Please note: This article is Part 3 of a miniseries about the days before Nintendo solely focused on video games. Part 1 dives into the very beginnings of the company, back when it produced playing cards. Part 2 covers Nintendo finding its stride in the toy market.
By the early 1970s, electronic toys were becoming status quo. Nintendo, by this point, had embraced its calling as an entertainment company, and a mantra of fun-first began to dictate its every decision. We’ve spent a lot of time now talking about card games, household goods and toys, but it’s finally time to move on to Nintendo’s true calling: video games. Some of its first advances came through partnerships with other electronics companies. These cooperative efforts would provide the experience and budget Nintendo would need to eventually enter the market on its own.
The world’s first commercially available video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, was released in 1972. The system used screen overlays to create themes around a few interactive white blocks. Taking advantage of its toy making expertise, Magnavox contracted Nintendo to create a peripheral for the system called Shooting Gallery. This electronic rifle was the first console light gun, and it also marked Nintendo’s entry into the world of video games. Later, Nintendo would negotiate the rights to distribute the Odyssey and its own Shooting Gallery in its home country.
Nintendo’s light gun expertise might also be what propelled the company into arcades. Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi concocted a skeet shooting simulation called “Laser Clay Shooting System.” Its first iteration would use a backdrop with moving targets produced by an overhead projector and a rifle that used reflection to decipher its aim. This large and elaborate carnival game was initially released in abandoned bowling alleys, and despite its humble surroundings, was quite successful. An eventual redesign would shrink the concept down and find it a home in Japanese arcades. The “Mini Laser Clay” offered multiple ranges, four player support, and a prize system.
Following some success in both the home console market and the emerging arcade scene, Nintendo identified video games as a worthwhile market. Enough so to jointly develop some home game consoles of its own. A partnership with Mitsubishi Electric produced the “Color TV Game Machine.” The system was released over five variations, each home to a single game with a number of gameplay modes. Simultaneously, Nintendo was busy experimenting with arcade games. The first, not counting Mini Laser Clay, was called EVR Race. This large, six-player cabinet tasked players with placing bets on horse races that would then play out on a large screen at one end. This would later be followed by Radar Scope, a space shooter, and Donkey Kong in 1981.
Another important first for Nintendo came around this same time, again at the hands of Gunpei Yokoi. Arguably its most important and successful venture yet, 1980 saw Nintendo’s maiden experiment in handheld games in the form of Game & Watch. Inspired by an LCD calculator, Yokoi conceived a series of battery operated handheld gaming devices each featuring an alarm clock and a game, complete with multiple difficulty settings. The Game & Watch series is where we first see the clamshell design of Nintendo’s modern handhelds as well as the D-pad, which has appeared in some variation on every modern video game controller. Game & Watch remained a staple of Nintendo’s product line for over a decade, and sees frequent loving tribute to this very day.
Now let me set the stage for the modern age of Nintendo, the age that starts with the Famicom and the NES. There are entire books devoted to the video game crash of 1983, but that’s not what we’re here to dig into. Suffice it to say that the video game market in the US had reached a saturation point, and over the course of two years (1983 to 1985) it disintegrated by a staggering 97%. Determined to innovate and persevere in this crippled industry, Nintendo had its work cut out for it.
That’s about where this story ends and Nintendo, as we now know it, begins. The NES launched in the wake of a crash that, by many assessments, nearly obliterated the video game industry, and we all know what happened next. But Nintendo didn’t spring out of thin air and save video games, as romantic an idea as it is. Its story is much older, and much harder earned, than most of us give it credit for. The events that turned a small playing card shop in Japan into one of the most respected entertainment companies in the world are fascinating, and every step (and misstep) helped define the Nintendo that we know and love today.Leave a Comment