T'was Monday 23rd September in the year 1889 - a fateful day in Kyoto, Japan - when Ian Nintendo woke up and decided to form a video game company...
Okay, there may be a couple of minor discrepancies in that opening statement, although the date and the founding of the company we now know as Nintendo are accurate. Started by Fusajiro Yamauchi and originally named Nintendo Koppai, it famously started off manufacturing Hanafuda playing cards before the founder’s great-grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi diversified the company’s output through the middle years of the last century. Following forays into ‘love hotels’, taxis and a variety of other business pursuits, the electronic toy market beckoned and Nintendo was gradually transformed into the company that we know and love today.
Of course, there have been plenty of ups and downs along the way. When it celebrated its 125th anniversary five years ago, the outlook was rather less rosy than it is now. However, the time since then has been a period of internal rejuvenation and sales success which has reversed Nintendo’s fortunes in much the same way the Wii did back in 2006. There were tough times, though, with events both sobering and tragic along the way.
After launching Wii U in 2012, Nintendo failed to differentiate the console from its predecessor in the minds of the general public. While different messaging could have made clear that the GamePad wasn’t a Wii accessory, more alarmingly Nintendo never really delivered a compelling asymmetrical game that capitalised on the tech and truly demonstrated its potential; Nintendo Land was a pleasant, fairground-style showcase, but certainly not the killer app Wii Sports had been, and looking back over the first-party releases, it’s arguably only Super Mario Maker which made the controller feel genuinely indispensable.
Fortunately, after a slow start and a price cut, the Nintendo 3DS was ticking along nicely with a steady stream of brilliant games. With hindsight, it’s now easy to see Wii U as a necessary stepping stone towards Switch, but that doesn’t make its sales figures easier to read. It stands as the company’s worst-selling home console (with lifetime sales of just 13.56 million systems) and the prognosis in 2014 was dire enough for Nintendo top-brass to take voluntary pay cuts. Company President Satoru Iwata took the lead with a 50% reduction in his paycheck.
This lull in business terms would be mirrored by an emotional low point the following year with the loss of Satoru Iwata in July 2015. The impact of his death at the age of 55 was felt across the industry, and while the seeds of Switch had been sown during his tenure, it was hard to imagine Nintendo’s future without Iwata at the helm.
The announcement in March 2015 of a partnership with DeNA to make mobile games might have been disheartening to traditional gamers by itself, but it was coupled with the news that a new console – codename NX – was in the works. Despite boasting some incredible games, Wii U was a dead duck in sales terms and Nintendo was treading water until its new hardware was ready. There’s nothing like a mysterious console with a sexy codename to fire the imagination and after a difficult few years, the only way was up.
Inevitably, rumours of bleeding edge specs were spurious, but from the moment of its initial reveal the simple, clear messaging of Nintendo Switch proposed a way of gaming that struck a chord with anybody whose lifestyle prevented them from spending hours tied to a TV. We won’t waste time wittering on about the hybrid console we all know so well - suffice it to say that it’s a handy little system that’s gone down very well indeed, and it's the linchpin in the company’s financial turnaround.
And Switch is only one dish in a smorgasbord of Nintendo offerings across various media. With its core dedicated hardware business in rude health, there’s an entire platter of pies in front of sitting Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa, and he’s got his fingers in most of them. The NES and Super NES Classic Mini consoles went down a storm and set a new standard for mini consoles that other companies are following with their own impressive equivalents. Nintendo's mobile business is a huge new source of revenue which also gets its IP into the hands of a much broader audience. Although the franchise is only partly owned by the company, the continued success of Pokémon GO on smart devices offers cross-promotional benefits and Pokémon: Detective Pikachu turned out to be that rarest of things – a good video game movie.
Speaking of which, Super Mario: The Motion Picture (our title) is in the works and a Super Nintendo World theme park will be opening in Japan in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games next year, with themed areas to follow in the Universal Studios parks on either side of the United States and Singapore sometime after that. The closing ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio saw Nintendo’s mascot plumber assume the even larger role of Japanese ambassadorial figure when he appeared in a teaser for the upcoming games and Nintendo once again got its characters in front of an enormous number of eyeballs. With generally improved and increased IP licencing across the board, Nintendo and its fans have entered a golden era that's arguably unmatched by anything in the company's illustrious history.
Plenty for us to look forward to, then, and that’s not even mentioning the games. The cavalcade of software arriving on Switch on a weekly basis is something Nintendo gamers have never experienced before, even in the halcyon days of the NES or the Wii, and while setting aside time (and money) for them is a challenge, it’s a wonderful problem to have and highlights the wealth of diverse genres and experiences available.
And Nintendo hasn’t lost its playful, experimental side, either – it’s impossible to imagine another company producing something as intriguing, deeply wacky and (quite literally) throwaway as Nintendo Labo. Next month Ring Fit Adventure arrives, channelling the developer’s experience from the Wii Fit era and its Quality of Life experiments into a package dripping with RPG levelling and battle mechanics as much as sweat. We’ll see how that holds up soon, but there’s plenty else to play if the thought of jumping about with a Pilates ring doesn’t appeal.
And that is arguably one of the greatest strengths of Nintendo in 2019 – if you don’t fancy a particular game, there’s always something else, and that even extends to the hardware itself. Switch Lite can be safely ignored if a portable-only console doesn’t suit you, but as a 3DS replacement it makes eminent sense to many. Crucially, the breadth of Switch’s experiences no longer seems to be coming at the expense of the ‘core’ video games the company built its legacy on. The ballooning success of the Wii era arguably caused a loss of focus with the Wii U, something which has been regained. With Switch, truly everyone is invited.
So, with 130 years under its belt, Nintendo has never been in a better spot. There will undoubtedly be more ups and downs to come, and we’re sure to see famous faces move on from the company (it was only five months ago that Doug Bowser took over the top job at Nintendo of America following Reggie Fils-Aimé’s retirement), but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yes, that can occasionally be a source of frustration for fans when certain games remain unlocalised or when the company rejects industry-standards in favour of its own solutions, but the deep well of emotional attachment to Nintendo and its output has developed over many wonderful years and most every impassioned fan response comes from a place of love.
The future’s bright, then, and we’re sure you’ll join us in wishing everyone who makes Nintendo what it is a very happy birthday.
Here's to the next 130! Are we in a golden age of Nintendo? Are you an old-school purist who thinks Nintendo sold out when it chucked in the hanafuda cards? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to share your favourite memories of the past 130 years below.