A Pre-Nintendo World

Photo - Nintendo Playing Card Co.

Nintendo is a world-renowned gaming company, traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, with offices in North America, Europe, and Australia. The company is headquartered in Kyoto, where it was founded in 1889.

1889? That’s not a typo. Nintendo was founded in Anno Domini eighteen-hundred eighty-nine. But to see why, we have to look even further back into history to discover the origins of Hanafuda, Nintendo’s original product line.

It all began, as it often does, with Portugal. In a highly simplified version of Japanese history, Portuguese missionaries introduced Western concepts to Japan in the mid-1500s. European varieties of playing cards were among these concepts, and soon caught on as a medium of gaming.

But in the 1600s, the Tokugawa shogunate began a period of physical and cultural isolationism from the rest of the world, likely in an effort to quell political division. Much as Christianity morphed into a new form when it went underground, the playing cards introduced by the missionaries (often used for gambling) evolved into new forms over the centuries of isolation, eventually leading to Hanafuda (花札) in the 1700s (per Nintendo’s own reckoning).

A traditional Hanafuda deck, laid out by seasons from right-to-left.

A traditional Hanafuda deck, laid out by seasons from right-to-left.

Hanafuda are distinct from contemporary American/British playing cards in several aspects, owing both to their origins in Portugal and their mutation in Japan. They are smaller than Western cards, but are made with a harder, non-bendable material (plastic today, woodblocks in prior incarnations). Not counting any “Jokers”, a deck consists of 48 cards, 4 for each of the 12 months of the year. Rather than having explicit labels, each card depicts a variety of flower, hence the word “Hanafuda” translating to “flower cards”.

However, after two and a half centuries of prohibition, Japan didn’t have much interest in the cards. It is here where we encounter our first player, Fusajiro Yamauchi (山内 房治郎, 1859-1940). In 1889, Yamauchi opened up Nintendo Koppai (任天堂骨牌, “Nintendo playing cards” – I’ll address the translation of “Nintendo” in a later article), and began making higher-quality Hanafuda by hand, leading to a great deal of success as both the company and market for cards grew.

A Mario-themed Hanafuda deck currently offered by the company's reward program, Club Nintendo.

A Mario-themed Hanafuda deck currently offered by the company’s reward program, Club Nintendo.

I’ll address the first 90-odd years of Nintendo’s corporate history in the next article. But already I’d like to pose the similarities of Nintendo’s founding and Nintendo’s later success in the video game market by jumping ahead to the 1980s just for a moment. Specifically, I’d like to focus on the impact of the Famicom in the North American market upon its release in 1985, under the name “Nintendo Entertainment System” or “NES”.

In 1983, the North American home console market had crashed due to a number of factors, including a flood of low-quality titles for the Atari. Nintendo revitalized the market by offering, among other things, a higher degree of quality guarantee. And soon, the market thought to be dead flourished, growing with Nintendo as the majority owner. It seems that the early success of the NES in the North American home console market mirrors much of the early success of Nintendo Koppai in the Japanese playing card market. Maybe, in addition to the Yamauchi name and the ownership of the company, a certain management savvy was passed down through the ages.

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