For the past 30 years, Nintendo has been one of the leading companies in the video game industry when it debuted its first console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or the Famicom (short for Family Computer) in its native Japan. In addition to its consoles and handhelds, Nintendo is famous for its original franchises such as Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon. Despite being one of the most dominant companies in the industry, Nintendo already had a 100-year domestic presence by the time they released the NES. So how did Nintendo start out during the times of Rurouni Kenshin to becoming the video game industry’s top dog? Read today’s Editorial Tuesday to find out!
Long before Donkey Kong, Nintendo started in September 1889 as a hanafuda card company in Kyoto, where the company is still based to this very day. If you don’t know what hanafuda is, it’s a traditional Japanese card game with flowers painted on them. To put it in a nutshell, just think of it as the Japanese equivalent to poker. Just like how there are many ways to play poker, there are many ways to play hanafuda. If there is any equivalent to the royal flush in hanafuda, it has the Ino (boar), Shika (deer), and Cho (Butterfly) hand as the definitive winner.
A good number of anime have previously paid homage to the winning hand, most notably in Naruto with Team Asuna, whose names are a pun in relation to it (Shikamaru, Choji, and Ino). However, the worst hand you can get in hanafuda is 8, 9, 3, or “Yakuza.” As you can conclude, the Japanese mafia took its official name from this losing hand. Though Nintendo is synonymous with video games throughout the world, they still make and sell hanafuda cards in Japan to this day. You can find them at most electronic retailers such as Yodobashi Camera, including some with Mario on them.
The Yamauchi Dynasty
A majority of industry enthusiasts know of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the former president of Nintendo, when it became an international power house in the 1980s. In fact, his great-grandfather, Fusajiro Yamauchi, was the founder of the company. As it is tradition in many cultures, it was always assumed that whenever a family runs a business, the next of kin would take over. After Fusajiro passed away, his son-in-law, Sekiryo Kaneda (who actually took the Yamauchi family named upon marriage to Fusajiro’s daughter, Tei ) assumed the leadership of Nintendo from 1929-1949. Upon Sekiryo’s death, Hiroshi, Sekiryo and Tei’s grandson, then took the position of Nintendo’s president while studying at Waseda University in Tokyo.
As for Hiroshi’s father, he abandoned the family during his youth and was raised by his mother and paternal grandparents (and wouldn’t make peace with his father until around his death and often visited his grave). His sole stipulation to accepting leadership was that he had to be the only member of Yamauchi linage at the company. As a result, a cousin of his was consequently fired. Due to becoming president at the age of 22, not many employees took him seriously and they tried conducting strikes to break him. Despite his circumstances and difficulties, Hiroshi took control and micro-managed the company by being the sole judge of new products, and expanded the company to new directions beyond being a humble hanafuda card producing company throughout his administration.
A decade after becoming the boss, Hiroshi introduced Western playing cards to the Japanese market. For some of you tokusatsu fans, you can see some of these Nintendo playing card products portrayed in the original Kamen Rider series where one of the villains uses them as his calling card. In addition to playing cards, Hiroshi also started a taxi service and a love hotel chain (and there are rumors that he often used them himself)! As for the playing cards, due to how gambling is illegal and looked down upon in Japan (even to this very day), Hiroshi had difficulty making it profitable for a brief period. However, when he managed to license Disney characters for playing cards as a party game for the Japanese market at the end of the 1950s, it became a hit.
As for his other ventures such as his taxi business and love hotel chain, they were unfortunate failures (and his ownership of the Seattle Mariners, which he bought in the early 1990s, wouldn’t make a profit for another 10 years). When Hiroshi visited the United States Playing Card Company factory in Ohio to get a better idea on how to improve his company, he was disappointed to see it wasn’t on the grand scale he thought it would be. He came to realize that playing cards were limited and his other business ventures were a bust. However, a visit to the Kyoto factory with an engineer inspired him to take Nintendo to its next step.
The Contributions of Gunpei Yokoi
So who was the engineer that gave Hiroshi the needed inspiration? That would be Gunpei Yokoi! Like many of Nintendo’s big names, Yokoi was also a native of Kyoto and studied electronic engineering. Upon graduating in 1965, he got a job at Nintendo to maintain their assembly line machines. A year after he joined the company, Hiroshi visited the factory and noticed that Yokoi made an extending arm toy during his downtime. Impressed by it, he ordered Yokoi to mass produce it as a Christmas toy, the Ultra Hand. Many of Nintendo’s games would later pay homage to it such as Wario: Master of Disguise, Mario Power Tennis, and Mario Kart 8.
The Ultra Hand was an instant success and Nintendo would then expand as a toy company for the next decade. Wanting to make better use of his education and background in electronics, Yokoi created a love tester machine for his own amusement and thought it would be a nice way to pick up girls. In order to use it, two people would hold hands on the machine and it would measure their compatibility. Yokoi personally admits he got to hold hands with a good number of women thanks to it, and it became a domestic and international hit. Like the Ultra Hand, the love tester machine would later be referenced in other Nintendo games such as Majora’s Mask 3D and WarioWare: Twisted.
The next step to his legacy along with Nintendo’s was the release of the Game & Watch, Nintendo’s first handheld, in 1979. He got the idea while observing a businessman on a train ride playing games on his LCD calculator. When he returned from his trip, he shared the idea with Hiroshi during a car ride and he approved the idea. Since the Game & Watch needed to open and close, a typical arcade joystick would not have been convenient. In order to correctly open and close, Yokoi developed the d-pad, which is still in use to this day on every console’s and handheld’s controller.
Then when Nintendo grasped its dominance in the mid-1980s, Yokoi continued to make significant contributions to the company and the industry as a whole. Some games he created that are considered classics to this day are Kid Icarus and Metroid.If there is one thing that Yokoi will forever be remembered for, it is certainly the Game Boy, the Godfather of modern handheld gaming. However, his legacy was briefly tainted by the Virtual Boy, and its unfortunate failure has lead some people to speculate that he was fired by Nintendo when he said he just wanted to retire upon his departure from the company. Then in 1997, a year after he left Nintendo, Yokoi lost his life in a tragic accident.
In addition to his legendary inventions, he coined a phrase in relation to the of philosophy of Nintendo’s game development known as “Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology,” as translated from its original Japanese, “Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shiko.” It is something that is still in practice at Nintendo to this very day. To put it simply, it is using matured technology but finding different and new ways in using it for maximum effort. This goes back to the development of the Game & Watch. Prior to 1979, LCD technology was expensive and complex, but by then, it became accessible and cheaper to use since it was then considered matured technology. This was also applied with the GameCube in 2001 and it was much cheaper than its rivals, the PS2 and Xbox.
The Rise of Shigeru Miyamoto
Every dedicated Nintendo fan knows this man’s name. Even if they don’t know Iwata, Yokoi, Sakurai, or Yamauchi, they HAVE TO know Miyamoto. He created Mario, Zelda, and helped contribute to the creation of Pokemon with Satoshi Tajiri. Though Miyamoto did not have a background in electronics or software engineering, he initially wanted to be a manga artist and studied art. In 1977, Miyamoto’s father helped him get a job at Nintendo as its first concept artist through a mutual friend he had with Hiroshi Yamauchi.
Upon entering the company, he worked in its arcade division and contributed to the development of Sheriff and Radar Scope. Though they were successes in Japan, they were failures in North America. Hiroshi Yamauchi then thought it was time for a new game by refurbishing unsold units of Radar Scope, and gave the task to Miyamoto with Yokoi as his supervisor. Initially, Miyamoto wanted to make a game based on Popeye where it follows the basic plot of having to save Olive from Bluto. Due to being unable to obtain the rights to use Popeye, Miyamoto modified the concept to what would become Donkey Kong, the debut of Mario, who was then known as Jumpman. He came up with the concepts and told the programming team to see what they could do with it.
It became a hit worldwide and the American team gave Jumpman the name Mario, in honor of Mario Segale, the landlord of Nintendo’s warehouse in Redmond, Washington, and Pauline, the girl Mario has to save, was named after Polly James, the wife of Nintendo of America’s manager, Don James. As for the name Donkey Kong, “Kong” was then a slang for anything simian in Japan, and “Donkey” was meant to represent the character’s stupidity based on Japanese culture. Shortly after, Mario would star in his own game that would debut Luigi, Mario Bros. As you already aware, if you jump (or go) down in Donkey Kong, Mario loses a life. At the suggestion of Yokoi, Mario and Luigi can now jump down and not be harmed in Mario Bros. Then after the debut of the NES, he made his impact with Super Mario and Zelda. Thanks to the success of Miyamoto’s games, Hiroshi believed that it wasn’t programmers that made quality games, but artists.
The Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System
After nearly 100 years in business, Nintendo became an international force with the debut of its first home console. As the Famicom (short for “Family Computer”), it debuted in 1983 in the Land of the Rising Sun and would get its release two years later in North America, with the company’s North American branch founded by Yamauchi’s son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa. Due to the 1983 industry crash in North America, a good number of general retailers were very hesitant in getting back into gaming and for good reasons.
After learning from Atari’s failures, Nintendo found a way to bring video games back with a bang. For starters, the didn’t market their product as a video game but as a toy through toy retailers such as Toys ‘R Us, which may Rest In Peace. Due to the market crashing due to over saturation, third parties would be limited to five releases per year (though some companies such as Konami exploited a loophole by using an internal publishing company known as Ultra), and Nintendo would have exclusive rights to the first two or three years. Thanks to their carefully researched and aggressive marketing, the video game industry was back from the dead and still kicking to this day.
After the success of their first console and with the progression of time, Nintendo would later release bigger and better consoles starting with the Super Nintendo at the start of the 1990s, to the N64, and finally to the Switch, Nintendo’s present console upon uploading of this Editorial Tuesday.
Upon stepping down due to old age, Hiroshi Yamauchi handed leadership of Nintendo to Satoru Iwata in 2002, the first non-member of the Yamauchi family to become president of Nintendo. Upon his resignation, he did not accept his multi-million dollar pension since he thought Nintendo could use the money and he was one of the richest men in Japan. Then in 2013, he passed away. Prior to becoming president of Nintendo, Iwata was a developer for HAL, a subdivision of Nintendo which created the Kirby and EarthBound franchises. As his contributions progressed, he was promoted to HAL’s president in 1993 and would formally join Nintendo to work closely with Yamauchi.
Thanks to Iwata’s contributions in both programming and marketing, the company continued to prosper. Tragically, Nintendo would lose another icon when Iwata passed away due to a tumor at the age of 55, two years after the passing of his predecessor. His passing was observed by many fans around the world showing how his contributions impacted their lives.
After the passing of Iwata, Genyo Takeda, the creator of Punch-Out along with Miyamoto, earned administrative positions in Nintendo while the former president of Pokemon, Tatsumi Kimishima, assumed the position until he stepped down in April 2018. As of June 2018, Shuntaro Furukawa, who mainly has an accounting background, has been President of Nintendo.
Now You’re Playing With Power
Thanks to its success in video games, Nintendo has finally achieved Hiroshi Miyauchi’s dreams of being a multimedia company by producing Mario cereal, t-shirts, animated adaptations, comic books, magazines, and the controversial live action movie from 1993. Though fans and even the cast members mostly have nothing but bad things to say about it, being the non-confrontational Japanese person that Miyamoto has presented himself throughout his career, the only comments he has made in relation to it is that he understands that the people who worked on the movie worked hard on it, and that should be acknowledged.
Even though Sega, Sony, and Microsoft made their impact and contributions to the industry these past two decades trying to rival Nintendo, it will never change the legacy and position of Nintendo. They were the original innovators. They introduced the d-pad, simple game design, 8-bit sounds, authentic analog and 3D movement, motion controls, mobile gaming, and more. Even to this day, there are numerous people who enjoy their original releases dating back to Donkey Kong. Today, the likes of Miyamoto and Sakurai still push new boundaries with their hit franchises to make them both fresh and familiar, which is the best reason why many still associate video games to the Nintendo brand and why they are likely to be around for another 130 years.