Researched by Thomas DeMichelePublished - December 17, 2015 Last Updated - October 26, 2018
The History of the Nintendo Company
Nintendo was founded in 1889 as a playing card (hanafuda) company, nearly a century before the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985.
Nintendo, then Nintendo Koppai, started making playing cards in 1889. Nearly 70 years and a few failed ventures later, including a taxicab service and food company, Nintendo began producing futuristic children’s toys. In the 1970’s Nintendo started creating electronic toys including a light gun and arcade games.
In the early 80’s Nintendo produced the first popular handheld gaming device and created the hit arcade game Donkey Kong. In 1983, they released their first gaming system the “Famicom” Family Computer (the Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System released two years later in the U.S.).
Below is a brief look at Nintendo’s history exploring the way it went from a family run playing card business to revolutionizing the video game industry nearly 100 years later.
What is hanafuda? Hanafuda is Japanese for “flower cards.” Hanafuda refers to both a type of playing card and games played with those playing cards.
A brief history of Nintendo, a full-length documentary on the history of Nintendo. Please pay special attention to the bottom of the article (TIP: It’ll be more rewarding if you work your way through the page first).
FACT: Long before Gameboy, Nintendo released a very similar handheld device called the Nintendo Game & Watch. The Game & Watch line of hardware has sold over 80 million units worldwide.
A Quick History of Nintendo:
Nintendo: Playing with power, since about the same time electricity was invented.
From Playing Cards to Video Games
Nintendo was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi on September 23, 1889, as Nintendo Koppai in Kyoto, Japan.
Nintendo’s first product was Mr. Yamauchi’s “Hanafuda” (flower cards, a card game played in Japan since at least the 16th century).
In 1902, Yamauchi started manufacturing western-style playing cards intended for export. The cards became a hit in Japan and the rest of the world. Thus, as early as 1902 Nintendo was setting its sights on creating a worldwide gaming company.
Hiroshi Yamauchi, Fusajiro’s son, took over the business in 1950. A year later the company changed its name to Nintendo Playing Card Co. Ltd. They became the first company to succeed in manufacturing mass-produced plastic playing cards in Japan.
In 1959, Nintendo starting making Disney cards which opened a new market in children’s playing cards.
In 1963, the company changed its name to Nintendo Co., Ltd. At this time, they started producing games and toys. The futuristic games and toys that they began creating during this time, like the extendable Ultra Hand of 1966, foreshadowed Nintendo’s future strategy of pairing futuristic toys with video games.
A video showing an exhibition of Nintendo toys and games throughout Nintendo’s history. In the 60’s and 70’s Nintendo produced a line of “Ultra” toys. This line and other subsequent pre-NES products included futuristic toys and games in which electronics were incorporated.
During the 60’s Nintendo started branching out in different directions while continuing toy production. They opened a taxi company, an instant rice company, and a hotel chain. All these ideas failed. Un-phased Nintendo went back to its roots as a toy company.
Nintendo’s First Foray into Video Games: the Light Gun
In 1970, another foreshadowing of Nintendo’s future occurred when Nintendo developed a solar-powered light gun with Sharp. This was the first commercially available light gun for home use.
In 1971, Nintendo helped Magnavox produce a light gun for their Magnavox Odyssey. This can be seen as the first foray into video games by Nintendo. The gun was released in 1972 with the Magnavox Odyssey. This can be seen as the first foray into video games by Nintendo. The gun was released in 1972 with the Magnavox Odyssey which was one of the most popular systems outside of Atari at the time.
In 1972, Nintendo produced one of the first programmable drum machines, the Ele-Conga. It used punch cards. Later Nintendo would produce rhythm video games like Donkey Kong.
In 1973, Nintendo developed a laser clay shooting system, which rivaled bowling as a major pastime in Japan. This would be a similar concept to the NES launch title Duck Hunt that came with a light gun. Some may consider 1973’s Laser Clay Shooting System to be the first Nintendo video game while their creation of the light gun in 1970 can be said to mark their first foray into video games.
Duck hunt is the spiritual successor to what some consider Nintendo’s first video game “Laser Clay Shooting System”.
From Gadgets to Games
In 1975, Nintendo took its first official steps into the video game market by developing an image-projection system and employed the 16mm film projector in amusement arcades. The company began exporting these arcade machines to America and Europe. One of the first titles was called EVR Race.
Nintendo released the EVR Race (a horse racing game which 6 people could play at a time) in 1975. Genyo Takeda created the video game, which led Shigeru Miyamoto to consider him Nintendo’s first video game designer. The game was popular but extremely complicated to maintain.
Next up for Nintendo was a smash hit arcade game Radar Scope. This 1979 arcade game was well received in Japan, but the buzz has died down by the time it reached the United States.
Between the late 70’s and early 80’s Nintendo produced home non-cartridge based microcomputer systems. They continued this after producing the Famicom.
Radar scope, one of Nintendo’s first video games, in action.
Game & Watch, Donkey Kong, and the Famicom
In 1980, Nintendo had their biggest breakthrough to date. The Game & Watch was a handheld black & white gaming system that also acted as an alarm clock and watch. They sold tens of millions of units and have sold over 80 million (other quotes put this at 40 million, I am assuming 40 million at the time 80 million for all Game & Watch devices over time).
The Game & Watch in action.
1981 marks the birth of the Nintendo we know today. In 1981, Nintendo ran an in-house contest of sorts for ideas for a new video game. Shigeru Miyamoto, an artist who had just been hired in 1977, won with his ideas becoming the basis of what would become Donkey Kong. Miyamoto had contributed to the development of Radar Scope as “no one else was available to do it”.  Miyamoto evolved his original idea of the game (see below) changing the characters based on hit movie at the time, Popeye. He re-imagined the villain as a “jack-ass” version of King Kong. Thus, Donkey Kong was born.
Miyamoto lore in one minute or less.
On July 15, 1983, Nintendo released the Famicom in Japan. The system was immensely popular in Japan, but a problem known as the North American video game crash of 1983 would mean the translation to a western audience was going to be an uphill battle.
FACT: The hero of Donkey Kong was originally called Jumpman. He was a carpenter racing to save his girlfriend, Pauline, from a crazed ape. Jumpman was later renamed during the establishment of Nintendo of America’s headquarters by Nintendo Co., Ltd. In honor of Jumpman’s resemblance to their office landlord, Mario Segali, he was later renamed ‘Mario’.
The North American Video Game Crash of 83′, and the Nintendo Entertainment System
The North American video game crash of 83′ shaped a lot of the future of Nintendo from 81 – 85. In 1981, the same Christmas that children in the United States got to play Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong in Arcades, they played Atari’s Pac-Man on home consoles. The Pac-Man release was rushed and panned by critics. This can be seen as the beginning of the end of Atari and the popularity of video games in America until the Christmas of 85′. Over the next year from 82′ – 83′ an over saturation of third party games and systems led to the North American video game crash of 1983. The buyer’s rejection of Atari and the timing of their new system would pose problems for the next two years, despite increasing sales in Japan.
With the release of the Famicom and the success of Donkey Kong Nintendo wanted Atari to do their distribution in North America. The papers were supposed to be due in the summer of 83′. However, fate stepped in a last minute when Atari realized Coleco had made an unauthorized part of Donkey Kong. By the time an agreement was reached Atari was too weakened by the crash to agree to the deal. With no deal in place, Nintendo decided to create its own home gaming system for the North American market.
Nintendo tried to bring versions of its Famicom to the United States but the last thing any department store wanted to see was another video game system (they had all lost millions on the Atari-inspired crash). They tried a number of different versions of the system, but no one wanted it. Finally, they found success in marketing the system as an “Entertainment System” by packaging it with a robot and a light gun. This move brought Nintendo back to its roots as a toy company while moving toward what it is known for today, dominating the post-Atari gaming era.
After two long years of innovative business tactics, Nintendo finally broke into the North American Market in 1985. Some of the most interesting tactics that helped Nintendo become established in the U.S. market (along with marketing it as an entertainment system) included promising to buy back unsold Nintendo systems from department stores and offering its sales forces commissions for strong-arming department stores into taking Nintendo’s along with Teddy Ruxpin toys.
The first Nintendo commercial from 1985.
Over the course of 1986, Nintendo’s new system took America by storm. Miyamoto’s Super Mario and Zelda were some of the biggest games of all time.
By 1989, a Nintendo was in nearly every household and Atari was a thing of the past. Nintendo released the Gameboy (inspired by their Game & Watch from 1980) selling 118 million units in its lifetime.
Super Mario 3 was released in 1990 and it was followed by another successful generation of gaming systems in 1991 with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Since then, despite hiccups like the Power Glove and Virtual boy, Nintendo has continued to be a strong player in gaming with its successful handheld, N64, and Wii Products.
A great full-length documentary giving a detailed history of Nintendo. A highly recommended account of Nintendo from game cards to video game domination.
Atari, Nintendo, Third Parties, and Quality Control
Atari and Nintendo’s stories tell the story of the history of video games. One thing they both did was push out competitors with questionable business practices. Atari, under Nolan Bushnell’s direction, had every chip developing company creating chips for them in exclusive deals for the purpose of blocking competitors.
Nintendo years later would produce a limited number of chips needed to make games work, limiting third party developers. Nintendo did this under the idea that it would improve the quality of games and avoid an over-saturation of third party games or systems. While they were right it caused some third party developers to have a shortage of games in the market and get unfavorable contracts from Nintendo. Game making companies would buy other game making companies (such as Acclaim owning LJN) to circumvent Nintendo’s rules.
To be fair to Nintendo pretty much every LJN game was poorly received by critics while the original Nintendo first party titles are some of the most well-received games of all time.
Third party titles and their exclusivity would later come back to haunt Nintendo with the Power Glove and again in the Wii era. Atari’s issue with an over-saturation of bad third party titles was a large part of what caused the North American video game crash of 83′.
In retrospect, there is no simple solution, but history pretty clearly paints a picture of gaming companies struggling to find the balance between quality control and the proper treatment of third party developers.
Nintendo most certainly started life as a playing card game company in the 1800’s. After eighty years of everything from toys, to instant rice, to light guns for magnavox, to arcades, Nintendo finally got it’s break with the 1980 Game & Watch, the release of the Donkey Kong arcade game in 1981, and the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985.
Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind ObamaCareFacts.com, FactMyth.com, CryptocurrencyFacts.com, and other DogMediaSolutions.com and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...