Nintendo is the world’s oldest and most famous video games developer. The company was founded in 1889 and has always been in the business of entertainment. It’s the birth place of great franchises such as Super Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, and Pokemon, as well as popular consoles like the NES, Game Boy, Nintendo 64 and Nintendo DS. Nintendo continues to innovate and push the boundaries of video gaming with its Wii console, which features a friendly, freehand controller.
Nintendo began life in 1889 as a Hanafuda playing card company under the management of founder Fusajiro Yamauchi. The company would stay a family business until 2002. Hanafuda was a gambling card game in Japan, and as it gained in popularity, Nintendo grew to meet demand. The company was passed down through the family until 1949, when Hiroshi Yamauchi took charge. Nintendo’s longest-standing president would expand the company greatly in coming years, striking deals with Disney to let Nintendo produce branded cards for the Japanese market, and testing the waters in strange industries like controversial “love hotels”.
It was in the mid-70’s that a young Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Metroid franchise, began to invent quirky new games for Nintendo, such as the Ultra Hand, and a love testing machine. One of Yokoi’s biggest successes was a shooting range using light gun technology - though, hours before its grand unveiling, Yokoi recognised a fault in the system. Under orders from Yamauchi, Yokoi manually destroyed targets behind the scenes. No-one realised and the (working) shooting ranges went on to be a smash attraction in Japanese arcades.
In 1977, Nintendo released dedicated consoles called Color TV Game. They contained variations of a single, simple game (such as Pong and Breakout), and plugged directly into a television. As the systems evolved, and controllers were introduced, the Color TV Game consoles became the forerunners of the Nintendo Entertainment System.
The Game & Watch series was created by Yokoi in 1980; each one was a portable gaming system with a simple LCD game pre-programmed. The designs varied between games, though the dual-screened version of some undoubtedly provided inspiration for Nintendo DS, while the idea of a simple, portable console opened a market for Nintendo’s Game Boy console. These consoles became Nintendo’s first popular export, opening the way for its arcade plans.
Worldwide smash-hit Donkey Kong was released in 1981, and was created by both Yokoi and a young Shigeru Miyamoto. The game’s legacy was greater than anyone expected - the little man in dungarees (known then only as Jumpman) would evolve into the Mario we all know and love today - a career kicked off by Miyamoto’s next arcade hit “Mario Bros.” in 1983.
These early forays into the fledgling video game industry proved successful, but it was in 1984 that Nintendo became the world’s biggest gaming brand with its Nintendo Entertainment System.
In the summer of 1984, Nintendo released the Famicom, the Japanese version of the NES. The system was a cartridge-based system that showcased revolutionary new ideas, like the R.O.B robot, a light gun for home consoles, and the Power Glove which later provided the inspiration for the Wii controller.
Nintendo was characterised as authoritarian in regards to licensing third-party publishers, a reputation it didn’t shake until Yamauchi stepped down during the launch of the GameCube. It locked unlicensed developers out of its console, charged licensed developers a great proportion of a game’s retail value, and limited them to publishing five games a year. This didn’t stop consumer demand, as Nintendo promised quality over quantity, bringing us classics like Super Mario Bros., Metroid and The Legend of Zelda.
It was in 1989 that Nintendo released its most popular console of all time, the Game Boy. Along with the behemoth titles Tetris and Super Mario Land, the Game Boy Classic destroyed its high-spec competitors using its greatest weapons - value and battery power, a technique that carried every subsequent Nintendo handheld through the portable console wars as victor. Over its lifetime, the Game Boy series would spawn upgrades and “sequels”, like the Pocket, the Color, and the Advance consoles, and together they would sell over 200 million units.
The success of the Nintendo Entertainment System cemented the release of its follow-up, the imaginatively titled Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Released in Japan in 1990, America in 1991, and Europe in 1992, the SNES would have to compete in the first real console war.
A year prior the Japanese release of the SNES, a company named Sega released a console named the Mega Drive, aimed at an older audience than the colourful, cuddly Nintendo console. With a cooler mascot and a playful smear campaign, Sega won the console war in America and Europe with games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, Ecco the Dolphin, and Golden Axe, original franchises next to Nintendo’s lineup of sequels like Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid.
Worldwide, Nintendo’s charm, and original IP like Pilotwings, F-Zero and Super Mario Kart saved the day and thanks to the Japanese market, they ended up number 1. But, not everything they touched turned to gold; in 1995 they released the biggest failure their gaming history, the Virtual Boy. Created by best in class Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo had high hopes for what was, in reality, an unwieldy, underpowered, mistargeted and even dangerous system.
A pair of goggles that rested on a flimsy stand, the Virtual Boy was to recreate 3D worlds in redscale, but the awkward posture inflicted by the stand and the flickering of the display caused Nintendo to print health warnings on the box. The console was discontinued after a year because of poor sales and poor software support.
If the Super Nintendo had been an evolution, Nintendo 64 was a revolution. The console innovated in so many areas, and pushed so many control enhancements that are standard today. Unfortunately, by the time to console was released, Sony’s PlayStation had picked up so much momentum that the N64 never caught up in terms of sales. It did, however, produce some of the greatest games of all time, and it created a new standard for multiplayer gaming.
The controller introduced the world to two new devices; the rumble pak and the analogue stick. To highlight the cinematic effects of rumble, we received the classics Goldeneye 007 and Lylat Wars, while the console launched with a game widely considered as the greatest 3D platformer of all time - Super Mario 64. It introduced gamers to a revolutionary new degree of control that bought people closer to the action than ever before. The console also included four control ports for legendary four-player action in games like Mario Kart 64 and Super Smash Bros.
However, the Nintendo 64 also saw Nintendo slip further away from the position of leader in the home console wars, an issue confounded by the arrogant bitterness of Yamauchi after Square moved development of future epic Final Fantasy VII to CD-based PlayStation, despite the runaway success of its prequel on Super Nintendo.
This period also marked success for Nintendo with the release of the Game Boy Pocket in 1996, a slimmer, sleeker, bigger-screened successor to the brick Game Boy of yore. Then, in 1998 Nintendo scored another homerun with the Game Boy Color, a system that introduced the long-requested colour screen into the Game Boy range, with minimal hit on battery life (thanks in large part to the lack of a backlight). Even though it wasn’t programmed specifically for the Color, the release of Pokemon gave the console the momentum that the old line had lost over the years.
The release of the GameCube and Game Boy Advance saw Nintendo regain a little of the focus lost during the days of the Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color, but it also saw them lose a different bit of that focus, too. On one hand, Nintendo made both GameCube and GBA cooler than their predecessors; the GameCube was launched with edgy marketing and the Advance lost the kiddy image of the Color. At the same time, the GBA suffered from SNES-era, bright, simplistic graphics, and the GameCube suffered from a kiddy-handle, a Fisher-Price controller and a purple case, thanks to Nintendo’s mantra of making products that look fun to hold.
The GameCube also suffered from unfinished games. Launch title Luigi’s Mansion was a gimmick stretched as far as possible, Super Mario Sunshine was a buggy mess, and The Wind Waker was the shortest, easiest, laziest Zelda game yet. The GameCube produced few sequels better than their Nintendo 64 counterparts, with F-Zero GX and Super Smash Bros. Melee the only games that managed to better what some would consider perfection. It did spawn a couple of new, lovable franchises in the form of Animal Crossing and Pikmin, but overall the console suffered from quantity over quality.
The Game Boy Advance was little better. While fantastic, original games were released for it, like The Minish Cap, DK King of Swing, Advance Wars and Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga, the console was plagued by remakes, like the Super Mario Advance series, Metriod Zero Mission, and A Link to the Past. The original hardware was patently defective - without the light of a thousand suns sat over your shoulder, it was nearly impossible to see the screen. In 2003, the clamshell Advance SP was released which included a front-lit display and an essential rechargeable battery.
In 2002 Hiroshi Yamauchi handed presidency to HAL’s Satoru Iwata, a change which many attribute Nintendo’s later personality swap to.
In 2004, we learned that Nintendo was ready to kick ass and take names. The future president of Nintendo of America Reggie Fils-Aime told the audience of E3 2004 that Nintendo know what’s wrong, know what they want, and know how to get it. Inside Nintendo, there was a growing urge to break games out of their stereotypical “lone boy in dark room” niche, and into the mainstream. The solution proposed by Nintendo was 2004’s Nintendo DS and 2006’s Wii consoles.
The Nintendo DS was intended as a third pillar to the Game Boy Advance and GameCube, but in Japan at least, the DS has all but buried the GBA. Worldwide, the pure innovation in its games has sold DS to people who don’t traditionally play video games. Titles like Brain Age, Big Brain Academy, Nintendogs and Wario Ware have made games truly accessible, truly pick up and play. The console has also hosted updates to old classics like Tetris, Zelda, Animal Crossing and Super Mario, and enabled a new audience to enjoy those, too.
While Nintendo had long held back from the online gaming sphere, with Nintendo DS they introduced Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, a service that lets gamers frag each other, Tetris each other, and blue shell each other for free. Implementation isn’t fantastic; each game has a different Friend Code and Friends List, meaning keeping track of and adding friends is a real pain. With Wii, Nintendo are changing aspects of this system, for instance introducing a universal friends code that applies strictly to your console, rather than your console+game combo. It also uses a service called WiiConnect24 that enables Nintendo to silently push content to your console while it is switched off.
The Wii itself is a home console version of the Nintendo DS mantra, which opens up a whole load of possibilities. Games like Wario Ware Smooth Moves and Wii Sports demonstrate the accessibility and versatility of the new controller, while games like Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3 use the nunchuck attachment to create experiences fit for hardcore gamers. The controller can be used to directly manipulate events on the screen, meaning a non-gamer will have a much easier time of playing games for the first time. Also, breaking away from the traditional paradigm of a control pad means new applications like WiiFitness can be created.