The Meteoric Rise Of Nintendo
“The name of the game is the game.”
— Peter Main, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Nintendo of America from 1987–2002
When I was a kid, Nintendo was my jam. I would get up on Saturdays and call my friends to come over to play some Mario, Zelda, or Pokémon. As a young elementary school student, it was always the highlight of my day.
As a youngster, I would often get home from school and plug in my Super Nintendo and get myself ready for some fun gameplay. I remember sitting with friends for hours trying to catch all 150 Pokémon, or getting past level 8–4. Not to brag but I spent a whole month playing Battletoads just to say I beat it.*
But where did this company that I learned to love come from?
Nintendo was established in 1889 as a card company. This was during a time when Japan was still an empire, and gambling was recently legalized. Before becoming a video game company, Nintendo had minimal direction. From love hotels to taxis, to toys, Nintendo tried different business ventures to keep the company profitable. In 1965, after struggling in various industries, the company invested in the new electronic arts of video games.
Nintendo hired Gunpei Yokoi. This man changed the way the company conducted its projects, and recognition came from Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo.
Yokoi created toys that were popular such as the Ultra Hand, the Love Tester, and the Ten Billion Barrel puzzle. In 1973, Nintendo decided to enter the consumer electronics industry. The company put its faith in Gunpei Yokoi, and Nintendo decided to produce arcades. The company gained ground in the industry with games such as Wild Gunman and Laser Clay Shooting. This would only amplify with the hire of Shigeru Miyamoto in 1977. Miyamoto would work with Yokoi on small projects that would skyrocket Nintendo into the juggernaut of the industry.
After a few years of decent sales, Nintendo’s ambitions got the better of itself, and they decided to release a game called Rader Scope. The failure of this game caused a financial crisis, one that almost caused the company to fold. Yokoi worked with Miyamoto, who Nintendo hired as the artist for its games, and helped with changes to Rader Scope into something new. Miyamoto came up with the idea of a love triangle. The teamwork of Miyamoto and Yokoi would turn the remaining Radar Scope games, which was around 2000, and reprogrammed the game into the now-iconic Donkey Kong.
In only six months!
Universal vs Nintendo
The game would be a smash hit selling more than 50,000 machines in the first year, but not all was well. Universal Studios decided to make a claim against Nintendo for copyright infringement against the use of Donkey Kong. Universal claimed that Nintendo used the likeness of King Kong, which was Universal’s by trademark, and it wanted what it thought to belong to them. Nintendo was in a battle for the rights of their game, and it would take on the movie industry. Within seven days, the talented John Kirby won the case for Nintendo. He sighted the difference between Donkey Kong and King Kong. Kirby would also establish the fact that King Kong was in the public domain. Nintendo would do two things
- Nintendo gave Kirby a boat named Donkey Kong and gave him the exclusive rights to call a boat Donkey Kong
- Nintendo would honor Kirby by naming what is now one of their iconic characters after him.
The Rise of a Juggernaut
After this explosive success, Nintendo went started working on its own console, the NES (Famicom in Japan). But one substantial unforeseen problem occurred in 1983, the crash of the industry. From 1983 to 1985, the videogame industry went from 3.5 billion to about 100 million. Consumers started to call videogames a fade, and the industry was releasing garbage games. Corporations in an attempt to become the next significant hit work on ads rather than gameplay.
This did not affect Nintendo, and it came out nearly unaffected. They would release the NES in July of 1983 and, and due to the untrust of video games, 1985 in the United States. And with smash-hits like Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, and Tetris Nintendo seemed unstoppable. It also did this with door to door sales and releasing actual good games. Quite impressive.
Nintendo, having controlled the industry for some time, worked on projects that build their prestige. During the early stages of development for the NES, some of the systems were malfunctioning after they were shipped. Nintendo was worried about the problems from the crash of 1983 and decided to take back the problem hardware. They did this at no cost.* Nintendo refused to sell a product that was not perfect once sent out. If it had an issue, they wanted it back to fix it. This action gave them a reputation that would serve them well.
With the hardware problem fixed, Nintendo worked on more games and projects. Yokoi, who would become the backbone of Nintendo, would give innovation to the way games were played. He came up with the Dpad. This vital button system that is still used on nearly every controller today has an up, down, left, and right direction.
The massive success of this handheld system came from his work on the Game & Watch series; this would change the way handheld gaming would be played — Mario on the go. The GameBoy released in 1988 would be a smash hit, packaged with Tetris. Nintendo dominated all markets of the industry, and by the end of the 80s, Nintendo controlled 90% of a 5 billion dollars industry. This monopoly of the market was about to be challenged by an unlikely competitor. One lead by a toymaker.
Yokoi also worked on the release of a portable gaming system, the GameBoy. The massive success of this handheld system came from his work on the Game & Watch series. Game & Watch was popular in the 80s, in Japan, but had the flaw of being a single game. The GameBoy would change the way handheld gaming would be played — Mario on the go, as well as other games. The GameBoy released in 1988 would be a smash hit, packaged with Tetris.
This became Yokoi’s last success for Nintendo. He would part ways after the failure of his well known Virtual Boy. After he left, Yokoi attempted to work for Bandai. Unfortunately, on October 4th, 1997, Yokoi was involved in a car accent. He died two hours after the collision.*
Control of the market
Nintendo dominated all markets of the industry, and by the end of the 1980s, Nintendo controlled 90% of a 5 billion dollars industry. They were unstoppable. With the NES in homes and the GameBoy on the go, what couldn’t Nintendo take on? The 8-bit era would end with Nintendo in full control. They wouldn’t be challenged until the 16-bit era and another toymaker and his little blue friend. But that’s a story for another time.
The history of Nintendo’s global aspiration would rise from a small card company to a video game industry monopoly. To think this company is as old as it blows my mind. In a way, Nintendo was a part of my childhood. I enjoyed the many games I played as a kid and hope that many like me get to enjoy Nintendo for years to come.
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- Yes, I beat Battletoads. The snakes killed me more than the bikes because the snakes are more difficult. You get fewer lives to try. The first two levels are easy if you get to do them thousands of times.
- Something they still do today.
- Gunpei Yokoi was a legend in the video game world, and not enough people know his name. I hope that history, at least the history of video games, is kind to him.
- Super Mario, How Nintendo Conquered America. by Jeff Ryan
- Console Wars, Sega Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation. by Blake J. Harris