Written by Tom | 18th September 2019 | Updated 11th October 2022
As the brains behind the first portable console, the revolutionary Wii and iconic characters such as Mario, Pikachu, Princess Zelda and Donkey Kong, Nintendo has a legacy of greatness. They’ve sold around 4.7 billion video games and 740 million pieces of hardware worldwide. We sat down with our Expert in Video Games Toby Wickwire to talk about Nintendo’s origins and its continued success.
Nintendo’s origins are a far cry from the futuristic image they’ve carved out for themselves today. Founded back in 1889 in Kyoto, Nintendo started off as a card playing company, producing a range of handmade cards that became extremely popular in Japan. Boosted by this success and a financial windfall, Nintendo diversified into other ventures: including a chain of ‘love hotels’, instant rice and the love tester (a device with two electrodes attached, which two people would grab onto while looking into one another’s eyes, until the dial on the rod told them how true their love for one another was). However, unlike the cards, these ventures flopped (allegedly the rice tasted terrible) and Nintendo was left with a bit of soul-searching to do.
The 80s and 90s saw Nintendo make its first steps into the video game market. “In 1980 they came onto the market with the Game & Watch. It was a handheld console that you could take with you, however, it only had one game on it,” says Toby. In 1989, Nintendo released the GameBoy, followed by the SNES in 1990 – the former of which was the first handheld gaming device where you could replace games. It was this launch that helped make Tetris one of the world’s most popular video games.
The Game Boy helped make Tetris one of the world's most popular games
While the sweep of new consoles, such as the Game Boy Colour, released in 1989, and the Nintendo 64—released in 1996 in Japan and North America, and 1997 in Europe—brought Nintendo continued success, much of the consoles’ popularity can be attributed to the characters it created. Games such as Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda, Super Smash Bros. and Pokémon introduced the likes of Mario, Donkey Kong, Princess Peach, Zelda, Yoshi and Pikachu to the general public and helped give Nintendo a visual identity, encouraging gamers to invest in their favourite characters.
With the launch of the SNES, gamers were introduced to characters such as Donkey Kong and Princess Zelda
In the 2000s, Nintendo cemented its status as a global pioneer in the gaming world with the release of the Game Boy Advance SP, the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii. What was different about the Game Boy Advance SP was its unprecedented technology. “It was the first console with a battery and back light, meaning you could play in the dark. This became a very popular system that is still used today. Nintendo also made this console backwards compatible, meaning the games of previous Game Boy generations could be used on this.”
The DS followed suit, becoming the most successful handheld device ever (its brain game training was particularly lauded), but it was the launch of the Wii that Toby says, changed not just the way we played games, but who played them. “Nintendo has always been a real family console but the Wii proved this. Courtesy of the Wii’s motion detector sensor, the adults who were initially against video games and thought gaming was a waste of time, were suddenly playing tennis with their friends or bowling against each other.” The Wii opened up an entirely new demographic for Nintendo, where both young and old were as likely to be spotted waving the Wii remote in their living rooms.
Mario Kart has evolved over generations, as pictured on the current console, the Nintendo Switch
Today, Nintendo continues to thrive. The company’s latest release, the Nintendo Switch, has mirrored some of the Wii’s success and impact, bringing home-console gaming into portable mode (you can now take Mario Kart with you, without having to sacrifice the graphics or experience). Of course, Nintendo’s history hasn’t always been smooth sailing but they reach 130 years with a deep reverence for both the past and the future. There’s a deep nostalgia and respect for the then and now that continues to define the company’s approach. After all, Nintendo perhaps couldn’t have said this better when they built the quit screen message for one of their games, saying: “Everything not saved will be lost”.
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