Nintendo (translated as “Leave Luck to Heaven”) is widely regarded as being one of the oldest existing developers of hanafuda cards on the face of the planet. While the company’s interests may have diversified in recent years, they still continue to create new cards on a regular basis and can be purchased from the company’s online store. Despite being Japan’s third most valuable listed company with a market value of 85 billion dollars, the history of the company remains mysterious to people who cannot be bothered to visit the company’s Wikipedia article. Nevertheless, Nintendo has had a vibrant history with many phases that I will now attempt to chronicle.
Nintendo was initially created in 1889 as a small japanese business by Fusajiro Yamauchi that manufactured hanafuda cards, a type of card game that is still played to this very day, albeit in diminishing popularity. These roots are shown today in the company’s game as “Leave Luck to Heaven” refers to the blind draw from the deck of cards that adds new symbols to the player’s hand. Playing Cards were a relatively new thing at the time eschewing other games such as Mahjong and Go and the handmade quality of the cards caused Nintendo’s first product to be a big hit (to the point where they had to hire extra assistants to mass produce enough cards to keep up with demand).
After Fusajiro Yamaguchi retired in 1929, the companies leader changed many times before finally settling with Hiroshi Yamaguchi. After the previous owner of Nintendo suffered a stroke, he asked his grandson (Hiroshi) to assume the mantle of President of the company. Hiroshi agreed but only if he was the only working family at member at Nintendo. His grandfather agreed and Hiroshi fired him from the company where he later died from a stroke (he also fired his older brother from the company). Hiroshi’s business strategy was described as “imperialistic.” When employees at the company went on strike because of Hiroshi’s young age and lack of management experience, he fired many long time employees who questioned his authority and made himself the only judge of new products so that only a product that would appealed to him would be released on the market.
One of Hiroshi’s biggest decisions for the company at the time was to introduce plastic western playing cards into the market. These cards were considered a novelty in Japan (the same way Mahjong is considered a novelty in the west) due to their association with gambling, which was banned for the most part in Japan with a few exceptions such as Pachinko and the lottery, limiting the market for an already niche product. However Hiroshi made a licensing agreement with Disney to produce playing cards that allows game to be played with all the family rather than focusing a certain group of gamers (Sound familiar?) This was Nintendo’s first major “hit” as far as marketing terms go as the cards sold over 600,000 units in one year. Although the product was a huge success, upon returning to meet the much smaller scale U.S manufacturer of playing cards, Hiroshi realised that card manufacturing was a very limited venture.
When Hiroshi returned to Japan, he wanted to diversify the company to see what other gaps in the market he could conquer. He tried this out by creating a new taxi company called Daiya, a series of love hotels with rooms rented by the hour and individually portioned rice. Even though Hiroshi’s intentions were to experiment in new areas, this ended up bringing the company to the brink of bankruptcy. This period in time coincided when Hiroshi first met Gunpei Yokoi, a factory engineer at the company who was playing with an extendable claw when Hiroshi saw him and got an idea.
At the verge of bankruptcy, Hiroshi ordered Yokoi to make a product that could save the company from bankruptcy called
Final Fantasy The Ultra Hand. When The Ultra Hand sold over a million units, Hiroshi decided to expand Nintendo’s company direction from just playing cards to a toy company in general. The fact that Nintendo were already making playing cards made this a natural change in direction for the company. Hiroshi appointed Yokoi and another employee who took care of the finances to be part of the new “Games and Setup” department of the company. Yokoi used his knowledge of engineering to create new products for the company such as a love tester and a light gun using solar cells for the target. While these electronics were considered novelties, they proved popular compared to other products at the time, and Nintendo quickly established itself as a major playing in the toy market.
After this, Nintendo would work on software for the Magnavox Odyssey along with hiring Shigeru Miyamoto who should be a familiar name to most people. Their experience developing for the Osyssey would lead Hiroshi to enter the video game market with the Famicom (known as the Nintendo Entertainment System outside of Japan), revitalising the industry after the Video Game Crash of 1983. Nintendo’s History after this point is pretty much common knowledge. However, it seems rather odd that three-quarters of the lifespan of one of the biggest companies of the planet is mostly unknown to the general populace. Either way, Nintendo is one of the only video game companies to have a history outside of making video games, how people managed to forget this is anyone’s guess.