that now came bundled with the console as the electric shock that really revived the industry.
Super Mario Bros. – Defibrillator anyone?
In 1986, Nintendo officially release the NES with Super Mario Bros. Shigeru Miyamoto had done it again. He had already made a Mario-themed arcade game – Mario Bros. which was very well received – and once he was promoted to the console team within Nintendo, Super Mario Bros. came along. The result was magical. The scope of the game was something no one had ever seen. The music that accompanied each level can still be heard today as ringtones for the retro nerd in the know. With Super Mario Bros. not only did Nintendo give us a magical kingdom to explore, it introduced pipes, warp zones, secret blocks, but more importantly, like a friendlier mushroom-wielding Dr Frankenstein, it breathed life back into an industry that many believed was dead and buried.
The impact of this game cannot be understated. Some estimates say that 40 million copies of the game have been sold. A record that stood for 18 years. And the hits just kept on coming: In February 1986 another Miyamoto game, Legend of Zelda, was released. It became another massive hit in the US. The huge scope of Link’s adventure once again, redefined what a game could be. Then Metroid was released. The solitude of a this space adventure struck a chord with many players, and this effect was only compounded when at the end we find out that, arguably for the first time, the protagonist, Samus, is a woman!
Later, Miyamoto creates Super Mario Bros. 2. After receiving the game, NOA felt that it was unfairly tough and American audiences would not like it, so they adapt again. Another title named Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic was converted and broadened. In 1988 America gets this version of Super Mario Bros. 2 and 7 million copies are sold!
In April 1989 Nintendo releases a portable video game system named the Game Boy. Other companies also try to fill this niche with colourful, bright and therefore somewhat more expensive portable systems. By contrast the Game Boy has no backlight and no colour. Nintendo decides to zero in on one salient feature – producing a system that boasts a 10-hour battery life and can fit in your pocket. Oh, it is also bundled with a little game called Tetris. It is overwhelmingly popular; the initial stock of 1 million units is sold out in weeks. Tetris would go on to sell some 30 million copies and over the next 14 years The Game Boy would go on to sell some 119 million units. Super Mario Land, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Metroid 2: The Return of Samus, Kirby and of course Pokémon insure that Nintendo would hold on to the handheld market for the foreseeable future.
In the same year Universal wanted to make a movie that would appeal to a younger audience. Deciding that partnering with Nintendo would be a good way to do this, the movie The Wizard was made. The plot involved two brothers running away to participate in the ultimate video game tournament. The final featured Nintendo’s next big hit: Super Mario Bros. 3. In February 1990 Super Mario Bros. 3 is released. It was a huge hit with 18 million copies sold. It broke another record – this time as the biggest selling game of all time not bundled with a console. To this day many consider it one of greatest video games of all time.
By late 1989 early 1990, it is clear the little Japanese card/love hotel/toy company had resuscitated the dying video game industry. To gamers this was an excellent thing. Nintendo’s games were fun, there were many of them, and with people like Miyamoto on their team the future looked bright. Plus, the business model had avoided the pitfalls of the previous crash and ensured only good quality games and the market was never flooded. The world had been saved and Nintendo was now everywhere.
However, of course, in that success lay a very obvious danger. Nintendo now owned the video game industry. According to some estimates, more than 90% of the industry in America was theirs. Every American kid had a NES (or a Famicom, or China special) in their home. Their apparent conservative wisdom was seen by many as overreaching control. Many third-party developers did not like working with Nintendo and because Nintendo essentially had a monopoly, other console makers could not easily get into the market. A little competition is usually a good thing.
Before long, that competition began to appear. And just like Nintendo – the change began in Japan. Soon another Japanese company with links to the US would have a big say in American Video game history leading to, arguably, the first console war.
Check out more next week in A Pixelated Past – Part 3: Sonic vs Mario
The Nintendo They’ve Tried to Forget: Gambling, Gangsters, and Love Hotels – Brian Ashcroft 2011 (Kotaku)
Top 100 Video Games of All Time – 2018 (IGN)
Creator / Shigeru Miyamoto – tvtropes.org
Video: The History of Nintendo – 2005 (Gamearang)
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation – Blake J. Harris
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America – Jeff Ryan
IMDB – The Wizard (1989)
IMDB – Popeye (1980)