All Your History: Nintendo Part 1 – Leave Luck to Heaven
In the video game industry, countless companies have come and gone. But one company has managed to outlast its competition at nearly every turn: Nintendo. For over three decades, Nintendo has beaten its rivals by pursuing its own singular vision of bold hardware innovations and games of unmatched creativity.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though. Along the way, Nintendo’s choices as a company have thrilled—and baffled—gamers. But through all their ups and downs, Nintendo’s impact on the industry simply cannot be overstated. Amazingly, Nintendo might never have been so successful if it weren’t for one character: Popeye.
Yes. That Popeye.
Leave Luck to Heaven
In the late 19th century in Kyoto, Japan, artist Fusajiro Yamauchi had developed great skill at the making and painting of hanafuda, Japanese playing cards that were intricately detailed with beautiful and colorful imagery. By 1894, Yamauchi opened up his own hanafuda manufacturing business. He called his new company “Nintendo Koppai.” “Nin-ten-do” roughly translates as, “leave luck to heaven,” a great expression when playing games of chance. The company’s cards became so popular that Yamauchi had to hire assistants to help him move from hand-made hanafuda to mass production.
In 1929, Yamauchi’s son-in-law Sekiryo took over the business. One of Sekiryo’s most important acts was the creation of Nintendo’s own distribution network, a vital piece of the puzzle that would serve the company well over the next several decades. The business grew and established a strong grip on the Japanese playing card market. By 1949, sixty years after Fusajiro Yamauchi started the company, his great grandson Hiroshi took over and began to move it into the modern era, and he would do so at any cost.
While business for the company was going smoothly, something happened to Yamauchi during a visit to the United States that changed Nintendo forever. Author Jeff Ryan’s 2011 book, Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, provides an in-depth account of Nintendo’s beginnings. As the book describes, Yamauchi took a meeting with Disney executives to license their characters for Nintendo cards. Seeing the vastness of Disney’s empire first hand revealed just how huge a global entertainment company could become.
Yamauchi knew: he would never settle for less than worldwide success.
In an interview with Machinima, author Jeff Ryan explains that Yamauchi’s coming of age as Japan lost the second World War gave the man a hard edge—one that would drive him in business for the rest of his life:
“He came out of World War II, and he was from the Japanese side […] so it was the whole ‘Greatest Generation’ thing mixed in with the fact that his side had lost. […]He was running grandfather’s company and he needed to make a lot of tough decisions. For about 30 years he was making decisions that didn’t quite play out, but every time he tried something, he would learn from the failure. Mostly he would learn, ‘well, we don’t do that again.’”
In 1963, the business’s name changed to simply the Nintendo Company, Ltd., a move reflecting its expansion into other ventures. Throughout the sixties, Yamauchi tried several: taxis, “love hotel” chain, and even a line of instant rice—to no avail. However, the company’s card-making experience helped it break into one business: toys.
Author Jeff Ryan explains how Nintendo transitioned from cards to toys with the help of its existing distribution network:
“Trading cards kept on making money, but it was a small amount of money. He realized that there was a distribution network that was valuable beyond just the cards that they were selling, because that allowed him, if he wanted to make a toy, he could get it into every toy store in Japan, which was something that a normal toy manufacturer starting from scratch can’t do.”
Its first toy was the Ultra Hand, an extendable arm invented by Gumpei Yokoi, a maintenance worker from Nintendo’s card-making factories. Yokoi had originally created the Ultra Hand for his own amusement, but Yamauchi saw Yokoi’s potential. The toy went to market in 1970, selling 1.2 million units. Nintendo was officially in the toy business.
Other products followed, Yokoi’s creativity leading the charge. The inventor’s creations rant the gamut: the Ten Billion Barrel was an innovative marble puzzle, while the Love Tester was an electronic passion-measuring device that could only come from Japan. Through the seventies, Nintendo also tested Japan’s video game market, releasing arcade games and Pong-clone TV consoles. In 1979, they scored their biggest hit, Radar Scope, a Space Invaders imitator.
In 1980, Nintendo released another Yokoi invention: the hand-held Game & Watch. Inspired by the LCD screens of pocket calculators, Yokoi’s invention was simple but addictive, and kept Nintendo heading towards the electronic entertainment business.
That year, Yamauchi sought expansion into America, the source of his business revelation. To set up Nintendo’s American branch, the chairman tapped his son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, who was living in Vancouver with Yamauchi’s daughter, Yoko. The Arakawas set up shop at a warehouse in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Distribution was key to Yamauchi’s plans: to ensure total success, the company shouldn’t rely on anyone else to get the job done. That meant instead Nintendo wouldn’t contract with an American distribution company to sell its games to American arcades—Arakawa would do it himself. To get the ball rolling, their first game would be their Japanese hit, Radar Scope. Three-thousand cabinets shipped from Japan.
Arakawa’s attempts to sell the game didn’t go well: he only managed to move a third of their supply, leaving about 2,000 machines sitting in the warehouse. Worse, Radar Scope wasn’t scoring well with the arcade owners, who preferred games from proven names like Namco, Taito, or the arcade king, Atari.
The fledgling Nintendo of America had only broken even on the venture so far. They needed a new, inexpensive game, and soon. While his father-in-law looked at his staff in Kyoto for ideas, the Arakawas moved back to the Pacific Northwest, setting up shop in Tukwila, Washington, closing the time gap with Japan and decreasing shipping costs to the United States.
Yamauchi was no fool: he knew better than to commit too many resources to what was turning into a losing proposition. So instead of pulling one of Nintendo’s proven designers from other projects, he solicited ideas from his entire company, hoping to make an unexpected discovery within his company.
Discover he did: Shigeru Miyamoto, a 29-year-old staff-artist piqued Yamauchi’s interest. Miyamoto was teamed with Gumpei Yokoi, who would help turn the new designer’s ideas into reality. The two would use a conversion kit—an inexpensive game-alteration method—to transform those unsold Radar Scopes into something brand new.
But before they even began, they hit a snag: Yamauchi’s wanted to base a game on a popular character to spur sales. It just so happened that a new Hollywood movie based on Popeye was in-production. And twenty years earlier, Nintendo had released a ramen product based on the spinach-eating sailor. Yamauchi believed acquiring the rights would be a cinch…but weren’t available after all.
Miyamoto was undeterred, already on course for a great new game. All he had to do was tweak the characters a bit. Olive Oyl was made into the generic “Lady,” while Bluto devolved into the giant, stubborn ape he’d always resembled. And Popeye would leave the navy and become a carpenter. The characters weren’t important, so much as how they were related to each other. That love-triangle featured in Popeye’s cartoons and comic strips informed these new characters, and set players off on a quest to rescue the damsel in distress. The story of the new game was a great hook, but no one would pump quarters in a game that didn’t play well. Fortunately, Miyamoto happened to be a game designing genius—a fact no one, not even himself, had realized until he’d gotten the job.
Gone was Radar Scope’s derivative alien-shooting mechanic; this new game wouldn’t have any shooting at all. Instead, players would have to direct the in-game avatar safely up a construction site to rescue the kidnapped Lady, jumping over barrels and finding scattered hammers to clear away threats. This new “Jumpman,” as Miyamoto called him, offered a new way to play, and the development team knew it would be special. As for the game’s title, Miyamoto decided this stubborn donkey of an ape would work. For inspiration, Miyamoto looked to Japan and America’s shared history of gigantic movie monsters. “King Kong,” of course, was the biggest ape around. But this was no King—this ape was not only stubborn, but, like Bluto, pretty stupid. More like an ‘ass’—or a ‘donkey.’ Donkey Kong had a name.
Back in Washington, Arakawa and his small team started hand-converting Radar Scope cabinets to Donkey Kong machines. Their plan was to convert and sell two, and hopefully get the barrel rolling to sell more. But they still needed names for the other two characters. Lady would be named Pauline, in thanks to their kind warehouse manager Don James whose wife’s name was Polly. The game’s hero, however, was named after the warehouse’s owner, James’s hotheaded boss, Mario Segale, whose mustache made him a dead ringer for Jumpman. Mario was born.
In 1981, Arakawa put the test machines in two Seattle bars—and they took off like Radar Scope never did. The machines earned more than $30 a day in quarters, prompting Arakawa to install more machines. Soon enough, the cabinets each made Nintendo $200 a week. The Arakawa and his team converted the rest of the 2,000 Radar Scope cabinets by hand, and began manufacturing hundreds of new Donkey Kong machines to keep up with the growing demand. Soon enough, there were sixty-thousand Donkey Kong machines in operation throughout North America that year.
Nintendo had arrived. And it was all thanks to the inspiration of Popeye the Sailor Man and Miyamoto’s genius.
“He was given, ‘do something with Popeye,’ so he came up with this bizarre game. And I think if you had given that idea to a professional game designer, they would’ve come up with something else. […] maybe a Space Invaders type game where you’re Popeye in a boat and you’re shooting things like cans of spinach at the bad guy.”
Nintendo exploded onto the arcade scene and brought success Yamauchi had known would one day be his. But in addition to growing into a bigger business, Nintendo had also grown into a bigger target…
Tune in next time to see Mario get super…