Nintendo need very little introduction. From their beginnings as humble toy and playing card manufacturers, they cunningly stepped in to re-ignite the home video game market from the ashes of the defunct Atari, turning their Family Computer console (known as the ‘Nintendo Entertainment System’ in the West) into the most successful home entertainment device of the 80s.
Interestingly, they did this by both providing extraordinary games, and by employing some of the most ruthless and immoral business practices the world has ever seen… The three Japanese kanji characters that form the word Nintendo roughly translate as ‘leave luck to heaven’ – but anyone familiar enough with Nintendo’s business practices during the 80s know that when it comes down to the real reasons behind Nintendo’s success story, luck has nothing to do with it.
Nintendo Koppai began as a small family business, set up toward the end of 1889 in Kyoto by 31-year-old Fujisaro Yamauchi. His chosen trade was to design, manufacture and market plating cards. Dozens of different card types were produced, but it was Nintendo’s traditional hand-made Hanafuda cards (pictured left) that proved to be the most successful. The company expanded accordingly to meet demand, and by the mid-1930s Nintendo had become Japan’s largest card manufacturer.
Nintendo’s post-war period, under the guidance of Yamauchi’s ambitious grandson Hiroshi, was one of great change for the company. Interest in traditional card games had waned, and despite managing to strike a deal with Disney to feature their characters of Nintendo cards, the company had seemingly maximised their potential in their industry.
Throughout the sixties, Nintendo tried to expand into a wide range of different businesses: a taxi company, instant noodles, a TV network, and even modern-day brothels (which are amusingly disguised as ‘love hotels’ in Japan).
Out of all of the abovementioned attempts to expand out of the playing card business, the only real success Nintendo saw was in the only field in which they had any experience: the toy industry.
In 1966, the ‘Ultra Hand’ (above) became a massive surprise hit for Nintendo. Essentially nothing but an extendable plastic grip, the Ultra Hand became an overnight hit for Nintendo, selling out faster than the units could be produced.
The first model was rapidly followed up by two variants: the ‘Ultra Machine’ (1968), and then finally the ‘Ultra Scope’ (1971, left) a device that allowed the user(s) to peer over and around obstacles.
It was clear that the toy market was the place where Nintendo felt the most comfortable, and by the mid-70s it was clear in which direction it was heading: rapid technological advances saw cheaply produced home video game devices already make an appearance in the US, so in turn Nintendo decided to develop and release their first home video game console.
The 1977 Color TV Game 6 (above) was a reasonable success in Japan’s fast booming electronic games market: it provided 6 variants of the standard 2-player ‘bat & ball’ game, playable via two dials placed on the front of the unit.
An upgraded unit, the ‘Color TV Game 15’ followed in 1978 featuring 15 different game variants. It was met with an even better reception the the first model, mainly because it incorporated two detachable controllers, making play a far less crowded affair.
The only problem was the numerous other competitors launching their Pong variants onto the marketplace. Nintendo sought variety by rapidly releasing a ‘Color TV Racing’ variant featuring a steering wheel, and a one-player ‘Color TV Block Kusure’ machine in 1979.
Nintendo’s ‘Block Breaking’ machine (pictured left) sold well – it presented simple, colourful and responsive variants of ‘Breakout’ for one player.
Sales further convinced Nintendo of the potential that lay in this ever growing videogame market. In 1980 they released one last stand-alone machine, the ‘Computer TV Game’ and began their Game & Watch range.
he nascent arcade industry of the late 70s also caught Nintendo’s eye. Their first arcade effort was Block Fever (1978), a run-of-the-mill bat & ball game that was rapidly swallowed up in the highly competitive filed of the period. A number of half-baked ‘invader clones’ also failed to make much of a splash – it wasn’t until the release of Donkey Kong (1981) that Nintendo would get their first taste of success.
Initially commissioned as an emergency replacement for unsold Radar Scope cabinets, Nintendo’s cunning action platform game went on to become a worldwide smash, earning the company revenue the likes of which the company had never seen… After two successful sequels (Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3) and a spin-off (Mario Bros.), Nintendo would turn their attention to a far more lucrative aspect of the games industry: the home market.
By this point Atari had all but stormed the US and European markets with their VCS 2600 machine – a games console with interchangeable cartridges. But Atari’s gross mismanagement of their lead saw them drop out of the industry by 1984. Nintendo quickly seized their chance: their final arcade release, Arm Wrestling (left) appeared in 1984, and they focused all of their energies on the release of their own games console: the Family Computer.