A Brief History of Nintendo

Nintendo, having been founded in 1889, is the oldest video-game company in the world. Originally the company produced card-games but from the 1960s onward it ventured into numerous different business ventures before finally landing in the lucrative video-game industry, which is where it would eventually leave its mark.

Nintendo’s first foray into gaming was as the Japanese importer of the Magnavox Odyssey, the very first commercially sold video-game console. However, the Odyssey never reached the popularity and fame of Atari‘s Pong game which would be copied by numerous companies in the 1970s. Even, eventually, by Nintendo who released the TV Colour Game in 1977, making it technically the company’s first console.

However, it was in the arcades where Nintendo would eventually make its biggest impression. The 1979 arcade title “RadarScope” was a huge success in Japan but failed upon its release in the US. The game would be dramatically redesigned and re-released as the oddly titled arcade hit game “Donkey Kong” in 1980. Designed by a then unknown Shigeru Miyamoto, the game introduced Mario to the world who would go on to become the company’s mascot. With more arcade hits including the sequels to Donkey Kong and the 1984 hit “Mario Bros.” Nintendo became Japan’s leading arcade game developer.

Additionally Nintendo had success in the early hand-held gaming market with its Game & Watch line of LCD-portable games, which included portable versions of its hit arcade titles.

Nintendo Entertainment System

In 1983 Nintendo finally decided to take the leap into the world of console-manufacturing and created the Nintendo Family Computer, commonly referred to as the FamiCom. The system became hugely succesful (even in spite of faulty processors in some of the early consoles) quickly outselling its only domestic competitor, Sega‘s SG-1000 line of consoles. Nintendo also wanted to bring the FamiCom over to the US but unfortunately in the aftermath of the Video-Game Industry crash of 1983, American retailers were not interested in Video-Game systems of any kind.

Nintendo would dramatically redesign the FamiCom and employ clever wording and accessory usage to have its console penetrate the US markets as both a home computer and a toy principally. The redesigned console was called the Nintendo Entertainment System, known by its common acronym as the NES. The system’s release in 1985 was a huge hit, promoted by the hit game “Super Mario Bros”. The system reinvigorated the video-game markets in the United States and also started the third and last generation of 8-bit consoles which Nintendo dominated.

The most notable gaming features of the NES was its horizontal game-pad which replaced Joysticks and other alternate types of controllers as the de facto design for video game consoles. Instead of a joystick the gamepad featured four Directional Buttons (commonly known as the D-Pad) which also became a standard feature of most consoles (although the Atari 7600 released two years later originally came with a tiny control-stick – it could be switched with a D-pad inclusive controller).

Nintendo also enforced strict restrictions for game releases on its system. Most notable Nintendo introduced the practice of having developers licence their games for the system before they could be legally sold. This practice did not exists during the early 1980s and was one of the main causes of the over-saturation of the video-game market as well as the resulting market crash.

Nintendo would also deal harshly with companies that tried to go around the licensing practice (most notably Tengen) but Nintendo also enforced a three-year release restrictions on any games that were released first on the NES. This meant that games released first on the NES could not be released on other systems for up to three years. In addition Nintendo restricted developers from releasing more than five games per year. Nintendo has been often criticized for these latter practices which it did not continue past the NES’s eventual discontinuation in the early 1990s.

Super Nintendo Entertainment System

In 1988 Sega upped the ante on video-gaming when it released its Mega Drive console (known as Genesis in the US). Sega also started an aggressive marketing campaign, comparing the performance of the Mega Drive with the NES and especially showcasing how much more powerful it was. Nintendo reacted soon after when it began developing its own 16-bit console. In 1990 the Super FamiCom was released and just like its predecessor it would be released to the wider world as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, known by its common abbreviations as SNES, Super NES or simply Super Nintendo.

Nintendo was facing stiff competition. Sega’s console had a new hip mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, and was catering to older and more mature audiences with games that were designed to be more edgy, dark and violent. Nintendo continued on the same path as before, instead focusing on releasing new upgraded versions of its prior successful game franchises such as “Super Mario World”, “Super Castlevania IV”, “Mega Man X” and others. The SNES was also technologically superior to the Mega Drive, with better graphic and sound performance, as well as a Mode 7 chip, capable of rendering semi-3D landscapes and scrolling backgrounds with depth. Gameplay-wise the system’s only real innovation was the addition of shoulder-buttons as well as the cross-formation of its main face-buttons which both would become industry standards in following console generations.

Although the SNES sold well Nintendo’s family friendly image caused the Mega Drive to gain a more favorable reception from the more mature gaming market. Nintendo infamously censored the graphically violent games “Mortal Kombat” and “Wolfenstein 3D”, causing these sort of games to sell far better on the competing console platform. However, the SNES showed remarkable longevity on the market, whereas Sega struggled to keep its audiences interested with its infamous console add-ons. When Sega was already busy releasing its next console, Sega Saturn, in the mid-1990s, the sales of the SNES were peaking thanks to Nintendo’s lucrative collaboration with Rare on titles like “Donkey Kong Country” and “Killer Instinct” as well as due to the release of its own hugely popular “Yoshi’s Island”.

Nintendo 64

Nintendo was the last company to release its fifth generation console (the 32/64-bit era). Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation were both released in 1995 but by the following year it was clear that the PlayStation was the market leader with Sega having botched up its system’s release by having the console come out with practically no games to support it. Nintendo didn’t release its console until late 1996 in Japan, with the rest of the world receiving the console in 1997.

During its first two years on the market the console was extremely well received with such hit titles as “Super Mario 64”, “Banjo-Kazooie”, “Star Fox 64” and “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”. However soon after the console lost considerable ground to the PlayStation. The reason for this was simply that the N64’s game library was barely a third of the size of the PlayStation’s. In addition PlayStation had far more success with high-profile titles from Capcom, Konami and Square including “Resident Evil”, “Metal Gear Solid” and “Final Fantasy VII”.

The main reason for the lack of third-party support was Nintendo’s decision to have the N64 be a cartridge rather than a CD-Rom based gaming system. Developers could make games for the PlayStation with far fewer technical limitations and far lower production costs and as a result made N64 games mainly peripherally. Although the N64 later had an additional optical disc unit created for it, called N64 Disc Drive, it never became widely available and was only released as a mail-order product in Japan. By 2000 the N64 had fallen out of prominence in the game market with Nintendo putting far more emphasis on its handheld Game Boy systems and the extremely lucrative “Pokémon” franchise.

Despite its lack of prominence the N64 introduced several major innovations. The system was the first to come standard with an analogue control-stick for playing games, while the PlayStation and Sega Saturn only came with the standard four-button D-Pad (although both systems had analogue controllers released later on). “Star Fox 64” also introduced the concept of a rumble feature through its Rumble Pak peripheral, which would shake the controller in accordance to what happened on-screen. The rumble feature would become a standard feature of all future game controllers.

The Game Cube

“Let me introduce you to our new baby. Like a baby it’s small… but it can make a lot of noise.” -Shigeru Miyamoto

Already in 2000 Nintendo announced it was developing a new console called The Dolphin. The system was being developed in heavy secrecy, but finally in late 2001 the system was announced as the Nintendo Game Cube (GCN). The system was the second-to-last console to be released in the sixth console generation, a full year after Sony’s PlayStation 2 and in the aftermath of the Sega Dreamcast‘s discontinuation.

The system resembled its other major competitors by being a system using optical media for its game. However, unlike its competitors Nintendo used specifically designed and unique Mini-DVDs. This also resulted with the requirement to use Memory Cards in order to save game-data (which was not required on the cartridge based N64) but also was the only console to feature four controller ports (just like the N64). Nintendo also loosened its game-release policies and was able to gain more third-party support than in the previous console generation. In addition Nintendo had huge commercial successes with games like “Super Mario Sunshine”, “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker”, “Super Smash Bros. Melee” and “Resident Evil 4” as well re-releases and updated ports of games previously only available on its competing systems.

But despite its considerable image and commercial boost the Game Cube could not restore Nintendo’s standing as the leading console manufacturer. The PS2 had gained immense momentum both as a game-system and as an affordable DVD-player and, in spite of initial criticism, Microsoft‘s Xbox console, released soon after the Game Cube, became a strong gaming platform due to the innovation of an internal hard-drive and greater technical flexibility than its competing consoles.


Nintendo’s Wii, first code-named Revolution, was an extremely different console compared not only to the Game Cube but other traditional consoles as well. Released almost two years after Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and less than a year before Sony’s PlayStation 3 the Wii made its mark quickly due to its unusual motion-sensing technology. Nintendo also opened the market to more casual gamers, inviting people with no prior experience with video-games with titles focusing on personal fitness as well as more child oriented titles.

Although Nintendo has received criticism for apparently abandoning its core demographic, the company continues to release games in its highly popular Mario, Zelda and Metroid franchises. In addition online-services play a much bigger part with the console through downloadable titles from the Wii Store. New titles are released through WiiWare and old games both from Nintendo’s older systems and from its competitors (Sega, SNK, NEC) are available through download on Virtual Console. In addition the system is fully backwards compatible with Game Cube’s games.


Author’s Notes & Disclaimer:

This text is not intended as a comprehensive history of Nintendo, simply a look into some of their most succesful systems. It for instance does not include a detailed history of their Game Boy and DS lines of products. These may be added in the future.

People’s and company names are listed in bold. System names are typed in italics. The “titles of games” are included in quotations.

This is a personal blog with information gathered from numerous sources. The author takes no responsibility for the reliability of the information herein. All the products and names contained herein are the property of their respective copyright holders.

The author of this blog holds all the rights to its contents. Copying or releasing part of the text without the author’s consent is not allowed.