Want to keep reading?

You've reached the end of your complimentary access. Subscribe for as little as $4/month.

Aready a Subscriber ? Sign In

Nintendo. The console that changed the world, for 40 years and still going, there’s no escaping that video games have influenced multiple generations. We’ve all seen the ads; Mario’s mustachioed visage is as familiar to us as Santa Claus or Uncle Sam. But how exactly did this come to be?

To figure this out, we have to go back to the year 1981, in the city of Kyoto, the headquarters of Nintendo Japan. The company was a sort of jack-of-all-trades, having dabbled in (successively), playing cards, hotels, and even a taxi service. Their most recent pursuit was electronics, buoyed by the success of their handheld gaming line, the Game & Watch, which was selling like hotcakes in their home country. Recently, however, President Hiroshi Yamauchi, whose great-grandfather had founded the company, had been thinking about trying to reach North American audiences. He soon learned that they preferred the full color, heart-racing action of arcades. Seeing how fellow company Taito had burst onto the scene with Space Invaders, Yamauchi asked his R&D group to develop another space shoot-em-up; the result was Radar Scope, a semi 3-D adventure where you pilot a starship.

While the results were positive within the land of the rising sun, the USA release was a disaster. Shipped to the newly founded, short-staffed Nintendo of America in New York City, it had the misfortune to release around the same time as the likes of Pac-Man, and paid the price, with only around a third of the cabinets being sold. Dismayed, Yamauchi asked a new hire to the company, one Shigeru Miyamoto, to come up with a game to quickly reprogram the unsold cabinets with. A year later, he promptly came up with one, featuring Popeye navigating mazes, but the project hit a bump when the company wouldn’t give licensing. No matter, however; Miyamoto quickly replaced series antagonist Bluto with a giant, muscular ape, and Popeye himself turned into a mustachioed man you may have heard of. To prevent animating his hair, our hero got a red cap; and soon the maze was replaced with a rickety construction site filled with barrels. And so Donkey Kong was created, and a star was born. Soon, they couldn’t keep up demand, and the money kept flowing. Sequels poured in; and nothing could stop them, not even a lawsuit from Universal on America’s new favorite ape. Looking forward from arcades, Nintendo saw a new horizon: the console.

This came at an especially opportune time in gaming, as, in 1983, the gaming market imploded in America. Atari’s massive stock market crash meant that the field was free of challengers. So, starting in Japan, the same brilliant brainstormers behind Nintendo’s arcade successes devised the Family Computer, or Famicom, coming in an elegant red and yellow color scheme, in 1984. It was an overnight success; but the real greatness would come with the US release. Renamed and redesigned, this would prove to be what put the company in the history books, and it was proven with every timeout hero, with his new, well ‘super’ look, stomped on that Goomba. That much is indisputable.

So next time you see, hear, or play Super Mario, or any of Nintendo’s other games just remember it’s not just a game, ‘it’s-a him, a-Mario!’

Reader Interactions


  1. I remember the first time I played on the Nitendo console at our cousin’s house like it was yesterday.

    Schamil – thank you for this.

    Do keep them coming. Sega and Atari in particular please.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.