Have you ever heard of Super Mario Brothers or the Legend of Zelda? Have you ever played these games on Nintendo? Nintendo is a household name across the world, but it didn’t start out that way. And most people don’t realize the Nintendo company has been around for over 100 years — long before video games were invented.
Our story begins in 1889 in the large city of Kyoto, Japan. In Kyoto lived a man named Fusajiro Yamauchi. Fusajiro had a wife and a daughter and was an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is someone who has big ideas and starts new businesses. And Fusajiro had an idea to start his own shop to sell playing cards which were used to play a Japanese card game called “Hanafuda.” His playing cards were hand-painted and he decided to name his business “Nintendo Koppai.” Fusajiro’s playing cards were very popular in Kyoto and soon he didn’t have enough time to paint all of the cards by hand. When an entrepreneur has this problem, which is a very good problem, he hires more people to help him — and this is exactly what Fusajiro did! He hired assistant and taught them how to paint playing cards like he did. With more playing cards to sell, the Nintendo company grew and grew until Fusajiro opened a new shop in Osaka.
For 40 years Fusajiro’s company grew and grew, they designed games other than Hanafuda and eventually became the largest playing card company in Japan.
At the age of 70, Fusajiro retired and his adopted son-in-law became the new president. But little did Fusajiro realize what would become of his playing card company.
In 1927 a boy named Hiroshi was born in the same city of Kyoto. When he was little parents were unable to take care of him, so he went to live with his grandparents. His grandfather was the President of Nintendo. Hiroshi started school when he was 12 and planned to go to college, but when World War II started he had to wait on college and instead worked in a factory making weapons for the war. When the war ended he started college to study law and was also married at that time.
In 1949 Hiroshi grandfather, the President of Nintendo died and Hiroshi was next in line, so he became the president of Nintendo. Hiroshi was only 22 and no one thought he’d be able to run the company. But he proved everyone wrong by being very firm and taking control of the company. And he would go on to lead Nintendo and help it grow for the next 53 years!
As the new President of the company, Hiroshi was interested in selling Nintendo playing cards in the United States. In the United States he made a deal with Disney to allow Nintendo to use Disney characters on their cards and eventually sold 600,000 packs in one year. With all of the new money coming in, Hiroshi began to look at new ways for Nintendo to make money. They tried many different ventures such as a taxi business, restaurants, and toy making. While many of the ideas failed, toy-making seemed to be their best bet.
One day while Hiroshi was in the factory, he noticed one of the engineers playing with a device he had built that could stretch out and grab things like a hand. The engineer’s name was Gunpei Yokoi and his normal job was to repair machines in the factory. But Hiroshi liked the device he built so much that he decided to turn it into a toy. They called it the “Ultra Arm” and sold over 1 million of them. With the Ultra Arm’s success, Hiroshi asked Gunpei to help design toys instead of work in the factory. Gunpei went on to design several other toys for Nintendo such as the first solar-powered light gun, later called the Nintendo Beam gun.
In 1972 the American company Magnavox released one of the first home video game consoles and called it the Odyssey. Magnavox used Nintendo light guns with the Odyssey. Not long after the Odyssey’s release, Nintendo started creating its own arcade games using the light gun. Their most popular arcade was called The Laser Clay Shooting System.
In 1977 Nintendo hired a young artist named Shigeru Miyamoto. Shigeru was born in Sonobe, Japan and from a young age loved exploring the natural world around his home, including forests, lakes and secret caves he found. He had a big imagination of loved to draw. He later went to college to become an artist. At Nintendo Shigeru did artwork for an arcade game called Sheriff and worked with Gunpei Yokoi, the designer of the “Ultra Arm” on other new games. One of their big ideas involved a carpenter, his girlfriend, and a gorilla. The carpenter, also named Jumpman, ran up ramps and jumped over barrels the gorilla threw at him until he reached the girl at the top. When Sherigu finally decided on a name for Jumpman he named him “Mario” after the man who owned their building. They named their game Donkey Kong and it eventually it became one of the most famous video games of all time.
Nintendo and Gunpei Yokoi’s next big invention was a hand-held gaming device called the Game and Watch, which included a simple game and a clock. The Game and Watch was very popular and gave Nintendo more money to invent other new devices. Their next big device was called the Famicom (or Family Computer) and was their first gaming console. It sold over 500,000 units, but many of them had issues and had to be recalled from the stores. This was very costly for Nintendo, but in 1985 they fixed the system and renamed it the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES. Nintendo was known for its quality games, which had to receive its stamp of approval before being released. The NES ended up becoming wildly popular in the United States.
Shigeru Miyamoto, the artist with the big imagination, also created Super Mario Brothers featuring his Mario character from Donkey Kong and added a brother named Luigi. They changed Mario from a carpenter to a plumber and gave him superhuman abilities. He could fall from any height and with his hat and thick mustache worked his way through a wild world full of fantastic monsters and underground sewage pipes.
Designing his next video game, Shigeru remember his childhood of adventure and wonder exploring the natural world around his home in Sonobe. He remembered finding a dark cave and exploring it along with the hillsides and lakes. He decided his next big game would try and capture that wonder he felt as a child. In his game The Legend of Zelda, an adventurous elf named Link would explore an open video game world in search of the Princess Zelda. The Legend of Zelda also became very popular and many sequels have been created under Shigeru’s direction.
Nintendo’s next popular device was the Gameboy, designed by Gunpei Yokoi. It was a handheld device and was known for being sturdy with quality games like Tetris, Super Mario Land and Pokemon. The Game Boy eventually sold 118 million units!
The next version of the Nintendo was called the Super Nintendo or SNES with new and improved graphics and a host of new games. At this time, Nintendo began to face competition from the Sega Genesis gaming system, which included wildly popular games like Sonic the Hedgehog. The Sony Playstation and later Microsoft’s Xbox gaming system also competed with Nintendo, which later released the Nintendo 64 with 3D graphics, the Game Boy Color, then the Game Cube and later the Nintendo DS, and Wii. The Wii became the best selling game console of all time, selling 10 million units with hit games like Wii Sports, Super Mario Galaxy, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Wii U was released next and finally its current console, the Nintendo Switch. Even with all of the new competition over the years, Nintendo found ways to reinvent itself and make its game systems different. With the Wii, Nintendo invented the hand-held pointing devices or nunchucks. With the Switch it designed a console that could be played on the TV or on the go. Nintendo also continued to create wildly imaginative, colorful and family friendly game franchises such as Zelda, Mario Kart, Metroid, Star Fox, and Pokemon.
In the end, Nintendo was successful due to the business sense of its President Hiroshi Yamauchi and the creativity of designers like Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi.
Would you like to be an entrepreneur some day? Remember an entrepreneur is someone who is creative and comes up with ideas for new businesses. If you’ve ever held a bake sell or sold lemonade you’re practicing the skills to become an entrepreneur. Remember, Fusajiro was an entrepreneur when he started his first playing card shop called Nintendo.
Do you like to draw or have a big imagination like Shigeru and Gunpei? If you created your own video game like Shigeru what would it be about? What would it look like? When you find the time, write out your ideas, draw a few pictures and plan out how it would work. Creativity, like other skills, requires practice. Take some time to think about how you can exercise your creativity muscles and invent imaginative worlds like Shigeru did with the Legend of Zelda.