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- 130 years ago on September 23, 1889, Nintendo was born – but not the incarnation of Nintendo we know today.
- Founder Fusajiro Yamauchi began the company by selling hand-painted playing cards, which eventually became the most popular brand in Japan.
- Nintendo has gone through many iterations. It once sold ramen noodles, and then decided to try out a taxi service.
- Today, Nintendo is known for its consumer electronics, iconic video game characters, and many, many gaming systems.
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Nintendo turns 130 this year. And like any company that’s been around for over a century, a lot has changed. Pivots have been made. Economic downturns weathered. It’s seen product launch failures, and many successes.
Nintendo brought us the little Italian plumber we’ve grown to marvel and adorn on our clothes, as well as countless other video game character many ’90s kids attribute parts of their identity to. All because founder Fusajiro Yamauchi began manufacturing Hanafuda cards, a type of Japanese playing card, for his company, then called Nintendo Koppai, on September 23, 1889.
In the early 1900s, Nintendo grew to be the largest card-selling business in Japan. It used this momentum to venture into other industries – taxi services, ramen noodles, short-term “love” hotels, and, more notably, video games. But only one of those side hustles panned out (you guess which).
Today, Nintendo rakes in billions of dollars in revenue from its array of consoles, from the Switch to Wii, and games like cult-favorite “The Legend of Zelda” and newbies like “Animal Crossing.”
Take a look back at Nintendo’s 130-year rise from playing card company to video game giant.
In 1889, Nintendo founder Fusajiro Yamauchi began manufacturing and selling hand-painted playing cards in Kyoto, Japan.
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The cards had pops of yellow and red with bold, black lines, depicting song birds, flowers, and cherry blossoms used for multiple games – including gambling.
Over the next four decades, the cards were so popular in Japan that the company became the largest card-selling business in the country, eventually creating “durable plastic-coated playing cards” with Disney characters on them, which also brought success, and exporting them worldwide.
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The playing cards were even used by some notorious gangs, including the crime syndicate the Yakuza. Nintendo, loosely translated, means putting your faith in the gods.
Fusajiro Yamauchi died in 1940, and his 22-year-old great-grandson Hiroshi took over the playing card company in 1949.
He remained at the helm of Nintendo for the next 50 years and ushered the “transition from traditional playing-card maker to video game giant” after a trip to America made him think about the long-term growth for the family business. But there would be many trials, errors, and business pivots in that half century.
It was Hiroshi Yamauchi who expanded Nintendo into various industries outside of just games between 1963 and 1968, shortly after it went public, giving him financial flexibility. The first offshoot? A “love hotel” — where you could rent rooms by the hour.
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According to the book Nintendo: The Company and Its Founders by Mary Firestone, Yamauchi was known for his affairs, and since other hotels in Japan at that time only booked rooms for a night, he decided to open his own, one where he was also a frequent guest.
The love hotels did well, according to Firestone’s book, but ultimately shut down because of Yamauchi’s desire to explore other rising industries.
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Nintendo also found success with its taxi service, pioneered also by Yamauchi, though quickly dissolved once a labor union dispute turned costly.
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Nintendo’s last unsuccessful venture of the ‘60s was an instant rice company, but, once again, Yamauchi ultimately decided to focus on the company’s historic roots in gaming.
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Nintendo’s decision to go all-in on the gaming industry wasn’t exactly at the right time either. According to Gizmodo, the playing card business – where Nintendo was once a stronghold – was fully saturated and consumers were looking for the next big thing.
For Nintendo, the next big thing meant toys and electronic games. Arcades in the 1970s were the hip places to be. And thanks to assembly-line-worker-turned-product-developer Gunpei Yokoi, the “Beam Gun” was invented and released to rave reviews in 1970.
The “Beam Gun,” similar to other toy guns of the era, fit perfectly in the arcade space, which set off Nintendo’s lead in the gaming industry.
Ralph Baer, a German-American engineer, was an instrumental figure in how Nintendo became the force it is today. Baer developed a console where you could play video games on a TV screen. Nintendo saw a world of possibility in the invention, and bought the rights to it in 1975, the same year its first game, EVR Race, was released.
The Magnavox Odyssey video game unit was conceived 13 years before Nintendo bought it, but it was after the company got it hands on it that more Nintendo video games starting hitting the shelves.
In 1979, Minoru Arakawa, Yamauchi’s son-in-law, became the president of Nintendo of America, and opened up shop in New York City to expand the business’s then-coin-operated games to the West.
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That same year, Nintendo had started a division for coin-operated games in 1979. Arakawa later took up shop in Seattle, where he oversaw product development.
Then along came Shigeru Miyamoto — a young developer who created one of Nintendo’s now-infamous games in 1980: “Donkey Kong.”
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The original game consisted of a single premise: Jumpman, who was a carpenter, needed to rescue his girlfriend, Pauline, from his “crazed” pet gorilla, who’d kidnapped her. The player would have to run, jump, and climb a series of obstacles in an attempt to save her. According to The New Yorker, Miyamoto based the creation of Jumpman on Popeye.
The character name “Jumpman” didn’t last long — Nintendo executives decided on “Mario” because of the likeness to the company’s landlord. They were also wary of whether or not the game would be successful: its story-like style was a new feature in the video game genre.
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Executives even wondered whether the name would sit well. In Japanese, “kong” means gorilla, and “donkey” was a word Miyamoto found in an English dictionary that meant stupid. As we know today, “Donkey Kong” ended up doing very well.
After years of selling its games made for devices designed by other companies, Nintendo released its own game console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, worldwide in 1985.
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Nintendo bet big when it decided to make gaming consoles for at home use – and it paid off. According to the company, the NES sold over 60 million units. The New York Times called the buzz for the gaming system a “teen-age cultural phenomenon” in 1988.
In 1985, Mario got his big break. Miyamoto reinvented “Donkey Kong” for the Nintendo Entertainment System and made Mario the star. The objective of the game remained the same: Rescue the girl, this time Princess Peach, and save the Mushroom Kingdom.
According to Nintendo’s website, “Studies at the time showed that children were as or more familiar with Mario as they were with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.” Mario may have also been the result of Nintendo’s desire to bounce back after the Video Game Crash of 1983 (when the market just had too many bad games and ill-functioning consoles). This worked, because Mario and his brother Luigi, turned out to be a full-blown sensation.
“Super Mario Bros.” went on to become one of the most iconic video games — as well as one of the most mass-produced — of all time. The game’s music, too, has in turn become a phenomenon of its own.
In March, a rare copy of the game sold for $100,00, making it the most expensive video game ever sold. Though you can still score a regular copy for about $10 online.
Sources: Business Insider
Saving maidens seemed to be the main theme for Nintendo in the ‘80s — the company released “The Legend of Zelda” for NES just a year after Mario made his solo debut. Link, the main character, must travel through forests and dungeons to find Princess Zelda and save her from pitfalls seemingly unbeknownst to her.
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“The Legend of Zelda” has had many chapters added to its franchise in past years, with nearly 20 games in the series. The game is also a cult favorite among those who grew up playing it, typically Gen X and millennials. According to some fan sites, the original 1986 game has sold nearly 8 million copies throughout its lifetime.
Inspired by a commuter tinkering with his calculator on the train, game designer Yokoi yearned to create a handheld gaming device. Thus, GameBoy was born in 1989 — along with “Tetris,” the tile-matching puzzle Nintendo acquired from a Russian developer. The two went hand-in-hand and eventually 88 million were sold within the first decade of its arrival.
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According to Nintendo, “Since its introduction in 1989, Game Boy has sold well over 150 million systems worldwide.”
The original Game Boy, with its removable game cartridges, would become the baseline for all iterations of Nintendo’s hand-held devices in the future – from the Game Boy Color to the Game Boy Advance SP, and the Nintendo DS to the ever-popular Nintendo Switch.
In 1991, Nintendo released the Super Nintendo (SNES), and a year later, “Super Mario Kart” (its most popular game). And by 1994, Nintendo produced 1 billion game cartridges — a tenth of those were strictly Mario games. Today, the company says it has sold 4.7 billion video games.
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Nintendo’s SNES sold over 49 million units. By the turn of the century, Nintendo was dominating the video game space, though competitors like SEGA were close behind.
On the first day of the Nintendo 64 launch in Japan in 1996, more than 500,000 consoles were sold. It was introduced in America in September that same year, and ended up selling more than 1.7 million consoles by December.
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According to The New York Times, “the 64 […] enjoyed one of the most successful product launches in the history of dedicated game machines.” Yamauchi was still head of product in the West, and the 64 was considered to be his “last hurrah.” All of Nintendo’s already popular characters were drastically improved for the popular console because the company wanted to “tightly restrict the number of games developed for its machine to assure high quality.”
The Nintendo 64 went on to be one of the world’s most popular at-home gaming consoles, with nearly 33 million sold worldwide during its 6-year run.
The same year the world was introduced to the Nintendo 64, a whole new plethora of characters for GameBoy were introduced in the form of Pokémon. Pokémon, which means “pocket monsters,” lets players become Pokémon trainers and acquire Pokémon, readying them to battle one another.
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Pokémon took over the world – and had multiple spin-offs in the form of a “cartoon series, movies, books, a toy line, sequels, a clothing line, and a popular trading-card game.” Pokémon sales in just its first year yielded over $5 billion across industries, leading The New York Times to call it “one of the hottest fads of the 1990’s.”
Throughout the next decade, Nintendo released a series of handheld devices akin to the Game Boy.
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Some popular handhelds were the GameBoy Color, Pokémon Mini, Nintendo DS, and Nintendo 3DS. In 2006, the Nintendo DS was considered to be one of the best “portable console[s].”
Nintendo launched the Wii, a gaming console with wireless, motion-sensitive remote controllers and built-in Wi-Fi, at the end of 2006. The console, where users could play virtual games like boxing, bowling, golf, tennis, and baseball, would sell out in America long before Christmas that same year.
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For the next five years, Nintendo would deeply invest in this console, creating a litany of spin-off products to go along with it – including Wii Fit, Mario Kart Wii, Wii Wheel, and its successor, the Wii U. In 2016, Nintendo said it had sold over 101 million Wii consoles worldwide – Nintendo’s fastest-selling console ever in the US.
In 2017, Nintendo released the Nintendo Switch, which did so well in its first 10 months on the market, it outsold what the Wii U made in 5 years. The handheld device did so well in part due to its strong lineup of games during its first year on shelves.
“The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “Super Mario Odyssey,” released on the Switch, were loved by both critics and customers. Since its release, Nintendo has sold over 35 million Switches. “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” debuted in April 2018, and “half of all Switch owners bought” it.
Mario, undoubtedly, is a money-maker for Nintendo. In part due to nostalgia, a key marketing factor for Nintendo’s customers. But largely because his storyline continues to captivate audiences and evolve.
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Mario’s likeness, along with his signature buddies, played a huge role in Nintendo’s overall earnings for 2018. “Super Mario Odyssey” for the Nintendo Switch sold nearly 10 million copies in just two months after it was released – and over 60% of those customers who bought a Switch bought “Super Mario Odyssey” with it.
To add to the hype, a VR Mario Kart was introduced in 2019.
Throughout its 130-year history, Nintendo, and its many iterations, has solidified itself as a fan-favorite gaming giant in popular culture by introducing iconic characters with captivating storylines and user-friendly devices still relevant today.
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Nintendo has experienced sales fluctuations throughout the years, booms and plateaus, but it continues to successfully market its consoles and games to the child in us all. And it’s paid off – Nintendo’s net sales for 2019 amounted to nearly $11 billion.