Nintendo: Before the NES

Nintendo: Before the NES
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We all know Nintendo for their amazing video game and handheld consoles, but the gaming juggernaut didn’t become a household name in the west until the release of the NES in 1985 (Europe 1986 and Australia 1987). However, Nintendo were well known for over a century in Japan, venturing into many different business endeavours with varying levels of success.

September 23, 1889: Hanafuda Playing Cards

Fusajiro Yamauchi
Credit: Nintendo Wikia

On this day, Fusajiro Yamauchi founded his very own company in a small workshop in the heart of Kyoto. To attract the attention of those passing by, he chose the name of three kanji characters (任天堂). These characters combine to create Nin-ten-do, or in it’s original meaning “Leave luck to heaven”. This little shop had begun creating and distributing Hanafuda playing cards.


Nintendo’s Original Headquarters
Credit: Meiji150

However, the story doesn’t begin there. To fully grasp Nintendo’s origins, we’ll have to go all the way back to the 16th century when Portuguese traders brought western-style playing cards to Japan. These playing cards became a very popular past-time throughout Japan, however Japan’s military commanders didn’t look so kindly upon the western influence. With the increasingly growing fear that they were going to lose their rich culture to the influences of christianity, the Japanese government decided to close off their borders and ban any form of western items, playing cards included. Companies that had entered this business were forced to cease manufacturing cards that contained the four suits and twelve numbers. However to get around this, these companies opted to create cards that represented the four seasons and the twelve months of the year. And thus, the Hanafuda playing cards were born.

Portuguese Traders Arrive in Japan
Credit: The Japan Times

As time went on, the Japanese government realised what these companies were doing, and proceeded to ban Hanafuda playing cards as well. However, these cards had already been widely distributed across Japan and continued to be played in places that the government would not catch on. This continued until the late 19th century, in which a much more lenient Japanese government lifted the ban in 1885. Fusajiro Yamauchi had illegally played with Hanafuda cards from a young age. The twenty-six year old was now able to publicly play with these cards, which ignited his entrepreneurial spirit to start up a Hanafuda distribution company – Nintendo Koppai. They struck a deal with Japanese casinos, where they would go through a new deck each game, and cigarette shops all across Japan.

Hanafuda Playing Cards
Credit: Wired

In 1929, Fusajiro Yamauchi retired and gave the company to his son-in-law, Sakiro Yamauchi. Sakiro opted not to stray from the path that Fusajiro had laid out, and successfully ran the company along the same path until he suffered from a stroke and retired. Sakiro then offered the company to his 22-year-old grandson, Hiroshi Yamauchi.

1949: Hiroshi Yamauchi

When Hiroshi Yamauchi was offered the job as president of Nintendo at the young age of twenty-two, he was studying law at Waseda University.

Hiroshi Yamauchi
Credit: The Digital Antiquarian

Hiroshi Yamauchi was the polar opposite to his grandfather and chose to run Nintendo in his own way. He fired all of the managers that Sakiro Yamauchi had appointed in his time as president and instantly earned himself a reputation as ambitious and foul-tempered. Hiroshi Yamauchi wanted to stray away from the path that had previously been laid out and wanted to venture into many different business opportunities.

1951: Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd.

At this time, Hiroshi Yamauchi consolidated all of Nintendo’s manufacturing plants in order to speed up production process. Two years later, they had begun manufacturing plastic playing cards and in 1959, Nintendo signed a licensing deal with the western entertainment juggernaut Disney.

Nintendo Disney Playing Cards
Credit: Before Mario

Hiroshi Yamauchi was determined to undertake new business opportunities and stray further away from the conservative path that had been laid out from its roots. He felt that the playing card market had little room for growth and therefore opted to change the name of the company to Nintendo Company, Limited (NCL). Taking Nintendo public to fund these newly found ambitious endeavours, Yamauchi soon after became the company’s chairman.

At first, Nintendo branched out to making instant-rice, which was an instant-failure. Yamauchi then created a taxi service company called Daiya, however negotiating with taxi unions led to frustration and he soon gave up on this venture. Nintendo then followed up with establishing love hotels, and despite Yamauchi claiming that these hotels were a personal passion of his and that he was his own best customer, he gave up on this venture as well.

1963: Nintendo Co., Ltd./Toys

Trying his hand in many different business opportunities, Yamauchi concluded that the best direction for Nintendo to move forward was to rely on the distribution resources that they had built over the many decades as a playing card company.

Nintendo decided that their immediate future was in the toy industry, and the 1960s and 1970s saw many iconic creations…

Nintendo’s Baseball Board

Released in 1965, this little board game allowed two players to play a seamingly traditional version of America’s greatest pastime.

Nintendo’s Baseball Board
Credit: Before Mario


Nintendo Baseball Board
Credit: Before Mario

A blue button on the board allowed the player to pitch the ball and a white dial allowed the batter to swing. There was also a scoreboard that allowed players to keep track of the game. This board game cost 950¥ at the time of release.

Nintendo Ultra Hand

Released in 1966, the Nintendo Ultra Hand was one of their most successful toys, being their first toy product to reach one million units sold.

Nintendo Ultra Hand
Credit: Before Mario

Nintendo continued to sell this toy throughout the 1970s and it received many redesigns. To this day, we still see many companies making these toys, and not many know of its true origins.

This toy is so ingrained in theirs history that they released a Wii-Ware title called Grill-Off With Ultra Hand in 2010 as a Club Nintendo reward.

Nintendo Love Tester

Released in 1969, this love tester was an interesting business venture in Nintendo’s history. Created by Gunpei Yokoi (the creator of the Game Boy and Metroid), this little device read the heart rate of each user when they would talk to or kiss each other.

Nintendo Love Tester
Credit: Before Mario

From this, the device would determine each other’s passion for one another.

When the item was brought over to the west, it was remarketed as the Lie/Love Detector.

Nintendo Lie/Love Detector
Credit: Kotaku

Replicas are still being made to this day, but not by Nintendo.

Nintendo doesn’t forget its history. They referenced the Love Tester (as well as the Ultra Hand) in their rerelease of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the Nintendo 3DS…

1977: Color TV-Game 6 & Color TV-Game 15

At this point in time, the market was beginning to look at this new technology called video games (ring any bells?). With arcades beginning to gain a lot of traction in the United States, and with Atari seemingly on top of the world, Nintendo thought that they’d dip their toe in the water with the Color TV-Game 6.

Nintendo Color TV-Game 6

Beautiful, isn’t she?

Nintendo Color TV-Game 6 Game

Whilst this is a valuable collector’s item for Nintendo fans, this little console simply played six different versions of electronic tennis.

The console ended up selling over one million units. However, Nintendo ultimately lost money from this endeavor due to the R&D costs.




In 1978, Nintendo released the Color TV-Game 15. This console was less ambitious in comparison to its predecessor as it simply played 15 different versions of electronic tennis.

Nintendo Color TV-Game 15

This console also sold over one million units and was featured in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS / Wii U in the form of an assist trophy.

Color TV-Game Assist Trophy
Credit: Crunchyroll

1978: Arcade

With experience developing and distributing video games with their latest Color TV-Game series, Nintendo also sought to capitalize on the arcade market. Games such as Space Invaders and Asteroids were becoming cult phenomenons all across the globe, especially in Japan.

In June 1978, Nintendo had begun playing it safe, releasing Computer Othello, which is similar to a game known as Reversi in the west. It had a tabletop design, perfect for two-player games, and had controls on either side.

Nintendo Computer Othello
Credit: Before Mario

Nintendo later released a few more tabletop arcade games, such as Block Fever (1978) and Space Fever (1979), before beginning to distribute their games in the upright arcade cabinets that we are more familiar with today.

To ride the success of Space Invaders, Nintendo released SF-HiSplitter (catchy name, I know) in 1979. This title was very similar to Space Invaders in that you had to shoot the invading aliens that were slowly descending towards you. The only aspect that made it unique was that the aliens were much wider and you were tasked to hit them in the correct spot, otherwise they’ll split up into two smaller aliens.

Nintendo then went on to release some more minor hits in Japan, such as Sheriff (1979) and Monkey Magic (1979). At this stage, Hiroshi Yamauchi was planning on establishing Nintendo in North America and appointed Minoru Arakawa as president.

In 1979, Nintendo had released Radar Scope, another title that was strikingly similar to Space Invaders. This game was a massive success in Japan, so they thought that it was only fitting for it to be the title that they bring over to North America. However by this point, the hype train had already left the station and nobody showed any interested in Radar Scope.


Radar Scope
Credit: Syfy Games

Unfortunately, Arakawa had a lot of initial faith in Radar Scope and had ordered 3000 units. When the cabinets arrived after a delay, Nintendo of America’s warehouse was filled with 3000 copies of a game that nobody wanted to play.

Luckily, all of Nintendo of America’s prayers were soon answered when a young Shigeru Miyamoto was put to the task of developing a game that they could place in these unused cabinets. This game was Donkey Kong.

Donkey Kong Flier
Credit: Mario Wiki

Nintendo of America quickly put this new game into the existing cabinets and painted over the Radar Scope artwork. They distributed the game to various different arcades across America and were shocked at the results. Nobody had ever seen a game quite like Donkey Kong before, and it instantly became an overnight success.

Now that Nintendo were beginning to make a name for themselves in North America, they were able to increase productivity in the arcade scene. What followed was a slew of arcade hits, such as:

  • Popeye (1982)
  • Donkey Kong Jr. (1982)
  • Mario Bros. (1983)
  • Punch-Out!! (1984)
  • VS Pinball (1984)
  • Donkey Kong 3 (1984)
  • VS Excitebike (1984)
  • VS Ice Climber (1985)
  • VS Duck Hunt (1985)
  • VS Super Mario Bros. (1986)

As you have probably noticed, a lot of these titles eventually (or sometimes already had) released on the NES.

Nintendo always likes to celebrate its history, and after many years we are now finally able to play some of these games on the Nintendo Switch under the Arcade Archives moniker.

That and, no spoilers, that Donkey Kong scene in Super Mario Odyssey… Amazing!

1980: Game & Watch

Created by Gunpei Yokoi, the Game & Watch series was Nintendo’s first attempt in the handheld gaming market. As video game technology was still trying to gain momentum, handhelds were much more difficult to develop and manufacture. Therefore, the Game & Watch were released in all different shapes and iterations and did not contain the ability for interchangeable cartridges. However, most iterations contained Game A and Game B buttons that allowed for different versions of the existing game.

Nintendo Game & Watch Ball
Credit: Pocket Gamer

The Game & Watch games were relatively simple and simply added challenge by the increasing speed. Each game took place on an LCD screen with incredibly simple animations. They became more complex with each iteration, with various different designs and even two controllers on the Donkey Kong 3 Game & Watch.

Game & Watch Donkey Kong 3

Nintendo weren’t the only company to make handheld games, nor were they the first. In 1976, Mattel created the Auto Race, a portrait handheld device that allowed players to play a single game of car racing on and LCD screen. Mattel later followed up with a handheld football game, but these devices were poorly received in the market.

Mattel Auto Race
Credit: Handheld Museum

In 1979, the Milton Bradley Company released the Microvision, the first ever handheld with interchangeable game cartridges. The device had a tiny 16×16 pixel LCD screen and had a dial down the bottom as well as a few buttons in the middle for controls. The system had just 12 games developed for it and was discontinued in 1981.

Credit: Simply Eighties

With a lack of competition in the market, Nintendo’s Game & Watch series was a sure-fire success. Not only did they come in all shapes and sizes, but they contained recreations of some of their arcade hits (such as Donkey Kong and Mario Bros.).

Fun Fact: The Donkey Kong Game & Watch was the inspiration for the Nintendo DS design!

Game & Watch Donkey Kong

Nintendo continued to make new Game & Watch iterations until 1991, two years after they had launched the Game Boy. They were a successful line of handhelds that are still being referenced to this day.

Most games saw ports and rereleases on some of Nintendo’s future hardware, such as the Game & Watch Gallery series on the Game Boy and the Game Boy Advance, and the Game & Watch Collection series on the DS that were available through Club Nintendo.

Nintendo now use the character from the original Game & Watch Ball iteration (as well as many other appearances), to which he is now referred to as Mr. Game & Watch. He is a playable fighter in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS/Wii U and he has made some cameo appearances in Donkey Kong Country Returns and Rhythm Heaven Fever.

Mr. Game & Watch

Nintendo’s ambitious history has transformed them from a tiny little warehouse in the back streets of Kyoto into the video game conglomerate that we know today.


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Further Reading

Harris, B 2014, Console Wars, HarperCollins Publishers, U.S.A.