A love letter to Nintendo: how a card-games company turned into the nostalgia factory we know and love today

A love letter to Nintendo: how a card-games company turned into the nostalgia factory we know and love today

Serena Bhandari delves into the history of Nintendo, one of the most globally recognisable video game companies. 

If you ask gamers today what they consider to be gaming’s most interesting origins story, you’d definitely get a variety of answers. Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake might surface as a contender, as would Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy. Arguably Shadow, from SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog franchise is as valid a choice as any. Yet, no origins story is as great as the one that underlies video game history itself: the origins story of Nintendo.

Nintendo was originally founded by Kyoto resident Fusajiro Yamauchi in 1889. Yamauchi’s product of choice, considering video-game technology was still half a century away from being invented, was Japanese hanafuda (“flower cards”). Card games, traditionally associated with Yakuza organised crime syndicates, had only recently been legalised by the Meiji government, and Yamauchi sought to capitalise on this turn of events. Under the name Nintendo Koppai (koppai meaning “playing cards”), Fusajiro’s business moved from selling only hanafuda to becoming the first manufacturer of western-style playing cards in Japan. Between Nintendo Koppai, and the Nintendo we know and love today, the company has been through plenty of changes. From a partnership with Disney for playing cards, to a LEGO competitor, a failed love hotel to a taxi business, Nintendo tried it all before entering the industry they have become known for over the past forty years. Whilst its original competitors in the home console industry – Sega and Atari – fell before the new millennium began, Nintendo has managed to remain a global household name.

Software developer Jack Anders, whose experiences gaming as a child shaped his career choices later in life, describes Nintendo as “the reason gaming is even really a thing.” Anders believes that their continued desire to innovate and draw people in with new system gimmicks rarely seen before is what makes them a household name. In explaining why Nintendo has remained so popular over the past half century, their commitment to constant innovation is a recurring theme. Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi is credited as inventing the D-pad control, which to this day features in some form on the majority of modern home consoles. The Nintendo Wii’s motion controls brought home gaming into an entirely new dimension, making it a pastime for more than just kids and hardcore gamers, whilst the 3DS offered stereoscopic 3D effects without the need for 3D glasses. And more recently, the Switch boasts the title of “hybrid” console, thanks to its capability for both docked and portable play. This trend towards gaming innovation continues today, with the recent announcement of Nintendo Labo, a product aimed at teaching children principles of engineering using cardboard cut-outs and the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers to create “Toy-Cons” that interact with software.

Despite their dedication to creating new content, Nintendo also never fail to look backwards, maintaining their dedication to churning out flagship series bestsellers. A Nintendo fan since childhood, Ryan McMaster says “Nintendo means long car journeys craving street lights, so you could see the screen in the car and the most extensive first-party game franchises that people still care about. Mario, Kirby, Pokémon, Metroid – we never expect [SEGA’s] Sonic on a Nintendo platform but it’s happened because they release quality content that keeps the franchise alive.”

Indeed, some of Nintendo’s most recognizable faces today originate in a time before the era of home-console gaming. Donkey Kong was originally an arcade game created by well-known developer Shigeru Miyamoto, and featured a carpenter known as Jumpman who raced to save his girlfriend from the eponymous villain. Sound familiar? That’s because Jumpman became the character we now know as Mario, resident of family living rooms worldwide, and star of the best-selling video game franchise of all time. When Nintendo moved into the home console market, they continued to wow audiences, with the release of titles like Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda . Studies at the time demonstrated that children were as familiar with Mario as they were with other popular characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.

Nintendo also draw upon real life nostalgia to create their games. In 1989, when the Game Boy was first released, Satoshi Tajiri conceived the concept of a game in which players would collect, train and battle creatures, inspired by his childhood hobby of insect collecting. His dream was made reality with the release of Pocket Monsters in 1996 – or as the series is more commonly known in the West, Pokémon. An iconic series was born out of one man’s desire to create a game reminiscent of his childhood.

In recent years, it has often seemed that Nintendo are aware of their nostalgia factor and are capitalizing on it as much as they can. In several recent commercials, Nintendo have chosen to cast young adults to play their titles, as opposed to their previous audience of solely children. When the retro gaming trend peaked, Nintendo hopped onboard the hype train, releasing ‘Classic Editions’ of their iconic NES and SNES consoles, with games available including The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Yoshi’s Island, and Super Mario World.

Since they entered the video game industry, the company has been helmed by three presidents, each bringing their own charm to the company without undermining the original company values. Hiroshi Yamauchi transformed Nintendo, taking it from a small-time card-manufacturer to a world-renowned company, whilst the much-loved Satoru Iwata introduced a new era of transparency with the implementation of Iwata Asks broadcasts. Tatsumi Kimishima, the current Nintendo President, has continued to ensure Nintendo thrives, overseeing the foray into mobile gaming and the release of the Switch.

What the future entails for Nintendo, however, no-one can be sure. They have continually innovated beyond expectations in the field of video games – for better or for worse. Sure, some of Nintendo’s failures – the Virtual Boy, Nintendo’s early attempt at Virtual Reality – have gained infamy for how hard they bombed, but overall the company has consistently gone above and beyond to bring the world great games. I think I can speak for most of my generation when I say of the company that brought us Pokémon, Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Animal Crossing and so much more – a company that inspired, innovated and created childhoods – we look forward to seeing what they do next.