When you hear the name Nintendo, odds are you probably think of video games. Fair enough -- they are the company that brought video games back from the dead, after all. But did you know that Nintendo was founded in 1889 as a maker of paper playing cards? It's true. Nintendo (or Nintendo Koppai, as it was then called) started its corporate life as a manufacturer of traditional Japanese Hanafunda playing cards. As the years passed, Nintendo's card business expanded and thrived.
In 1949 the company took a step toward becoming the gaming monolith it is today when Nintendo's second president died from a stroke and his 21 year old grandson, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was appointed its president. Over the next twenty years he would both modernize the company and prove to be a ruthless and formidable businessman. Yamauchi expanded Nintendo into a variety of side businesses, including a taxi company, instant rice meals, and even a chain of love hotels! Most of these were eventually closed.
Nintendo's future course finally began to take shape when it established its first games division in 1969. The company churned out a variety of gimmicky toys that met with great success, among them the Ultra Hand (an extendible plastic hand that could be used to grab objects) and the Love Tester, which supposedly read the level of "love" between its two users. A man named Gunpei Yokoi was the designer of some of the most popular of these products, and he would play a crucial role at Nintendo in later years.
Nintendo Finds its (Multi-Billion Dollar) Niche
1977 saw the release of Nintendo's first video game product, the TV Game 6. This primitive machine attached to a television and played six variations of Pong. Hey, it was a start. 1977 also saw the initial hiring of Shigeru Miyamoto, who was to work on art for future arcade games. As any Nintendophile knows, he later proved to be one of the most brilliant game designers of all time. After a few more primitive game consoles and a variety of arcade games, Nintendo struck gold in 1980 with the Game and Watch. Designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the G&W line was a series of small handheld video games with monochrome LCD screens. While primitive compared to, say, a Game Boy, the Game & Watch was a worldwide success and firmed up Nintendo's place in the fledgling video game market.
Famicom w/ Disk System Add-on
While the Game & Watch was in full swing, Yamauichi told his engineers that he wanted to create a game machine that would feature top-tier sound and graphics and that could use interchangable cartridges to play different games. It would have to be cheap to produce and sell, so that just about anyone could afford one. The result was the Nintendo Family Computer, or Famicom. Released in 1983, the Famicom took the Japanese market by storm, demolishing the nascent competition. Nintendo looked for a distributor in the United States, but the video game market there was all but dead after the Great Crash of '84. Still, Nintendo believed that the Japanese success of their machine could be translated to the States, so they persisted in looking for a distributor.
At one point Nintendo came close to sealing a deal to distribute the Famicom with the struggling Atari. Atari (unwisely) backed out, and Nintendo was once again back at square one. Eventually they decided to go it alone. The fledgling Nintendo of America, lead by Yamauchi's grandson Minoru Arakawa, revamped the Famicom to appeal to American consumers. The toy-like red and white design was completely scrapped, and the system was given a boxy gray shell instead. The system also switched from a top-loading design to a unique front-loading system, and the shape of the cartridges was completely changed. These changes and more were partially an attempt to disguise the fact that the machine was a video game system, as the US market was extremely wary of anything and everything video game-related. As such, the system was dubbed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and now it was just a matter of Nintendo convincing some stores to carry it.
Taking Over the States
The Nintendo Entertainment System
After a heroic effort to win over retailers, they finally managed to release the NES in limited quantities in New York City in December, 1985. The units sold like hotcakes, and the rest is history. Video gaming sprang back from the dead, and the Nintendo Entertainment System was a nationwide phenomenon. It was so popular that Nintendo had no serious competition, allowing Nintendo to strong-arm and bully retailers into restricting stock and fixing prices artificially high. The retailers could do nothing but comply, as Nintendo was the only game in town during the late 80's.
Game Boy: Most Successful Gaming Platform Ever
Nintendo didn't rest on its laurels, though. The ever-industrious Gunpei Yokoi had another new gizmo up his sleeve: a portable video game system called the Game Boy. The Game Boy had a monochrome screen and ran on four AA batteries, allowing gamers to take their addicitions on the road. Introduced in 1989, the Game Boy was another smash hit around the world. By the time its true successor was introduced in 2001, the Game Boy had sold over 100 million units worldwide. Incredible.
By 1990 the Nintendo Entertainment System was getting a bit long in the tooth, and long-time competitor Sega took advantage of the situation by releasing its 16-bit Genesis system (aka Mega Drive in other regions). Released in the US in 1990 and clearly superior to the tired old NES, the Genesis enticed players with the promise of near-arcade quality graphics and audio. Nintendo was in no rush to respond, though, as its NES business was still quite lucrative and it didn't see Sega as a big threat. Nevertheless, development of its own 16-bit system went on behind the scenes. This came to fruition in 1990 (late 1991 in America) when Nintendo finally unleashed the Super Famicom.
The Super Famicom (SNES)
The Super Famicom (Super Nintendo or SNES in America) was a console of unprecedented power. In fact, its only major weakness was a rather pokey main CPU, but this was made up for with a powerful graphics chip and a Sony-devised audio chip that could produce better music than any console yet released. The Super Nintendo was a smash hit in every market, but particularly in Japan. In the US, Nintendo had a lot of catching up to do as Sega's machine had acquired a good install base thanks to great games and cool advertising. Nonetheless, most records indicate that by 1996 the SNES had outsold the Genesis in the US by about 1 million units. While this was not as decisive a victory as was had in the 8-bit wars, the Super Nintendo remains the favorite console of many players to this day.
A Surprising Failure
The Virtual Boy
Coming into the mid-90's, it seemed Nintendo could do no wrong. Unfortunately, it was about to prove otherwise with one of the most ill-conceived video game machines to ever see release. The Virtual Boy was billed as a portable 3D gaming machine, but the system was more unwieldy than anything else. It consisted of a visor that rested on a tripod, and users had to look into the visor to see the unit's display. The system produced a unique 3D effect by using LED technology licensed from a company called Reflection. However, the nature of the technology meant that the graphics were monochrome -- various shades of red, to be specific. Worse, the unit often caused headaches after a small amount of use, and to add to the fun, there was a warning that it should not be used by children... to prevent eye damage!
In contrast to Nintendo's past triumphs, the Virtual Boy was a worldwide disaster. The system was heavily discounted within a year, and software support quickly ended. As it turns out, the Virtual Boy was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, father of the Game Boy and numerous other successful Nintendo products. The Virtual Boy was a rare misstep, but Yokoi received the full brunt of the blame for the machine's failure. Disgraced, he left the company he had worked at for decades of his life and founded his own R&D firm, which later produced Bandai's WonderSwan portable gaming system. Sadly, Yokoi was tragically killed in a freak highway accident just a year later.
King No More
Towards the end of the 16-bit era, there was much buzz about the potential of 32-bit systems. The Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn were on everyone's tongues, but how would Nintendo respond? In its characteristic fashion, Nintendo took its good old time in releasing details of its new system. When they finally did, they had a surprise in store: the new Nintendo machine would be 64-bit. The Nintendo 64, as it was called, was to use the same technology as an SGI Graphics workstation, allowing amazingly realistic 3D environments with an unprecedented level of detail.
Of course, this was all marketing hype, as the system, released in late 1996, was actually a bit disappointing from a performance standpoint. Nintendo also stubbornly retained the old and expensive cartridge format, despite the CD-ROM drives in the machines of its competitors. This would prove to be a crucial miscalculation, as the CD-ROM format allowed the PlayStation and Saturn to do things that the poor old N64 just couldn't manage. It also raised costs dramatically, cutting down on the system's third party developer support. Nevertheless, the N64 sold respectably around the world, but it was definitely in a distant second to Sony's PlayStation. For the first time since the video game revival, Nintendo was not in first place.
Game Boy Advance
While all of this was happening, Nintendo continually reaped the benefits of its thriving Game Boy business. It was so successful that there seemed no need to release a next generation portable, despite the many attempts of competitors with superior hardware to knock the Game Boy off its perch. Nintendo continued to milk the Game Boy until 2001, when they finally got around to releasing a next-generation unit. Dubbed the Game Boy Advance, the system featured slighter better capabilities than a Super Nintendo. While it's still relatively new, it is already yet another worldwide smash. You can read more about this system here.
Back in the Fast Lane
After the partial failure of the N64, Nintendo analyzed what had gone wrong and used that information to help develop it's next-generation console machine. Dubbed the GameCube, this machine shyed away from the "all-in-one" ideal that the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox persued, and was just meant to be an excellent gaming machine. At that they have succeeded. Suffering from none of the weaknesses of the N64 (save perhaps slightly weak third party support), the GameCube is an excellent console in just about every respect. You can read more about it here.
What does the future hold? With two popular platforms things are one again looking up for the "Big N". However, it still has quite a battle if it is to overcome the Sony PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox. However, even if it does come in third place, Nintendo still has its monopoly on the portable market with the Game Boy Advance. That's one thing you can say about Nintendo -- they always have the bases covered.
This was only the briefest of histories, neglecting to touch on numerous interesting points of Nintendo's history. For more detailed information on your favorite video game megacorporation, I strongly recommend the book Game Over by David Sheff, which is thus far the definitive tome on the company. If you're scant on cash, you can check out NintendoLand. The English is a bit off, but it proved to be an excellent source to check facts for the above article.