25 photos of Nintendo's 130-year rise from a playing card company to fan-favorite gaming giant
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- 130 years ago on September 23, 1889, Nintendo was born - but not the incarnation of Nintendo we know today.
- Founder Fusajiro Yamauchi began the company by selling hand-painted playing cards, which eventually became the most popular brand in Japan.
- Nintendo has gone through many iterations. It once sold ramen noodles, and then decided to try out a taxi service.
- Today, Nintendo is known for its consumer electronics, iconic video game characters, and many, many gaming systems.
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Nintendo turns 130 this year. And like any company that's been around for over a century, a lot has changed. Pivots have been made. Economic downturns weathered. It's seen product launch failures, and many successes.
Nintendo brought us the little Italian plumber we've grown to marvel and adorn on our clothes, as well as countless other video game character many '90s kids attribute parts of their identity to. All because founder Fusajiro Yamauchi began manufacturing Hanafuda cards, a type of Japanese playing card, for his company, then called Nintendo Koppai, on September 23, 1889.
In the early 1900s, Nintendo grew to be the largest card-selling business in Japan. It used this momentum to venture into other industries - taxi services, ramen noodles, short-term "love" hotels, and, more notably, video games. But only one of those side hustles panned out (you guess which).
Today, Nintendo rakes in billions of dollars in revenue from its array of consoles, from the Switch to Wii, and games like cult-favorite "The Legend of Zelda" and newbies like "Animal Crossing."
Take a look back at Nintendo's 130-year rise from playing card company to video game giant.
In 1889, Nintendo founder Fusajiro Yamauchi began manufacturing and selling hand-painted playing cards in Kyoto, Japan.
Over the next four decades, the cards were so popular in Japan that the company became the largest card-selling business in the country, eventually creating “durable plastic-coated playing cards” with Disney characters on them, which also brought success, and exporting them worldwide.
Fusajiro Yamauchi died in 1940, and his 22-year-old great-grandson Hiroshi took over the playing card company in 1949.
It was Hiroshi Yamauchi who expanded Nintendo into various industries outside of just games between 1963 and 1968, shortly after it went public, giving him financial flexibility. The first offshoot? A “love hotel” — where you could rent rooms by the hour.
The love hotels did well, according to Firestone’s book, but ultimately shut down because of Yamauchi’s desire to explore other rising industries.
Nintendo also found success with its taxi service, pioneered also by Yamauchi, though quickly dissolved once a labor union dispute turned costly.
Nintendo’s last unsuccessful venture of the ‘60s was an instant rice company, but, once again, Yamauchi ultimately decided to focus on the company’s historic roots in gaming.
For Nintendo, the next big thing meant toys and electronic games. Arcades in the 1970s were the hip places to be. And thanks to assembly-line-worker-turned-product-developer Gunpei Yokoi, the “Beam Gun” was invented and released to rave reviews in 1970.
Ralph Baer, a German-American engineer, was an instrumental figure in how Nintendo became the force it is today. Baer developed a console where you could play video games on a TV screen. Nintendo saw a world of possibility in the invention, and bought the rights to it in 1975, the same year its first game, EVR Race, was released.
In 1979, Minoru Arakawa, Yamauchi’s son-in-law, became the president of Nintendo of America, and opened up shop in New York City to expand the business’s then-coin-operated games to the West.
Then along came Shigeru Miyamoto — a young developer who created one of Nintendo’s now-infamous games in 1980: "Donkey Kong."
The character name “Jumpman” didn’t last long — Nintendo executives decided on “Mario” because of the likeness to the company’s landlord. They were also wary of whether or not the game would be successful: its story-like style was a new feature in the video game genre.
After years of selling its games made for devices designed by other companies, Nintendo released its own game console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, worldwide in 1985.
In 1985, Mario got his big break. Miyamoto reinvented "Donkey Kong" for the Nintendo Entertainment System and made Mario the star. The objective of the game remained the same: Rescue the girl, this time Princess Peach, and save the Mushroom Kingdom.
"Super Mario Bros." went on to become one of the most iconic video games — as well as one of the most mass-produced — of all time. The game’s music, too, has in turn become a phenomenon of its own.
Saving maidens seemed to be the main theme for Nintendo in the ‘80s — the company released “The Legend of Zelda” for NES just a year after Mario made his solo debut. Link, the main character, must travel through forests and dungeons to find Princess Zelda and save her from pitfalls seemingly unbeknownst to her.
Inspired by a commuter tinkering with his calculator on the train, game designer Yokoi yearned to create a handheld gaming device. Thus, GameBoy was born in 1989 — along with "Tetris," the tile-matching puzzle Nintendo acquired from a Russian developer. The two went hand-in-hand and eventually 88 million were sold within the first decade of its arrival.
In 1991, Nintendo released the Super Nintendo (SNES), and a year later, "Super Mario Kart" (its most popular game). And by 1994, Nintendo produced 1 billion game cartridges — a tenth of those were strictly Mario games. Today, the company says it has sold 4.7 billion video games.
On the first day of the Nintendo 64 launch in Japan in 1996, more than 500,000 consoles were sold. It was introduced in America in September that same year, and ended up selling more than 1.7 million consoles by December.
The same year the world was introduced to the Nintendo 64, a whole new plethora of characters for GameBoy were introduced in the form of Pokémon. Pokémon, which means “pocket monsters," lets players become Pokémon trainers and acquire Pokémon, readying them to battle one another.
Throughout the next decade, Nintendo released a series of handheld devices akin to the Game Boy.
Nintendo launched the Wii, a gaming console with wireless, motion-sensitive remote controllers and built-in Wi-Fi, at the end of 2006. The console, where users could play virtual games like boxing, bowling, golf, tennis, and baseball, would sell out in America long before Christmas that same year.
In 2017, Nintendo released the Nintendo Switch, which did so well in its first 10 months on the market, it outsold what the Wii U made in 5 years. The handheld device did so well in part due to its strong lineup of games during its first year on shelves.
Mario, undoubtedly, is a money-maker for Nintendo. In part due to nostalgia, a key marketing factor for Nintendo’s customers. But largely because his storyline continues to captivate audiences and evolve.
Throughout its 130-year history, Nintendo, and its many iterations, has solidified itself as a fan-favorite gaming giant in popular culture by introducing iconic characters with captivating storylines and user-friendly devices still relevant today.
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