For a century and a quarter, Nintendo has devoted itself to an unspoken mission: making games safe, stripping them of their risk and indecency. The company started as a hanafuda playing card manufacturer in the late nineteeth century. Like most gambling, hanafuda was closely tied to organized crime, and the term yakuza, the Japanese word for an organized crime mafia, finds its origin in that game. Nintendo set up shop just after hanafuda had been made legal in Japan, and the company seems to have remained embroiled in gambling and organized crime even as its products sanitized that practice for a newly enfranchised general public.
But even after 70 years in business, Nintendo still struggled to turn the proverbial tables on playing cards. Finally, in the late 1950s, a licensing deal with Disney allowed Nintendo to produce a series of family-oriented card decks and instructional books, changing its fortunes, and marking its second great taming of the medium of games.
After diversifying into electronic toys in the 1970s, the company imported video games to Japan—it was a distinctly American form of entertainment that had been commercialized by Magnavox and Atari. Nintendo’s first video game products, the TV Game 6 and TV Game 15, were based on Odyssey technology licensed from Magnavox.
But by 1981, original handheld and coin-op games made their way out of Nintendo’s factories—the Game & Watch series and the Donkey Kong cabinet being the most notable of these.
Nintendo’s attempt to re-commercialize home console gaming in the West marks the company’s third redemption of games. In the wake of the industry crash of 1983, Nintendo devised an ingenious response that would set the pace for the next three decades—for better and for worse.
First, Nintendo returned video games to the toy marketplace. The Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.) first bundled with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) helped sell this pitch to American toy retailers, most of whom had been badly burned by the ’83 crash and had lost their taste for video games.
Second, having learned from its own experiences as a licensor, Nintendo introduced what we now know as the first-party licensing model. A “Seal of Quality” would insure that retailers and consumers knew a product was worthy of their investment. Such a label would have to be licensed from Nintendo by publishers, which Nintendo itself would select and approve. Nintendo would also manufacture all the games at a mark-up commensurate to its influence among retail buyers. Everybody wins—so long as everybody is Nintendo.
The result surely saved the video game retail market in the West, and for that gift anyone who makes a living or a pastime from video games owes Nintendo its gratitude. But this bailout came with a price. It also changed games, reducing them to a children’s medium sold in toy departments and toy stores, rather than a burgeoning form capable of many different uses and experiences.
Popular opinion blames the crash of ’83 on a flood of poor-quality games—not just scapegoats like Pac-Man and E.T. for Atari 2600, but a whole mess of absurd and unplayable games hacked together by speculators attempting to cash in on the latest fad. But this is an unfair—or at least an incomplete—characterization. Terrible though many games might have been in the Atari/Intellivision era, they were also diverse and distinct, in a way we have only begun to recover in the last half-decade.
The earliest NES games represented familiar genres: mostly sports (10-Yard Fight, Excitebike, Golf) and fantasy adventure (Super Mario Bros., Clu Clu Land, Hogan’s Alley), along with the curious puzzle games made to work with R.O.B. (Gyromite and Stack-Up).
By contrast, in the leading up to the 1983 crash, players could find Atari games that took up the rodeo (Stampede), aeronautic acrobatics (Barnstorming), tax strategy (Tax Avoiders), masturbation (Beat ‘Em & Eat ‘Em), advertisement (Kool-Aid Man)—even adaptations of raunchy, R-rated movies (Porky’s). In the 1970s and early 1980s, games were made for adults as often as they were made for kids—played in bars and bowling alleys as frequently as arcades and basements. Video games might have been new, but they weren’t immature.