The History of Nintendo

Nintendo truly boasts a fascinating and storied history. In this article, we’ve charted Nintendo’s course from a small card manufacturer in the 19th century to the gaming giant of today. Click to learn more!

The History of Nintendo — From Cards to Cartridges

Nintendo is a multinational video game and consumer electronics corporation based in Kyoto. It is known for its legendary console systems and hallowed video game franchises. The general population’s stance is that Nintendo is probably one of the best game developers ever — and the critics seem to agree.

Such high regard seems justified if you consider what Nintendo brought into this world, from Mario to Zelda to Metroid and Pokémon, the list goes on and on. Nintendo’s beginnings, however, are much more humble. 

The Hanafuda Era

Nintendo was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi on September 23, 1889. Yes, that’s correct — 1889. Nintendo exists since the 19th century. Originally the business was focused on selling the traditional Japanese Hanafuda cards — a type of traditional Japanese card decks. 

Many claim that if you roughly translate it, Nintendo means “leave luck to heaven,” however, there are no historical facts to back this up. These cards were getting more popular thanks to the Yakuza introducing hanafuda cards into their illegal gambling establishments. So Yamauchi was forced to hire more employees just so he could keep up with the new-found demand. 

Fusajiro Yamauchi did not have a male heir to take over the family business, so according to a common Japanese tradition, Sekiryo Kaneda was adopted into the family and became Sekiryo Yamauchi. 

Fusajiro Yamauchi retired in 1929, and chose Sekiryo Yamauchi as his successor. Sekiryo didn’t waste any time and in 1933 he decided to merge with another company — therefore, he renamed Nintendo Koppai into “Yamauchi Nintendo & Co.”

In 1947, yet another name change occurred when Sekiryo started a distribution company. It was called Marufuku Co. Ltd., and it distributed hanafuda cards, and any other types of playing cards that Nintendo introduced to the Japanese market. 

Similarly to his adoptive father, Sekiryo had only daughters as well, so another son-in-law was adopted into the family. However, Shikanojo Inaba, now known as Shikanojo Yamauchi, wasn’t a very good man, and soon enough he abandoned his family, leaving his children to be raised by their grandparents. 

Nintendo the Card Company

Hiroshi Yamauchi’s father was the run-away Shikanojo Yamauchi. In 1949, he was studying at Waseda University. However, after his grandfather’s died, he quit his studies to and fully dedicated all of his attention to Nintendo. In 1951, he decided to change the company name from “Marufuku Co. Ltd.” to “Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd.” By 1953, Nintendo was the first company to produce plastic gaming cards for the Japanese market.

In 1956, Hiroshi Yamauchi was embroiled in talks with the United States Playing Card Company. Back then, this was one of the largest card manufacturers on the planet. Soon after, Hiroshi visited their headquarters, and he was disappointed to find out that the most successful company in his line of work was forced to use a tiny office. This was a crucial experience for Hiroshi, who realized the limits  that the card manufacturing business was facing. Soon enough, this era would mark the most critical moment in all of Nintendo’s history.

In 1959, Hiroshi struck a deal that would change Nintendo forever. He managed to persuade Disney to give them the right to use Disney’s trademark characters on Nintendo playing cards. Before that, the Japanese considered western playing cards to be similar to mahjong or their own native hanafuda, more for gambling than for fun. However, by tying Disney to their cards and selling books which explained the various games one could play with them, Hiroshi managed to market the cards to Japanese households. 

The Disney-themed cards were a massive success, with at least 600,000 packs sold in just one year. This amount of success emboldened Hiroshi to make Nintendo public, which he did in 1962, listing Nintendo on the Osaka Stock Exchange Second division.

What followed was another name change, this time, thankfully, the final one. In 1963, Hiroshi once again renamed the company from “Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd.” to just “Nintendo.” Following the influx of capital, Nintendo tried their luck in other businesses. In the next five years, Nintendo would try anything and everything, from setting up a taxi service, to “love hotel” chains, and even starting a food company that would sell instant rice, as well as many other things (including selling the now-famous vacuum cleaner Chiritory). 

All of these experiments were for naught, almost bankrupting the business. Except for toymaking, where their card-making experience helped them stay afloat. The Tokyo Olympics in ’64 created an economic boom in Japan, and business of the playing card lived through its ultimate peak. Japanese households ceased buying playing cards. This caused Nintendo’s stock to plummet from 900 yen to 60 yen.

Nintendo the Toy Company

Nintendo was struggling in Japan’s nascent toy industry; it was small and dominated by bigger fish like Tomy and Bandai. Due to the toymaking industry’s fickle nature, toys tend to have short life cycles, which forced Nintendo to continually come up with new ideas and fresh products. Ultimately, this would mark a brand new chapter for Nintendo.

In 1965, Nintendo hired a certain Gunpei Yokoi as a maintenance engineer. This man was about to forever change Nintendo’s course.

1966, Hiroshi Yamauchi was visiting one of Nintendo’s hanafuda factories where he accidentally noticed an extending arm. This extending arm was developed by one of the workers for his own amusement. This worker was, of course, Gunpei Yokoi. Yamauchi was so impressed by the arm that he ordered Gunpei Yokoi to develop it as a stand-alone product.

Gunpei Yokoi’s “Ultrahand,” almost immediately became one of the first Nintendo toy blockbuster, and it solds over a million units. In another show of keen business sense, Hiroshi Yamauchi pulled Yokoi from the assembly line and installed him as head of product development, seeing that he showed promise. 

This transfer paid off tremendously, Yokoi had an electrical engineering background, which made him quite proficient at developing electronic toys. The novelty value of these toys meant that Nintendo could charge a premium price for them. Yokoi would go on to invent a slew of very successful electronic toys, such as a baseball machine called “Ultra Machine,” a puzzle named “Ten Billion Barrel,” and a Love Tester.

In 1970, Nintendo released a light-gun, the first of its kind intended for home use, called the Nintendo Beam Gun. It was developed in collaboration with Sharp, another Japanese electronics manufacturer. 

Nintendo the Video Game Company

1972 was an important year in gaming history because that was when the first ever video game console came out — the Magnavox Odyssey. The Odyssey also had a light-gun accessory, which Nintendo developed thanks to their previous work on that sort of technology.

In the following years, Nintendo would focus on the emerging arcade market, producing light-gun games and systems. Even though those types of light-based games would quickly die off due to cost, Nintendo grasped the potential of the emerging gaming market and started shifting its focus towards this phenomenon.

Color TV-Game 6 — Proto-Gaming

The first step Nintendo took in the gaming market was securing distribution rights to the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan. After this import venture was decently successful, Nintendo decided to start making its own games.

The ’70s brought an interesting opportunity before Nintendo. Mitsubishi Electric proposed that they develop a new video game machine together. The fruit of their labor would turn out to be the “Color TV-Game 6” and “Color TV-Game 15” consoles (6 and 15 are the number of games available on the systems). 

Meanwhile, Nintendo started releasing its first arcade games. EVR Race was their first release, followed by a few more in the coming years, Donkey Kong and Radar Scope being the most famous out of all these. 

In the 1980s Nintendo developed the game-changing Donkey Kong, with Shigeru Miyamoto at the head of the development, which was released on the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, and Intellivision home consoles (even though, Nintendo didn’t usually port the games themselves), and as an arcade game. 

This approach to releasing games would later on be applied to the original Mario Bros. and many other of Nintendo’s releases. Nintendo started to dabble in hand-held gaming during this period.

Game & Watch — Portable Before Portable Was Cool

Game & Watch was Nintendo’s first foray into hand-held gaming. It was invented by Gunpei Yokoi — are you starting to see a pattern here? Every Game & Watch had a single game on it in addition to being a clock/alarm.

The Game & Watch was a smash hit, selling over 43.4 million units worldwide.

Nintendo of America was founded as a subsidiary during this period.

The Famicom — That Which Started It All

Game & Watch’s success emboldened Nintendo to take a bigger step into the gaming market, and they did just that in July of 1983, which was when they released the Famicom (Family Computer).

It was one of  Nintendo’s first attempts at producing a cartridge-based home video game console, and it was excellent. It sold well over 500,000 units in under two months, which is a great deal considering the price was $100. Although, after a couple of months of terrific sales, Nintendo started getting complaints that the console would freeze when users tried playing certain games. 

The problem seemed to be coming from a chip malfunction. Nintendo, in a display of honorable conduct worthy of the Bushido code, decided to pull all the other Famicoms from the store shelves after that. This move cost the company around $500,000.

Afterward, Nintendo flirted with the possibility of releasing the Famicom on the U.S. market. They had attempted to make a deal with Atari for distribution of the console. However, Nintendo licensing Donkey Kong as a pack-in game for Atari’s main competitor Coleco and their console, shook the relationship between the two and Atari refused to distribute the Famicom.

The Great Video Game Crash

The year 1983 marked an essential event in the history of gaming. A large recession hit the gaming market, resulting in a 97% decrease in sales, primarily in North America. Factors such as inflation, home computers, loss of publishing control, and mainly flooding of the market with poor games. The recession took out most of Nintendo’s rivals in the NA market, including giants like Atari. 

Over time, the dominance of Japan in the worldwide console market was unquestionable. Nintendo started exporting to the NA market, and their only legitimate competitor was also a company from Japan — Sega.

Nintendo firmly decided not to make the same mistakes Atari did. Due to an influx of truly horrible half-baked games, gaming almost died out in North America. Therefore, Nintendo decided to only allow games carrying their “seal of approval” to be released on their systems.

Following that decision, in 1985, Nintendo finally released the Famicom on the North American market, albeit, with a different design and name. Thus, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or more widely known as the NES, was born. 

To circumvent the terrible media coverage that video games were getting at the time, Nintendo packaged the NES with R.O.B. units. Small robot toys which are able to connect to the console and synchronize with them.

To solidify the quality of titles on its console, Nintendo decided to limit the number of games other developers could release per year to five. Konami was the first third-party developer allowed to release on the NES, and they would later try to circumvent the rule by forming a spinoff company Ultra Games. 

The latter half of the ’80s was important in Nintendo’s history for more reasons than one 1985’s Super Mario Bros. became a record-breaking hit. It was followed by Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, in ’86 and ’87 respectively, both released to major critical acclaim. In a way, the second half of the ’80s defined Nintendo and shaped it into a company that we know today.

Another important event was the release of “Nintendo Power,” a monthly gaming magazine which was used for advertising new releases.

The Game Boy & The SNES — The First Next-Gen

Inspired by the Game & Watch, Nintendo decided to develop more advanced handheld or mini gaming devices, and in 1989 they released the Game Boy. Developed by Gunpei Yokoi, it came with a quaint little game called Tetris. The combination of the lower price, Tetris and durability (other handheld devices were prone to screen rot and static), made the Game Boy a massive success — it sold well over 118 million units during the time of production. 

Nintendo continued its success streak by releasing the Super Famicom on the eager Japanese market on November 21, 1990. Predictably, it was an immense success, and it sold out in just three days. It sold over 1.6 million units by June 1991.

The Super Famicom was released in the U.S. in August 1991, albeit with a different name Super Nintendo Entertainment System (the SNES). The tech was cutting edge for the time, and the controller design (rounded edges and four additional buttons) was so innovative that most modern controllers still use the same or similar style of design. 

The Break With Sony — Or How The PlayStation Was Made

Originally, Nintendo intended to collaborate with Sony to create a CD-ROM add-on for the SNES. Nintendo had collaborated with Sony before, on the SPC sound chip for the SNES. However, Nintendo pulled out at the last second and instead decided to partner with Phillips. The reason for this sudden change has been hotly debated, but the most probable reason seems to be Sony asking for too much. 

Sony, shrewdly, decided to continue developing their technology. That tech later turned into the Sony PlayStation.

Nintendo vs. Sega — Battle of the Titans

While Nintendo was the clear victor on the Japanese market, the North American market was a different story. They started late, and Sega was heavily investing into its advertising (with Sonic The Hedgehog leading the charge). This caused Nintendo’s market share to drop from 95% (during the NES era) to 35% against the Sega Genesis. 

However, over the next few years, Nintendo managed to wrestle back control of theAmerican market. This is in-no-small part thanks to many now-classic titles such as The Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past, the Final Fantasy series, Super Mario World, and Street Fighter II.

The SNES sales totaled at 49.1 million units, compared to the Genesis’ 40 million. However, Nintendo’s aggressive business practices came with a price. In 1991 Nintendo agreed to settle for $30 million dollars, as recompense for threatening to cut off shipments to retailers who wanted to discount their consoles.

Nintendo 64 — First Step Into The Third Dimension

After the disastrous release of Virtual Boy (Nintendo’s ill-fated 1992 attempt at a virtual reality console), and the increasing competition from Sega’s 32-bit Saturn and Sony’s 32-bit PlayStation, Nintendo needed to come back strong.

Nintendo announced a new console in 1996, called Nintendo 64. Originally, the console was supposed to be named Ultra 64; however, Konami owned the rights to the Ultra moniker, and due to copyright, Nintendo had to rebrand.

June 23, 1996, saw the release of the N64 in Japan, selling a staggering half a million units on release day. The N64 was released in the U.S. several months later in September, and it sold out its initial shipment of 350,000 units. 

However, while the console was incredibly successful on release, it lacked third-party support, mostly due to the higher cost of producing games on cartridges rather than on CDs. But even though the system lacked third-party support, Nintendo’s first-party titles managed to keep the console alive. Titles like Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario Kart 64 and others, are considered classics to this day.

Three Game Boys and a Bunch of Pocket Monsters

Nintendo followed the N64 with the Game Boy Pocket, which was a miniaturized version of the original Game Boy. In some way, it was Gunpei Yokoi’s parting gift, as a week later he would resign from Nintendo. Unfortunately, Gunpei Yokoi perished in a car accident in 1997, some years later.

1995 saw the release of Pocket Monsters, or internationally Pokémon. The game proved  to be a massive success worldwide, so much so that Nintendo, at least briefly, managed to retake its position at the top of the gaming industry.

Nintendo continued its success streak by releasing the highly acclaimed Game Boy Color in 1998. GBC had one incredible advantage over its competitors; it was backward compatible. This meant that at its launch Game Boy Color had an impressive library of older Game Boy titles to keep people entertained while GBC releases slowly rolled out.

They continued developing their handheld technologies, until they finally released the Game Boy Advance in 2001. GBA was the first Nintendo handheld to break with the traditional “portrait” structure, switching to a more “landscape” structure, which would be the standard going forward.

The GBA’s sales totaled at 81.5 million units, making it yet another successful product in Nintendo’s roster.

The GameCube — A Wake-Up Call

N64 was really starting to get old, and while they kept their fans satisfied with their handheld releases, soon enough, it was time to release another proper console. 

Nintendo released the Nintendo GameCube on September 14, 2001. However, the GameCube would turn out to be a disappointment to Nintendo. A high number of units produced, low sales numbers, “childish” design choices, and a lack of third-party support at the start (who instead chose to develop for the more popular Xbox and PlayStation 2), all played a part in the ultimate failure of the GameCube.

And while third-party support increased over time, with Sega porting most of their classics to the GameCube (after the unfortunate demise of the Dreamcast), and a steady pace of Nintendo releases, it still wasn’t quite enough to push the GameCube into the limelight. 

By 2003, the GameCube held a market share of only 13%, which is far below the dominant 60% of the PlayStation 2.

This period also brought some changes in Nintendo’s management, due to the retirement of both Hiroshi Yamauchi (after an impressive 53-year presidency), and Minoru Arakawa, from the presidency of Nintendo, and Nintendo of America respectively. Yamauchi named Satoru Iwata as his successor, someone that would lead Nintendo into its second golden age.


Nintendo DS — If You’re Good At Something Keep Doing It

After the lackluster performance of the GameCube, Nintendo went back to developing a new handheld console, and in 2004 they would announce the Nintendo DS. The DS being short for dual-screen. After the announcement, over 3 million units were pre-ordered — mostly due to Nintendo’s impressive track record with handheld consoles.

The most essential feature of the Nintendo DS was, predictably, the dual-screen set up, one of which is touch-sensitive. In addition to this, the DS could create 3d graphics near the level of the N64. The graphics combined with a slew of high-quality games made DS a smash hit, clocking in over 154 million units sold, which made it the second best selling console of all time.

Upgrades to the original DS, like the DS Lite, would follow, and would further increase the staggering success of the handheld.

The Wii — A Second Golden Age

With their foot firmly on the neck of the handheld market, Nintendo set its eyes on reconquering the home console market. Due to the relative failure of the GameCube, Nintendo saw the need to change its strategy. 

Instead of marketing to a hardcore audience, Nintendo chose to mold its new console to the more casual players, children, and people who don’t quite play video games. This strategy proved to be tremendously effective, as no one else was marketing to that demographic. The console sold extremely fast and put Nintendo back at the top of the gaming world, yet again. 

A large roster of launch titles, accessible gameplay, motion controls, backward compatibility, and a vast number of excellent first and third-party games all contributed to the Wii’s staggering success.

The Wii also had some connectivity options with the DS, where the DS’ microphone and touch-screen can be used as inputs for the Wii.

By 2016, Nintendo moved an impressive 101.6 million units of the Wii. Wii Sports and Wii Play were the most sold games, again confirming the wisdom of Nintendo’s shift towards the casual market.

The Nintendo 3DS — Jumping on the 3D Bandwagon

Following their now well-established cycle, Nintendo went back into the lab and started to develop a new handheld console. Predictably, the 3DS was announced at E3 2010, with the most notable innovation being the addition of 3D effects, which was a worldwide trend at the time. 

However, unlike its competition, it didn’t require the user to have or wear 3D glasses. Rather it used parallax barrier autostereoscopy. Like its predecessors, it also boasts extensive backward compatibility. 

Besides that, the 3DS had a large number of novel features thanks to its innovative 3D technology, such as for example the Augmented Reality (using the 3D cameras of the 3DS). It also came preloaded with a number of applications such as an Internet Browser, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. 

An additional important feature that significantly boosted the longevity of the machine was the the Virtual Console. Basically, the Virtual Console allowed users to buy, download, and play games released on older systems. 

Initially, the sales of the 3DS were quite slow. After a disappointing launch, Nintendo decided on a major price reduction from $249 to $169, along with bundling ten free NES and ten free GBA games on the virtual store to anyone willing to pay the original price.

In the end, this change of strategy proved successful as the 3DS sold more than 73 million units.

Satoru Iwata (Nintendo’s loveable CEO, and the man who led Nintendo into a second golden age) died on July 11, 2015, from a bile duct tumor, greatly saddening the entire gaming world.

The Wii U — A Hitch in the Plan

For its next home console, Nintendo, yet again, switched strategies. However, the idea to release a console so specifically in the middle of a cycle was an odd one, and ultimately, one that didn’t pay off.

The Wii U was released in 2012, full HD (1080p) support was confirmed, as well as a new type of controller (a tablet-based design). 

Initially, the reaction to the reveal was confusion. The gamers had no idea whether Wii U was merely a controller add-on for the Wii, or a brand new console. 

Yet again, weak launch titles, lack of third-party support, short battery life, misguided marketing, and weaker specs compared to its competitors, buried the Wii U.

In the end, the Wii U ended up selling merely 13.5 million units, and is widely considered a devastating commercial failure.

The Nintendo Switch — Back on Top

Traditionally, after a big home console release, Nintendo would go back to developing handhelds. However, Nintendo decided to do something completely new.

The plan was to create a hybrid home/handheld console, combining their expertise in both to make something truly original. Therefore, the Nintendo Switch was announced in 2016.

Having learned from their mistakes with the Wii U, Nintendo Switch’s marketing was to stress the hybrid nature of the console. The aim was to make it crystal clear what the Switch is supposed to be.

Because Nintendo wanted to dodge the lack of third-party support that the Wii U experienced, they managed to secure the support of a significant number of third-party developers even before the console was released. In addition, a steady stream of first-party titles such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild, Mario Kart Deluxe 8, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Super Mario Odyssey solidified the Switch’s grip on the players.

In fact, Switch received such overwhelming support that Nintendo’s anticipated number of 100 games being released in the first year was completely off — by the end of 2017, 320 games were released on the Switch.

The emphasis on portability and local co-op multiplayer evoked the golden era of console gaming, while still remaining modern and relevant. 

Even though the Switch lacked pretty much any non-gaming software at its launch, over time applications such as Hulu and YouTube were added. 

Due to the impressive success of the Switch (35 million units as of March 31st, 2019, as well as being considered the fastest-selling console in most regions), Nintendo’s profit soared, and their stock hit a 7-year high. This came as a welcome relief from the financially unprofitable preceding years (mostly due to Wii U’s failure).

Nintendo — Gaming’s Most Adaptable Beast

Nintendo’s rich 130-year-old history is truly something to behold. From rags to riches, from cards to cartridges, from vacuum cleaners to consoles. They had their highs and their lows, their golden ages, and their dark ages. 

But if one thing describes Nintendo, it’s courage. Courage to change when they’re wrong, courage to learn from their mistakes, courage to innovate.

Nintendo’s consoles and games have enriched the childhood of multiple generations, they’ve influenced pop culture in unimaginable ways, and truly left their mark on the world.

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart I am a gamer.”

  • Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo, 1959 – 2015

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