14 Next-Level Facts About Nintendo
Originally formed in 1889 as trading card company, the Kyoto, Japan-based Nintendo overcame the implosion of Atari in the early 1980s to revive the video game industry and make household names of pixelated characters like Mario and Link. More than 30 years later, it’s still reaping sales of $3.5 billion annually. Take a look at some lesser-known facts and trivia about pop culture’s digital Disney.
1. NO ONE IS REALLY SURE WHAT “NINTENDO” MEANS.
As a onetime manufacturer of simple diversions like cards and other hand-held items, Nintendo was widely thought to have chosen its name as a reference to good fortune: “leave luck to heaven” was one common interpretation. (Nin means “let someone do,” while do can mean a temple or sanctuary.) But since no archival material from their inception survived, no one can be completely certain what founder Fusajiro Yamauchi had in mind. Hiroshi Yamauchi, the Nintendo president who passed away in 2013, once said that while the explanation was a reasonable guess, even he had no real idea what “Nintendo” was in reference to.
2. THEY ONCE MARKETED INSTANT RICE.
Nintendo’s pre-video game pursuits have been well-documented: the company tried everything from “love tester” machines to taxi services. Their strangest detour, however, may have been in the marketing of instant rice, which was part of some unique expansion efforts in the 1960s. Nintendo even tried peddling a vacuum cleaner before realizing the distribution relationships from their playing card history made them an ideal resource for toys and games, not small appliances and boxed food.
3. DUCK HUNT WAS RELEASED IN 1976.
More or less. Once Nintendo settled on a direction—exploring the exploding arcade and home game industry—they had a burst of success with Duck Hunt, a contraption that projected targets onto a wall and made them assailable with a solar cell built into a light gun (renamed the “Zapper” for home use in the 1980s). The popularity of Hunt as well as cabinet-style games encouraged Nintendo to pursue the home console business, where interchangeable cartridges would ensure players would never grow tired of the same title. (Or fowl.)
4. R.O.B. THE ROBOT WAS A TROJAN HORSE.
After launching their Famicom (“Family Computer”) in Japan in 1983, Nintendo considered partnering with Atari to distribute the console in America under the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) name—but Atari’s financial crash gave their brand a scarlet letter, leaving many retailers selling their product at a loss. To combat the widespread video game resentment that followed, Nintendo of America (NOA) decided to market the NES as a home entertainment system. They included the Zapper and a robot named R.O.B. that would react to the action onscreen. In reality, R.O.B. was prone to malfunctioning and only worked with two titles, but his presence was enough to convince both stores and consumers that this wasn’t another bust. The ploy worked: After a successful test market in the northeast in 1985 and 1986, sales of the NES soared to over 6 million (along with 33 million games sold) in 1988.
5. MARIO’S DESIGN WAS PURPOSELY LOW-TECH.
Legendary Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto drafted an iconic game character in Mario, the plumber (and occasional referee/doctor/race car driver) who saves damsels in distress in Donkey Kong and his own Mario Bros. series. But his look wasn't solely the result of artistic inspiration. The familiar mustache and hat were added because the technology of the era allowed for so few pixels onscreen; with his white gloves, a player could see his arms move; a hat covered up hair that couldn’t be adequately rendered.
6. NINTENDO DIDN’T ACTUALLY MAKE THE POWER GLOVE.
Blame for the barely-intuitive controller actually goes to Mattel, which obtained a license to create, manufacture, and market the device beginning in 1990. Because Nintendo insisted the glove work with its entire library of games, Mattel found itself trying to engineer a backwards-compatible accessory with little success. They predicted they’d move a million gloves that year, but only 100,000 were sold. (Not counting returns.)
7. THE COMPANY ALMOST RELEASED AN NES KNITTING MACHINE.
“Now You’re Knitting with Power” sounds like an April Fool’s prank, but it was something Nintendo seriously considered as an ad slogan. Former Nintendo employee Howard Phillips once posted a long-forgotten product brochure from the late 1980s on Facebook that demonstrated the company was playing with the idea of a knitting machine peripheral that could be attached to the NES. The add-on and the design cartridges were apparently met with a tepid reception during an industry event and never released.
8. THEIR CALL CENTER WAS LIKE A CRISIS HOTLINE.
The Captain Nintendo Hotline was an 800 number service that provided tips, but the overwhelming number of calls forced Nintendo to convert it into a 900 toll service by 1990. Game “counselors” could talk kids through difficult spots, but also found themselves being asked questions about school or—in the case of older gamers—marriage issues. The company eventually capped calls at seven minutes to avoid inadvertent therapy sessions.
9. THEY HAD TO BAN STEVE WOZNIAK.
Nintendo Power was the company’s direct-to-consumer subscription magazine that hyped new releases, provided strategy guides, and gave players a sense of community spirit at a time mainstream publications weren’t paying much attention to the industry. While they were happy to celebrate accomplishments in a high-score section, editors eventually had to prohibit Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak from submitting his record achievements in Tetris because they couldn’t keep printing his name month after month. (Wozniak obliged, but not before submitting one last screen shot as "Evets Kainzow," his name spelled backward.)
10. THEY TURNED DOWN TOM HANKS FOR MARIO.
It was inevitable that Nintendo’s success would bleed into feature films. While 1989’s The Wizard—about a gaming prodigy who conquers Super Mario Bros. 3 in what could be considered the most expensive toy commercial of all time—was a disappointment, 1993’s Super Mario Bros. live-action feature was more of a disaster. Before casting Bob Hoskins in the lead role, Nintendo (which had veto power over production decisions) decided that Tom Hanks was asking too much by demanding $5 million to star. "Nintendo got rid of Tom Hanks because he wasn't considered a bankable movie star," Jeff Ryan, author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, told io9. "He wasn't worth the money!" Hoskins was in, the audience was out, and the film would be the last based on a Nintendo-owned character to date.
11. THEY WANTED TO HELP YOU GAMBLE.
Not all of Nintendo’s bizarre ideas came prior to their video game success. In the early 1990s, the company had the notion of using burgeoning modem technology to allow users to play the lottery via their consoles. Nintendo set Minnesota as a trial market in 1991, offering carts that would let players pick lotto numbers for a low monthly fee of $10. While the state’s gaming commission approved the plan, pushback from politicians with concerns over gambling being associated with a device used frequently by children proved too tough to overcome, and the add-on was scrapped.
12. THEY WON AN EMMY FOR THEIR ORIGINAL CONTROL PAD.
The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences isn’t above recognizing achievements outside of sitcoms and fictional ‘60s ad agencies. In 2007, they bestowed a (belated) Technological and Engineering Emmy Award on Nintendo for their “D-pad” innovation, the directional button that replaced the joy stick in home game systems.
13. THEIR REDMOND HEADQUARTERS HAVE MARIO BATHROOM SIGNS.
Nintendo of America operates out of Redmond, Washington, and the building’s design accents are what you’d expect from the House Mario Built. Bathroom signs have silhouettes of the plumber and his princess; conference rooms are named after Zelda and other Nintendo game characters; benches in the lobby are shaped like the D-pads, although that appears to have been simply a happy coincidence. The furniture provider didn’t do it on purpose.
14. SOMEONE JUST MADE A NEW NES GAME.
In 2015, game developer hobbyists Dustin Long and Andrew Reitano collaborated on Star Versus, a space shooter that comes in a classic NES-style cartridge and can only be played on the original console. Why didn't more third-parties create unlicensed games in the first place? Originally, Nintendo installed a "lockout chip" in cartridges that prevented unapproved games from working in their systems. Long and Reitano's firmware addresses the security chip issue; Long told Popular Mechanics he wanted to create something tangible that had to be obtained physically rather than develop a program for the many NES emulators online.