Join us as we embark on a fascinating journey spanning over a century. In today’s article, we’re exploring the history of the Nintendo brand and its transformation from a small company that produced playing cards into a global powerhouse in the gaming and technology industry.

Yes, that’s right! If you thought Nintendo was always about Mario or Donkey Kong, you’re in for a big surprise. Before these characters were imagined, the company focused solely on manufacturing handmade Hanafuda playing cards. Discover more about the incredible transformation to the international pioneer in the video games industry everyone knows today.

Everything Started in 1889 with Hanafuda Cards

In 1889, Fusajiro Yamauchi founded Yamauchi Nintendo in Kyoto, Japan. The company gained popularity for producing Hanafuda cards, which led to hiring additional staff to meet the growing demand. Interestingly, some of their new decks featured famous Nintendo characters such as Super Mario, Peach, Link, and Zelda. In a way, the existence of these characters can be traced back to the popularity of Hanafuda cards.

Despite achieving early success, Nintendo faced a significant challenge when finding a successor for the family business. The founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi, did not have a son to carry on the lineage. To maintain the tradition of mukoyōshi, which involves adopting a son-in-law to continue the family business, Yamauchi adopted his son-in-law, Sekiryo Kaneda, who then took on the Yamauchi surname.

In 1929, Fusajiro Yamauchi retired, and Sekiryo Yamauchi (formerly Kaneda) became the company’s president. Under his leadership, Nintendo expanded, creating Marufuku Co., Ltd., a subsidiary that focused on distributing Hanafuda and other card products produced by the company.

If you can’t wrap your head around the popularity of Hanafuda in Japan at the beginning of the 1900s, just compare it to the success of blackjack or other popular card casino games nowadays. This comparison will also help you understand why it was vital for Fusajiro Yamauchi to find a successor.

Changes Brought by Hiroshi Yamauchi that led to a Disney Tie-In and the Public Listing of the Company

Hiroshi Yamauchi became the president of Nintendo in 1949, and he’s responsible for taking the company to the next level. Changing the company name to Nintendo Karuta and launching the production of plastic cards were among the first decisions he took as president. Adding plastic cards to the company’s portfolio was a pioneering move for the Japanese market, as plastic cards were still a novelty in Japan.


In 1956, Yamauchi visited the United States and noticed the popularity of the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) and Disney’s successful ventures in playing cards. This led him to shift Nintendo’s focus from traditional playing cards to exploring new market opportunities. In 1958, Nintendo secured a deal with Disney to feature its characters on playing cards, which proved highly successful in penetrating Japanese households. This strategic shift marked a turning point for Nintendo.

In 1962, Nintendo went public after a successful collaboration with Disney. However, in the mid-1960s, the market for playing cards became saturated, leading to financial difficulties for the company. In response, Nintendo realized the need to diversify and explore new avenues for growth and innovation.

The Switch to a Toy Company and New Horizons

After the successful listing, Nintendo had the financial resources to launch new products. Even though they had strong opponents in companies such as Tomy or Bandai, Nintendo managed to penetrate this market with the Ultra Hand toy, marking the beginning of the company’s shift towards toys and electronics.

During this period, Gunpei Yokoi, an engineer at the company, became a leading figure by creating a range of innovative electronic toys. His inventions included the Ten Billion Barrel puzzle, a complex and engaging puzzle game; the Ultra Machine, an automatic baseball pitching device; and the Love Tester, a novelty item designed to measure romantic compatibility.

Yokoi’s contributions were instrumental in diversifying Nintendo’s product line and were pivotal in helping the company achieve its future successes in the electronic entertainment industry. In 1970, Nintendo partnered with Sharp to release the first solar-powered light gun, the Nintendo Beam Gun. This marked a significant milestone in home gaming technology.

Nintendo: Video Game Manufacturer

Nintendo’s entry into the video game industry commenced with the distribution of the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan in 1974. This move marked the company’s initial step into the burgeoning field of electronic gaming. By 1977, Nintendo had developed and released its own video arcade game, EVR Race, further solidifying its commitment to the video game market.

In the early 1980s, under the guidance of Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo’s video game division began to make a significant impact. Some of the company’s most iconic arcade games were created during this period. A notable example is Donkey Kong, designed by Shigeru Miyamoto. This game succeeded tremendously, introducing characters to become staples in Nintendo’s gaming universe. Seeing the success of this branch, the company ceased manufacturing arcade games and shifted focus to developing handheld electronic games.


The list of launches includes some of the most iconic entertainment devices the world has ever seen:

  • Game Boy – the first handheld game console sold by the company with interchangeable ROM cartridges for each game; it also received a color version
  • Game Boy Advance – launched in 2021, it’s a great technological upgrade that paved the way for the more modern handheld consoles
  • Pokemon Mini – Nintendo released the Pokémon Mini in November 2001. It was the smallest cartridge-based game console ever made and the cheapest one produced by Nintendo at the time. It didn’t sell well and was only released in North America, Japan, and Europe
  • Nintendo 3DS – released on February 26, 2011, features a new console design. It includes three cameras and offers autostereoscopic 3D viewing without special glasses. The 3DS enhanced Nintendo’s online experience
  • Nintendo Switch is a hybrid gaming console released by Nintendo on March 3, 2017. It can be used as a home, portable, or tablet and features two detachable wireless controllers, Joy-Con. The console has a motion sensor, HD Rumble, and an NFC reader.

Final Thoughts

Nintendo has been around for 135 years and has always been known for its innovation and the entertainment it offers to people. Their success story is a great example of how being flexible and keeping up with technological advancements can help a business succeed, even after significant changes in the industry.