A Look at Nintendo’s Unexpected History

Nintendo has a strange history that overlaps with organised crime, prostitution and other non-gaming pursuits.

Nintendo has been one of the biggest names in the world of video games for decades. Kids of several generations in many countries have grown up playing iconic games such as Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong, Street Fighter, and countless others. What many people don't know is that Nintendo has a long, strange history that overlaps with organised crime, prostitution and other fields that have little to do with gaming. Let's take a look at Nintendo's unique and colourful origins.

 

Nintendo Card Games and the Yakuza Connection

Nintendo has been around for a lot longer than many people realise. When you think of Nintendo, you probably have the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in mind. NES debuted in 1983 and quickly became the world's top gaming console. The company's origins, however, go back a lot further. In fact, they predate not only the video gaming age but even the days of radio and television!

The Nintendo company actually began in 1889 when the Tokyo-based business released a card game called Hanafuda. You can still find these classic card games online, from Nintendo itself, on eBay, and elsewhere. If you're lucky you might even pick up a set at an op shop or garage sale at a bargain price. Moreover, the company continues to manufacture playing cards and there are even tournaments in Japan.

It turns out that the early days of Hanafuda was closely linked with the Yakuza, Japan's notorious crime syndicate. Card games in Japan were heavily regulated (and actually banned for many years) and early Hanafuda parlours were run by Yakuza. While a direct link between Nintendo and Yakuza has never been proven, there's no doubt that the crime organisation helped to spread the card game's popularity.

 

Nintendo: the 50s to the 70s

While Nintendo focused on its playing cards for the first few decades of its existence, in the 1960s it began to branch into other areas. Long before the modern gaming era, the company tried a surprising number of products and services with varying degrees of success:

  • Partnership with Disney - Making a deal with Disney in 1959 helped Nintendo gain wider attention. Nintendo began producing cards with Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The popularity of these cards helped to get Nintendo on the Japanese stock exchanges and poised the company for future successes.
  • Early Games - In the 1960s, the company released a few electronic games including Love Tester and Ultra Machine. In 1973, it came out with Laser Clay Shooting System, an arcade game.
  • Taxi Service - Even while it began to produce games, Nintendo was trying its hand at other ventures, including a taxi company called Daiya. This started off successfully but eventually closed due to problems with labour unions.
  • First Video Games - In 1974, Nintendo began manufacturing Magnavox Odyssey, marking the start of its foray into video games. In 1975, EVR Race became a popular arcade game.
Brief and Failed Attempts

Hiroshi Yamauchi was Nintendo's president from 1949 until 2002, and died in 2013. He was an ambitious and innovative leader who wanted to expand the company in many directions and was never afraid to experiment. While we naturally remember his more successful (and sometimes controversial) endeavours, he also had a number of failed efforts. These include toys (some based on Nintendo's cards and electronic games), vacuum cleaners, and a food company that made instant rice.

Nintendo's Love Hotels

While it was busy producing all kinds of games (and dabbling in the taxi business), Hiroshi Yamauchi also got involved in one of its most controversial ventures, love hotels. These hotels with hourly rates are commonly associated with prostitution and illicit trysts, but they were also used by businessmen, students, and other travellers who were seeking short rests.

Within the context of Asian tradition, love hotels aren't especially controversial. These types of hotels are taken for granted in many Asian countries and continue to be popular in modern Japan. Still, as a company that sells many products used by young children, this is a period in the company's history that Nintendo prefers to forget.

Nintendo Becomes a Video Game Leader

Despite its branching off in so many other directions, Nintendo's primary focus since the 1960s was gaming and entertainment in one form or another. Even a decade before the era of personal computing, arcade and electronic games started to get popular in the 1970s and Nintendo helped to establish this trend. With Magnavox Odyssey, the company's leadership saw the vast potential of video game consoles. However, this was a game that Nintendo didn't invent but merely purchased the rights to.

The company didn't create its own video game console until the early 1980s when it released the popular Game and Watch, and started to dominate the market in 1981 when Donkey Kong was released.

However, Nintendo's future was still not secured. In the early 1980s, Atari was the dominant force in video gaming and Nintendo was lagging far behind. Then, in 1983, while still in its infancy, the entire video game market crashed. The industry had become saturated and companies overestimated the demand for these games. In the long run, however, the crash actually benefited Nintendo, as Atari never really recovered and quickly toppled from its exalted position.

The industry shifted from America to Japan as Nintendo regrouped and released its famous Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, releasing huge hits such as Super Mario Bros. (and later versions such as Super Mario Bros. 2), Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda. On the back of this, Nintendo secured its position as one of the industry leaders in the video gaming industry.

Nintendo's Long and Unique History

Few companies have a history that's as long and varied as Nintendo's. Putting aside excursions into unrelated areas such as taxis and love hotels, there is a certain logic to the company's trajectory.

Under Hiroshi Yamauchi's visionary (if not always perfect) leadership, Nintendo gradually realised that its future was in entertainment. From artistic playing cards to electronic and arcade games to modern video gaming, Nintendo has firmly established its place as one of the most influential entertainment companies of all time.

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