The History of Video Games #14: The Birth of Nintendo

Updated: Jun 25




In the last article, we wrapped up our look at the 8-bit home microcomputers, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Commodore C64 and the Amstrad CPC 464. This 8-Bit trio dominated the European market. Their timely, but coincidental, introduction at the same time as ‘The Great Video Game Crash of 1983’ ensured that British and European gamers were completely unaffected by it.


However, they sold poorly outside of Europe. In the Japanese and American markets, it would be an 8-bit console that not only kept gaming alive, it allowed it to thrive.

I am of course talking about the Nintendo Entertainment System. But before we delve into the NES, lets first take a look at Nintendo’s roots.


Nintendo Before the Consoles

Nowadays, Nintendo is a phenomenally successful household name that has become synonymous with video game consoles. However, this couldn’t have been further from the truth in Nintendo’s early days, and I do mean early.


Pop quiz - without looking it up - guess when the Nintendo company was founded?

I imagine many of you quite sensibly guessed somewhere between the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. This would have been my guess too. Turns out we would have been wrong by almost a century.


Nintendo was founded in 1889 by Japanese entrepreneur Fusajirō Yamauchi under the name Nintendo Koppai. Clearly, they were not in the video games business back then.

They started out by hand-making traditional hanafuda Karuta playing cards. Other Karuta were banned in Japan due to their use in gambling, and foreign playing cards had been banned since 1633. Hanafuda, however, were exempt. The word ‘Nintendo’ means ‘Leave Luck to Heaven’, a fitting name for a small company making cards used in games of chance.


Hanafuda playing cards


Allegedly the Yakuza used these cards extensively for illegal gambling which greatly aided Nintendo’s success. As the business grew Nintendo became the sole Japanese manufacturer of Western playing cards. Before long they had become Japan’s leading playing card company. Fusajiro Yamauchi passed on control of the company to his son-in-law Sekiryo Kaneda - also known as Sekiryo Yamauchi - who further diversified the company into the real estate market.


In addition, Kaneda sought to strengthen Nintendo’s core playing card business by creating Nintendo’s own distribution network. He also increased productivity by introducing Western style assembly line processes into Nintendo’s factories. He suffered a stroke in 1949 and passed control of Nintendo to his 21 year old grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi.


Under Hiroshi, the company became known as Nintendo Karuta and further diversified. By 1959 Nintendo secured a licencing deal with Disney to create playing cards showing Disney cartoon characters. This led to mainstream success in toy and department stores.


By 1963 Nintendo had gone public and was renamed Nintendo Company Limited NCL. This resulted in further diversification into a number of fields, including instant rice, a Popeye themed spinach raman, taxi cab services and a chain of *ahem* ‘love-hotels’. These side ventures were less successful, however, so Yamauchi wisely decided to concentrate on Nintendo’s entertainment roots.


In 1970 the company then entered the toys and novelty items market, leveraging their existing card distribution network to get their products into mainstream toy stores. They created the phenomenally successful Ultra Hand - over a million units sold -, the love tester novelty item, and an innovation that would become highly relevant later - a number of light gun games.



Wild Gunman Arcade


Competition from larger more established toy manufacturers such as Bandi led Nintendo to focus on the entertainment market. They set up Laser Clay Shooting System venues in disused bowling alleys using their existing toy light gun technology. Nintendo also developed additional light gun devices, including the light gun shooter Wild Gunman for the nascent video arcade market.



Wild Gunman Arcade



The Laser Clay Shooting System was short lived due to its prohibitive running costs; however, the growing popularity of the video arcade scene would prove far more profitable. Nintendo’s trajectory towards video game entertainment was now set.


In 1975 Nintendo made their first foray into arcade machines with EVR Race, EVR standing for Electronic Video Recording. It was essentially an electronic horse race simulation for up to six players who would attempt to predict which horse would win. The units were mechanically complex and tended to break down frequently, causing significant maintenance issues for Nintendo. It was perhaps the lessons learned from this experience that steered Nintendo towards digital - and not mechanical - entertainment in the future.



Japanese advert for EVR Race


Nintendo Joins the Console Market

Nintendo’s first foray into the digital video games industry proper was securing the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey, a first generation video games console in Japan in 1974.



Magnavox Odyssey


In 1977 Nintendo took Industrial Design graduate and artist Shigeru Miyamoto on as Nintendo’s first staff artist. Yamauchi did this in spite of not needing an artist as a favour to an old friend - Miyamoto’s father. Miyamoto’s hiring would later prove to have been one of Yamauchi’s wisest decisions.


Yamauchi felt that for Nintendo to truly succeed in the console gaming market Nintendo would have to create at least one console of their own. Therefore, in 1977 Nintendo partnered with Mitsubishi to create their first home-grown consoles. Note I said consoles - plural. These consoles were the 1st generation Color TV-Game series. There were several models of the console in the Color TV-Game series, which were released between 1977 and 1980 - but only in Japan.


Each model had a distinct theme, form factor and control set up appropriate for that model’s pre-installed games. The games for each model followed that model’s theme - for example, the Color-TV-Game Block Breaker - also known as Burokku Kuzushi - featured multiple variations of ‘bat, ball and block’ games similar to Atari’s Breakout.



Colour TV-Game 15


Nintendo Color-TV Game 6


Nintendo Color-TV Blockbreaker Kuzushi


Color-TV-Game Racing 112 – Shigeru Miyamoto’s first Nintendo project


Computer TV-Game


As with most 1st-generation video game consoles their pre-installed games could not be altered, and since most 1st gen consoles lacked any form of media port - and pre-dated the internet by several decades - there was no way to add additional games. These limitations would be rectified in Nintendo’s later consoles.

The Color TV Game series may have been Nintendo’s first video games consoles, but they were definitely not the last, as we will see in future articles.


There is another aspect of gaming that has become synonymous with Nintendo - handheld gaming. We will investigate Nintendo’s first hand held gaming device in the next article - spoiler alert - it wasn’t the Game Boy!

Were you aware before reading this that Nintendo could trace its origins back so far? Do you have any experience with any of Nintendo’s pre-NES games and consoles? If so, feel free to write your answers, or anything else you would like to talk about, in the comments section below.