Success Is in the Cards
1889 is a very important year in videogame history. Yes, that’s 1889. It is this year when Fusajiro Yamauchi founds Nintendo (任天堂) Koppai in Kyoto, Japan. To attempt a translation of the name: nin(任) translates to “entrust to” or “heavy responsibility”, ten(天) equates to “heaven”, and dou(堂) translates to meaning a shrine or other such building or hall of importance. Put together, it roughly translates to a statement that while they will work hard, this is a company whose fortunes are to be left to the mercies of heaven.
The company’s products are carefully hand-crafted hanafuda playing cards, made from the bark of mulberry trees. Hanafuda means “flower cards”, named for the depiction of flowers found on many of them, which changes depending on the region they’re sold in. Hanafuda games constitute a popular pastime in Japan, and Yamauchi’s cards are adopted by the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia, as their cards of choice when gambling. Their penchant for fresh cards every hand keeps demand high. After expanding into Western style playing cards in 1907, the company becomes the largest playing card manufacturer in Japan. In 1933 they become Yamauchi Nintendo & Company, and then under the auspices of third president, Hiroshi Yamauchi becomes Nintendo Playing Cards in 1951. A company breakthrough comes in 1959 with a contract with Walt Disney Co. to produce cards featuring Disney cartoon characters, with the series going on to sell 600,000 packs that year.
Heading into the 60’s, Yamauchi renames the company again, to Nintendo Co, Ltd., signaling his desire to expand the company’s focus from simply being a producer of playing cards. Along with numerous diversions such as a taxi company and a chain of “love” hotels that rent rooms by the hour, Yamauchi creates a division within the company that will drive it in a new direction. Headed by accounting manager Hiroshi Imanishi, the department has a simple name that belies what Yamauchi feels is the future of Nintendo: Games. Yamauchi will soon find exactly the right man to help lead this department and drive the modernization of the company, right under his nose.
The Toy Man
Gunpei Yokoi is hired as an electrical engineer at Nintendo in 1965, to maintain the electrical equipment that keeps Nintendo’s playing card production machines running. A known tinkerer of home-made devices and gadgets, Yokoi uses company tools and material in order to craft playful toy distractions on the side. Yamauchi, touring the factory floor one day, spots one of Yokoi’s creations. It is a mechanical arm made from wooden lattice, which stretches out several times its length when the handles on one end are pushed together, along with grippers at the other end that close, allowing the user to grab things from a distance.
This penchant for utilizing older technology in new ways instead of always chasing the latest thing forms the core of Yokoi’s design philosophy. It is an attitude that eventually filters down into the very marrow of Nintendo, where developed technology often shows up in practical use even 20 years after the fact.
The maintenance man is told to bring both the toy arm and himself to the Chairman’s office. Rather than the reprimand, Yokoi is expecting, he is instead told to refine his toy into a product the company can sell. When the device is released to market as the Ultra Hand in 1967, the toy is a big hit, selling 1.4 million units. Yokoi is quickly kicked upstairs by Yamauchi and put under the auspices of Imanishi as the lead in a new engineering department within Games. Yokoi’s division constitutes the first research and development (R&D) department within Nintendo. A number of these R&D teams would eventually be created, each with a different head and each competing to win the approval of Yamauchi and have their ideas moved into production. Yokoi’s original department is tasked to develop new, exciting entertainment products for the Japanese market. A line of other Ultra toys made by Gunpei follows, including an indoor pitching machine using light plastic baseballs called Ultra Machine, as well as the toy periscope Ultra Scope. The R&D team also produces the Love Tester in 1968, Nintendo’s first foray into the use of electronics, where two people would each hold a sensor attached to a small handheld meter, and then hold hands to complete the circuit. The meter would then display their “love score”. This unusual device is a big hit in Japan, most likely due to being purchased as a reason for young men and women to hold hands in a culture where this is still a risque thing to do.
Lighting it Up
After meeting a representative from Sharp named Masayuki Uemura who is trying to interest Nintendo in finding uses for Sharp’s solar-cell technology, Yokoi develops a series of light-gun games called Kousenjuu or Ray Gun SP, selling in stores beginning in 1970. These consist of toy pistols or rifles that project a beam of light, which when aimed correctly, would be registered by Sharp solar cells inside various targets that react by falling apart or lighting up. Gunpei lures Uemura over to Nintendo in 1971, where he eventually heads up the second Nintendo research and development department, R&D2. The Ray Gun series of toys eventually morph into a large scale version, developed in 1973 and installed in former bowling alleys left empty after the 60’s bowling craze in Japan had passed. Against a wide mural of a painted wilderness, the Laser Clay Shooting System has people paying to take shots at clay targets projected on the wall with another version of Yokoi’s light rifle. The venture is another big hit for Nintendo, that is until the OPEC-driven oil crisis starting in 1973 causes a wave of belt-tightening in Japan, resulting in a rash of canceled contracts. Having expanded into multiple locations costing ¥4 to ¥4.5 million per set-up, Nintendo ends up saddled with billions of yen in debt. Only their placement on the Japanese stock market and the continuing confidence of shareholders keep the company out of bankruptcy.
To further help keep the company afloat, the technology of the Laser Clay Shooting System is shrunk down for use as a coin-operated arcade machine. In 1974’s Wild Gunman, players stand at a console and strap on a holster holding a mock pistol that is tethered by a cable. Installed unseen under the console are two video projectors pointed at a screen inside an enclosure. Would-be gunslingers watch desperadoes on the screen, previously recorded on 16mm film, and when they see a flash they have to draw and shoot faster than their opponent. If they succeed, the other projector kicks in and shows the enemy shot and killed. If they miss, it’s a lost life for them. Gunman is eventually followed by other projection games such as Sky Hawk (1976) and Test Driver (1978).
Another coin-op game of this era is EVR Race, designed by Genyo Takeda. Players gather around the machine and place bets on the outcome of either a horse or car race, depending on how the game is set up. Once all the bets are made, a video of the race is played on a TV screen. The EVR in the title refers to Electronic Video Recording, an early version of video tape, that is stored in round cartridges. Because of this new video technology, EVR Race, released in 1975, could be considered the first video game ever made by Nintendo. Its temperamental nature, however, keeps it from becoming a success for the company.
Getting Shiggy With It
Starting in 1977, Nintendo produces a line of home video game consoles featuring built-in games inspired by Atari’s PONG, called Color TV-Game. The series starts with Color TV-Game 6 and 15 that year, followed by Color TV-Game Racing 112 in 1978. Designing the outer casing of this racing game is the first project for junior employee Shigeru Miyamoto. Holding a B.A. in Industrial Design from Kanazawa Municipal College of Arts and Crafts, he is hired by the company in 1977 and assigned to the Planning Department. The final entry in the series is Color TV-Game Block Kusure (Breaker) in 1979. This game, a knock-off of Atari’s arcade game hit Breakout, also has its case designed by Miyamoto.
Nintendo also moves into the arcade video game arena around this time, with such entries as Computer Othello in 1978, commonly regarded as Nintendo’s first true arcade video game. Block Fever, a version of Color TV Game Block Kusure in coin-op form, is also released this year. Programming for this game is done by Ikegami Tsushinki Co., Ltd. While Ikegami is more well known as a pioneer in the development of portable video cameras, they also do subcontract work as arcade game programmers for various companies, including Nintendo and Sega. Other games programmed for Nintendo by Ikegami include Space Fever and Helifire, as well as Space Firebird, for which Miyamoto designs the in-game sprites. 1979’s Radar Scope, another Ikegami programmed game, is a knock-off of competitor Taito’s Galaxian, an interesting but derivative take on the new genre. Miyamoto works on the panel artwork for Radar Scope‘s cabinet, but the game’s immense popularity in Japan is fading by the time it hits America’s shores in 1980, leaving thousands of circuit boards for the game sitting around unused. The failure of the game also leaves already floundering U.S. subsidiary Nintendo of America desperate for the mother corporation to send along a new, hit game. Miyamoto is tasked by company president Yamauchi to design a video game into which unsold Radar Scope boards and cabinets can be converted. With the dire situation faced by NoA in his mind, Yamauchi instructs seasoned Nintendo veteran Gunpei Yokoi to oversee the younger designer’s work.
The game is first planned to use characters from Popeye the Sailor, with Nintendo negotiating with King Features for the rights. The hope is that a bright, cartoony feel will separate the game from the current rash of Space Invaders-type shooting games. Miyamoto and Yokoi begin formulating the idea of having Popeye appear at the bottom of the screen, separated from his love Olive Oyl by his eternal nemesis, Bluto, placed at the top. Yokoi determines the setting; the idea for the action taking place on the frame of a partially constructed building comes from his memories of a Popeye the Sailor cartoon, made in 1934. In the animated short A Dream Walking, Olive Oyl is sleepwalking and wanders aimlessly through a construction site, where hanging girders appear just in time to keep her from falling. Within this framework, Popeye could have a wide variety of obstacles put in his way that he would have to avoid in order to reunite with his kidnapped girlfriend.
The negotiations for the Popeye licensing agreement eventually stall, so Miyamoto must head back to the drawing board to create original characters. The impetus for a new game idea Miyamoto has is the classic story of Beauty and the Beast, as well as the movie King Kong. He starts with a drawing of a rotund little man, dressed in blue overalls and a red shirt to emphasize his moving arms as he is running, as well as to match the venue of a construction site. A bulbous nose and bushy mustache are added, mainly to avoid having to detail any facial features. The character’s informal name moves through several permutations, including Mr. Video, Ossan (slightly derogatory Japanese slang for a middle-aged man, the equivalent of “Pops” in English), and simply Jumpman. The game he designs around the character is Donkey Kong, which has Shigeru’s Jumpman running to and fro across four different screens of metal girders comprising a high-rise construction site, avoiding various obstacles by climbing up and down ladders. Oil drums are first considered as the objects to avoid, but this is later changed to barrels, the rolling animation of which is easier to draw. The oil drum art is later relegated to a static object from which fireballs erupt and chase the player, keeping them on an ever-higher trajectory as they make their way up the structure in a bid to save damsel-in-distress Pauline from the clutches of the evil gorilla Donkey Kong. When it is determined that having to climb ladders every time a player wants to avoid something is a bit bothersome, the two designers add a jump button to give another option. This action also motivates Miyamoto to add a red cap to the character, hiding the fact that due to limited memory resources, his hairs cannot be animated when jumping.
The big ape’s last name is taken from Shigeru’s movie inspiration, with the first name evolving from the marketed title for the game in Japan: Krazy Kong. Since the Japanese ideogram for crazy can also mean ‘horse’, ‘ass’ or ‘donkey’, so does the translation of the game to English become Donkey Kong.
Working alongside Miyamoto, the hardware is put together by Yokoi. Programming is handled by subcontractor Ikegami Tsushinki, Co., Ltd.. In an arcade market that consists almost solely of space-based shoot-em-ups, Donkey Kong is greeted with a response from the employees of Nintendo of America ranging from apathy to downright hostility. Head-honcho Yamauchi, however, insists that Donkey Kong will be the game to beat in America, and so the remaining 2000 units of Radar Scope sitting unsold in the NOA warehouse are converted to the new, strangely-named game.
Let There Be Mario
Donkey Kong becomes the biggest selling arcade game of 1981, selling 65,000 units in North America alone and steals the thunder of Pac-Man himself. Nintendo of America gives Jumpman his new moniker. The name is taken from Mario Segale, who rents warehouse space to the Seattle company and makes an impression one day when he comes around to demand a late payment. Donkey Kong gives birth to videogamedom’s next merchandising blitz, with Mario and company hawking every type of cheesy tie-in product imaginable.
Two direct arcade sequels follow, starting with 1982’s Donkey Kong Jr. An abrupt role-reversal occurs here with Mario as the evil kidnapper, holding poor monkey Kong in a cage, his only hope being the plucky young Junior Kong. When Nintendo lifts assets from the code for the original Donkey Kong for this sequel, original programmers Ikegami Tsushinki Co., Ltd. sue the company. The suit is eventually settled a decade later under undisclosed terms. Mario doesn’t even bother to show up for the rather horrible Donkey Kong 3, released in 1983. Being a loose arcade adaptation of a 1982 Game & Watch game called Green House, the protagonist is Stanley the Bug Man. He is attempting to protect his prize plants from a rampaging Kong, back in the villain’s role and accompanied by some buzzing bee cronies. Further spin-offs occur as Mario’s twin brother Luigi (named after the owner of a pizza joint near NOA headquarters in Seattle) makes his debut in Mario Bros., released to the arcades on July 14, 1983. Utilizing simultaneous two-player action, players can either work together or against each other for points at Mario’s new job; a plumber trying to avoid the dangerous critters pouring out of the drains. This is followed by Super Mario Bros. in 1985, a side-scrolling platformer coming a full year behind Pac-Land. Along with these come a plethora of hand-helds, console translations and sequels, some of which drive the sales of both the ColecoVision and Nintendo’s own NES.
Barrelling Onto Screens, Small and Large
Mario, Donkey Kong and little Jr. make their TV debut on CBS’s Saturday Supercade, lasting two years from 1983-1985, along with a rogue’s gallery of other video game characters such as Pitfall Harry, Frogger and potty-mouth Q*Bert. And in 1989, Mario and Luigi go solo in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, an animated series with live-action segments featuring WWF wrestler “Captain” Lou Albano as America’s favourite plumber. 52 episodes are produced, with Mario and Luigi constantly rescuing Princess Toadstool from King Koopa and his Koopa stooges. In 1993, Disney production label Hollywood Pictures think they have a sure thing with the $48 million, live-action movie Super Mario Bros. While Danny Devito is initially floated as the diminutive plumber, the loose adaptation ends up with Bob Hoskins as Mario, John Leguizamo as Luigi, and standard Hollywood bad-guy Dennis Hopper as King Koopa. Despite heavy cash sunk into wild set-design and intensive CGI, the film flops miserably, disappearing down the drain quickly after release. But Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto remains the lynch-pin to Nintendo’s success through the 80’s and 90’s, with his involvement in every Mario game more successful than the last. Along with his immensely popular Legend of Zelda series of RPG games, it’s a safe bet Nintendo wouldn’t have been been the huge force in video games they still are today without him.
Sources (Click to view; inert links kept for historical purposes)
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Image of Ultra Hand and box courtesy of beforemario
Image of Shigeru Miyamoto wielding sword and shield from the Zelda games from Pop Culture Geek’s Flickr photostream