Tomorrow, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, E3 opens in Los Angeles. For video game enthusiasts, E3 is one of the most important events of the year: the major consoles and game developers descend on the convention, holding special sessions where new IPs and software are unveiled to consumers.
The show represents a ‘Who’s Who’ of the video game world, as most of the major players all have a presence there. This year marks the twenty-third edition of E3, an impressive run considering the video game industry came perilously close to collapse some thirty years ago.
Today, video games are a pervasive part of pop culture: it is an industry worth billions of dollars, and its reach stretches all across the globe. Yet in the early 1980s, there was a very real possibility that video games could disappear as a form of home entertainment. A glut of poorly received games and systemic problems in quality control very nearly destroyed the industry, just as it was establishing itself. Many game historians today recognize that the very existence of E3, the major console companies and popular game studios like Rockstar Games, EA Sports and Bethesda owe much to a Japanese game company formed more than a century ago. Originally devoted to selling playing cards, this company would step up in the 1980s and emerge from the video game crash as a major new player in the industry. Their success would spawn an entire new form of entertainment, and reshape the way people spend their leisure time.
Today’s episode of The Colloquium will paint a spotlight on the console and game developer that helped re-write the book on home video game consoles, and unleashed a bevy of game characters so memorable, they have transcended the medium and become full-fledged pop culture icons. So sit back, relax, and press the start button, because this episode is a AAA-title with a ton of add-ons: Here We Go!
Episode IV: Playing With Power
The Event: Nintendo Enters the Video Game Market | Dates: Circa Mid-1970’s to Present | The Result: Leisure Time Moves Indoors
Nintendo traces its lineage back quite a way, to September 1889, at a point when in the United States, President Benjamin Harrison was afraid to touch the first electric light switches in the White House. In Kyoto, Japan, a young businessman named Fusajiro Yamauchi decided to take advantage of the relaxation of certain laws which forbade the production of Hanafuda, translated as ‘Flower Cards’. These Flower Cards were a convenient workaround against a general prohibition on Western-style playing cards, which had been banned by the Imperial Diet of Japan owing to the influx of the cards arriving with Christian missionaries, leading to a surge in gambling. Hanafuda provided a domestic equivalency to Western-styled playing cards, and a number of popular games were developed to accommodate the new design. Yamauchi, an avid Hanafuda collector, decided to open his own shop, called Nintendo Koppai in Kyoto.
This would be Yamauchi’s trademark product for the next forty years, as the hand-made Flower Cards became an immensely popular consumer good in Japan. It was during the leadership of Yamauchi’s successor, adopted son-in-law Sekiryo Yamauchi that Fusajiro’s company would see the first of the company’s name changes, to Yamauchi Nintendo. His own successor, grandson Hiroshi would change the name again in 1951 to the Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd.
For most of the company’s first 70 years, business was fairly good, if uniform: Western-style playing cards were slowly introduced in 1902, while mass-produced cards made of plastic were introduced in 1953. Then, in 1959, Hiroshi Yamauchi would arrange for a licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company to put Disney cartoon characters on their cards. The move proved a massive success, bringing in so much capital that the company was able to go public just three years later, posting on the Osaka and Kyoto Exchanges. While the Disney partnership established Nintendo Playing Cards as a major entity in their market, legend has it that a trip to Cincinnati by Hiroshi in 1958 changed everything.
Cards, Sex and Toys
As the story goes, Yamauchi sought a business relationship with Cincinnati’s United States Playing Card Company, at that time the dominant player in the U.S. playing card market. Upon his arrival there, however, Yamauchi was apparently distraught by the limited resources of the company, and was outright shocked that the market leader in playing card production was so meager in size. Owing to his desire not to be hemmed into such a niche market, and quite possibly looking for ways to avoid being known as the Card King of Kyoto, Hiroshi decided to leverage Nintendo’s new-found capital in the 1960’s to diversify the business. Specifically, the company began creating new toys, owing to the success of their Disney card line aimed at children. The company, once again renamed as Nintendo, created several toys of note, including one of the first commercially-successful grabber toys (known as the Ultra Hand) and other novelty gifts.
Part of Hiroshi’s push to diversify came not only out of a desire to grow, but of a desire to keep his company alive. Nintendo’s stock price fell swiftly once the sales of their primary product, their playing cards, began to decline in the mid-1960s. Other products introduced, such as various foodstuffs like instant rice and a vacuum cleaner proved ineffective. Nintendo further diversified by creating its own taxi company, and, most famously, opening a chain of hotels designed specifically for the purpose of sex. Shockingly, these “love hotels” failed to help the company diversify: only its toy division helped the company survive.
Toys like the Ultra Hand helped bring commercial success to the company, leading it to focus on toys. One of its employees, originally hired as a maintenance worker, had helped come up with the design for the grabber, and would be retained over the next few decades to come up with other ideas. His name was Gunpei Yokoi, and video game enthusiasts the world over have him to thank for, among other things, the development of the “D-pad” for video game controllers, as well as famous Game Boy portable system.
Of course, video games were not one of Nintendo’s initial offerings. Yet the wheels had been set in motion thanks to the promotion of Yokoi to their product development. In 1973, using revolutionary solar cell technology for the era, Yokoi helped to develop a laser gun toy which allowed people to play ‘clay shooting’ without needing an actual gun. The Nintendo Beam Gun, which would become the spiritual predecessor to the famed “Zapper”, sparked Nintendo’s interest in electronics, specifically coin-operated arcade games, which were beginning to become a popular new entertainment industry in the 1970’s. Nintendo, working in partnership with several other companies (notably Mitsubishi Electric) began working to use microprocessors for more personalized gaming. The result was the Game & Watch in 1980, the world’s first portable game console with an LCD screen.
By 1980, Nintendo was ready to expand its business. Having begun to focus solely on the production of electronic games by this point, the company opened its first international subsidiary, Nintendo of America in New York. From there, work was already underway on a new arcade title that would have a reasonably small impact on the video game industry. Under the guidance of a developer named Shigeru Miyamoto, game engineers had begun work on a new game about a giant ape run amok. The player-character would be tasked with rescuing a kidnapped woman from the clutches of the evil ape, named Donkey Kong.
Released in 1981, Donkey Kong was the most successful arcade game of its generation, and would become a major property of Nintendo of its own volition. Yet it was the game’s playable character — originally a carpenter in Nintendo lore before becoming a Brooklyn-born plumber — that would truly revolutionize the gaming industry, and by extension entertainment in the digital age.
And his name was Mr. Video.
Then, his name was changed to Jumpman.
Finally, to placate an angry landlord who wanted his back rent, they renamed him one last time: Mario.
Nintendo Presents: How to Make Lots of Money
Miyamoto joined Nintendo in 1977, just as the company was beginning to make the transition into the video game market. While men like Yokoi would work on the technical end of production, Miyamoto would help focus on the creative aspect of game making. With the success of Donkey Kong (the game would see two direct sequels over the following five years, Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3), Miyamoto had the ability to begin work on his next project, involving the playable character from the original Kong title. Originally pictured as something of a utility character that could be used on an as-needed basis (Nintendo would discover quite a few needs in the next 40 years), Shigeru began to evolve the character now known as Mario for a new title. Changed from a carpenter to a plumber and given certain distinguishing features like his trademark hat and mustache to cope with graphics issues in that era, Shigeru and Gunpei Yokoi created Mario Bros., a game where Mario and his newly-introduced brother Luigi would rid New York City’s sewer system of various “pests”, like shellcreepers, which serve as the basis later on for Koopa Troopas.
The game was a success, but Nintendo already had its eye on something bigger. By the early-1980s, video games had made the jump from the arcades into the home, with companies like Atari and Coleco Industries (whose 1982 ColecoVision console would boast Nintendo’s own Donkey Kong title in addition to games from another newcomer in the video game market, Sega) leading the way. In 1983 however, the video game industry collapsed in what became known unofficially as the MurderDeathKill Spree of Bitchin’ ’83.
(Officially, it was known as the Video Game Crash of 1983, because as author John Green notes, historians suck at naming things. As an amateur historian, yours truly is not bound by this fatal flaw.)
For the video game industry, this was quite literally the apocalypse. A wave of sub-standard titles from third-party developers had flooded the market, drastically reducing demand and leading to widespread destruction. Coleco Industries and a host of other smaller consoles would be driven from the market entirely; Atari would anemically carry on, having been forced to literally bury thousands of unsold games in a giant pit which symbolized the demise of their position as the market leader. An entire industry had been irrevocably shattered by the crash, but from the flames of the chaos would come a new business model. Yamauchi correctly noted that home video game consoles could work, but only if the quality of games being produced could be assured.
Even as other companies struggled to survive the 1983 Crash, Nintendo was already at work developing its first major home video game console. Called the Famicom in Japan (short for ‘Family Computer’), it would pick up a new name and a reworked look two years later upon its release in the United States and Europe as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. Introducing the 8-bit processor to the gaming market, the NES would mark the beginning of what game historians consider the genre’s Third Generation’ with its formal release in 1985. Recognizing the danger that a lack of quality control posed to their system, Nintendo licensed its game creation out to specific developers who would adhere to the company’s quality standard. To certify each game’s quality and allay public fears about a repeat of the 1983 fiasco, each game case came with a golden seal, marking Nintendo’s approval of the game’s design — the Nintendo seal remains in place on every Nintendo game sold to the present day.
Of course, quality control would only be part of the battle in introducing a new console to market. The demise of their competition in the West in the Video Game Crash of 1983 had opened the door, but sales were still dependent on the strength of the titles offered on the system. By 1985, it appeared as though the Famicom / NES would be replaced by a brand-new console, the Famicom Disk System, which would use specialized floppy disks instead of the cartridges that had been a trademark of the Famicom. As a way of “sending off” the Famicom, Nintendo tasked Shigeru Miyamoto with the creation of one last game to serve as the conclusion of the system’s run: Super Mario Bros.
Yes, the most successful game in recorded history up until the release of Wii Sports in 2006 was supposed to close out the console’s run, not launch it into the upper troposphere.
Using the titular characters from the 1983 arcade game, Super Mario Bros. became a mega-smash hit all over the world. Almost overnight, the popular Mario character became a household name that symbolized the home video game console renaissance. Needing dump trucks to haul in the profits from Super Mario Bros., the plan to replace the NES with the Disk System was abandoned, and full-scale production on new NES titles began in earnest. With two of the company’s most successful titles attributed to his creative direction, Miyamoto became one of Nintendo’s most important figures, spearheading its growth for decades to come.
The Aftermath: A Cornerstone of the Digital Revolution
Nintendo, at one point a lowly card company on the brink of financial ruin, is now one of Japan’s most valuable companies. Hiroshi Yamauchi, the man who had spearheaded Nintendo’s transition from novelty company to video game juggernaut, died in 2013, leaving behind an estate worth more than $2 Billion USD. The man appointed as his successor in 2002, the late Satoru Iwata would leave a major mark on the company in his own right. He had helped to contribute to the development of popular characters like Kirby before taking part in the launch of the massive Pokémon franchise in 1996. Today, Pokémon is one of the most recognizable video game properties in the world, ranking right up near the top with other Nintendo luminaries such as the Mario games.
Gunpei Yokoi passed away in 1997, but not before leaving his own mark on Nintendo’s game development legacy by helping to launch the popular Metroid series in 1986, in addition to his work on the Game Boy portable system. As for Shigeru Miyamoto, the street cred from Donkey Kong and Mario led to the development of his next major title, a moderately successful series called The Legend of Zelda. Its most recent sequel, the 19th property in the franchise, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is considered by some to be one of the greatest games ever created. Miyamoto even managed to find time to develop other properties as well, such as the Star Fox, F-Zero and Pikmin series. The profits from these properties have allowed him to pursue his passion for bluegrass music, because when you operate on the God-tier of game developers, you do whatever the hell you want.
Nintendo would continue to produce games for the NES for a full decade after Super Mario Bros. was intended to be its grand finale, though homebrew games are still being made for the console in 2017. The NES was replaced by the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES in 1990 (known as the ‘Super Famicom’ in Japan), and it proved to be a massive success in its own right. Five more major consoles would follow over the next quarter-century, in addition to a slew of handheld properties in the Game Boy and DS series. Though Nintendo is no longer the market leader in the video game field — competitors Sony and Microsoft have both passed it in terms of gross sales and market share as of 2017 — it continues to be a prominent force in the video game industry. A special relaunch of its original console system in 2016, the NES Classic Edition sold over two million units before its discontinuation.
As for Miyamoto’s most famous character, Mario is still going strong in 2017. The character has appeared in more than 200 games across every single gaming platform released by Nintendo. The character is both synonymous with Nintendo and with the face of home video games more than 30 years after his debut. In addition to a variety of new game franchises like the Mario Kart and Mario Party series, the character is also prominent in the Super Smash Bros. franchise, and has crossed over with a cartoon series that was reasonably successful, and a live-action feature film that was… not. The character remains one of the most recognizable in all of video games, and is very much a prominent symbol of the 1980’s and beyond.
Nintendo has certainly evolved over the years, growing from a small niche company in an era when electricity was just beginning to be commercialized to becoming a household name all over the world. Yet to consider it merely a presence in the video game market is to diminish what the company helped to engineer over the last 50 years. Entertainment, and the pastimes we enjoy today have changed dramatically in the last two generations: we are, in a very real sense, living in the midst of history’s Digital Revolution. Technology has become interwoven in almost every aspect of our lives, from the way we enjoy our free time to how we work, and even how we take care of our bodies and live our lives. Nintendo’s home consoles are very much a part of this tradition, for it was through Nintendo that home consoles survived as a viable form of entertainment. Video games today represent a multi-billion dollar industry, with tie-ins to various other forms of media and technology. The path blazed by Nintendo has been followed by some of the world’s biggest and most valuable companies. It is a testament to the company’s ingenuity and the faces behind its success over the decades: the major players who turned a novelty company into a cultural icon that will resonate deeply with people young and old for years to come.
This Week in History at the Colloquium
On June 12th, 1963, French rally driver Philippe Bugalski and professional wrestler Jerry Lynn were born; Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran and prominent civil rights activist working to end segregation on the campus of the University of Mississippi, was assassinated.
On June 13th, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Miranda v. Arizona that suspects in crimes must be informed of their rights by the police before they may be questioned. The case is credited with the creation of what are now known as the Miranda Rights.
On June 14th, 1846, the Bear Flag Revolt begins in California, a prominent step leading up to the Mexican-American War and the incorporation of much of the modern American Southwest into the United States of America.
On June 15th, 1775, George Washington of Virginia is appointed Commander of the Continental Army by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, his first act as the future ‘Father of America’.
On June 16th, 1963, Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space when she successfully commands the Vostok 6 mission for the Soviet Space Program.
On June 17th, 1972, five men are arrested attempting to wiretap the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Office Complex in Washington, D.C. The arrest would spark the beginning of the Watergate Scandal that would topple the Presidency of Richard Nixon.
On June 18th, 1815, a combined British-Prussian force under the command of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington of Great Britain and Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher of Prussia defeat Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo, marking the final defeat of the deposed French Emperor and the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars.
Now Appearing at The Casual Geekery…
- Head Geek Steven Ferrari pays special tribute to the late, great Adam West, and also has his review of the new DC superhero blockbuster Wonder Woman available for your viewing pleasure.
- Joe Marvilli has a review up for the most recent episode of Doctor Who, and also brings you his Song of the Week.
- Everyone’s favorite LSU fan Uncle Dave tackles Shadowrun Returns in the latest installment of the Big Steaming Pile.
- Finally, last week’s Colloquium installment, Episode III can be found here if you haven’t already seen it, chronicling the Golden Age of Las Vegas.
We hope you enjoyed this week’s installment of The Colloquium here at the Geekery. As always, if you have any questions or comments about today’s episode, or ideas for future episodes, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @biffkensington with your comments. Next week, the Colloquium enters the height of the Cold War by looking at an important Revolutionary figure whose portrait may be one of the most recognizable images of the 20th Century. That’s next time here on the Colloquium: until then, enjoy the rest of your week at the Casual Geekery! Take care, everyone.