Welcome to the Infendo Presents: The History of Nintendo! Join us as we chronicle Nintendo from their humble hanafuda beginnings, to the dominance of the Wii and DS and beyond!
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By now it’s pretty common knowledge that long before Nintendo was in the video game making business, the company got its start producing handmade hanafuda cards in 1889. Long before the history of Nintendo was written by names like Miyamoto and Iwata, Fusajiro Yamauchi started what would eventually become one of the most prominent companies in video games. Before all the the pixels and polygons, however, the company was known as Nintendo Koppai.
The year was 1889 and video games weren’t even a thing yet. Heck, television was still in its infancy and it would still be a few decades before it was commercially available. Hanafuda cards were Nintendo Koppai’s weapon of choice, and just as they are now with video games, Nintendo Koppai strived to be the best hanafuda card maker in their homeland of Japan.
After running the company for 30 years, in 1929 Fusajiro retired from Nintendo Koppai at the age of 70. Yamauchi left the company to his son-in-law Sekiryo Kaneda (later renamed Yamauchi). Sekiryo saw the company grow as a hanafuda maker, and would even establish a distribution company under the name Marufuku Co., Ltd. In 1933 Sekiryo would establish a joint venture with another company and would go on to rename Nintendo to Yamauchi Nintendo & Co.
Sekiryo would go on to run Nintendo with moderate success until his death in 1949. As Sekiryo had no sons, the future of Nintendo was left to his grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi, ushering in a whole new era for the house of N. He would rename Marufuki Co. Ltd. to Nintendo Playing Card Co. Ltd. in 1951.
Still figuring out what Nintendo was to become, Hiroshi traveled to the U.S. to speak with the dominant playing card company of the day in the United States Playing Card Company in 1956. Upon arrival at the USPCC headquarters, Hiroshi was dumbfounded by the fact that the most powerful card company in the world was relegated to an extremely small office. Fearing the sustainability of the card industry, Yamauchi returned to Japan with a whole new look on the welfare of his company.
Nintendo was able to strike a deal with Disney in 1959, allowing them to use Disney characters on their playing cards. This deal is largely viewed as the jumping off point for Nintendo’s ventures outside of the card industry, as the Disney playing cards were a huge success for the company, allowing Nintendo go public on the Osaka Stock Exchange Second Division in 1962. Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd. was renamed simply Nintendo Co. Ltd allowing the company to experiment in other areas of business.
Aside from their playing card business, Nintendo would set up a love hotel chain, a taxi company, a food company, and a toymaking business amongst others. Of all these ventures, the only success Nintendo could find was in the toymaking business. As the Olymipics were held in Tokyo in 1964, the country saw a huge economic boom allowing Nintendo to stay afloat and continue to manufacture playing cards and toys. Needing a new maintenance engineer, Nintendo would hire a young Gunpei Yokoi in 1965, and little did anybody at the company know at the time, nothing from here would ever be the same.
While observing a hanafuda factory in 1966, Hiroshi Yamauchi noticed Yokoi tinkering with an extending arm of his on invention for his own amusement. Seeing the potential in Yokoi’s invention, Yamauchi ordered Yokoi to develop a product that could be sold for the upcoming Christmas season. The result, The Ultra Hand would become one of Nintendo earliest blockbuster successes selling over a million units. Seeing Yokoi’s obvious potential, Yamauchi moved Yokoi to the product development division.
It was soon clear that Gunpei was much more than a simple engineer. Putting his electrical engineering background to use, Yokoi would go on to develop many other toys such as the Ten Billion Barrel puzzle, the Ultra Machine, and the precursor to the NES Zapper the Nintendo Beam Gun Game.
Finally finding consistent success, Nintendo was able to save enough money away to seed projects in other, more familiar areas. Electronic games. The history of Nintendo was about to be rewritten again as the company would turn a new page, a page that we are still reading today.
Join us tomorrow as we take a look at the pre-NES era of Nintendo video games as we continue our History of Nintendo series.