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The Bizarre History Of Nintendo Before It Was Today's Nintendo

There are likely only a handful of people on the entire planet who’ve yet to learn of Nintendo. In fact, these people would have somehow managed to never have come into contact with much of the technological world we live in.

That’s not to say it isn’t possible. North Sentinel Island, for example, has remained largely isolated from the modern world and the people there have probably never even heard of soda, let alone video games. There are a few other isolated societies who can claim a similar status. For the rest of us, we’ve likely grown up owning a Nintendo system or two.

Nintendo has had massive cultural impacts across the globe. The Pokemon phenomenon has now survived over twenty years and the Super Mario franchise continues to grow and expand to this day including legendary titles such as:

  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Donkey Kong
  • Super Smash Bros
  • Kirby
  • Animal Crossing

In this article, we’ll be taking a brief look into how Nintendo was established and some of the significant turning points that led it to become the giant it is today.

(No, this won’t simply be a list of hit games. We’re going back back.)

The Origin of Nintendo

Nintendo was originally established as Yamauchi Nintendo in September of 1889 by the original founder Fusajiro Yamauchi. The original purpose of the company was the production and marketing of Hanafuda, translated as “flower cards”, a type of playing card used for a variety of games in Japan.

These cards were produced completely by hand. They quickly gained popularity, initially in Kyoto but eventually throughout all of Japan. As a result, expansion was required in order to continue meeting demand.

Interestingly, Fusajiro Yamauchi had no son to pass his business onto as his retirement approached. Following Japanese custom, he adopted his son-in-law Sekiryo Kaneda, who would later expand the company into the production and distribution of a variety of card types.

Not the Start Most Would Expect

It's obvious that Nintendo is an incredibly old company if you consider all of its iterations. I was surprised to find out that the company was established in the 19th century. It’s currently more than thirteen decades old and showing no sign of slowing down.

Originating as a card company, Nintendo would actually continue down this track until Hiroshi Yamauchi would inherit the seat of president in 1949. Change was not immediate. In fact, the inspiration for change would only strike in 1956, when Hiroshi Yamauchi paid a visit to the United States Playing Card Company.

During his visit, Hiroshi was struck by how incredibly small the offices were for the biggest playing card company in the world. To him, this revealed the limited possibilities of continuing along the rather unidimensional path of playing card production, which were primarily used as tools for gambling.

The Pivot that Shifted Nintendo Forever

Arguably the biggest change in the company’s history was its 1959 deal with Disney that allowed for the use of Disney characters on Nintendo’s playing cards.

In a genius pivot, Nintendo would also create books that would explain the various games that Japanese households could play with the new Disney cards. Making them a near instant hit. In fact, the new cards got so popular that they sold more than 600,000 units in the first year.

This year of massive success and the success that would follow is what gave birth to the Nintendo we know today. In 1962, the company was taken public as a direct result of its massive growth and in 1963, it was officially redubbed “Nintendo” instead of “Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd.”

The Ups and Downs that Followed

Following the massive injection of capital from the success of its new playing cards and going public, Nintendo began to expand its horizons as a company. Between 1963 and 1968, Nintendo would start and shutter a few business ventures including:

  • A “Love Hotel’ line
  • An Instant rice food company
  • A Taxi service
  • A vacuum Cleaner (pictured below)

Alongside all of these ventures, Nintendo began experimenting with making toys and given current societal context, only toymaking managed to survive.

Despite the economic boom happening throughout Japan, Nintendo’s stock would unfortunately take a massive hit in 1964, dropping from 900 Yen to 60 Yen. The playing card market would simply become oversaturated with products and households soon began to stop purchasing new decks.

The Final Major turning Point

Despite how bleak things looked, hope would be around the next bend for Nintendo. One day while carrying out an inspection of a Hanafuda factory owned by Nintendo, Yamauchi noticed an extending arm created by Gunpei Yokoi.

Gunpei had been hired as a maintenance technician for the assembly line and had constructed the arm for his own enjoyment. Yamauchi instructed Yokoi to redesign the arm to be suitable for release as a Christmas toy and this decision would be Nintendo’s next big hit.

The “Ultra Hand” would go on to sell over a million units and Yokoi would be taken on as a product developer where he would go on to create several other blockbuster hits for Nintendo, including the Nintendo Beam Gun game, which was developed in collaboration with Masayuki Uemura from Sharp. The success of the Ultra Arm gave Yamauchi the insight into the novelty of electronic toys that would eventually lead them into video game console production.

Following the success of the Beam Gun in Japan, Nintendo would sign a deal with Magnavox to produce the “Shooting Gallery”, a light gun accessory to their Magnavox Odyssey, the first ever commercially available gaming console. Following this, Nintendo found massive success with Laser Clay Shooting systems, which became so popular that they rivaled bowling as a major pastime in Japan.

The success of the Magnavox Odyssey taught Nintendo an important lesson on the success of video games and would lead them to not only produce successful arcade games based around the light gun and other systems, but would lead them to develop the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Game and Watch Handheld device. These were arguably the two most pivotal releases in their history, since these systems gave rise to cartridge-based gaming and gave birth to all of the series that we know and love today.

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