The Remarkable History Of Nintendo

Published April 27, 2013
Updated November 7, 2023

The History Of Nintendo

In most industrialized societies, just about everyone has a memory about playing Nintendo. In fact, Nintendo’s impact was so powerful that during the 1990’s, children were more likely to recognize Super Mario than Mickey Mouse.

Nintendo History

Source: Before Mario

Founded in the autumn of 1889, Nintendo Playing Card Co. was the opportunistic endeavor of Fusajiro Yamauchi, who capitalized on a lifted ban on playing cards. Foreign card games had long been banned by the Japanese empire as subliminal Western imperialism, but an exception was made for a regional picture deck called hanafuda, or “flower cards.”

People were initially wary of their mercurial government’s tendency to reverse course, but soon the Yakuza began running hanafuda gambling rings and the game took off. Yamauchi saw an opportunity in the illegal market, and thus named this company 任天堂 (Nin-Ten-Do), an ambiguous word containing Yakuza codes signaling their use for gambling.

Nintendo History Hanafuda Poster

Source: Wikipedia

Yamauchi never fathered a son, and so in 1929 passed on his factory to his son-in-law, Sekiryo Kaneda, who would then take the Yamauchi name. The card company would weather the Second World War and be passed on to another son-in-law, who would pass it on to his son, Hiroshi, in 1949.

Nintendo dominated the playing card market under the leadership of Hiroshi Yamauchi, printing adult playing decks for US soldiers and securing the rights to print Disney characters in 1959. But as the technological advances of the day began to invade more aspects of daily life, parlor games lost their popularity with the general public and Nintendo was faced with finding a new product to sell.

Nintendo's History Pinup Deck

Source: Wikipedia

By 1963, the Nintendo Playing Card Co. would become Nintendo Company Ltd and enter any market available, be it a taxi service, a copy machine or even a short-stay “love hotel,” a clandestine destination often frequented by the married Yamauchi.

Each venture failed, putting the company on the verge of bankruptcy. On a tour of his failing printing press, Yamauchi found his solution in maintenance man Gunpei Yokoi. Struck by the extendable arm Yokoi had built for personal amusement, Yamauchi ordered the mass production of Yokoi’s toy and it saw instant success. Thanks to that chance encounter, Nintendo was reborn as a toy company.

Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Cox, Savannah. "The Remarkable History Of Nintendo.", April 27, 2013, Accessed June 24, 2024.