Discover what makes Nintendo so special in today’s gaming world through Nintendo Inquirer’s N Factor series!
“What do you love about Nintendo? The more I ask myself that question, the more complex my answer gets. I decided to use the term “N factor” to describe my feelings, because while it’s near impossible to define, Nintendo’s best games all have some undeniable and exclusive allure about them. They’re the result of finely tuned ideas and ideals that collectively personify the company behind them.”
The N Factor series:
N Factor, Part 1: Charm
N Factor, Part 2: Respect
N Factor, Part 3: Agelessness
N Factor, Part 4: Immersion
N Factor, Part 5: Creativity
N Factor, Part 6: Unity
N Factor, Part 7: Polish
N Factor, Part 8: Timelessness
N Factor, Part 9: Fun
N Factor, Part 10: Vision
Where, exactly, did Nintendo’s unique personality come from? Compared to the duelling juggernauts– Sony and Microsoft– Nintendo, by far, has the most clearly defined character of the three; a strong, public-facing image that is both unmistakable and universally appealing. Now, I’ve never held a senior position at a multibillion dollar corporation, but I can only assume that building and maintaining a unified front, like this, with thousands of employees in countless regions across the globe must be next to impossible. So how, in the face of regional differences and ever changing societies, does Nintendo continually pull it off?
Nintendo didn’t jump headfirst into the video game market with the intent and vision of cutting out a niche that only it could fill. The path that led Nintendo to family entertainment and video games started nearly a hundred years prior, and was blazed by a perpetual desire to prioritize quality and entertain people. You can read all about Nintendo’s founding and first century as a company in our ‘Before There Was NES’ series. What you’ll find is that it was this initial passion, bold and brilliant leadership, and contributions from many great minds that molded Nintendo, over the years, into the one-of-a-kind entertainment empire that it is today.
The number of creative thinkers and bright minds that have aided in Nintendo’s evolution from humble beginnings to worldwide phenomenon is massive. It would take an article much longer than this to properly give credit where credit is due. Let’s just skim the top, though, and look at a few of the people that have had the biggest impact on the company; individuals who deserve the utmost credit for building and shaping the cohesive vision that is Nintendo.
Aspirations and execution – The Yamauchi Family
The family lineage that founded and helmed Nintendo’s for its first 114 years were brilliant entrepreneurs in every sense of the word. Fusajiro Yamauchi, the man who opened Nintendo Koppai, the hanafuda card shop, in 1889, did so in effort to preserve an ailing hobby. Coming off of a two century-long government ban on playing cards, the market was small, and no one had yet formalized their production. Fusajiro saw this series of hurdles as a both a challenge and a window of opportunity, and before long his instincts for business proved to be keen. The high quality hanafuda cards that Nintendo Koppai produced became incredibly popular, Fusajiro began to expand his early workforce and soon opened a second shop in nearby Osaka.
For 40 years, Fusajiro Yamauchi continued to expand and evolve Nintendo Koppai through business ventures, distribution deals, and a continued focus on quality. With no son of his own, Fusajiro adopted his son-in-law, Sekiryo Kaneda, into the Yamauchi family, and handed off leadership of the company at the age of 70. While not as much is recorded about Sekiryo Yamauchi’s tenure as president of Nintendo, he continued to expand Nintendo’s reach in the Japanese playing card market. He steered the company faithfully for 20 years before he suffered a stroke, and called upon his grandson, his next of kin, to take over the role of president.
Hiroshi Yamauchi was 22 years old and studying law at Waseda University when he was presented with the opportunity to become Nintendo’s third president. Somewhat reluctantly, he agreed to abandon his education and take up the family trade. The same keen instincts for business that guided both Fusajiro and Sekiryo were strong in Hiroshi, and over the course of the next 53 years, he reshaped Nintendo into the entertainment company that it is today. It was under Hiroshi’s leadership that Nintendo would reach its limits within the playing card market, explore a wide variety of business ventures, and eventually find its true calling in entertainment and video games.
This 114-year, three generation leadership from the Yamauchi family laid the cornerstone of today’s Nintendo. The appreciation for quality entertainment that motivated Fusajiro Yamauchi to found Nintendo Koppai has become a permanent fixture of Nintendo’s business strategy. Without this strong foundation, Nintendo, well… wouldn’t exist. And with any other history of leadership, it simply wouldn’t be the iconic, beloved company that it is today.
Brilliant ingenuity – Gunpei Yokoi
Effective management of a company can take it far, but in the entertainment industry, a constant stream of interesting new ideas is equally important. Nintendo, never one to comfortably follow the status quo, has introduced many gameplay, control and design concepts, many of which have evolved into industry standards. There’s evidence of this trendsetting influence in nearly every console, game and controller that we utilize today. During its first steps into the toy industry, and throughout its early success in the video game market, one man contributed more of this progressive ingenuity to Nintendo than anyone else: Gunpei Yokoi.
After graduating from college with a degree in electronics, Yokoi started his career at Nintendo working maintenance at one of its hanafuda factories in 1965. This was a pivotal time, for Nintendo, as it was slowly distancing itself from the limited playing card market and seeking its next logical venture. Through a series of fortunate events, Yokoi’s talent and love for engineering and electronics came to the attention of President Hiroshi Yamauchi, and landed him in the position of full-time toy designer. Some of Yokoi’s early inventions for Nintendo– like the Ultra Hand, a “love tester”, and the Ten Billion Barrel puzzle– were hugely successful, and were at least partly responsible for affirming Nintendo’s new direction as a toy company.
When Nintendo began to experiment with and recognize the potential of video games in the mid ‘70s, Yokoi became one of its first game designers. In this role, he would oversee some of Nintendo’s earliest arcade successes, like Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., and he mentored many new designers, including a young Shigeru Miyamoto.
Perhaps the greatest contribution Gunpei Yokoi made to Nintendo was ushering it into the handheld gaming market. Yokoi developed a corporate philosophy at Nintendo of taking advantage of proven, cheap technology in smart new ways, he called it “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.” It first took shape in the form of Game and Watch, a series of handheld games that used low-power, battery-efficient LCD displays for portable gaming. This philosophy was also embodied in Yokoi’s most successful Nintendo creation– the Game Boy– as well as the NES. In fact, traces of this modest-but-effective approach to hardware creation can be found in every one of Nintendo’s consoles, even today.
Limitless imagination – Shigeru Miyamoto
When we think about Nintendo, and, more specifically, about Nintendo’s games; one name almost reflexively springs to mind: Shigeru Miyamoto. Largely responsible for nearly all of Nintendo’s most iconic characters and series, Miyamoto’s childlike imagination and innate mastery of fun has become a fundamental part of Nintendo’s business. Taken a step further, it’s not a stretch to say that he has had a massive and permanent impact on the entire video game industry.
Joining Nintendo in 1977 as an apprentice in the planning department, it didn’t take long for Miyamoto (and President Yamauchi) to identify his talent for design. As a lifelong fan of visual storytelling, he became one of Nintendo’s first artists, designing art for early coin-op titles. Within a few short years, Miyamoto migrated to game development, and helped to produce Nintendo’s first major Japanese arcade success, Radar Scope. When this title failed achieve similar success in the United States, Miyamoto was tasked with converting the abundance of over-produced Radar Scope cabinets into something different, something that could capture the Western audience. Initially conceived as a title based on the then-popular Popeye license, the game that Miyamoto and his supervisor, Gunpei Yokoi, ended up releasing was Donkey Kong. Introducing the world to two of Miyamoto’s still-iconic characters, Donkey Kong was an international success, and cemented his position as one of Nintendo’s key designers.
From the time Miyamoto was a child, he’s had a lifelong knack for using the world around him to fuel his imagination. The fields, caves and woods that he explored around his childhood home in rural Kyoto would, much later, become the inspiration for the sprawling world map in The Legend of Zelda. While considering development of Mario Bros., Miyamoto looked to the labyrinthine sewer system of New York City as a likely setting, informed by the vocation he had inferred upon Mario based on his appearance in Donkey Kong. In more recent years, he has shared how time spent in Japanese gardens and shrines have inspired and influenced the design of games like the Pikmin series and Star Fox Zero.
Shigeru Miyamoto is a rare talent, exactly the kind that Nintendo thrives on. He has the priceless ability to find fun in the everyday world, and, more amazingly, the talent and imagination to share these fruits with the rest of us.
Embodiment of a vision – Satoru Iwata
To recap a little; Nintendo’s vision has been crafted, over time, by an uncompromising demand for quality, a never-ending stream of new ideas, and the imagination to find and share the joy in the world around us. The individuals that we’ve talked about, so far, each brought their own unique and important abilities to Nintendo. To wrap up this article (and the N Factor series as a whole), I want to talk about a man who felt, to me, like the physical embodiment of all of these traits. The late, great, Satoru Iwata.
Iwata backed his way into Nintendo as the programmer-turned-president of Nintendo affiliate studio HAL Laboratory. After 20 years of honing his game-making and leadership skills at HAL, Iwata officially joined Nintendo in 2000 as head of its corporate planning division. A mere two years later, Iwata succeeded Hiroshi Yamauchi as the fourth president of Nintendo, and the first outside of the Yamauchi family in its 114 year history.
No corporate leader that I can think of has ever demonstrated the genuine, fun-loving, personable demeanor of Satoru Iwata. His long fascination with computers, both personally and professionally, made him uniquely qualified for Nintendo leadership. He ran HAL, in his early career, and Nintendo on both a major and micro scale, as evidenced by his personal contributions to games like Pokémon Gold and Silver and Super Smash Bros. Never afraid to jump into the fray, even when it was no longer his job to do so, Iwata’s reputation among his company and the media were simply unparalleled.
Iwata’s personality reached the public, too, as he quickly established himself as a consumer-facing president. Never missing a chance to represent Nintendo on stage or camera (despite his modest grasp of English) Iwata appeared at nearly every major press event around the world. More recently, he took on the role of host in the majority of Nintendo’s Nintendo Direct presentations, as well as in the long running video series– Iwata Asks– where he would interview Nintendo designers to provide in depth explorations of upcoming projects. These video series’ offered unprecedented insight into the inner-workings of Nintendo, and thanks to Iwata’s infinite charm, were always entertaining.
Satoru Iwata coined an unfortunate quotable quote that would almost always follow a piece of difficult or regrettable Nintendo news: “Please understand.” Without fail, after the second or third delay of a long-anticipated entry in one of Nintendo’s core franchises, Mr. Iwata would take the stage and utter those dreaded words with a look of empathy in his eyes. There’s another phrase, though, that I would wager he used just as much during these presentations. It’s a phrase that, every time I would hear it– in that charming, sincere voice– I would wait with breathless anticipation for whatever was about to come next. Incredibly short, simple, and with absolutely no need for explanation, Mr. Iwata would say, “Please take a look…” This optimistic collection of words has stuck with me for as long as I’ve been paying attention to Nintendo’s corporate side, and it perfectly captures my never-ending excitement for whatever it has in store next.
Looking for more Nintendo history? We take a look at the era leading up to Nintendo’s video game beginnings in our three part ‘Before There Was NES’ series!