Plumbers and Pokémon; the history of Nintendo

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When people think of video game companies and brands there are a few obvious first mentions. Depending on your age, one of your first thoughts may be the Japanese video game giant Nintendo. For a company that started off making playing cards in 1889, they’ve not done too badly. A string of smart decisions from recently deceased former President Hiroshi Yamauchi (he was President for a staggering 53 years; 1949-2002) led the small company into making computer games and they now sit upon a multimillion dollar throne and continually churn out video game hardware that, mostly, sells magnificently. Nintendo its first steps in the right direction with the arcade classic Donkey Kong, a humble game featuring two characters that would get swept along on Nintendo’s meteoric rise and eventually become the figureheads of two global video game franchises.

However, it was not until 1985 that Nintendo truly emerged as a titan of the video game industry. Following the cataclysmic video game crash of the early eighties, Nintendo arguably pulled the industry back to its feet single-handedly. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES, called the Famicom in Japan) became hugely popular in North America with its unrivaled processing power (8-bits!) and wide third party developer support, catapulting the console to a roaring success. Nintendo continued its success with the Super Nintendo (SNES) and waded into a fierce competition with Sega and their Mega Drive (or Genesis). This bloody conflict featured hilarious and factually suspicious advertising campaigns but eventually Nintendo emerged victorious, further cementing their hold on the video games industry. They comfortably ascended to a throne made of cartridges and Mario merchandise, a seat from which they would not budge easily.

However, this is where Nintendo started to falter and began to make some suspicious decisions. The Nintendo 64, whilst boasting multiple timeless classics, was very expensive and lacked third party support. On top of this, the games were still on archaic cartridges whilst the competition, Sony’s Playstation, was using shiny new compact-disc technology. The GameCube further weakened Nintendo’s grip on the home console market. The GameCube lacked the processing power of the competition (Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation 2) and, again, lacked the third party support of the other two. Another key feature was that Playstation 2 could play DVDs, which proved instrumental as Sony’s console massively outsold the competition. Luckily Nintendo’s handhelds were still stomping the competition massively. The Gameboy series sold excellently worldwide, perhaps helped in a way by the global Pokemon phenomena that took the world’s youth by storm in the late 90s.

As Nintendo entered the 7th console generation they were going all-out in an effort to win back the consumer. However, the Wii’s motion controls attracted a whole new market to Nintendo’s waiting arms. Demographics who previously didn’t care about video games, like grandmothers and parents, found the Wii very attractive. The fact that you could sort-of play tennis and golf whilst never leaving your living room allowed Nintendo to rake it in. However, despite this, the Wii failed to appeal to the traditional ‘gamer’ market. Once again a Nintendo console was let down by its poor processing power and crucial lack of third party support. However, this time the Wii’s motion control gimmick was able to carry Nintendo comfortably into the present day. Once again the former titan of gaming threw their hat into the ring early on, with the Wii U being released months before Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 4. It is speculated that the Wii U, again, lacks the graphical capabilities of the competition but its innovative tablet-like controller may prove to be attractive enough for the console to sell well.

Meanwhile on the handheld side of things, Nintendo’s DS was a smash hit. Competition from Sony posed about as much threat as a fly would to a giant. Nintendo swatted away their rivals easily, the DS’ lower price and touch screens appealing successfully to a younger audience. More recently, the introduction of 3D to the handheld failed to make much headway and the announcement of the 2DS – allegedly for younger audiences – baffled many onlookers. However, it is clear that whatever may happen, the company will continue to innovate and push video games forward.

muh nintendo

My Nintendo collection.

Here, we have hit upon what makes Nintendo the most interesting video games company; their innovation. The NES controller featured the four-directional arrow pad that is so common nowadays, as well as the ‘start’ and ‘select’ buttons that feature on most controllers in the present. Nintendo’s trailblazing continued with the SNES controller, which had shoulder buttons and a 4-button ABXY layout that may seem familiar to you if you’ve ever played an Xbox. The Nintendo 64, despite having a generally confusing controller, utilised a analogue stick before Sony even thought of using it with their PlayStation. Innovation is what Nintendo does best, with touch screens and motion controls characterising their latest hardware. Nintendo’s trendsetting is perhaps best exemplified when the Wii became an enormous success due to its motion controls. Microsoft and Sony tripped over themselves in an effort to rush out their own versions. This led to the Kinect and PlayStation Move, a perfect example of Nintendo forcing their competitions’ hands with their forward-thinking hardware. However, not all of Nintendo’s bold strategies work out. Perhaps the most horrifying example of this would be the catastrophic Virtual Boy, a horrific flop that was an attempt to produce a virtual reality portable games machine. Yet, despite multiple set backs, Nintendo have never given up. They continue to develop new technologies that allow video games to move forward constantly.

Another thing that marks Nintendo apart from other companies is their signature franchises. Nintendo has what is sometimes referred to as ‘The Big Three’. These three series – Legend of Zelda, Mario and Metroid – characterise Nintendo and it is often said that a Nintendo console is not truly successful until it has a game from each of these franchises developed for it. The continuation of these titles is truly outstanding. Nintendo figurehead Mario was first featured in Donkey Kong in 1981 and is set to appear in Super Mario 3D World which comes out next month. The same is true of the Legend of Zelda and Metroid franchises and, even though the latter has been somewhat neglected in recent years, all three still boast stellar installments on most Nintendo consoles and handhelds. Nintendo has been accused of ‘rehashing’ these three series but it’s probably more of a ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach. All three franchises boast multiple all-time classics. I feel the N64 Legend of Zeldas, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Metroid and the Metroid Prime series deserve a special mention. The popularity of these series have helped Nintendo reach their dizzy heights and Nintendo will continue to make these games potentially forever. A piece of Nintendo hardware without these classic games is a piece of hardware that’s probably not worth owning.

These days it’s easy to look at Nintendo as a has-been, a relic of an age gone by – an old Japanese warrior that sits telling children the stories of his battle scars and reminiscing about past glories. However I see Nintendo as a benevolent grandfather, a gateway to a nostalgic past but still full of energy and eager to please the current generation. I believe, and indeed hope, that Nintendo will keep entertaining for years to come. They probably rely a little too heavily on their past successes these days, but what successes! Nintendo have made an impression on video gaming that will never be forgotten. Without Nintendo, where would we be today? It doesn’t even bear thinking about.

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I was born in Leeds in 1993 and moved to Southampton to study History at the University of Southampton in 2011. I've always enjoyed writing and critiquing but always seem to draw a blank when filling in biographical information.

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