Nintendo’s Beginnings Part 1: Cards, Love Hotels, and Video Games

(Posted on July 5th 2016, this two-part article covers a brief history of Nintendo.)

I wanted to take the time over the next two Retro Write-Ups to focus on Nintendo’s early days as a company, and to give a short overview of the first systems they released in Japan. So if you kindly would, let’s hop in Bill and Ted’s Phone Booth, or the DeLorean if you prefer, and take a trip to 1889…

That’s right, Nintendo, (which roughly translated from Japanese means “leave luck to heaven”), was formed way back on September 23rd 1889. Its product of choice? Playing cards! It still makes them to this day, and they are some of the coolest looking cards you will ever see. But by the early 1960’s Nintendo was looking to expand. This caused them to venture into several “niche” type businesses which included a cab company, a tv network, a food company, and my personal favorite, a love hotel chain. And by the way, a love hotel is pretty much what it sounds like. None of these ventures really took off for Nintendo, but luckily for them the 1970’s were on the way.

The 1970’s would be the decade in which the world would be introduced to video games. Called simply a fad by some, the popularity of both arcade and home video games had grown so much that even a playing card company from Japan couldn’t help but take notice. Nintendo had found their next venture, and this time it had nothing to do with love hotels.

Eager to get into the profitable video game market, Nintendo began designing arcade games. One of its first releases was a game called Radar Scope, which was built in a red arcade cabinet, (take a note of that). It was a game designed to be a knock off of already popular arcade games like Space Invaders and Galaxian. It was a huge flop for Nintendo, who had manufactured 2000 cabinets of it. To minimize loss and to keep from manufacturing another 2000 arcade cabinets, an idea was hatched to make a new game, that would use the same hardware specs as Radar Scope. With all of the company’s top game designers busy with their own projects, Nintendo launched an internal competition to come up with a new game that could be put in the Radar Scope Cabinets.

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Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto, Japan in 1889

Several good ideas came from a very surprising source, a shaggy-haired staff artist with no video game experience, and a degree in industrial design. Of course I’m talking about none other than Shigeru Miyamoto. 29 years old at the time, he had taken 5 years to earn his 4-year degree and was recently hired by Nintendo through the help of his father.

One of the ideas pitched by Miyamoto was to make a “defeat the villain to save the girl” game. And of course now we cue a big ape, a carpenter (he wasn’t a plumber yet), and a blonde-haired girl. Donkey Kong was a huge success for Nintendo and showed Shigeru Miyamoto his true calling. It would help Nintendo into the video game market and allow them to keep developing games.

(A quick note about Donkey Kong’s Story should be said here. I had read several years ago that the reason that DK kidnaps Pauline, was because he was Mario’s pet, and had been abused by Mario. Not sure if that holds any truth, but if it does, it is definitely a very interesting plot twist!)

One last thing to wrap the first part of this up. Remember how I asked you to make a note of the red Radar Scope cabinets? Have you ever played Donkey Kong on a red cabinet? If you have, you should consider yourself to be pretty lucky. See Nintendo didn’t ship the 2000 Radar Scope cabinets back to Japan to have them re-worked into Donkey Kong. This responsibility fell onto then Nintendo of America President Minoru Arakawa and his small team. So in short, if you have ever played a red Donkey Kong cabinet, you may have been using a cabinet that the Nintendo of America President wired himself. Crazy!

We’ll pick this up from here next time. Till then…