Nintendo's Strange History Includes The Yakuza, A Taxi Service And Love Motels


Nintendo! A household name for the past 30+ years, the Japanese video game giant is responsible for some of the industry’s best known—and biggest selling—properties. Along with gazillions of people around the world, large chunks of my childhood were devoted to the massive catalogue of games produced by Nintendo.

However, several aspects of the company’s origins aren’t quite so family-friendly. Not least the whole “love hotel” thing it had going on for a while... (Fear not—I’ll be further addressing that soon enough.)

Nintendo is actually a way older company than many people—gamers and otherwise—may think. This week sees the 30th anniversary of the NES’ (Nintendo Entertainment System, known as the Famicon in Japan) U.S. release, and so far as much of the Western World is concerned, it’s what marked the company’s grand arrival.

Yet Nintendo Kabushiki Gaisha was founded all the way back in 1889, its prime product a playing card game called hanafuda. (Interestingly enough, the company still produces playing cards—and holds its own tournament—to this day.) Mass production of such things was only legalized in Japan three years earlier; card games were typically associated with organized crime.

In fact, the original meaning of the Japanese word “Yakuza” was “useless individuals”—a term first coined to a losing hand played with (yep, you guessed it) hanafuda. Eek!

So were criminals an initial target audience for the company that gave Super Mario to the world? That’s difficult to say with any certainty. But one thing's for sure: Nintendo’s history gets progressively stranger—and at times, shadier—as the decades roll by.

Production of playing cards remained the primary focus until 1956, and ahead of reinvention as a dedicated video game company in the 1970s, Nintendo tried its hand at, well, pretty much everything.

After securing a licensing deal with Disney in the early 1960s, the company injected its freshly bolstered cash flow into a series of new ventures. Failed business expansions included (but weren’t restricted to) baby swings, ball-point pens, instant rice, and LEGO-like blocks. The latter landed Nintendo with a lawsuit, with the actual LEGO accusing the Japanese jack-of-all-trades of copyright infringement. The legal battle was dismissed due to Nintendo’s “N&B Blocks” including different shaped/sized components. Or, er, something.

A taxi company was also established, but problems with Labor Unions thwarted hopes of Nintendo’s “Daiya” becoming the 1960s' incarnation of Uber.

In what must surely be the company’s least celebrated business enterprise, Nintendo set up a Love Hotel. Clients didn’t tend to get much in the way of rest, let alone sleep; rooms were available to rent by the hour, with patrons typically accompanied by guests of the financially compensated variety.

These hubs for all things humping are still widespread in Japan’s major towns and cities, with themed rooms equipped with costumes, toys, and other naughty fun-inspired instruments. But back in the ‘60s, Love Hotels weren’t quite so…exalted.

It's not certain where exactly Nintendo set up its morally questionable outlet. The company sure isn’t in any hurry to dish out further details. But it definitely existed, and just like all of the above-mentioned business endeavors, ended up as a cash-consuming failure.

A less cringe-worthy chapter of the company’s history featured the production of toys, with the Kousenjuu series of light gun games likely offering influence to Nintendo’s video game accessories-to-be. Moderate successes in the toy market included Ultra Machine and Love Tester (following the Love Hotel revelations, I shudder to think what this actually involved), but well-established companies such as Bandai and Tomy made it difficult for Nintendo to make any kind of major impact on the market.

However, Laser clay shooting games—mostly found in Japan’s bowling alleys—are what sparked the company's new focus and direction. The electronic era loomed large on the horizon, and before too long Nintendo would become one of the world’s biggest corporations.

Its first venture into the (brand spanking new) video game industry came in 1974. After securing rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey video game console, Nintendo produced its first piece of hardware in 1977: The less than spectacularly named Color TV-Game.

Around the same time, a student product developer named Shigeru Miyamoto was hired to design the casing for the Color TV-Game consoles. (Little did Nintendo know this young whizkid was set to create and produce some of the most famous video games ever made...)

EVR Race, Nintendo’s first venture into the arcade game industry, was followed closely by several further games. But it wasn’t until the release of Donkey Kong in 1981—designed by Shigeru Miyamoto—that the company’s fortune changed. And boy, did it.

The Famicon console was released in Japan in 1983, with the U.S. release (cosmetically reworked and renamed the NES) coming two years later. Super Mario Brothers hit stores that same year, and world domination soon followed. Or at least, absurd piles of profit filling Nintendo’s bank vaults.

It’s amazing to think a playing card company that met with a two-decade-long struggle became the video game behemoth acknowledged so universally today. Ten years after the NES saw the light of day in the United States—which came almost a full century after the company’s founding—Nintendo announced that it had sold a staggering one billion game cartridges. Talk about persistence prevailing, eh?

In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never, ever ever ever ever give up.”

Unless your dreams and aspirations involve opening a Love Hotel.

For the sake of whoever ends up washing the sheets, I’d probably give that one a miss.

Photo credit: Evan Amos

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