Published on January 9th, 2013 | by David Dakota
A Brief History of Nintendo
At nearly 125 years old Nintendo has had a varied business history, including taxi services and the infamous ‘love hotels’ (but sadly no steam powered video games consoles or clockwork handhelds). Only in its more recent history has the company turned its attentions to consumer electronics, in particular video gaming. Here’s our rundown of notable Nintendo hardware – in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 30 years.
Created by legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi each Game and Watch device contained a couple of variations of a single game and, less excitingly, an alarm clock. Most had single LCD screens while a handful housed a two screen set up (something Nintendo would revisit in later years), however the greatest innovation in the range would be the ‘D-pad’ something still seen 30 years later in WiiU. The range was one of Nintendo’s longest serving, being produced from 1980 through to 1991 and saw many of Nintendo’s famous characters make an appearance including Mario, Donkey Kong and Ice Climbers, although many games featured a rather generic character (now given name and mascot status – Mr Game and Watch). Eagle-eyed gamers will notice Octopus from the Game and Watch series takes centre stage in Nintendo Land’s Octopus Dance.
Famicon, or NES in the western world, became a huge hit for Nintendo. Released in Japan in 1983, Nintendo sold over 60m units with the platform boasting an incredible library of games, some developed by Nintendo and others by licensed third party publishers. Nintendo’s biggest games included several Mario titles (he had been seen before but his big break came in the form of Super Mario Bros and its sequels), The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Mike Tysons Punch Out all sold multiple million copies. Less popular but fondly remembered games like Gumshoe, Devils World, Kid Icarus were also released and a wealth of peripherals became available, including ‘robot’ ROB, a light gun and the Four Score multitap for 4 player gaming.
The NES’s most significant achievement came in America. Whilst gaming on the TV was nothing new the US video games crash of the early 1980s was a major obsacle for Nintendo to overcome, American retailers were wary and consumers disinterested – Nintendo had its work cut out. To many it must have seemed an incredible risk to launch the NES console in the States- but with some clever marketing and a tighter grip on the platform Nintendo made it a huge success.
In the late 1980s, Nintendo launched the first in its wildly popular Gameboy line (a moniker that would stay with its handeld consoles until 2005). Again designed Yokoi it was big, heavy and relied on a green monochome screen for visuals – despite competing products having impressive colour displays. While generally underpowered compared to its peers ( Sega’s Game Gear and Atari’s Lynx devices) Nintendo had packaged their machine with Tetris (a game which would capture the attention of a huge number of people) and had priced the machine perfectly – ensuring its long term success. Many of Nintendo’s big names appeared in some form on Gameboy, games specially developed for the machine like the Super Mario Land titles and Zelda: Links Awakening. In 1996, Nintendo published its first Pokémon games on the handheld, its second most successful game franchise (after Mario, of course).
The original Gameboy had a number of hardware revisions and makeovers; a smaller Gameboy Pocket, a lit-screen Gameboy Light, a colour screened version Gameboy Colour, all of which allowed Nintendo to dominate the handheld market worldwide.
Updated hardware, better graphics and ‘CD quality sound’. Released in the early 90s, Super NES was Nintendo’s stab at a 16-bit console, and they went straight for the throat. Unlike the Nintendo of today, the company launched a machine more powerful that its competitor (Sega Megadrive) and had an excellent relationship with the development community and a healthy reputation with the public. With Nintendo tried and tested, third parties found fame and fortune on Super Nintendo, rolling out hit after hit, Contra/Probotector and Castlevania IV from Konami, several arcade “perfect” conversions of Street Fighter II from Capcom, EA pushed many of its annual sports titles to the platform, Square published a raft of RPGs, such as Final Fantasy and its seminal Secret of Mana. Nintendo’s development teams kept themselves busy with launch titles Super Mario World and fan-favourite PilotWings, Super Metroid and Super Mario Kart, the first in the popular series. Later in its life, and with stronger, more powerful 32-bit systems on the horizon, Nintendo reacted to the threat by including additional processors in certain games- Starfox (Star Wing in Europe) was the first game to include the Super FX chip which allowed 3D environments and unique gameplay experiences; Starfox was followed by, amongst others, quirky racer Stunt Race FX and, famously, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Impressive visuals were further squeezed out of the machine by second party Rare who, with the help of some super powerful SGI computers (responsible for Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park effects), developed Donkey Kong Country – a title that, incredibly, convinced journalists that Nintendo were a about to launch further new hardware – something that would not happen for a further two years.
The Super Nintendo is fondly remembered by gamers around the world, its large and diverse library of games captured our hearts and imaginations- arguably, its the last time a Nintendo system offered such a thing.
Code named ‘project reality’, Nintendo 64 launched late 1996, early 1997 in Europe. A powerful machine, built in collaboration with SGI Inc, and built from the ground up to take advantage of 3D game worlds, it is often considered more powerful than Sony’s PlayStation competition (itself, based off an aborted add-on for SNES), although in reality both had pros and cons, nuances that make them difficult to honestly compare. It’s odd, ‘trident’ shaped controller was pivotal for gameplay in 3D environments, and although not the first include an analogue stick, it certainly popularised the idea with all consoles and handhelds now having at least one stick.
Learning from its previous success with Mario headlining a console launch, Nintendo ensured the portly plumber was on hand at day one; Super Mario 64 was an incredible adventure, each level its own unique playground (the game was unbeaten in the platforming genre for a decade). Defunct studio Acclaim had success with its Turok Dinosaur Hunter series, but ultimately third party support all but dried up, with much of the blame laid squarely at Nintendo’s decision to stick with cartridge media (which had limited storage capacity compared to CD). With limited games coming from third party publishers, it fell to Nintendo and UK developer Rare to populate the release calendar – and a sterling job they did too, the N64 proved home to some of the most creative games in any generation since, Rare presented us with the genre-defining Goldeneye 007, Killer Instinct, Banjo Kazooie, Blast Corps, Perfect Dark, Jet Force Gemini; each one pushing visuals and game play (and in the case of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, taste) in new directions. Nintendo, on the otherhand had incredible successes with its established franchises, Mario Kart returned (bringing with it that darned blue shell), Zelda was reimagined in 3D with both Ocarina of Time and the darker Majora’s Mask.
Nintendo’s original Gameboy line was eventually replaced in 2001. The GBA was a whole new platform, similar in power to the Super Nintendo. The similarities didn’t end there – the hardware was launched with Super Mario Advance: Super Mario Bros 2 – a repackage of a SNES remake originally included in a compilation of NES Mario games and Nintendo continued to confuse players with crazy numbering for the series (Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island became SMA3, while Super Mario Bros 3 is SMA4). Whilst the GBA was home to a large collection of ports from the SNES days, original content was not ignored; Nintendo released two popular Advance Wars games, a new Mario Kart, Pokemon, Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga, Metroid Fusion, Golden Sun and Zelda: The Minish Cap. Nintendo’s biggest success came with new titles in its Pokémon series, while third party publishers mainly found success with licensed properties (such as Harry Potter, Finding Nemo).
Launching against stiff competition in 2001/02, Nintendo opted to set themselves apart from Sony and Microsofts multimedia machines, ignoring DVD playback for smaller proprietary disks, a chunky cube design and a lower launch price. Despite Gamecube having comparable specifications to other consoles, Nintendo presented an honest assessment of under-the-hood power at launch, leading many gamers to incorrectly interpreted the machine as being much weaker (a judgment Nintendo failed to shake off).
Nintendo secured some great content for launch; Luigi’s Mansion was joined by Sega’s Super Monkey Ball and Factor 5s Star Wars: Rogue Squadron Rogue Leader. Established franchises returned in the form of sun-drenched Super Mario Sunshine and a cel-shaded toon Zelda adventure, Wind Waker. New IP arrived from fallen-from-grace developer Silicon Knights (Eternal Darkness: Santity’s Requiem) and Capcom’s Viewtiful Joe series. Nintendo also secured further support from Capcom with a (near) exclusive deal on the Resident Evil series and an incredible remake of Metal Gear Solid from Konami (and Silicon Knights). The biggest surprise of the generation came with the announcement of Metroid Prime, with developers Retro Studios shifting the series’ traditional 2D platform roots to full 3D environments, and first person shooter style combat; pitched (incorrectly) as competition to Microsoft’s Halo, Metroid Prime offered huge adventure and put exploration at the forefront. The Prime series quickly, and rightfully, earned its place in many Nintendo fans hearts.
Gamecube offered some limited connectivity with its GBA handheld, notably some second screen gameplay in Zelda: Wind Waker. Although the feature never really took off, we’re seeing it in more and more devices in modern consumer electronics including current platform WiiU.
Nintendo DS. Touching is good.
Nintendo had originally suggested its then-upcoming Nintendo DS device was to be a ‘third pillar’, a device to complement its Gameboy Advance and Gamecube lines but it soon became a wildly popular successor to the handheld business, eclipsing the lifetime sales of all previous Nintendo hardware. Released in 2004 the system had, uniquely, two screens – one of which was touch enabled screen and positioned on the the lower portion of the clamshell design. This touchscreen was instrumental in the success of the DS since without it, system-selling games like Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and Nintendogs would not have been possible (these were the titles that appealed to the mass audience and sold incredibly well).
As with previous hardware, Nintendo leveraged its well known characters with new games (and, of course, some ports of older games) including Animal Crossing – which appealed to the new female demographic, Yoshi’s Touch and Go, throwback 2D platformer New Super Mario Bros and new iterations of Advance Wars and Mario Kart (the first with online play). Nintendo also invested heavily in brand new experience, many outside the traditional definition of video games – Flash Focus (vision training), Face Training, Cooking Guide and Art Academy. Third party developers found successes with newly developed games too – Scribblenauts from 5th Cell/Warner Bros, for example, along with a large number of licensed titles.
It was clear from early on that Nintendo was on to a winner with the DS, but its greatest success came with the ‘Lite’ redesign and ‘expanded audience’ titles like Nintendogs. Further redesigns came in the form of the DSi which included a built in camera and DSi XL with larger screen. The DS continues to sell well despite its successor, the Nintendo 3DS, being available.
Hinting for some time that they were working on some revolutionary idea, Nintendo delivered Wii way back in 2006. Whilst the competition continued the usual arms race of higher specs and flashier graphics, Nintendo bought out the atomic bomb of motion controls and new ways to play. Wii offered players intuitive and easy understood experiences – for the first time anyone could simply pick up and play. Wisely packing in showcase software WiiSports, Nintendo saw massive interest – and sales – for years, easily outselling the more powerful competing consoles.
Throughout the Wii’s life Nintendo continued to release software that really engaged with players, Super Mario Galaxy was hailed as a masterpiece (along with its fast-tracked sequel), while Mario also returned to his roots in 2D plaformer adventure New Super Mario Bros Wii which proved a huge seller along with Mario’s return to racing in Mario Kart Wii. Metroid Prime 3 (and later a Trilogy compilation) wowed fans of the series while Monolith Soft’s awesome RPG Xenoblade proved epic adventures can still be done.
Inspired by WiiSports’ success third party developers and publishers concentrated on bringing smaller, family orientated games to the platform – and Wii was starting to be perceived as a lighter console – a source of great frustration to loyal Nintendo fans and gamers. In 2008 High Voltage Software announced it would challenge that perception with The Conduit, a first person science fiction shooter with – gasp – online play. It was an announcement that seemed to inspire more ‘core’ titles from third parties – Sega’s House of the Dead Overkill and EAs Dead Space Extraction followed but the choice of genre seemed to as frustrate fans as much as the lack of core software did. Ultimately, it all proved too little, too late to make any meaningful change to Wii’s perception as a family-only device.
Of course, third parties did see some notable success on Wii; Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition proved to be the definitive version of the game and their decision to shift Monster Hunter 3 from Playstation 3 paid off in Japan and some improved awareness of the franchise elsewhere in the world. Treyarch’s dedication to Nintendo saw them downscale the Call of Duty engine for Wii, enabling most COD games to appear on the platform with improved point-to-aim gameplay and impressive sales numbers.
Now we’re bang up to date with Nintendo hardware – so bookmark us and come back for news, reviews and features on both Nintendo 3DS and Wii U.