Nintendo is perhaps the most popular, well-known, and historically significant brand in gaming. Nintendo’s pantheon of characters, such as Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong, are some of the most successful multimedia franchises of all time. There are countless toys, games, TV shows, and collectibles of Nintendo’s beloved characters and in gaming their exclusivity to Nintendo systems has kept the company flying high in boom times and afloat through the rough patches.
Nintendo began as a playing card and toy company. The company’s foray in to video games in the late seventies began with arcade cabinets and simple, one-game home machines. The Game & Watch was the first portable gaming system in 1980 but like their previous machines the system could only play one pre-loaded game. It wasn’t until 1983 and the release of the Famicom, known outside of Japan simply as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), that the company really found the essence of what it continues to exist on today.
The NES was a revolution in video games. While there had been a few home video game consoles from companies like Atari, the NES is when the trend of game systems really bloomed. A big part of the system’s success came from a little game called Super Mario Bros. which turned gaming culture on its head with its challenging yet accessible game play and (for the time) sophisticated graphics.
Super Mario Bros. was produced by a young man named Shigeru Miyamoto who would go on to introduce some more of the most important franchises in gaming history for Nintendo, including Zelda and Donkey Kong. Miyamoto has had a hand in every Mario and Zelda title ever released and continues to work exclusively with the company to this day.
In 1989 Nintendo released the Game Boy, a handheld video game system that utilized cartridge games like the NES. This was a major progression from the Game & Watch and behind the strength of blockbusters like Kirby and Tetris the Game Boy became an international phenomenon. Ever since Nintendo’s fortunes have been heavily tied to the handheld market and until the relatively recent rise of mobile device they were practically unchallenged in the field.
The Super Nintendo (SNES) in 1990 featured a 16-bit processor which doubled the power of the NES’s 8-bit capabilities and allowed for far more advanced games. Graphics, sound, speed, length, and memory are some of the components that were greatly enhanced with the upgrade and games like Mario and Zelda exploded in popularity and found new audiences with the fresh coat of paint. It was at this time that full-fledged video game fever hit America as Nintendo duked it out with a new company called Sega and their mascot Sonic the Hedgehog in what is widely regarded as the first “console war”.
Although Nintendo would prevail in its battle against Sega it would soon face new competition when Sony entered the market with its Playstation system, which had originally been developed as a Nintendo add-on. The next Nintendo system, the Nintendo 64, was a huge jump forward from the SNES and was even significantly more powerful than its rivals the Playstation and Sega Saturn. The 64-bit system introduced 3D graphics to gaming and was home to what continue to be some of the most popular and well-received games of all time including Super Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Released in 1996, it was the last home console to utilize the cartridge format.
While the company began to be entrenched in the home console market, its handheld offerings expanded with several expansions of the Game Boy that were met with ever increasing success. The Game Boy Pocket simply trimmed the original model down while the Game Boy Color introduced colored graphics to the popular mobile machine. In 2001 the Game Boy Advance showcased power in a handheld machine that was about equal to the Super Nintendo home console.
Nintendo’s fourth major TV-system, the Gamecube, was also released in 2001 and was the first machine from the company to utilize discs instead of cartridges. The Gamecube struggled against stiff competition from Sony’s Playstation 2 and Microsoft’s emergence in to the field with their Xbox console. The Gamecube is perhaps best remembered for taking chances with the big Nintendo franchises in an effort to revitalize the company’s long running brands. Zelda was re-imagined with a cartoon style known as cell shading, Mario was given a water jetpack to hop around with, and Donkey Kong was turned in to a conga based rhythm game.
With critics, competitors, and pundits pointing to the end of the company following the Gamecube’s lackluster reception, Nintendo knew it was on the ropes and had to fight back from the edge. As the company prepared to launch their new handheld system the Nintendo DS, which utilized a dual set up of a display screen and touch screen, Nintendo founder Fusajiro Yamauchi famously prophesied that “"The DS represents a critical moment for Nintendo's success over the next two years. If it succeeds, we rise to the heavens, if it fails, we sink into hell." Luckily for Yamauchi and Nintendo fans everywhere the DS was a smash success and helped to lift the company from the brink of ruin.
Shortly after, in 2006, Nintendo came back swinging with the release of the Nintendo Wii. The Wii would go on to break company records and become Nintendo’s best selling home console ever. With the Wii Nintendo again revolutionized video games with the system’s ground breaking motion controls. Long running series such as Mario Kart and Metroid found new life on the system and Nintendo finally embraced emerging trends in the console world such as online connectivity. Even as Sony and Microsoft put up a formidable fight with their Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 respectively, Nintendo took back the crown of video game consoles with the earth-shattering success of their new system.
Nintendo’s family of characters now plays on their new Wii U system, which features motion controls as well as a touch screen controller, and the 3DS handheld system , which acts like a DS but with the addition of 3D technology. The company continues to brawl with Sony and Microsoft and now also faces a high-stakes battle in their handheld market with the rise of mobile devices and App games. The company has vowed to never make games for a platform other than their own and swears that the day they leave the gaming business is the day franchises like Mario will be retired.
Despite what cynics and naysayers might predict that day isn’t likely to be anytime soon. Mario and his pals are as popular as ever and are at home in toy aisles, Happy Meal boxes, and novelty shops across the world. Nintendo’s characters are so well-known that it isn’t hyperbolic to say they have brightened culture far outside of their on-screen adventures and have reached that rare level of cultural immortality where generation after generation embraces them as their own.
Posted by Terry Pierson, Library Clerk