Retro: The History of Nintendo Innovations
Nintendo has a long, rich history, much of this as a family run business. The company was founded in 1889 (seriously that’s not a typo) as Nintendo Koppai by Fusajiro Yamauchi and produced handmade playing cards for a game called Hanafuda.
The cards gained popularity and Mr Yamauchi headed the company until he retired in 1929. Lacking a son to inherit the family business he adopted his son in law Sekiryo to take over as president.
Over the next 20 years Sekiryo Yamauchi expanded the business but again lacking a son to inherit the company he adopted his son in law Shikanojo. Shikanojo never inherited Nintendo however as he became estranged from his family so instead the company was passed to his son Hiroshi (being raised by his grandparents).
Hiroshi’s appointment as president of Nintendo took place suddenly in 1949 when his grandfather died; he was only 21. Hiroshi Yamauchi headed Nintendo for over 50 years, only stepping down in 2002. He is credited as the man who transformed Nintendo from a relatively small Hanafuda card company to the multinational giant of the video game industry it is today. He personally oversaw most of the hardware and software produced by the company exerting a tight quality control never seen in the video game industry before or since. Hiroshi’s personal and professional life are a fascinating read but we’re here to look at the legacy of innovation for which his company became famous.
Color TV Game Series (Released in Japan only)
1977 – Color TV Game 6 (Six variations of Pong, built in dial controllers)
1978 – Color TV Game 15 (15 Variations of Pong like games, 2 wired controllers)
1978 – Color TV Racing 112 (birds eye view racing using steering wheel and gearshift control or 2 smaller controllers for multiplayer). Miyamoto designed the system casing and gearshift control.
1979 – Color TV Game Block Breaker (A Nintendo take on the Atari game Breakout. This home version was unique in that the player could tailor various options of the game such as number and speed of balls in play and different variations of the game could be selected. This was one of Shigeru Miyamoto’s 1st design projects)
1980 – Computer TV Game – Home console version of Nintendo’s ‘Computer Othello’ arcade machine released in 1978 demonstrating their desire to install their arcade experiences into the home
Game & Watch Series
1980/1991 – Game & Watch Series – At first these simple palm sized LCD games had only 2 buttons to move left & right but soon included such innovations as the now standard d-pad (invented by Nintendo legend Gunpei Yokoi) & multiscreen and multiplayer gameplay in a portable system. Game & Watch systems were produced between 1980 and 1991, were a great success and have become hugely sort after collectors items.
1983 – Family Computer/Famicom/NES – released later in the US, Europe and Australia as the Nintendo Entertainment System. This is the system that changed everything, that many industry professionals will agree was the saviour of the video game industry in the 80’s.
The Japanese version of the console included innovations that didn’t make it to other territories such as a built in microphone in the controller for stunning enemies in The Legend of Zelda by shouting, or the Famicom Disc System (released in 1986), which used writeable disks for its games allowing game saves without a password.
In the 80’s the US video game industry was in trouble (known as the video game crash of 1983). There were too many game systems, too many games and very little quality control. To tackle this and to restore public confidence Nintendo introduced the now standard business practice of licensing third parties to produce games for their system and utilised lock out chip technology to block the use of unlicensed games. This allowed Nintendo to maintain an unprecedented level of quality control over the software for their system and helped the console to quickly gain a reputation for high quality software.
Gameboy Series (8Bit)
1989 – The Gameboy, released in Japan then very shortly after in all other territories was an instant success. This console, another product of (Gunpei Yokoi & Nintendo R&D1) is undeniably the reason for Nintendo’s early dominance of the handheld console market. Gameboy used a monochrome 66mm display, cartridge games and 4 AA size batteries to give gamers NES style games on the go.
The relatively modest specs meant that on one set of batteries the Gameboy could provide up to 12 hours of gameplay. This coupled with it’s aggressive $89 price point and Tetris bundle meant that competing colour systems such as the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear, with their costly 5 hour battery life from 6 AA batteries and $189/$150 launch prices, could do little to capture much of the market from Nintendo.
Later iterations such as the Gameboy Pocket (1996) and Gameboy Color (1998) brought much improved screens, reduced unit size, vastly improved battery consumption and colour games.
1990/1992 – Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System
The Super Nintendo (SNES) is my personal choice for the greatest console of all time. It’s graphics and sound capabilities were a huge leap over the NES and it’s main competition, the Sega Mega-Drive/Genesis paled in comparison despite it’s 2 year head start to the market. The SNES was faster, able to utilise a greater, more vivid colour palette, it’s sound fidelity made other consoles of the time sound like minor improvements from the NES era and because of custom hardware was capable of advanced particle effects, layered backgrounds and mode 7 (rotational 3d-esque plains) animation.
The SNES also made 3d polygonal graphics possible for the first time on consoles by using the Super FX chip. The SNES architecture was such that it allowed additional processors or RAM within game cartridges themselves to compliment its on board abilities or add new abilities altogether. The Super FX chip (essentially an additional processor) was the most well known of these and gave rise to the excellent Starfox and Stunt Race FX games. The super Nintendo also introduced L & R ‘shoulder buttons’ for the first time.
It was these unique abilities and it’s vast library of AAA content (thanks to strong 3rd party support carried over from the NES era as well as some 1st party titles still present on many ‘greatest games ever’ lists) that saw the SNES selling well globally and for a time, even holding its own against the 32bit Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn.
1996/1997 – Nintendo 64 (N64)
The latest and most advanced console of the 5th Generation, the N64 was the home to some of the most revered and influential games of our time. At first glance it’s reliance on cartridges when its competition moved to optical media (CD’s) gave the N64 an appearance of being ‘stuck in the past’. On close inspection however we see many innovations that are taken for granted today. The N64’s unusual 3 pronged controller integrated a miniature analogue stick for precise control in 3D environments.
Many gamers were confused by this feature until they experienced the perfect marriage of the new controller and Super Mario 64. The game is universally recognised to have demonstrated for the first time how fluid platforming and movement were possible in a 3D environment. Rare’s Goldeneye 007 (another landmark title considered to be the most influential console FPS of our time) even demonstrated how dual analogue sticks could be used to control FPS’s by introducing a control scheme that used 2 controllers at the same time.
Goldeneye also featured up to 4 player simultaneous split screen multiplayer (still awesome today) thanks to the consoles 4 controller ports. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time is still widely considered to be the greatest game of all time and is to date the only game which has scored perfect review scores across its original format and also as a remake (2011’s Ocarina of time 3d for 3DS). Ocarina of time represented the pinnacle of 3D action adventure games, introducing such systems as ‘z’ targeting which allowed the player to lock on to a target and move whilst attacking and defending, a context sensitive action button, and rumble pack integration which caused the controller to shake to help find secrets in the game.
The Rumble Pak was a vibration force feedback device that plugged into a slot underneath each controller that would react to action within the game. We take this for granted today as it is standard in pretty much all controllers but it is easy to forget that it started with the N64. The N64 though a success, survived mainly due to its stellar 1st and 2nd party titles as it lost a lot of 3rd party support due to the storage limitations and higher production costs of the game cartridges, as well as the console being reportedly difficult to develop for.
2001 – Gameboy Advance/GBA Series (32Bit)
The follow up to the hugely successful Gameboy series, the Gameboy Advance (GBA) was a 32bit hand held capable of providing gamers with SNES/enhanced SNES style games in full colour.
The original GBA was powered by 2 AA batteries which would last for about 15 hours of use. In 2003 Nintendo introduced the much improved Gameboy Advance SP which featured a clamshell design for greater portability & comfort as well as a much improved front lit screen. Another version was the Gameboy Micro, a miniature version of the console with a small back lit screen. Both the GBASP and GBMicro versions of the console were powered by a rechargeable battery.
All portable consoles to this point relied on cables connecting consoles together for multiplayer experiences and the GBA was no different. Late in the consoles life however the ‘GBA wireless adaptor’ was released which enabled conventional multiplayer without cables or enabled large numbers of GBA’s in the same room to communicate/exchange data as a ‘union room’. This function was seen in Pokemon:Fire Red/Leaf Green when up to 40 people could battle and trade Pokemon.
The GBA/GameCube link cable allowed the GBA to be used as a 2nd screen in a handful of GameCube games for use as a map/item screen etc. The cable also allowed the transfer of data between Pokemon titles on both the GBA and GameCube. The GBA game library is rich & varied which helped ensure that it enjoyed success comparable with its Gameboy predecessor.
2001 Nintendo GameCube
At launch the GameCube was Nintendo’s most powerful console ever and was more than capable of producing graphics and sound comparable or even superior to it’s competitors the Playstation 2 and Xbox. Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2 : Rogue Leader & Luigis Mansion (both launch titles) clearly demonstrated what the console was capable of and along with later titles such as (the originally exclusive) Resident Evil 4, and the Resident Evil Remake still hold up today.
Despite many such titles the GameCube lost much of its 3rd party support. Many reasons for this are speculated but the likely truth is that much of the support was lost during the N64 era and as sales of the GameCube were quite slow (likely due to the lack of the music/DVD playback offered by the competition) it was simply more profitable to produce software for those systems. The GameCube then was undeniably under appreciated and a victim of it’s own focussed approach to what a games console should be (they’re just for playing games, right?). Despite being a capable machine in its own right, the GameCube’s main innovations came in the form of it’s controller. The controller was a triumph of form and function with ergonomics that modern controllers (in my opinion) still haven’t been able to improve upon.
The controller had an enlarged ‘A’ button under the right thumb, with 3 other action buttons surrounding it meaning that all of these where accessible from just rolling the thumb. It also featured two analogue shoulder buttons with ‘U’ shaped mouldings to seat the fingers which were analogue with digital clicks essentially providing 4 functions on 2 buttons. The controller also featured 2 analogue sticks in the now much copied staggered ‘upper/lower’ positions and built in rumble as standard.
Nintendo also introduced the ‘Wavebird’ wireless controller which was otherwise the same as the standard controller but lacking the rumble feature to save battery consumption. If you’ve never held/used a GameCube controller, you owe it to yourself to try one. It was recently revealed by Shigeru Miyamoto during an interview discussing the origins of 3DS that the GameCube was fully capable of displaying games in stereoscopic 3D. Only one title was developed to support the feature (Luigis Mansion 2) but as the required TV’s/Displays would have been prohibitively expensive at the time, the 3D functions were never used.
2004 Nintendo DS
The successor to the GBA series and the 2nd biggest selling console (hand held or otherwise) of all time, the Nintendo DS is innovation defined. It’s name ‘DS’ is said to have stood for ‘Developer System’ describing Nintendo’s desire to provide developers with a system full of new functions and possibilities with which they could be creative.
The ‘DS’ name also came to describe the most obvious feature of the new system it’s dual displays nestled within its clamshell casing. The top screen is a standard LCD while the lower is a touch screen. The DS has built in Wifi, is capable of local and online multiplayer and was backward compatible with the entire library of GBA games at launch.
The DS shows how offering unique experiences to gamers has become an important way to differentiate Nintendo from their competitors who are essentially doing the same things at the same time. Many games on the DS platform are exclusives because they are only possible on the DS. This was a risky strategy which could have lost the DS 3rd party support but due to a successful launch and astronomical sales figures, 3rd party support has flourished on the platform.
Later iterations were the DS-Lite (much sleeker design with improved screens) and the DSi/DSi-XL which removed the GBA backward compatibility in favour of adding an on board camera, SD card slot and an online E-Shop for downloadable games/applications.
2006 Nintendo Wii
Arguably Nintendo’s most controversial yet successful home console to date (and the biggest selling console of this generation by a comfortable margin), the Wii has divided opinion amongst the gaming community and has been the topic of much debate since it was unveiled to the public in 2005. Nintendo begun working on the concept for the Wii shortly after the launch of the Gamecube in 2001 and following the success of DS was centred around creating a new form of player interaction.
Nintendo’s use of pointer and motion controls in the Wii-mote & Nunchuk whilst reducing number of buttons opened up gaming to demographics that may otherwise have felt controllers with 10 or more buttons had become too complex. With this barrier to gaming now removed the Wii had universal appeal and was an instant global success, with demand for the console often reaching far greater levels than supply chains could cope with. The Wii’s introduction of motion control (love it or hate it) has been a revolution and the often overlooked Wii-mote pointer has been just as important. Despite this focus on new types of control, Nintendo also released the classic controller/classic controller pro for a more traditional gaming experience.
WiiConnect24 is a basic yet ingenious online service that allows the Wii to download new notifications and connect via Wifi even when the system is in standby mode. The admittedly underdeveloped Wii shop, though slow and clunky by today’s standards, gives access to a fine library of retro and indie titles as well as apps like the weather channel and Netflix. The Wii also introduced console gamers to avatars which would allow the player to create a representation of themselves within the system and associate that avatar with game progress, stats and multiplayer interactions.
Nintendo had worked on avatar integration since the Famicom/Nes era and had experimented with versions for the N64 and Gameboy platforms before successfully bringing them to the Wii. The controversy surrounding the Wii is mainly surrounding its power/graphics capabilities which appear to be a slight improvement over the Gamecube and are far inferior to the Playstation 3 & Xbox 360. Other criticisms are a lack of substantial 3rd party and online support. Nintendo took a risk with the Wii.
They decided very early on in the system’s development that providing a new experience whilst removing complexities was a more important next step than a leap in power. For the most part I agree with this move, as the Wii has been responsible for a huge cash injection into gaming when the industry needed it most but that’s not to say it’s without its problems. The vast difference in power between the Wii and it’s competitors left third parties with a problem; do they scale back existing games and tack on the new control functions last minute or do they build games from the ground up for the Wii that couldn’t feasibly be released on all platforms? Ultimately this purely economical question has led to lagging 3rd party support for the Wii.
Nintendo easily demonstrated how the new controls could be used to enhance the gaming experience with titles like Metroid Prime 3, Zelda: Skyward Sword, Warioware: Smooth Moves, and Wii Sports/Resort and even showed how returning to more simplistic ‘old school’ control could work so well in New Super Mario Bros Wii. The Wii gave developers options, just like the DS but unlike the DS, the Wii has greater competition and with such drastically different specs, for many 3rd parties it’s just too underpowered and too different.
2011 Nintendo 3DS
The Nintendo 3DS is the most recent hand held on offer from Nintendo and rather than an addition to the DS line (despite some obvious design cues) it is a true successor to the DS and a brand new platform. The 3DS incorporates many of the successful design elements from both the DSi and Wii such as lower touch screen, removable SD card storage, motion control, built in microphone, standby online features (streetpass & spotpass) much improved from WiiConnect24 and backward compatibility with the huge library of games for the platform that came before it (DS/DSi).
The 3DS also features an analogue ‘circle’ pad (a compact analogue stick first seen in the NES MAX controller), two external cameras for capturing 3D photos/video, an internal camera for capturing 2D photos/video and a much improved online & mulitplayer service & eshop for new/retro downloadable software. All of these features are undeniably great but it’s unique selling point and something that remains impressive to this day is its incredible use of stereoscopic 3D without the need for special glasses. 3D alone is not enough to justify it’s existence however and it has to add something to the experience.
For me, more than anything else the 3D on the 3DS is justified by making that small (90mm 5:3) screen feel much bigger than it actually is. Used well, the 3D effect feels completely natural and immerses you in the game world in a way I’m yet to experience anywhere else. The lack of special glasses is key to this experience as unlike in other 3D applications that use them, colours on the 3DS remain bright and vibrant with no darkening or washed out colours like we see in 3D films etc. So the 3DS was a resounding success right? You’d be forgiven for thinking so but the 3DS launch itself and the mistakes made during it overshadowed the device itself for a long time. Nintendo famously made 3 mistakes when launching the 3DS.
The first mistake was an arguably high launch price of $250. The second mistake was the lack of any big 1st party games (new Mario, Zelda, Metroid etc) available at launch and the third was launching without all of the online services in place, most notable of these being the improved eshop. ALL of these errors were remedied within the first 12 months of the 3DS’s life however, with a huge price cut, quickly followed by the launch of some huge games from respected franchises and constantly improving online services. Nintendo even compensated those players who purchased the 3DS at the higher launch price with 20 free high profile NES and GBA games from the eshop. Nintendo was heavily criticised for only having one circle pad on the 3DS which has always been completely unfounded.
I currently have 9 games in my 3DS collection, only one of which (Resident Evil: Revelations) uses the ‘circle pad pro’ attachment and it is completely optional. In game types that may have traditionally used ‘twin stick’ control, the stick and stylus combination has proven to be much quicker and very similar in feel to keyboard/mouse configurations on PC. Nintendo recently unveiled the 3DSXL, an identical (in features) version of the 3DS sporting 90% larger screens and improved battery life.
Unlike the leap between DSLite and DSi, no new features have been added so this is a purely optional upgrade for those who prefer the larger displays. Despite many ‘fashionable’ complaints and a very vocal community of some non-3DS owners, the system is now comfortably achieving the level of success of Nintendo’s previous portable consoles silencing media and community critics alike. Add it’s outstanding, unique feature set to it’s growing library of incredible games and the 3DS has rightfully secured its’ place as my second favourite console of all time.
So there we have it; Nintendo’s mainstream gaming products so far and what they’ve brought to the industry. We’ve been given many controller functions we take for granted such as the d-pad, analogue control for 3D environments, rumble force feedback, multi function shoulder buttons and perfect ergonomics.
We’ve had dual screen portable gaming introduced by the simplistic game & watch series and further developed into the revolutionary DS line of systems. Nintendo have experimented with 3D since the NES era, working until we were given the best implementation of 3D to date with the 3DS. Motion control has been introduced with the Wii and it’s influence can now be felt throughout the industry. Then we have the games. Nintendo’s 1st and 2nd party titles have over the decades been some of the most undeniably influential games of our time with elements they created now taken for granted in similar titles on all platforms.
The possibilities they give developers with their hardware has allowed 3rd parties ambitious enough to bring truly unique and creative experiences to us that would’ve otherwise been impossible. Nintendo have consistently driven innovation in the gaming industry with creativity being central to everything they do.
I also believe that Nintendo are the heart of the industry with a morality and respect for customers often lacking from their competitors. Without Nintendo’s creativity, driving of innovation and respect for their community I believe the gaming industry on the whole would be in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 80’s. Without their influence our chosen hobby would stagnate leaving us to play the same games and endless sequels every generation with nothing more than a hike in graphics. I have a collection of over 50 games for my Xbox 360 as it has been my workhorse for much of the last 5 years.
Now though I feel I’ve seen everything before, in many cases a few times over. I’m ready for something new, a new experience unlike what I’ve played before and with the Wii U coming later this year I know Nintendo will fill that need. They have integrated so much technology that they’ve spent years perfecting and fine tuning on other systems into the Wii U & Gamepad. They are securing 3rd party support by offering to subsidise development costs for any titles that show good use of the Wii U gamepad.
The hardware specs of the console itself are closer to, but more powerful than the current generation by a comfortable margin and will be more than enough to see 3rd parties attracted to the platform.
The Wii U MiiVerse is a genuinely exciting take on an online gaming community that seems to promote cooperation rather than relentless competition which for me at least has gotten very old.
The pricing of the console is already coming in way below expectations with UK preorders available for £279.85 and rumours from supply chains stating a launch price of £250 or lower is still likely. Confirmed launch window games now number around 30, all arriving within the first 3 to 4 months of the consoles’ launch.
Nintendo has addressed all of our concerns, learned from mistakes of the past and if their legacy has taught us anything, it’s that they should never be underestimated.
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