Jun 13, 2020
I was going to do a podcast about the story behind big companies. Here’s my notes on Nintendo.
It’s one of those podcasts I’d like to hear, but realised I wouldn’t enjoy making long term. Fun fact episode two was going to be about Kellogg’s and how corn flakes were invented to stop teens jacking it.
The following Nintendo-related writing I’m licensing CC0 (no copyright). Have at it. Link me your podcast if you get to episode 7! Everything from the Disclaimer header below to the sign up to my mail list at the bottom, don’t ask your listeners to sign up to my mail list as that would be confusing.
Please be aware, these are notes. They were in the process of becoming a script, but they’re notes. Some things are missing, some are wrong, some aren’t researched yet.
Ok everything from now is copy pasted from my Nintendo doc.
While research has been done to ensure the accuracy of the following information, it’s never possible to get all of it right all of the time. Any omissions or additions that are causing you to send this episode to your legal team are not made on purpose.
Please do let me know of any problems via the contact form on hugebeginnings.com
Intro music goes here
Nintendo started life as a small company in Japan selling handmade playing cards known as Hanafuda, or flower cards, which are used to play a variety of games.
Nintendo is now one of the largest companies in the world, with an estimated value of over 85 billion in US dollars.
Hanafuda Card background
Hanafuda cards origins can be traced back to Europe. In 1549 the Spanish Roman Catholic missionary Francis Xavier travelled to Japan as a representative of the Portuguese king to spread the teachings of Christianity. A year later the conversion of subjects to Christianity was forbidden under penalty of death. Good times.
The crew of the ship Xavier sailed over on had a deck of Hombre cards onboard, card games had much more success than Xavier and his teachings of Christianity. The games played with the cards, and naturally the gambling that goes with the games, grew in popularity over the course of almost a hundred years.
In 1633 Japan closed its borders and ceased all contact with the Western world and the European playing cards were banned as a part of this. Prohibition being as successful as it’s always been meant that the cards and the games played with them remained highly popular and now a void in the market that had been left when the European cards were banned was filled with new designs that avoided the prohibition.
Over the course of several decades the designs of the cards and the games that went with them came and went being fuelled by the desire to gamble and banned due to it. Eventually this culminated in the creation of the Hanafuda cards - these were similar to regular playing cards but did not have any numbers printed on them. This limited the use of the cards for gambling and so did not come under too much scrutiny from the government. It was still possible to gamble playing with Hanafuda cards but the length of games combined with the government repression of gambling made card games much less popular.
Getting back on topic we meet Fusajiro Yamauchi, he founded the company as Nintendo Koppai in Kyoto, Japan on the 23rd of September 1889.
The cards made by Yamauchi’s new company were hand painted on tree bark, of the Mulberry tree. They did not see much popularity until the Yakuza began using the cards in their private gambling parlours.
This new adoption of the cards increased demand to the point Yamauchi had to take on assistance to mass produce the cards in order to meet demand. In 1929 Yamauchi passed the torch to son-in law Sekiryo Kaneda as Yamauchi had no sons of his own. Fusajiro Yamauchi retired from Nintendo and remained out of the business until his death 11 years later after suffering a stroke in 1940. He was 80 years old and while the company was already a success, he never got to see just how big it would eventually become
The Nintendo inherited by Sekiryo (Who had taken on the family name Yamauchi) was now Japan’s largest card maker. In 1933 he renamed the company Yamauchi Nintendo & Co.
Jumping forward to 1947 Sekiryo started a distribution company Marufuku Co Ltd for the cards, as well as new brands of cards introduced by Nintendo.
Sekiryo too only had daughters so again looked to male heir son-in-law Shikanojo Inaba as the guy in line to take the reins. Before being named president however, Inaba up and left, abandoning his family - his wife Kimi and his son Hiroshi. The Inabas were taken in by the Yamauchi family after Sekiryo left, the grandparents helping raise Hiroshi. Sekiryo ran Nintendo until 1949 when he retired after suffering a stroke. Shortly after he died from complications.
The Playing Card Era
Newly appointed Nintendo president Hiroshi Inaba dropped out of university when Sekiryo died. Later in 1951 he renamed Marufuku to Nintendo Playing Card Co Ltd. In 1953 Nintendo switched to making playing cards using plastic instead of the wood bark used previously.
Hiroshi visited the USA in 1956 to engage with Nintendo’s foreign equivalent, United States Playing Card Company - the largest card manufacturer in the US. Despite being the dominant player, Hiroshi was shocked to discover the US Playing Card Co was operating out of a rather tiny office. Hiroshi had discovered that the playing market had a very low ceiling.
During his time in the USA Hiroshi engaged in talks with Disney and reached an agreement to print Disney characters on Nintendo’s cards. This allowed Nintendo to more easily sell the cards to Japanese families, instead of their usual gambling focused clientele.
This was a huge success and their Disney themed cards sold over 600,000 decks in one year. In 1962 Hiroshi listed Nintendo publicly on the Osaka Stock Exchange
In 1963 Nintendo Playing Card Co Ltd was renamed simply Nintendo and using the capital raised from going public Nintendo began exploring a variety of ventures.
Nintendo’s Venture Variety
Nintendo’s newly card-shy outlook meant that they tried a variety of ventures. Some you may recognise in forming the Nintendo we now know and love but some so widely different that it’s almost hard to believe it was the same company.
Nintendo was once a taxi firm. Or at least part of it was. Under the name Daiya Nintendo ran a fleet of taxis quite successfully to begin with but they abandoned the project and sold off Daiya after labour unions made the running costs too high to justify.
In their next move, Nintendo wandered close to the market of entertainment however this was in the form of love hotels - a series of short stay hotels guests could rent and use for sex. Just to clarify Nintendo was not running a brothel, but they did operate a hotel where clients could rent rooms for a short period
Dialling back the entertainment dial Nintendo then attempted to make a TV network
A food company making instant rice
Following the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, sales of playing cards dropped - this saw Nintendo’s stock price dropping to an all-time low.
In 1965 Nintendo hired Gunpei Yokoi to work as a maintenance engineer on their maintenance line. A year later Nintendo made their move into the toy market with an invention of Yokoi’s - the Ultra Hand.
This device was made of plastic and featured a criss-cross arrangement of plastic operated with scissor-like handles. When the scissor handles were tightened the device extended out and retracted when the handles were parted. The contraption came with three coloured balls which could be gripped by the Ultra Hand. Despite being rather low-tech, at least by today’s standards, the Ultra Hand was a huge success. Over 1 million units were sold. Yokoi had practically single ultra-handedly saved Nintendo. He went on to invent other toys that would bring Nintendo infinitely closer to the image we know today.
Next up Yokoi brought the Love Tester to the table. To also make note, this was the first electronic device that came out of Nintendo. The Love Tester was a novelty toy that was said to determine how much two people love each other. Both users grab one of the metal sensors in one hand and hold hands with the other person in their other hand. Yokoi is quoted as saying “The Love Tester came from me wondering if I could somehow use this to get girls to hold my hand”. The Love Tester was one of the first products Nintendo sold on a large scale outside Japan, marketed as a love/lie detector. Nintendo then released a series of light gun games “Kousenjuu”
The success did bring with it new problems however. Nintendo struggled to keep up with demand, losing ground to other more well-established toy brands such as Bandai and Tomy. Nintendo focused the beam so to speak in 1973 when it set up the Laser Clay Shooting System in abandoned bowling alleys based on the Kosenjuu light gun technology. These bowling alley scale games were later shut down due to mounting costs, but Nintendo had found the market it had been looking for.
Nintendo had made its first move into their next era and, as you may know unless you’ve been living under a rock for a rather long time, became a little bit successful… but I’m again jumping ahead.
Nintendo’s first move into video gaming was by obtaining the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan. This was the first commercially available home video game console and originated in the US and sold for around 100 US dollars - the equivalent of around 580 US dollars in modern money. The Odyssey was, as with many things in the 70s, a white black and brown box. It’s controllers were connected to the console unit via cables. Compared to the modern age the Odyssey is practically the caveman of the console world. It was able to display three square dots on the screen in black and white and had no sound capabilities. Players would use plastic overlays on the screen to provide the visuals and one or two players would control their dots using a combination of three knobs and a button on the controller. The console came with a variety of physical objects for use with the games available, such as dice and paper money.
One of the games available on the Odyssey was a simple to-and-fro game that later went on to inspire a game you may have heard of - “Pong”. The Odyssey was a member of the first generation of video game consoles, along with the late arrivals TV Tennis Electrotennis from Epoch Co and Home Pong, by Atari.
During this time Nintendo hired a student product developer named Shigeru Miyamoto who worked under Yokoi designing the casing for a series of consoles known as Colour TV-Game, each featuring multiple versions of the same game. Version 6 of the console had six versions of the game Light Tennis.
Nintendo ventured further into the video game market with their racing game EVR Race, designed by their first designer Genyo Takeda. They saw some success in the video game market. In 1979 Yokoi had been observing a fellow train commuter using a handheld calculator - he came up with the idea of handheld video games consoles after noticing the commuter seemed to be idly playing with the calculator to pass the time. The “Game and Watch” line of handheld video games was released a year later in 1980. The hardware and game were one in the same, this meant that the handheld console was the game, it had none of the modern features we now know as normal such as interchangeable cartridges for different games.
In 1981 the student hire Miyamoto expanded Nintendo’s market share dramatically with the release of Donkey Kong. The game became a huge success and was licensed to virtually all of the other consoles of the age. The game featured a character known at the time only as Jumpman. You already know who this is of course, but we’ll get back to him later.
The next year in 1982 Yokoi developed a new method of interacting with games known as the D-pad. It was created for a version of Donkey Kong and was patented by Nintendo. Later it would go on to win an Emmy Award in Technology & Engineering. As you’ll likely know by just glancing at almost literally any console controller of the modern day - the design is still a very popular one, featured in virtually every modern console controller.
The next invention to come from Yokoi’s mind was something you likely already know about. The directional pad, or D-Pad, is a flat thumb operated four-button directional controller.
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