It’s early autumn in 1889 and Fusajiro Yamauchi is selling handmade hanafuda cards painted on the backs of tree bark. It was the start of the Yamauchi family business that would become known as Nintendo Koppai.
The cards grew in popularity and sustained the business well into the twentieth century. In fact, the company still manufactures playing cards over 125 years later. In 1956, when then president Hiroshi Yamauchi visited the United States to meet with the dominant playing card manufacturer in the US, he became aware of the need to expand the business and grow from the small beginnings it had sustained for so long.
A deal was made in partnership with Disney, allowing the Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd. to use Disney characters on its cards. The wild success allowed the company to go public in 1962. Then, as Nintendo, it began investing in new ventures in 1963.
Vacuum cleaners. Taxi services. Love hotels. Toys. Food. The playing card business had nearly come to an end and Nintendo stock plummeted from 900 yen to 60 yen. Of all the new business ideas, only one remained profitable after 70 successful years of card manufacturing: toys.
Its first success as a toy manufacturer came by way of an assembly line worker named Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi made an extendable grabbing arm that Yamauchi took a liking to when he observed it during a factory visit. It soon became rushed into production and was the first toy to sell over a million units. Yokoi was pulled from the assembly line and brought into product development.
For nearly a decade, Nintendo pushed Yokoi-developed toys and novelty items. From the Love Tester to the first ever programmable drum machine, Nintendo had all but left cards behind. Toys seemed like the future, and they were, until it secured the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan. The success of video games became a point of interest for the company, and something it would begin to invest in.
In 1977, Nintendo would release its first video game systems, Color TV Game 6 and Color TV Game 15. It had reached the arcade just two years prior, with EVR Race. In 1980, Yokoi (now running the games division of Nintendo) created the company’s next success: the Game & Watch.
While these handheld gaming devices, featuring a single screen game, were being sold to the market, Yokoi was working with a young artist to reconfigure unsold Radar Scope machines. A failed attempt to secure the Popeye license encouraged the young artist to develop a new story and new characters. Excited at the challenge, a twenty-something Shigeru Miyamoto would help Yokoi to design, create, and ship Nintendo’s next arcade success: Donkey Kong.
March 3, 2017 brings Nintendo’s newest home console, Nintendo Switch. Looking at the Switch, it is clear that the company is using every ounce of experience and combining the efforts of every previous endeavor to manufacture something unique and innovative, yet again.
The portability of the console dates back to the days of the Game & Watch, when Nintendo tried its hand at giving the player the portability that arcades couldn’t. Two built-in controllers allow the owner of the console to easily share the fun of playing games, something that Nintendo has emphasized since the Famicom. Piece by piece, you can see the DNA of Nintendo passed on in each iteration of its home and portable consoles. The Nintendo Switch is the evolution, the child of both histories married into one.
From the days creating playing cards when they were outlawed in Japan, to weird experiments like taxi services, and later when it saw an opportunity within the video game market, Nintendo has always been able to adapt itself without compromising its core value.
Now more than ever, the Nintendo Switch tells the story of a company that remains ready and prepared for the future. The new console is a metaphor for the company that made it. The Switch can be played on a TV, between two hands, or atop a table. There is an answer for everyone regardless of preference or situation. It answers every question that the player has surrounding how to play. Throughout its lifetime, Nintendo will tell the story of what to play, and it starts with the return of a thirty year old franchise.
This month, join us in celebrating the life of Nintendo through its latest console. We’ll share stories about Nintendo history, our lives with Nintendo games, and how the versatility of one company has helped to keep it alive for over a century.