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- World-famous video game company Nintendo was founded in 1889 selling Japanese playing cards, and has found both success and failure throughout its 130-year history.
- In the ’60s, then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi tried expanding the games manufacturer to taxi and food services.
- It was Nintendo’s foray into electronic games in the ’70s that would pave the way for its astronomical success with video game systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System and its now-iconic “Super Mario Bros.”
In 1889, Fusajiro Yamauchi began manufacturing Japanese playing cards called Hanafuda for his company Nintendo Koppai in Kyoto, Japan. Nintendo would become the biggest card-selling company in the country, before morphing into its numerous iterations (a taxi company, a food manufacturing company, a toy company) and finding worldwide success with its enterprising video game systems and games in the ’80s.
From “Super Mario Bros.” to Gameboy to Nintendo 64, here’s a look at the iconic company’s storied past.
In 1889, Fusajiro Yamauchi began manufacturing Hanafuda cards, a type of Japanese playing card, in Kyoto, Japan, for his company, Nintendo Koppai.
Playing cards had been popular in Japan for centuries when Fusajiro Yamauchi decided to sell a type of playing cards, Hanafuda cards, through his new company, Nintendo Koppai.
Nintendo’s cards were hand-painted and high quality, and they quickly gained popularity. In 1902, the company began creating and selling western-style playing cards in Japan, too, which caught on both locally and in the rest of the world.
For decades, Nintendo was the top-selling card company in Japan.
In 1950, Yamauchi’s great grandson, Hiroshi Yamauchi, took over the business, trying new business tactics like manufacturing cards with Disney characters on them.
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In 1953, the company started selling plastic playing cards, eventually dominating the market. A few years later, in 1959, Nintendo started producing cards with Disney characters on them, finding success in that arena as well.
In the ’60s, Yamauchi took Nintendo into new ventures altogether, including the taxi and the food industries.
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Throughout the ’60s, the company expanded beyond gaming and tried its hand in businesses ranging from a taxi service to hotels to the food industry (their main product was ramen noodles). Unfortunately, none of these new ventures saw success, and Nintendo struggled to stay afloat.
Among the company’s many new ventures, Nintendo began manufacturing games. In the ’70s, it started selling electronic toys like its popular Beam Guns.
Visiting one of Nintendo’s assembly lines, Hiroshi noticed one of its employees, Gunpei Yokoi, playing with an expanding toy arm he’d engineered. Hiroshi decided to mass produce the very same toy and hired Yokoi to be part of the games department.
Yokoi, who’d studied engineering, would help steer the company toward manufacturing electronic games, which it started selling in the ’70s. These included the Beam Gun game, akin to gun games at arcades.
In 1975, Nintendo bought the distribution rights for the world’s first-ever video game device, beginning its iconic run in the industry.
Just a few years before, in 1967, engineer Ralph Baer conceived of a game you could play on a TV screen, or the first video game. It was called the Brown Box, and would eventually be released to the public as the Magnavox Odyssey video game unit in 1972. Seeing potential for the product, Nintendo bought the distribution rights for Odyssey in Japan in 1975.
Soon, Nintendo started developing its own video games.
Among Nintendo’s first enterprising games was “Donkey Kong,” an arcade game the company released in 1981.
In the early 1980s, one of Nintendo’s young game designers, Shigeru Miyamoto, was tasked with designing a new arcade game for the company (Nintendo had started a division for coin-operated games in 1979).
Miyamoto came up with a game in which a carpenter named Jumpman had to save his girlfriend, Pauline, from his pet gorilla, who’d kidnapped her. In Japanese, “kong” means gorilla, and “donkey” was the word Miyamoto had found in his English-Japanese dictionary for stupid or stubborn.
Jumpman would eventually be renamed Mario.
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Nervous about the public’s forthcoming response to “Donkey Kong” – its narrative style entirely new to the video game genre – American executives of Nintendo decided to change Jumpman’s name to Mario. According to Nintendo’s website, Jumpman also resembled their office landlord, Mario Segali.
“Donkey Kong” was a major hit.
Nintendo began experimenting with and selling home gaming systems, landing on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which it began selling worldwide in 1985.
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Having sold an earlier variation of the home gaming system called Famicon in Japan, Nintendo rebranded when it began selling the system worldwide, calling it the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES.
According to Nintento’s website, the system sold over 60 million units.
The real superstar of the Nintendo Entertainment System, of course, was Mario, who got his own game in 1985.
Having so succeeded with “Donkey Kong,” Miyamoto reinvented the game for NES with 1985’s “Super Mario Bros.” According to the Mario Bros. website, the following was their first storyline:
“The Mushroom Kingdom was the peaceful home of the Toads until the day Bowser and his wicked minions invaded … Only Princess Peach had the power to remove Bowser’s curse and save her people. But Bowser kidnapped the princess and hid her in his castle.
“When the Mario Brothers, Mario and Luigi, heard this story, they decided to rescue Princess Peach and defeat the evil Bowser. Can the brothers save the beautiful princess before it’s too late?”
“Studies at the time showed that children were as or more familiar with Mario as they were with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny,” Nintendo’s website claims.
Now plumbers, Mario and his brother Luigi took the world by storm. According to Nintendo’s website, “Studies at the time showed that children were as or more familiar with Mario as they were with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.”
“Legend of Zelda” came out a year after “Super Mario Bros.,” in 1986.
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Another smash hit with NES players was “The Legend of Zelda,” which came out a year after “Super Mario Bros.” Much like in “Mario Bros.,” a lead character, Link, was tasked with saving a princess, Princess Zelda, from the villain (eventually named Ganon).
In Zelda, however, there were many more worlds to explore: Link ultimately found himself in forests, dungeons, and parallel worlds.
Nintendo’s next big video game hit came in 1989, with its release of the handheld Game Boy.
In the ’80s, Yokoi (who’d helped Nintendo enter into the electronic game market in the ’70s) saw a man playing with his calculator on his commute, and was inspired to create a handheld video game for Nintendo.
The original handheld game was the the Game & Watch, a hit many other companies soon replicated with their own versions. But in 1989, Nintendo would release the Game Boy, a system both kids and adults would enjoy playing.
According to Nintendo, “Since its introduction in 1989, Game Boy has sold well over 150 million systems worldwide.”
The game that made Game Boy skyrocket: “Tetris.”
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“Tetris” was invented in 1984 by Russian software engineer Alexey Pajitnov. Inspired by a puzzle game called Pentomino, in which five equal squares are assembled into a box, Pajitnov programmed the game and started sharing it with friends.
Eventually, “Tetris” – “tetra” for “four” and “tennis,” Pajitnov’s favorite game – found an audience throughout Europe and the US. Nintendo eventually secured the rights, and distributed it with every version of Game Boy sold in North America.
In 1991, Nintendo released Super Nintendo (SNES), which, despite steep competition from companies like SEGA, still swept the world.
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In 1992, Nintendo released its most popular game to-date, “Super Mario Kart.”
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The object of the game is simple: players pick which character in the Mario world they’d like to play and race each other as that character.
Mario Kart is the highest selling franchise in the Nintendo world, including in Nintendo’s most recent console, the Switch. As of December 31, 2018, “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” has sold more than 15 million copies.
By 1994, Nintendo celebrated the sale of 1 billion game cartridges.
Of those 1 billion cartridges sold, a tenth could be attributed to the ever-popular Mario games, according to Mental Floss.
In 1996, Nintendo released its Nintendo 64 system, named for its even more advanced 64-bit technology.
In its first month of sales in 1996, Nintendo sold 500,000 Nintendo 64 units, according to Lifewire.
Among the first games sold for the console, of course, was “Super Mario 64.”
In “Super Mario 64,” Mario once again discovers his archnemesis Bowser has kidnapped Princess Toadstool in a ploy to take over her Mushroom Castle. Mario must battle Bowser and save the day.
Nintendo’s worldwide phenomenon game “Pokémon” was released in Japan in 1995 and in the US in 1998.
Originally created for Game Boy, in “Pokémon,” meaning “pocket monsters,” players played the role of Pokémon trainers acquiring the “Pokémon” monsters and readying them to battle one another.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Pokémon inspired a cartoon series, movies, books, a toy line, sequels, spin-offs, a clothing line, and a popular trading-card game.” In fact, the franchise exploded worldwide, its popularity second only to “Super Mario Bros.”
A more advanced version of the Game Boy was released in 1998, the Game Boy Color.
In its first decade in existence, nearly 88 million Game Boys were sold worldwide.
In 2006, Nintendo took the world by storm once again, this time with its Nintendo Wii system.
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In 2006, Nintendo introduced the Wii, featuring wireless, motion-sensitive remote controllers and built-in Wi-Fi. Among its most popular games are those enabling players to partake in sports such as boxing, bowling, golf, tennis, and baseball. The Wii sold out just hours after its release.
Though sales have fluctuated in the last decade, Nintendo remains one of the most iconic video game brands in the world.
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In 2018, the company’s net sales were worth nearly $10 million, according to Statista.
The same year, it released the Nintendo Switch, a video game system that can be attached to a television or played portably. More than 14 million Switch consoles were sold in less than 12 months, reported Business Insider, and seven Switch games sold more than 1 million copies each.
The Switch game “Super Mario Odyssey” has sold more than 10 million copies itself.
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