The Extraordinary and Surprising History of Nintendo

Nintendo is a giant in the world of gaming, but it didn't always make toys and computer games.

Nintendo is a gaming giant today. But it has also helped create an entire culture around it that any child of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s still fondly remembers. 

Here we explore the origins and early days of the company and track its rise to global gaming dominance

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What did Nintendo originally sell?

The company that would eventually become Nintendo was first founded in 1889 by a 29-year-old Japanese man called Fusajiro Yamauchi. Originally called Nintendo Koppai (Koppai meaning "cards" or "playing cards" in Japanese), the company started out manufacturing a card game called Hanafuda. 

history of nintendo NES
Source: UnboxTherapy / YouTube

The card game's name also literally translates as "Flower cards." 

These playing cards consisted of pictures painted on cards made from the bark of the mulberry tree. Over time, Yamauchi managed to open two Nintendo stores selling the game. 

In fact, Nintendo still makes a limited range of playing cards today. One of their most popular is their Daitouryou variant which features the portrait of Napoleon.

Yamauchi took great pride in his company's card game's quality and design which brought the early Nintendo great popularity with its patrons. Nintendo soon built a reputation for quality and soon become the top game company in Japan.

The reason Nintendo decided to produce playing cards as its main product had deep roots in Japan's history. During the 17th Century, the country had effectively cut itself off from the Western world.

The import and distribution of playing cards had led to a serious gambling problem in the country and measures were taken to curb this addiction. 

Japanese authorities duly decided to ban all imports of playing cards in an attempt to combat gambling amongst the populace. 

It wasn't long before home-grown card games were developed in the country to facilitate more novel ways to gamble. One of the first was called Unsun Karuta.

It became very popular and was very quickly adapted for use as a means of gambling. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese government decided to ban this game as well. 

This sparked an arms race of banning and new card game innovation for the next century or so. Eventually, in the 19th Century, a new card game called Hanafuda was developed. 

This game used images instead of numbers which made it more difficult to use for gambling purposes. Eventually, Japanese authorities relaxed their laws on playing card games, and Hanafuda cards were allowed to be openly bought and sold. 

history of nintendo hanafuda
Source: I, Aldaron/Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, Japan's history of banning card games had taken its toll on the populace and the game received something of a lackluster response.

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That was until Nintendo got in on the act. Fusajiro Yamauchi, an avid Hanafuda player, was overjoyed with the new opportunity that had been presented to him. 

He soon decided to set up a business and distribute high-quality card sets of his own.

Nintendo was born.

How was Nintendo started?

As we have already seen, Nintendo was created in reaction to relaxing Japanese laws on playing cards. To this end, Nintendo's founder developed many different Hanadua decks of various designs.

One of their most popular decks, the aforementioned Daitouryou deck (aka the Napoleon deck) became one of its best sellers. Amazingly, this game is still very popular today in Japan. 

Another of their popular decks at the time, Miyako No Hana, also helped Nintendo's rise to the game giant it is today. 

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Interestingly, back in 2007, Nintendo released a special Super Mario Brother themed edition of Hanafuda cards. This deck was a nod to Nintendo's card games from its very beginnings, and featured popular Nintendo computer game characters posing in a similar fashion to characters, like Napoleon, on their original decks. 

In fact, in an interesting piece of trivia, the Fire Flower and Piranha Plant from Super Mario Bros. pay tribute to Hanafuda cards of days gone by. Other games, like Arcana, Yu-gi-Oh! and Pokemon also pay tribute to this culturally important game in Japan. 

Over the next 40 years or so, Nintendo would expand into other non-card games and toy production. Fusajiro would retire at the age of 70 from Nintendo and his adopted son-in-law Sekiryo Kaneda (who changed his name to Sekiryo Yamauchi) took over the business in 1929.

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Eventually, Nintendo would try their hand at the, then, emerging electronic toy market. Eventually, Nintendo formed a joint venture with Sony to begin developing electronic games. 

The release of the Magnavox Odyssey in the U.S. in the 1970s was an eye-opener for Nintendo's management who decided to get the license for its Japanese distribution. 

This kickstarted Nintendo's foray into computer game development and by the 1980s all the pieces were in place for them to bring the NES to the world. 

The rest, as they say, is history. 

Who started Nintendo and what does its name mean?

Nintendo was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi in 1889 in Tokyo, Japan. The company's name is often cited as meaning "leave luck of heaven". 

But this often-quoted meaning might be in error. 

"In Japan, Nintendo’s official logo still uses the kanji characters 任天堂, so it’s important to understand what they could have originally meant to company founder Fusajiro Yamauchi. For all the company’s logo changes, this is a constant for Nintendo Co., Ltd." - kotaku.com

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history of nintendo tengu
Tengu shrine and idol. Source: Amcaja/Wikimedia Commons

According to an interesting article by Kotaku, the meaning of Nintendo might be a lot less innocent. By their estimation, the part of Nintendo's name in Japanese that is translated as "ten" might actually mean "Tengu". 

Tengu is a Japanese demon and a symbol of playing cards and illegal gambling in Japan who is often featured with a large nose. In fact, the Japanese word for "nose" is hana which is often pronounced the same as the word for "flower". 

"The playing cards Nintendo was making, hanafuda (花札), uses the kanji for flower because each card is covered in different flowers.

According to The History of Nintendo, those visiting the pleasure quarters of Osaka and Kyoto would rub their nose as a sign that they were looking for gambling games. For card players, 'ten' meant 'Tengu,' which meant 'gambling'." - kotaku.com

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Too much of a coincidence? We'll let you decide.

Who made the first Nintendo console?

The very first Nintendo console was the Color TV-Game 6  developed in 1977 by Nintendo. This was a bright orange system and was nothing more than a pong clone. 

It contained six variations of the game and had control knobs built into the main unit. It had a limited production run and was very popular.

Nintendo soon followed up with the development and release of the Color TV-Game 15 in 1978. This had a more comfortable design and more variations of Pong than its predecessor. 

Around the same time, "The Father of Modern Video Games",  Shigeru Miyamoto, joined Nintendo and would quickly become one of the most important players in video game history.  

Nintendo also tried their hand at coin-operated arcade games like Donkey Kong and Radar Scope in the early-1980s. These proved to be very successful indeed and pushed the company further into the gaming industry. 

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It wouldn't be long before many Nintendo characters and games, as well as the enormously significant NES, would be born. 

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