Nihon Day Twenty Five: Nintendo, from Flower Cards to Donkey Kong

A few posts ago, I talked about Pokemon, the video game franchise that is having a major serge in popularity at the moment, with the release of Pokemon Go. While Pokemon has its own company today, it did originate with Nintendo, the Japanese video game company that also brought us such popular franchises as Mario, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong. Today they are the worlds largest video game company, Japan's third most valuable company, and even owns the majority share of The Seattle Mariners. With such an iconic role in today's video games, and with innovations such as the Wii, Nintendo seems like the perfect example of a modern company. However, it might surprise you to learn that Nintendo has been around a lot longer than video games, in fact, they've been around far longer than computers in general, having been founded in 1889. 

Seriously? Nintendo has been around for 126 years? Yes they have. As far as company lifetimes go, 126 might not be all that long, especially for Japan. After all, the oldest company in the world, Kongo Gumi, was founded in 578 (no I didn't forget a number there, it really is that old). Compared to that, 1889 was, like, last week, but for a company famous for producing video games (sort of a post 1970 thing) it's a little mind bending. But, of course, Nintendo didn't get into the video game business until the 1970s, before that they were a whole lot of other things, starting with the manufacturing of playing cards. 

Playing cards were introduced to Japan in 1549, when Dutch traders brought along a pack of hombre cards. The game was embraced and became very popular over the country, not just for amusement, but for gambling. However, when Japan closed its borders in 1633, the government also banned western cards. Really though, when has banning something ever eradicated it? Cards continued to be used for illegal gambling. New cards were invented and new games, but every time they started to be used for gambling, the government would ban them. This song and dance continued until the end of the Edo period when Hanafuda (flower cards) were invented. The idea behind these cards was that since they had no numbers, only pictures, they wouldn't be used for gambling. 

This is the world that Fusajiro Yamauchi stepped into in 1889 when he opened his first Hanafuda shop, Nintendo Koppai. His cards were hand painted on mulberry bark, a far cry from Donkey Kong. It seems that he had nominal success until the Yakuza figured out a way to gamble with his cards, and then they really took off. Since Nintendo translates to "leave luck to heaven", it doesn't sound like he was against the idea of his cards being used in this way. Soon Fusajiro Yamauchi had to hire assistance to help produce the cards, and then he was able to open a new shop in Osaka. 

Fusajiro Yamauchi retired at the age of 70 and eleven years later, he died of a stroke, never knowing that his company would turn into one of the most successful in the world. In 1947, Hiroshi Yamauchi, Fujajiro's grandson, took control of Nintendo. He was only twenty years old, and had no management training or experience. Still, he took the reigns of the company and ruled in with an imperialistic flair.

He alone decided what products were sold and he fired many old hands who doubted his abilities. Under his leadership, Nintendo became the first company in Japan to import American style plastic playing cards. They were a novelty at first, but when Hiroshi struck a deal in 1959 to sell cards with Disney's characters on them. This was a wildly successful product, selling 600,000 units in one year. Nintendo took up it's place as the number one playing card company in Japan. It went public as Nintendo Company Limited, and Hiroshi became the chairman.

Probably feeling pretty full of himself at this point, Hiroshi decided to go to the US and visit the world's largest playing card manufacturers, United State Playing Card Company. Far from impressing him, Hiroshi found only a small office building and a factory, hardly a glowing example of a flourishing industry. It was then that Hiroshi realized that playing cards had limited potential and Nintendo would have to diversify if they wanted to grow. Most of the ventures that Hiroshi threw Nintendo's backing at seem to have little rhyme or reason to them. A cab service, which failed due to union disputes; a television network; a company that manufactured instant rice; and a chain of "love hotels", where you could rent rooms by the hour, all failed. The same man who had brought Nintendo to the top of its industry almost bankrupt the company with his new ventures. After the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, nobody wanted to play cards anymore and Nintendo's stock dropped to its record low, ¥60 a share (around $0.57). 

One day, Hiroshi saw one of his factory engineers playing with an extendable claw arm that he had designed during his break. Hiroshi was intrigued and told the engineer, Gunpei Yokoi, to develop it into something that could be marketed. This was soon accomplished, Nintendo released the "Ultra Hand" in 1966, and it was an instant success, selling over a million units. Hiroshi shifted the company's focus to toys, setting up a new department that at first was only made up of Gunpei Yokoi and an accountant. Gunpei soon developed "electric" toys such as the Love Tester, which supposedly detected the level of two people's love, and several other light up products. At this point and time, most toys in Japan were still as basic as blocks and dolls, so these new modern toys were hugely successful. 

In the early 1970s Nintendo dipped its toe into the budding video game industry, securing the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey console. By 1977 they were designing their own software and had developed the Color TV-Game home gaming console. There were several versions of this console, each with single player games, such as light tennis. Nintendo also went into the arcade game business, producing EVR Race. They had nominal success in this area until 1981 when they released Donkey Kong, designed by video game pioneer, Shigeru Miyamoto. This game was a hit and with its success and the toy revenues, Nintendo had managed to climb back to the top. Donkey Kong also introduced Mario, who would become Nintendo's biggest franchise and mascot. 

Nintendo would go on to invent handheld gaming systems like Game & Watch and Gameboy, and develop many successful and intensely recognizable characters and franchises. They would also develop home console systems like Nintendo 64, Gamecube and Wii. As for Hiroshi Yamauchi, his speculating paid off and his company flourished. By 2008 he was the richest person in Japan, with a net worth of 7.8 billion dollars, though by 2013 it dropped to 2.1 billion dollars. Hiroshi ran Nintendo until 2002, when he retired, though he was still the majority shareholder at his death in 2013. Today Nintendo is worth an astounding 16.505 billion yen, which I'm sure would have blown the mind of Fusajiro Yamauchi back when he was hand painting his hanafuda cards on mulberry bark.

My question for you is, have you enjoyed Nintendo's platforms and games? What's your favorite? Please use the comment section below!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one, where I talk about how Taichiro Morinaga went rags to riches as Japan's first big candy manufacturer.

Until next time, keep on playing!