At the same time that the North American video game industry is in the process of imploding in 1983, the seed for its resurrection is planted across the sea in Japan by Nintendo, a company located in Kyoto and best known in America for having made the smash arcade hit Donkey Kong in 1981. For the story of how this resusitive game device comes into being, we’ve got to back up a bit.
Entering the Game
In the early 70’s, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi starts getting wind of new video game technology surfacing in the United States. Released in 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey was the first home video game system, and in 1974 Nintendo licences it for sale in Japan. The company also starts work on their own system, although their lack of the technical know-how to produce the inner circuitry requires a partnership with Mitsubishi. The first product of this union is Color TV-Game 6, released in 1977. The unassuming, orange box offers three different built-in versions of Atari’s PONG, here called Light-Tennis, with each having an available doubles mode that brings the total number of games to 6. This is followed the same year with Color TV-Game 15, with over double the game variations available. They are both hits for Nintendo, selling around a million units between the two of them. A racing game, complete with steering wheel, gear shift and two paddles for two-player mode, follows in 1978 called Color TV-Game Racing 112. It is on this game that junior employee Shigeru Miyamoto cuts his teeth, having been hired by Nintendo in 1977 as an industrial design graduate. His first project at Nintendo is designing the outer casing for this driving game. The final entry in the Color TV-Game series is Block Kusure (Breaker), heavily inspired by Atari’s arcade game Breakout. Released in 1979, it is Nintendo’s first all in-house design, with an outer case also designed by Miyamoto. While the first units sell well, sales figures steadily drop off by the time of the release of Block Kusure, prompting Yamauchi to direct his hardware developers to move things to the next level.
Something To Watch
In 1980, Gunpei Yokoi’s R&D1 division starts the Game & Watch line of handheld game devices, featuring LCD screens. Yokoi had come up with the idea of a small, portable hand-held game one day while watching a bored businessman fiddle with his pocket electronic calculator while travelling home on the Shinkansen, or high-speed bullet train. Utilizing a calculator chip from Sharp, the first Game & Watch title is Ball, released in April of 1980. 72 segment displays are used to switch black and white game elements on and off; in the case of Ball, a silhouetted figure is controlled by the player using buttons to move his arms left and right in an attempt to keep juggling balls in the air. Later games would feature a character known as Mr. Game & Watch in various situations. The series of handhelds is an astounding success for Nintendo, moving through various technical upgrades such as the Gold Series (settable alarm), Wide Screen Series (bigger screen) and the Multi-Screen Series, featuring a closing clam-shell design that contains two screens. One multi-screen entry is an adaptation of arcade game Donkey Kong, released in June of 1982. The Donkey Kong G&W is most notable as the first Nintendo game device to feature the directional pad or D-Pad, an innovation by Yokoi that would go on to be featured in nearly every other gaming system subsequently released. Gunpei’s four-directional innovation is eventually awarded an Emmy by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2007, for Peripheral Development and Technological Impact of Video Game Controllers.
59 Game & Watch titles are released, selling 12.87 million units in Japan and 30.53 million overseas, for a total of 43.4 million world-wide. The series’ last original game release is Mario the Juggler in 1991, making a nice, complete circuit that any electrical engineer could appreciate.
The Next Level
While the Game & Watch units are flying off store shelves, Yamauchi wants to build on Yokoi’s success before sales start tapering off, and so in November of 1981 makes a phone call to Masayuki Uemura, head of Nintendo’s R&D2 group. Uemura is tasked by Yamauchi to develop a new game console, one that would follow the lead of current home video game systems by using cartridges, as opposed to the games being hardwired into the device like the Color TV-Game series. Uemura is further instructed that the system has to be sold cheap enough to undercut the competition, around ¥9,800 or $75 US. And it has be ready for release by mid-1982. And it has to be sufficiently advanced to stave off the competition for a few years. Oh, and one more thing… he can’t tap his former company Sharp for assistance in making the console, as Yamauchi is worried the project might distract them from working on the lucrative Game & Watch line. When he begins casting about for ideas for this new system, Uemura ponders the ColecoVision.
Coleco and Nintendo have a lot in common. Both started off as specialty niche companies with a long history; Coleco as a producer of leather goods in 1932, Nintendo as a producer of playing cards in 1889. Both grew their fortunes in the early days by licensing Disney IP. Both eventually began making toys in the 60’s, and into the 70’s they both made toy gunfighter games; Nintendo with its Kousenjuu or Ray Gun SP products, as well as the arcade game Wild Gunman, and Coleco on a smaller scale with its electronic desktop shooter Draw!. They both also eventually entered the home video game market with PONG clones in the late 70’s. And both saw the potential of Miyamoto’s arcade game Donkey Kong, with Nintendo hinging its future in America on the game, and Coleco using it to sell its new wave home video game system, the ColecoVision. A prototype of this powerhouse new console is brought to Kyoto in 1982 for a demonstration, facilitated by Coleco’s home console rights for Donkey Kong and the adaptation of Nintendo’s popular arcade game to their home game machine. Examining it, the R&D2 team is amazed at the fluidity of the graphics on display. With Uemura inspired by the runaway success of the Atari 2600 and amazed by the advanced graphics of the ColecoVision, he and R&D2 now know how much higher they have to aim for their own system.