Everyone knows about the Japanese electronics and video game giant headquartered in Kyoto, Japan that is responsible for Mario and Zelda. What some may not know is that the company had been around since the 1800s and less than half of its life has been dedicated to creating video games.
Founded in 1889 by Fusajiro Yamauchi as a playing card company, the cards known as Hanafuda, translated into English as roughly meaning “Flowery cards,” were so popular that Yamauchi hired assistants to mass-produce them on a level that would satisfy demand.
The company actually didn’t go by the name “Nintendo” until 1949 when the company became Nintendo Karuta Co, Ltd. “Nintendo” is translated in English as meaning “Leave luck to heaven.”
In 1956, Yamauchi’s grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi went on a trip to the United States to license the use of Disney characters on Nintendo’s playing cards to drive up the sales, which actually worked (the appeal of Disney is seemingly limitless).
In the 1960s the playing cards began to lose their popularity, and Nintendo, which in 1963 changed its name to Nintendo Co. Ltd, went into other businesses to find something that would stick. These ventures included taxi companies, hotels, TV networks and the instant rice business, but they were finally onto something in 1966 when they began targeting the toy business.
The first success they had was the Ultra Hand, which was an extendable arm that could grab things from far away developed by Gunpei Yokoi, an important Nintendo employee who would go on to create the Gameboy among other things.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Nintendo had created several games for arcades, including toy gun games that would use light-detection technology that pre-dated Duck Hunt by a decade.
Their first venture into the video game industry was their attempt to secure the Japanese rights to the very first video game console the Magnavox Odyssey in 1974.
In 1977 Nintendo produced its own hardware with the Color TV-Game consoles, which came in several different versions. The first version, Color TV-Game 6 was co-developed with Mitsubishi Electronics and carried 6 different variations of Light Tennis, itself a variation of Pong. It included tennis, hockey and volleyball versions and was controlled with dials like an Etch-a-Sketch. The Color TV-Game 15 was Nintendo’s first console with wired controllers, which made for a more comfortable two-player experience.
At the same time, Nintendo would try breaking into the arcade game industry with such games as EVR Race, Sheriff and Radar Scope, none of which reached the levels of fame that Space Invaders or Pac–Man had reached.
The 1979 game Radar Scope was so unpopular that Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi wanted all the unsold units converted into a new game, which student product developer Shigeru Miyamoto was tasked with under Gunpei Yokoi’s supervision.
The resulting game from the creative-minded Miyamoto, who was more of an artist than a programmer, was Donkey Kong in 1981. This game was Nintendo’s biggest hit, and its success in arcades, as well as ports for video game consoles like the Atari 2600, ColecoVision and the Mattel Intellivision, brought Nintendo a whole new level of fame and fortune.
Donkey Kong was also the first game to introduce the character of Mario, who would become the most popular video game character of all time in later years. But in order for that to happen, he would have to make the jump to consoles.