This year marks the 125th anniversary of Nintendo, the beloved Japanese video game company responsible for a whole slew of consoles that you’ve probably played more times than you can count (or are willing to admit—it’s okay, we love Mario, too). One hundred and twenty-five years is certainly a big birthday, especially for a company best known for their forward-thinking modern gaming systems. But if video games weren’t created until the middle part of the twentieth century (most video game historians point to the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, created in 1947, as the first true “video game”), what exactly did Nintendo do in its early years?
Turns out, quite a bit.
The company that would become “Nintendo” was founded in 1889 by entrepreneur Fusajiro Yamauchi as “Nintendo Koppai” (also known as the “Nintendo Playing Card Co. Ltd.," so you can probably guess where this is going), and was styled as a playing card company (see!) that mostly made Japanese playing cards called “Hanafuda.” The so-called “flower cards” have been a part of Japanese gameplay for centuries, and Nintendo had great success in manufacturing and marketing them. (The company still makes cards to this day.)
Despite the company’s success with playing cards, Yamauchi’s grandson Hiroshi eventually realized that Nintendo had probably gone as far as anyone possibly could with just cards. In 1956, the young go-getter was astonished to see that the massive United States Playing Card Company was run out of a small office. If that’s what they were working with, what could Nintendo possibly aspire to?
First up: character cards. Nintendo (quite sagely) picked up the rights to the Disney cabal of characters, putting them on their cards and driving sales, but that wasn’t quite enough. They needed to think bigger.
More Is More
The early sixties weren’t too kind to the ever-expanding Nintendo empire. The company, hellbent on mixing things up and pushing past just playing card sales, stretched itself too thin by getting involved with everything. Well, nearly everything.
Between 1963 and 1968, Nintendo began dabbling in such disparate industries as transportation (a taxi company), hospitality (a love hotel chain), and food (they specialized in ramen) under the umbrella of “Nintendo Co., Ltd.” None of these attempts at expanding into different industries worked out, and Nintendo soon needed to find something new to embrace.
After the mixed bag that was the '50s, Nintendo turned its attentions to toys, including the carnival-like “Love Tester” and the popular “Kousenjuu” light gun games, which paved the way for the company to turn their attentions to more light gun-based gaming. Slowly, the company moved towards more electronics-heavy games and toys, even though they couldn’t initially keep up with big names like Bandai and Tomy.
The Electronic Age
Nintendo steadily worked their way into the video game realm, but things really changed in 1974, when the company bought the distribution rights for the Magnavox Odyssey video game console. In 1975, the company set about making their own video arcade games, with Genyo Takeda’s “EVR Race.” By 1977, the company was making its very own consoles, originally styled as five different kinds of the “Color TV-Game.” (The first Color-TV Game console is responsible for bringing six different takes on Pong to the world.)
These consoles were partially designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, who would go on to design Donkey Kong for the company in 1981, a game-changer through and through. Once Donkey Kong hit the market—allowing Nintendo to enjoy licensing their own products to other companies—Nintendo had established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the burgeoning video game sector.
Once Nintendo’s dominance in the industry was recognized, the company began churning out inspiring new creations, from the handheld “Game & Watch” game series, to the “Family Computer” for home gaming (eventually launched as the NES outside of Japan), to the smash-hit that was the Game Boy (invented in 1989). The company’s success continued in the late eighties, thanks to the release of the Super Nintendo (SNES), which also helped kick off the infamous battle with rival Sega.
In 1994, Nintendo celebrated the sale of one billion game cartridges (a tenth of them attributed to Mario games alone). A series of missteps marred the rest of the '90s, including the disappointing Virtual Boy in 1995, but the company quickly rebounded with the Nintendo 64, the Game Boy Pocket, and the Game Boy Color.
To the Future
The aughts proved to be similarly fraught for the company with the disappointment of machines like GameCube and Game Boy Micro. This was briefly tempered by the success of the Nintendo DS and the New Super Mario Bros. game in 2006.
If there’s one thing that’s really changed things for the company, though, it’s the Wii, first introduced in 2006. The motion-controlled system has proven to be especially successful for Nintendo.
Next up for the company? A heavier reliance on glasses-free 3D displays, an interest in video compression, and games that fold in advanced face and voice recognition.
Happy 125th, Nintendo!