From Playing Cards to Video Games - History of Nintendo

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While the Japanese toy market was already dominated by well established companies such as Tomy Co. and Bandi, Gunpei Yokoi, engineering degree steered Nintendo into the emerging world of electronic toys. These electronic toys, all conceived by Yokoi, were extremely popular and allowed Nintendo to carve out their own niche in the toy market. Soon Nintendo formed a joint venture with the Sony Corporation to develop electronic games, the first of which was called the Nintendo Beam Gun Game, a home version of the popular arcade light gun games.

In 1972 the US military test project, the Brown Box project became available to the American public as the first home video game console called the Magnavox Odyssey. Seeing potential for the next steps in electronic games, Nintendo made their first foray into the world of video games in 1975 by acquiring the Odyssey's distribution rights for Japan. This new and exciting market was growing in popularity and with the moderate success of the Odyssey Nintendo started developing their own games and consoles with the Color TV Game systems.

The Color TV Game line of home consoles started in 1977 with the Color TV Game 6, a dedicated console containing six pre-programmed Pong-like games. Developed with a small limited run, the system showed signed of promise and in 1978 Nintendo followed it up with the Color TV Game 15, another dedicated console, this one with a more comfortable design and nine additional games (all variations of Pong).

This same year Nintendo released their first video game designed for Arcades called Computer Othello. Although a success, Computer Othello was never released outside of Japan.

Also in 1977, a newly graduated art student Shigeru Miyamoto, through his father's friendship with Nintendo's President Hiroshi Yamauchi, was hired as a staff-artist for Nintendo's planning department.

Miyamoto would soon be mentored by Gunpei Yokoi and eventually become one of the most important players in the video game biz, creating Nintendo's most popular properties and being coveted as "The Father of Modern Video Games".

By the 80s business was growing at an alarming rate for Nintendo both domestically and internationally. The Color TV Games system was a steady seller as was their coin-op arcade catalog. Business grew to the point where they began opening offices in their second biggest market, the United States, calling it Nintendo of America (NOA).

One of Nintendo's more popular coin-op arcade games in Japan titled Radar Scope, showed quite a bit of promise in the United States based on pre-tests, so an enormous number of units were manufactured for Nintendo of America.

When the game fully released it was an enormous flop, forcing an overstock of unwanted units and a potentially disastrous loss in inventory costs.

Desperate to prove his talents for game design, Miyamoto was given the assignment to develop a game using the Radar Scope engine and tech that could easily be converted from the overstock units with little additional cost. With an extremely small budget Miyamoto created Donkey Kong. The units were quickly switched over to Kong and it became an instant historic success. This spun Miyamoto into Nintendo's top game producer and the dominant force in the coin-op arcade market.

As his protégé Miyamoto shot Nintendo into success at the arcades, Gunpei Yokoi was busily reinventing the home video game market. After spotting a business man messing around with a calculator to entertain himself on a commuter train, Yoko was inspired to use that same calculator technology to invent a line of handheld video game which became known as the Nintendo Game & Watch.

These handheld LCD games featured the same display technology as calculators, only with the graphics forming characters and objects instead of numbers. With pre-printed stationary foregrounds and backgrounds, the limited-animated graphics could be moved by the player via controller buttons on opposite sides of the screen.

The movement button design would eventually evolve into the Emmy Award winning D-Pad. As they grew in popularity, the Game & Watch designs expand into dual screens, similar to today's Nintendo DS.

The Game & Watch was a hit and soon numerous toy companies were releasing their own LCD handheld games. Even in the Soviet Union clones of the Game & Watch titles popped up, mainly because Nintendo wasn't allowed to sell their products within the USSR's borders. Ironically Nintendo's most popular handheld game Tetris, would be created by the Soviet computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov.

After seeing the success and potential of a console system with interchangeable cartridges, Nintendo developed their first multi-cartridge gaming system in 1983, the 8-bit Famicom (translates to Family computer), which delivered near-arcade quality games with far more power and memory than any previous console on the market. At first the system released in Japan with failing results, but quickly caught on when Miyamoto produced a game taking his popular Mario Bros. into to a new style of multi-level adventure: Super Mario Bros. The game was such a huge success that Nintendo quickly bundled it with the Famicom system, which drove sales of the console as consumers bought it just to play the game.

This also started Nintendo's long history of packaging their most popular games along with their latest game consoles.

Nintendo was seeing a boom in the video game market in Japan, but the US game market was in disastrous shape. As Atari had no way to prevent unlicensed titles from being designed for their system, the Atari 2600, the US market was literally flooded with poor quality games, which caused the entire industry to suffer from a poor reputation. At first Nintendo approached Atari to distribute the Famicom in the US, but bad blood had formed during their competitive years so Nintendo turned to Sears who had originally helped the Atari 2600 establish itself in the market.

With a video game sales slumping and a stockpile of unsellable 2600 units, Sears also passed. By the end of 1983, the US video game market crashed causing most of the major players to go out of business.

Convinced that their system could still make a splash in the US market, Nintendo made preparations to release the Famicom into the US themselves, taking special care to learn from Atari's failures. As US consumers were turned off by the connotation of a video game system, thinking of the low-quality titles previously released, Nintendo renamed the Famicom as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) , and redesigned it to look more like an entertainment center component. To prevent other companies from releasing unauthorized and low quality games, Nintendo developed the 10NES lockout chip that prevented unlicensed games from working on the system. They also devised the "Nintendo Seal of Quality" to indicate authorized and officially licensed games as a mark of quality.

In 1985, Nintendo first test marketed the NES in New York, then expanded to the Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. These initial launches were a success and Nintendo expanded the release nationally across all of the United States. This move immediately reignited the video game market in the United States and instantly established Nintendo as the biggest brand name in the business.