Gambling, mafia and half-board hotels: Nintendo has an -unknown- history of 130 years

September 23, 1889

Fusajiro Yamauchi founds Nintendo Koppai in Kyoto, Japan, a company that manufactures “hanafuda”, a type of Japanese playing card that is very popular at the time, and is also used in the illegal gambling dens of the yakuza, the local mafia.

The fact that these brightly colored cards are used in gambling is even reflected in the name Yamauchi chose for his company: The word “Nin-ten-do” is written in characters that mean, roughly, “luck-heaven-hall ” or otherwise, the place where you leave your fate in the hands of the gods.

The hanafuda cards (photo: Shutterstock)

Over the next 60 years, Nintendo became the first toy card manufacturer in Japan, expanded into Western-style card production, and implemented a number of innovations. It was the first to manufacture in Japan laminated cards that are more durable, and it also made a deal with Disney to depict Mickey Mouse and other heroes on its decks. In this way, he managed to expand the market, as a product that until then was aimed at gamblers, now became a toy for children.

Nintendo remained in the hands of the Yamauchi family for over 100 years. Fusajiro Yamauchi’s great-grandson, Hiroshi, took over the reins in 1949, aged just 22. And one of his first moves was to fire all the remaining family members from the company, to show everyone who’s boss.

It was Hiroshi Yamauchi who thought of expanding the company beyond playing cards. It was the period from 1963 to 1968, that is, shortly after the company went public, meaning that the entrepreneur had the financial flexibility to make new ventures.

The first of these was a half-board hotel. Yamauchi himself was known for his illicit relations, and as hotels in Japan at the time only offered rooms for full nights, he decided to open his own hotel, in which he was also a frequent… customer.

Hiroshi Yamauchi (photo: AP)

The couple’s hotels did well, but eventually closed because Yamauchi wanted to branch out into other industries. Nintendo expanded into taxis and was doing well, until a dispute with the drivers’ union cost them dearly and Yamauchi left the industry.

The group also experimented with entering food, starting an instant rice company, but ultimately, Yamauchi decided to stick to his Nintendo roots and games.

Gambling, mafia and half-board hotels: Nintendo has an -unknown- history of 130 years-3
photo: AP

The 1970s was the age of electronics and for Nintendo, video games were the next big thing. The hits started coming one after the other: First Beam Gun, released in 1970 to great reviews, and a decade later the legendary Donkey Kong. In 1985, Nintendo launched its own game console worldwide, and in the same year, it made a plumber, Mario, the protagonist of a video game where the player’s goal was to save Princess Peach and the mushroom kingdom. “Super Mario Bros” became one of the most legendary – and most mass produced – games of all time.

In 1989, the GameBoy was born and inextricably linked with Tetris, which Nintendo bought from a Russian developer. This was followed by the Wii console in late 2006 and the Nintendo Switch in 2017.

In 2021, Nintendo, a 133-year-old company, had sales of nearly $16 billion.

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