Happy birthday, Nintendo! That's right: the legendary Japanese video game company turns 125 years old today.
For most gamers, it will be hard to believe that Nintendo could possibly be marking a century and a quarter on its timeline today. That’s because, for most gaming fanatics, Nintendo’s story begins either with the arcade arrival of Donkey Kong, circa 1981, or with the North American release of the NES gaming console in 1985. And indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a Nintendo without Mario or without video games, period. Still, while Nintendo would eventually morph into the company that would define the direction of video games for many years, the majority of the company’s narrative came before all that.
125 years ago, when Japanese entrepreneur Fusajiro Yamauch founded Nintendo, the company had a modest goal of selling special playing card games. Over the years, Nintendo’s mission statement would shift and evolve. In the 1960s alone, the company launched ventures in food services, taxi transportation, "love hotels", and television networks. However, whatever side ventures Nintendo explored, the company would always find its way back to gaming. By the early 1970s, Nintendo's revenues were grounded mostly in laser gun games. And by the time the second half of the decade arrived, Nintendo was already moving toward gaming consoles.
The rest, as they say, was history. From the NES to the Super Nintendo, the Game Boy to the Nintendo 64, Nintendo helped build console gaming into a massive industry, and influenced many lives along the way. It's thanks to Nintendo that games are now looked back upon with the same fond nostalgia as movies. How many childhoods in the 1980s were defined by hours spent playing NES titles like Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt? How many '90s kids remember opening up their N64 on Christmas morning and exploring the new and exciting 3D worlds of Super Mario Mario 64? Or fragging their friends in the legendary GoldenEye 007 multiplayer mode? Or perhaps best of all, throwing their controllers at the wall mid-way through the Water Temple on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time?
Nintendo’s legacy dipped a bit with the GameCube, thanks in part to the growing popularity of Sony’s PlayStation platform, the arrival of Microsoft’s first Xbox, and Nintendo’s refusal to embrace online play and dual-stick controllers. However, while the console may have struggled commercially, it still spawned a slew of terrific games, from the launch titles (games like Super Smash Bros. Melee and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem) to the later arrivals (classics like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Metroid Prime).
In 2006, The Wii revolutionized gaming by introducing motion sensors into the mix. Die-hard gamers might not have loved the console, but for more casual fans, Wii’s innovative motion-based gameplay was a fun breath of fresh air. Nintendo’s decision to step outside the box paid off, of course: the console move 100 million units, and put Nintendo back on top of an industry that had so recently been ruled by Sony and Microsoft.
Unfortunately, the problem with targeting casual fans is that many of them aren't going to stick around as repeat buyers, and such was the problem Nintendo faced when it unveiled the confusingly-named Wii U in 2012. The console wasn't different enough from its predecessor for it to be a must-have product and the Wii's once groundbreaking motion-based gameplay had become commonplace in the six years since the arrival of the original Wii.
Sure, Nintendo is still delivering quality titles from its first-party franchises. This year’s new Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. games are rightfully gathering a lot of attention, and it’s not difficult to see why just about every game from the Mario, Donkey Kong, Metroid, and Zelda franchises seems to arrive to the tune of universal acclaim. When it comes to original, exclusive titles, Nintendo has just about everyone beat in terms of quality control.
The question to be asked on Nintendo’s 125th birthday is this: does the company have it in them to continue their legacy in the long-term? Nintendo’s recent financial struggles are no secret, and the time may be coming where the veteran company no longer has the capital to put out new consoles or compete with multinational corporate empires like Sony and Microsoft.
Nintendo's best bet at this point is to think outside the box and design something that shakes up the gaming industry status quo like the original Wii did. If Nintendo can somehow tap back into the mainstream consumer consciousness and make a console that interests casual gamers along with die-hard Nintendo fans, it could easily have another few decades in it. For now, though, gamers will just have to hope that Nintendo’s slew of quality first-party franchises can keep it afloat long enough for the company’s next innovation to make it to the market.
Header art from TeePublic