History of Nintendo: 1889 to 1999


Note: I was originally contacted in the fall of 1999 by the All Media Guide, which is owned by the AEC (Alliance Entertainment Corp.) One Stop Group, to write feature articles for its forthcoming online video game magazine. My first and only project was a "History of Nintendo" article—from playing cards to present. Unfortunately, the article never went online because the 'zine never got off the ground. Thankfully, I got paid before the plug was pulled. The article is now presented in its original, unedited form.


All facts, figures, and information contained within this article are accurate as of November 1999. Nothing has been updated since then, however.

l The Introduction

What company has a brand name that almost became generic? What company has a character that is recognized by more children than Mickey Mouse? What company has a name that loosely translates to "heaven blesses hard work"? What company actually was founded in 1889, although its current-day industry only has been around for two decades?


If you answered "Nintendo," you are correct. Founded in 1889 by Fusajiro Yamauchi, the company began by manufacturing "Hanafuda," which is a term for Japanese playing cards. It continued this operation for the first half of the 20th century, slowly expanding and increasing its resources. In 1963, Nintendo Co., Ltd. got into the games business. By the mid-70s, it started researching and developing its entry into the interactive entertainment arena.


In 1979, Nintendo started an operations division for coin-operated video games. In 1980, it started selling the Game & Watch product line and established its American headquarters. In 1981, it developed and distributed the Shigeru Miyamoto-developed Donkey Kong game. In 1983, the Famicom ("Family Computer") was released in Japan, and the American version was released in late 1985. The rest, as they say, is history.

l The Players

Shigeru Miyamoto

General Manager of Nintendo's Entertainment, Analysis, and Development (EAD) group in Japan. Mr. Miyamoto was hired as Nintendo's first staff artist in 1977. He is the brainchild behind Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, and numerous other characters and franchises. Because of his games' commercial and critical successes, Shigeru Miyamoto has been called the "Steven Spielberg of the video game industry."



Hiroshi Yamauchi

President of Nintendo Co., Ltd., the Japanese parent of Nintendo of America. He plans to retire in 2001. Mr. Yamauchi inherited Nintendo from his grandfather and became president in 1950. He transformed Nintendo from a playing card company into the worldwide interactive entertainment leader it is today.



Minoru Arakawa

President and founder of Nintendo of America. He originally had a position with Nintendo in Japan because he married Hiroshi Yamauchi's daughter. He was picked by Mr. Yamauchi to run Nintendo's American subsidiary. He has been responsible for Nintendo's American operations since 1980.



Howard Lincoln

Chairman of Nintendo of America. He is currently scheduled to step down in February 2000. Mr. Lincoln, a former lawyer, became familiar with Nintendo because he worked with the company in a lawsuit brought by MCA, owner of the King Kong property, who said Donkey Kong was infringing upon its copyright. He was hired as Nintendo of America's senior vice president during the case. Mr. Lincoln has worked closely with Mr. Arakawa to introduce Nintendo's major releases since 1985.



Gumpei Yokoi

Former head of Nintendo's R&D 1. He was hired in 1969 in the area of operations and invented Nintendo's first toy, the "Ultrahand." More importantly, Mr. Yokoi was responsible for the most popular video game system of all time, Game Boy. He also designed Game & Watch, the Metroid series, and Virtual Boy. After the failure of Virtual Boy, he left Nintendo to start his own company. On October 4, 1997, Mr. Yokoi tragically died in a car accident.



Chris and Tim Stamper

Brother team that founded Rare. In the mid-80s, they impressed Nintendo of America's Minoru Arakawa with a demo of what they could do. Acquiring a development license led the company to develop over 60 games for the NES. In 1994, Nintendo released the Rare-developed Donkey Kong Country, which became the best-selling 16-bit game of all time. Rare also was the first company that Nintendo ever had taken a fiscal partnership with outside Japan.

l The Characters

Donkey Kong

With a name that means "stupid monkey," one cannot help but to love this ape. Donkey Kong was the first video game designed by Shigeru Miyamoto. He made his first appearance in the arcades in 1981. Unfortunately, Donkey Kong made the mistake of stealing a certain Italian plumber's girlfriend, who was called Pauline originally. Donkey Kong has starred in several games since his inception and has seen many cameo appearances. Some of his major credits include Donkey Kong (NES), Donkey Kong Jr. (NES), Donkey Kong Country (SNES), Donkey Kong (GB), Donkey Kong Land (GB), and Donkey Kong 64 (N64). Some of his cameo appearances include Super Mario Kart (SNES), Mario Kart 64 (N64), Mario Party (N64), Super Smash Bros. (N64), and Mario Golf (N64).




Nintendo-owned HAL Laboratories designed this little cream puff. It first appeared on Game Boy and has a tendency to appear on other Nintendo systems late in their life cycles. Kirby is a cult favorite in Japan, whereas it only has been moderately successful abroad compared to some of Nintendo's other franchises. Some of its games are Kirby's Dreamland (GB), Kirby's Pinball Land (GB), Kirby's Adventure (NES), Kirby's Avalanche (SNES), Kirby Super Star (SNES), and the forthcoming Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (N64). Kirby also had an appearance in Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. (N64).




Zelda may have her name as the headliner, but Link is the real star of the Legend of Zelda series. The boy wonder in green tights has saved Princess Zelda from evil in game after game. Wielding a sword bigger than he, Link represents every boy's dream of exploring unknown worlds and becoming a hero. He has appeared in The Legend of Zelda (NES), Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES), The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES), The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (GB), and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64). Link also got a starring role in Super Smash Bros. (N64) in 1999.




The brother of Mario always has played second fiddle to his bro. When he appeared in Mario Bros. in 1983, he immediately became known as "player two." Seemingly forgotten and always out of the limelight, Luigi was given the ultimate insult when he did not appear in Super Mario 64 (N64), although Yoshi even made a guest appearance. With a much-deserved appearance in Super Smash Bros. (N64) this year, Luigi is trying to step back to the video game forefront. Luigi has appeared in virtually all the same games as his brother, despite his recently diminished role.




Nintendo's mascot can stake claim to being the only fictional character in the world that is recognized by more children than Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. Mario made his debut with Donkey Kong in 1981 when he was known as "Jumpman." With the release of Donkey Kong Jr. in 1982, he was renamed to Mario. He was named after Mario Segall, who was landlord of Nintendo of America's first warehouse. Mario's popularity has enabled Nintendo to spawn him into high-profile licensed products, including several cartoon series and a major motion picture. Mario's appearances are too numerous to list, but his major adventures are Mario Bros. (NES), Super Mario Bros. (NES), Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES), Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES), Super Mario Land (GB), Super Mario Land 2 (GB), Super Mario World (SNES), Super Mario RPG (SNES), and Super Mario 64 (N64). Mario has appeared in many spin-off games, too, including Dr. Mario (NES), Mario Paint (SNES), Super Mario Kart (SNES), Yoshi's Island (SNES), Mario's Tennis (VB), Mario Clash (VB), Mario Kart 64 (N64), Mario Party (N64), and Mario Golf (N64). Furthermore, Mario is the king of cameo appearances, showing his face in over a dozen other games.




Some say this electric mouse represents the apocalypse. If nothing else, it represents the most unbelievable children's phenomenon the world has ever seen. Pikachu, who is one of over 150 monsters in the world of Pokémon, is the driving force behind a video game franchise that has become a $5 billion property worldwide. From T-shirts to toys to stationery to trading cards to board games to cartoons to books to an animated feature film, Pikachu, who is the most popular character, has its likeness plastered onto everything and anything. Pikachu's video game credits include Pokémon (GB), Super Smash Bros. (N64), Pokémon Pinball (GB), Pokémon Snap (N64), and the upcoming Pokémon Stadium (N64).



Princess Peach

She is the lovely damsel who always seems to be in distress. In fact, she is also known as Princess Toadstool. Maybe she changed her name after being kidnapped too much? Whatever the case, it has been up to Mario to rescue the Princess since the Donkey Kong days. She has never had her own starring role, but she has appeared in many games, including Super Mario Bros. (NES), Super Mario World (SNES), Super Mario Kart (SNES), Super Mario 64 (N64), Mario Kart 64 (N64), Mario Party (N64), and Mario Golf (N64).



Princess Zelda

Perhaps the world's most famous video game character that has never had playable leading or supporting roles. Zelda is a complex girl who has destiny written all over her. Yet she always seems to get into trouble because of her potential. Just like Mario saves Peach every adventure, it is up to Link to save Zelda. Zelda's credits include every game in the Zelda series.



Samus Aran

This intergalactic bounty hunter is most famous because he is really a she. Most game players assumed that the muscle behind the space armor was a hero -- that is, until they finished the original Metroid to see the flowing long hair come out of the helmet. The Metroid series is an enigma, however. The Gumpei Yokoi-designed game was never popular in Japan. On the other hand, it has reached cult status overseas. Ms. Aran has appeared in the following games: Metroid (NES), Metroid II: Return of Samus (GB), Super Metroid (SNES), and Super Smash Bros. (N64).




Take the "M" in Mario, turn it upside down, and you will get the "evil" version of Mario known as Wario. Wario made his debut in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (GB). His main job is to cause mischief and mayhem in Mario's world, but players have found that he is not always such a bad guy. Wario's credits include Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (GB), Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land (GB), Wario Land (VB), Mario Kart 64 (N64), Mario Party (N64), and Mario Golf (N64).




The lovable, sexless dinosaur with the frog-like tongue made its debut in 1991 in Super Mario World (SNES). Yoshi has become quite the spin-off character since that time, appearing in numerous games. Yoshi's credits include Super Mario World (SNES), Yoshi (NES, GB), Yoshi's Cookie (NES, GB, SNES), Super Mario Kart (SNES), Yoshi's Safari (SNES), Yoshi's Island (SNES), Mario Kart 64 (N64), Yoshi's Story (N64), Mario Party (N64), Super Smash Bros. (N64), and Mario Golf (N64).

l The Systems

Game & Watch

Image of Game & Watch System


The Game & Watch product line was developed internally by Nintendo's legendary Gumpei Yokoi. The Game & Watch series was launched in April 1980 and was discontinued in September 1991. Game & Watch is a simple device that not only had a game but also had a fully functional clock and alarm running on a LCD screen. Many different models were created throughout the years, including Silver Series, Gold Series, Wide Screen, Multi Screen, New Wide Screen, Tabletop, Panorama, Super Color, Crystal Screen, and Micro Vs. In all, there were 59 Game & Watch games released. Game & Watch has experienced a resurgence recently thanks to Game & Watch Gallery's release on Game Boy.

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

Image of Nintendo System


Known as "Famicom" (Family Computer) in Japan, Nintendo's first console made its debut in 1983 in Japan and in 1985 in the U.S. It sold 500,000 copies in its first two months in Japan. For its American debut, Nintendo desperately tried to get a partner for the system's release and had trouble convincing retailers to carry the product after the "great video game crash" of 1984. In fact, it even tried to get Atari to help market the system. Instead, Nintendo opted to go it alone.


After a successful late 1985 test-market debut in New York, with about 90,000 units sold, the NES enjoyed a nationwide launch in 1986. The company hired Worlds of Wonder (maker of Teddy Ruxpin and Laser Tag) to help market the product. The system debuted in two varieties: One, a $249 bundle with R.O.B., the light gun, and three games (Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and Gyromite). Two, a $199 bundle with Super Mario Bros. Super Mario Bros. went on to sell over 40 million copies worldwide.


In 1986, two competitors entered the market. Sega released its Master System and Atari released its 7800. By the end of the year, Nintendo emerged as the clear market leader, outselling its competition by a ten-to-one ratio. In 1987, the NES had become the number one toy in America. The company also released The Legend of Zelda, which became the first new generation home video game to sell over one million units.


By the time 1988 arrived, Nintendo had steamrollered the competition. There were more than three million NES systems in American homes. Companies such as Atari took Nintendo to court, claiming that Nintendo had a monopoly on the market. The NES game library grew to over 60 titles, and Nintendo owned 85% of the video game market worldwide.


The exponential growth continued. In 1989 alone, Nintendo sold over 9 million systems and 50 million pieces of software. In 1990, Nintendo sold another 7.5 million systems and another 70 million games. Nintendo had successfully placed the NES in over 25% of American homes. The climax of the system's life cycle also occurred in 1990 when Super Mario Bros. 3 was released, becoming the best-selling, non-pack-in game of all time. It was 1991 when the NES started its decline stage. Only 2.7 million systems were sold this year.


The NES used to be the most popular video game system of all time—that is, until Game Boy eclipsed it. Estimates place the NES at over 70 million units sold worldwide. Surprisingly, Nintendo continued to support the NES sporadically until 1994. Now the NES is considered the spark that revitalized an entire industry.

Game Boy (GB)

Image of Game Boy System


Despite competition from color handhelds for years, Gumpei Yokoi's Game Boy has withstood the test of time and has morphed into the most popular video game system ever. Originally released in 1989 at a price of $149.95, Game Boy enjoyed immediate success despite its black and white screen handicap. Much of Game Boy's early success is attributed to one game: Tetris. Super Mario Land, along with a handful of other games, also was released and went on to become the best-selling, non-pack-in Game Boy game of all time, with over 14 million copies sold.


After years of continued growth and success, with multi-million unit sales each year, Nintendo released the Super Game Boy accessory in 1994 that enabled gamers to play Game Boy games on the Super NES. With Game Boy interest waning, Nintendo tried to renew interest in its handheld. First, in 1995, it introduced the "Play It Loud!" series of colored Game Boy systems. Then in 1996, Nintendo introduced Game Boy Pocket, a smaller version of the original unit. Sales improved but eventually tailed off.


In 1998, however, Game Boy experienced a renaissance in the word's very definition. Starting with the summer introduction of Game Boy Camera and Printer, Nintendo brought new life to interactive entertainment's longest-running system. Finally, in November of 1998, Nintendo released what the world had been asking for years: a Game Boy with a color screen. In addition, Pokémon became the killer application for the next generation of Game Boy players.


To date, Nintendo has sold over 80 million of the various Game Boy units worldwide. Game Boy Color sold over two million units in its first six months on the U.S. market. And Game Boy shows no signs of slowing down.

Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)

Image of Super Nintendo System


A year after Nintendo's 8-bit NES peaked, the 16-bit Super NES was released into the American market. Called "Super Famicom" for its Japanese release in 1990, the Super Nintendo hit the U.S. shelves in late August of 1991. It had a retail price of $249.95 and came with two controllers and Super Mario World. Arriving almost two years later than Sega's 16-bit Genesis, analysts are stunned when the Super NES does not dominate the Genesis. Nevertheless, the SNES is a success.


Just as Sega and Sonic the Hedgehog started to pull ahead, Nintendo scored a major coup in 1992 and got a one-year exclusive agreement with Capcom to bring the most popular arcade game in a decade, Street Fighter II, to the Super NES. In addition, high-profiles games such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario Kart were released. This shifted momentum to Nintendo's side. Nintendo also released the Super Scope and Mouse accessories this year.


Unfortunately, 1993 was a down year for Nintendo. The company did release Star Fox, which was based on the breakthrough Super FX chip. On the other hand, Nintendo did not have many blockbuster hits and was lambasted by the gaming public and press for forcing Mortal Kombat to be censored. Sega strengthened its hold on the 16-bit market.


Nintendo was out to regain its market share in 1994. First, Super Metroid was released to rabid fans everywhere. Then Nintendo shocked the world by allowing Mortal Kombat II to arrive on the Super NES uncensored. Finally, it surprised everyone with Donkey Kong Country, a game that had the looks to compete with Nintendo's new technological threats. With the runaway success of Donkey Kong Country, Nintendo was able to take the 16-bit lead back from Sega.


From 1995 through 1997, the Super Nintendo's popularity slowly declined. The company tried to release some blockbusters each year—most of which were based on the ACM graphics technology first used by Donkey Kong Country. The system reached its peak in 1994, though. The Genesis/Super Nintendo war is considered legendary, but the Super NES emerged as the winner, if only because Nintendo supported the 16-bit generation longer than Sega. In the end, nearly 50 million SNES units were sold worldwide.

Virtual Boy (VB)

Image of Virtual Boy System


As the old adage goes, everyone makes mistakes. The Virtual Boy was Nintendo's mistake. Released in 1995 in both Japan and the U.S., at a price of $179.95, this "virtual immersion" system was met with lukewarm critical and retail receptions from the beginning. Designed by Gumpei Yokoi, creator of Game Boy, the Virtual Boy utilized two screens, one for each eye, in order to provide its user a stereoscopic view. Additionally, the system had an annoying quirk in that all images were red on a black background.


Because it had trouble finding its niche in the market and was too cumbersome to be considered portable, the Virtual Boy failed miserably. Less than two years after its release, every major video game retailer in America discounted the Virtual Boy. That does not even say anything for the massive discounting that took place in Japan. Nintendo took huge loses on the system, as the unit could be found for $25 and games could be found for $10 each.


No one is quite sure how many Virtual Boy units were or were not sold. All that has been said is that the system fell far below Nintendo's sales expectations.

Nintendo 64 (N64)

Image of Nintendo 64 System

It was once said that never before has a system been so loved, so hated, so hyped, or so misunderstood. Three years after its debut, Nintendo 64 aptly fits that description. Nintendo's most uncertain system launch in history played out much like a soap opera.


Long before N64 hit the market, the system was clouded with criticism and confusion. Announced only two years after the Super NES was released, "Project Reality," as it was called then, promised Jurassic Park-like graphics. Years later it did not quite live up to that promise. Also, in May 1994, Nintendo announced that its new system would be cartridge-based rather than CD-based like Sega and Sony's forthcoming systems. This brought much criticism from the video game industry.


A little over a month later, Nintendo announced the first official name for its system, Nintendo Ultra 64. Throughout the rest of 1994 and into 1995, Nintendo periodically made announcements concerning its much-hyped, but eventual lackluster, "Dream Team." Then, in May 1995, Nintendo announced the American release of its 64-bit system would be delayed from fall 1995 to April 1996.


After more hype and more announcements throughout '95, Nintendo dropped the ball again on February 1, 1996. Nintendo ran a full-page advertisement in USA Today that stated, "On September 30th, Dinosaurs Will Fly!" The announcement was another major delay for the system, but Nintendo also changed the American name from "Nintendo Ultra 64" to "Nintendo 64" on this day. A final announcement pertaining to the system was made on August 19, 1996. Nintendo announced that the system would be available on Sunday, September 29th, instead of Monday. But, more importantly, Nintendo lowered the system's retail price from $249.95 to $199.95 before it even came out.


After all the trials and tribulations, N64 was finally released in Japan on June 23, 1996 and in the U.S. on September 26, 1996—yes, a few days early. Nintendo sold 300,000 units the first day in Japan and 350,000 units the first weekend in the U.S. To say N64 was a success in America is an understatement. (Its fortune in Japan is another story that will not be discussed here.) N64 was nearly as sought after and popular as Tickle Me Elmo. In fact, a record-breaking 1.6 million systems were sold to consumers by Christmas. Furthermore, six of the ten best-selling video games of 1996 were on N64.


In 1997, Nintendo experienced a downturn. Marred by few and far between releases, not to mention delays to big-name games, N64 started to fall far behind Sony PlayStation in the systems race. Although GoldenEye 007 was released this year, most of its success, oddly enough, came in 1998. That left Mario Kart 64 and Diddy Kong Racing as the big titles for '97.


It was a much better year in 1998 for Nintendo. With the ever-lasting popularity of GoldenEye 007, along with the eventual release of several key titles, Nintendo improved its position in the market. Finally, in November 1998, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which was the most anticipated video game in history. It broke all records—both for presales before and for quantity sold after the game came out. Despite all this, Nintendo hardly closed the gap on Sony. Nevertheless, Nintendo enjoyed much success in a booming industry.


It is now 1999. The year is almost over as you read this. Nintendo has parlayed its success in the prior year with quality releases throughout this year. It also has a big ape waiting in the wings. Time will tell how well N64 does in 1999, which is expected to be its peak year. But as of April 1999, Nintendo has sold almost 25 million N64 units worldwide. Not too shabby, but obviously hurting in the areas of the world other than the U.S. Game-wise, on a worldwide basis, about 9 million copies of Super Mario 64, about 7 million copies of GoldenEye 007, and about 6 million copies of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time have been sold.

l The Developers

Nintendo Japan

Development of most of Nintendo's blockbusters has taken place at its in-house Japanese development teams. Some of the games and series developed internally include Mario, Zelda, F-Zero, Metroid, Star Fox, and Mario Kart, along with many other games and spin-off titles. Although Shigeru Miyamoto gets most of the credit for the games, there are many hundreds of other people at NCL (Nintendo Co., Ltd.) that have helped make these the world's greatest video games.




Nintendo of America

Before 1998, Nintendo of America did not have an internal game development team. Now it has the Nintendo Software Technology group, which will have its first games ready for 2000. In the past, Nintendo had other companies, known as second-party licensees, develop the games for release under the Nintendo banner. Some of NOA's best-known games that did not originate from Japan are R.C. Pro-Am (NES), NCAA Basketball (SNES), Killer Instinct (arcade), Donkey Kong Country (SNES), GoldenEye 007 (N64), and the various Griffey baseball games.




Rare and Nintendo have had a special relationship from the beginning. After impressing Nintendo with its NES demos, Rare embarked on a journey from releasing as many games as it could to focusing its efforts on high-quality titles that utilize the latest technology. Some say Rare saved Nintendo not once but twice: First with Donkey Kong Country on the Super NES and then with GoldenEye 007 on the N64. Today, Nintendo and Rare enjoy an exclusive, fruitful relationship.




Acclaim always has been an ally in Nintendo's corner. In fact, it was Nintendo's first American licensee and was the largest third-party publisher during the 8-bit NES days. And then it subsequently almost went bankrupt near the end of the 16-bit era. Now it is again one of Nintendo's largest and most important third-party licensees for the N64. Once a publisher of games based on licenses, Acclaim now has its own internal development teams and makes more original software than licensed. Its teams are based in Austin, Texas (formerly Iguana Entertainment); Salt Lake City, Utah (formerly Sculptured Software); London, England (formerly Probe Entertainment); Teeside, England (formerly Iguana UK); and Stroud, England (a new development team). Every gamer probably has an Acclaim title in his or her game library, whether it is Wizards & Warriors (NES), NBA Jam (SNES), Mortal Kombat (SNES), Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (N64), or any other of Acclaim's dozens and dozens of releases.




A long, long time ago Square and Nintendo were inseparable. Square, maker of role-playing games (RPGs), which is the most popular video game genre in Japan, would support Nintendo's systems so long as Nintendo had the installed user base and the right technology. Square released the first game in its heralded Final Fantasy series in 1987 in Japan. Square subsequently supported the NES and Super NES with more Final Fantasy games and the occasional other product. Something strange happened in 1996, however: Square decided to develop its next-generation Final Fantasy title for Sony's PlayStation instead of Nintendo 64 because the PlayStation was CD-based. Just as Square was instrumental in ensuring the overwhelming success of Nintendo's NES and SNES systems in Japan, it was also a big reason why PlayStation dominated the 32/64-bit generation. Recent reports, however, suggest that Square may come back to Nintendo since its 128-bit system will be DVD-based.




Enix's story is much like Square's. The company had an RPG, Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest in Japan), that was extremely popular in the Japanese market. Just as Square, Enix released numerous Dragon Warrior and RPG products for Nintendo's 8- and 16-bit systems. Rather than abandoning the N64 completely, Enix decided to release two games early in the system's life. Unfortunately, they both failed miserably, and Enix since has focused all of its development efforts on the PlayStation. Unlike Square, though, Enix continues to support Nintendo's Game Boy.




Once a third-party licensee, HAL is now a development house that makes games exclusively for Nintendo. Best known for its Kirby series of games, HAL also previously developed golf games for Nintendo's systems and is currently known for two of 1999's best-selling titles, Super Smash Bros. and Pokémon Snap.

l The End

I hope you found this essay of Nintendo's history fascinating, enjoyable, and insightful. For a much more thorough investigation into the Nintendo empire, read Game Over by David Sheff and Andy Eddy. It's a superb book.