Every devoted gamer knows what Nintendo is. It may no longer be as popular and influential as it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it remains to be one of Japan’s most valuable companies as you will see in this Nintendo story. It is already regarded as one of the icons of video gaming. A number of Nintendo’s renowned video games are still played by gamers at present.
So how did this Japanese company manage to become a global force in the video gaming industry? How did the characteristically Japanese games Pokémon, Mario, and the Legend of Zelda become some of the most popular and successful video games in the world?
Nintendo story – its origins
Here is how the Nintendo story started. Nintendo was founded in 1889 by Japanese entrepreneur Fusajiro Yamauchi as a playing card manufacturer and marketer. The company was based in Kyoto and became known for its handmade cards called “Hanafuda.” It was in 1949 that the company changed its name to Nintendo Karuta Co., Ltd. For its business overseas, the company used the name The Nintendo Playing Card Co.
The word Nintendo is popularly believed to mean, “leaving luck to heaven” or "leaving one's fortune in the hands of fate." However, some assert that these meanings or translations don’t take into account the history of the company. An article published in one popular video gaming and “otaku” culture site examines the meaning of Nintendo in relation to how the company evolved over the years.
Ultimately, the author of the article suggests that the “real” meaning of Nintendo could be “the company that is allowed to produce hanafuda” or “the temple of free hanafuda.” “Nin” (任) could mean “let someone do,” while “ten” (天) is short for “tengu,” which serves as a symbol for playing cards (and illegal gambling in general) or the hanafuda cards produced by the company itself. The “do” (堂) in the last syllable is believed to mean a shrine or sanctuary. Nintendo’s management may have followed the common practice of Japanese companies back in the day to append “do” to their business names for the sake of adding prestige.
The real meaning of the company name couldn’t be ascertained. Even the great grandson of the founder of the company admits to not knowing it. He could only intimate that “leaving one’s luck to heaven” is a plausible explanation. He is certainly uncertain about it.
Going back to the origins of Nintendo, in the early 1960s, the company realized how limited the growth prospects for the playing card business were. That’s why the company explored new businesses. Nintendo started a taxi operation called Daiya, which was initially successful but the company had to sell it because of labor union issues. The company also tried the love hotel business as well as food sales.
Notable successes in video gaming – the Nintendo story timeline
1. Distribution rights for Magnavox Odyssey in 1974
The company first dipped its toes into the video gaming industry in the mid 1970s. The company secured in 1974 the distribution rights for the Magnavox Odyssey, a home video game console.
2. EVR Race in 1975
A year later, the company ventured into arcade gaming as it offered the EVR Race, a racing video game.
3. Game & Watch in 1980
Nintendo achieved its first triumph as a video gaming company in 1980 when it introduced the handheld video game called Game & Watch. The device did not come with replaceable game cartridges, which means the hardware was tied to the game. Still, this idea proved popular that Nintendo registered the patent for the device, which later on won Nintendo a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award.
4. Family Computer (Famicon) in 1983
A few years later, Nintendo released video game products that would be etched in the memories of kids and teens in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1983, the company introduced in Japan the family computer, which was also known as the “famicom.” In 1985, this gaming device was aesthetically modified and renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for the North American market.
5. Game Boy in the late 80s – On the way to becoming iconic
In the later part of the ‘80s, renowned Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi conceptualized the Game Boy handheld gaming system. This product was meant to fuse the mobility advantage of the Game & Watch and the ability to switch games of the NES in one device. The Game Boy was launched in Japan and in the North American markets in 1989 and turned out to be an instant success.
6. Super Famicon and Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the 90s
The Famicom in Japan was later updated as the Super Famicom along with the NES that was improved to SNES or Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Most of the company’s successes in the ‘90s would then be based on the Famicom and NES as the company announced in 1995 that it already sold a billion game cartridges globally. The popularity of the cartridge system prompted the decision to ditch the CD as the medium for loading games in Nintendo’s gaming consoles.
7. Virtual Boy in 1995
Nintendo later on released a number of other gaming devices with varying levels of success. In 1995, the company launched the Virtual Boy, a relatively affordable virtual reality gaming console.
8. Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Pocket in 1996
In 1996, the Nintendo 64 was introduced in Japan and North America, and in Europe a year later. In the same year, a smaller version of the Game Boy, the Game Boy Pocket, was launched in Japan.
9. Game Boy Color in 1998 and Game Boy Advance and GameCube in 2001
Game Boy Color, the next generation of the Game Boy, was released in 1998. Then came the Game Boy Advance in 2001 as well as the GameCube, which was the sixth generation of the Nintendo 64 console.
10. Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, Wii, Wii U, and Nintendo Switch in the 2000s and 2010s
In the 2000s and 2010s, Nintendo continued to produce and market new gaming devices that did not necessarily replicate the successes of the company’s older gaming systems but fostered the relevance and popularity of famous video games born out of Nintendo’s successful home gaming consoles and portable gaming devices. These devices include the Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, Wii, Wii U, and Nintendo Switch.
How Nintendo expanded worldwide
In this Nintendo story, even during its early years as a playing card company, Nintendo already had eyes for global expansion.
- In 1959, Nintendo closed a deal with Disney to obtain the rights to use Disney characters on the company’s playing cards.
- In 1971, Nintendo already forged an alliance with Magnavox, the maker of the first commercially available video gaming console, the Magnavox Odyssey. This was before the Japanese company marketed its first video game console in the United States. The deal between Nintendo and Magnavox was for the development and production of optoelectronic guns for the Magnavox Odyssey.
Having worked with other companies in the United States, Nintendo gained familiarity with foreign entertainment industries and markets. This made it easy to offer the Nintendo range of gaming devices and games overseas. Nintendo is probably one of the first few video gaming companies that learned or developed its own strategies for expanding video games overseas (link to pillar). Fortunately, it found success early on and became one of the most memorable names in video game history.
At present, Nintendo’s largest sources of revenue are:
- The Americas (North and South America) – almost $4 billion
- Europe – almost $2.4 billion
The language barrier – How Nintendo crushed it
It’s difficult to say if Nintendo did crush the language barrier in this Nintendo story. Based on the translations of the early Nintendo games, nothing seems to indicate that the company put a lot of work to perfect the translations. Localization may have not even crossed the minds of Nintendo’s management back then.
Mistranslations in Nintendo games
Here are just a few of the many funny or cringe-worthy translations in the dialogs and texts used in the early Nintendo games.
- Pro Wrestling. You would probably remember “A Winner Is You” shown after you win a game.
- Ghosts and Goblin. How about this congratulatory note,“Contraturation, This Story Is Happy End. Thank You.”
- Mega Man Battle Network 4: Red Sun. In this Game Boy Advance game, the translators must have been confused with their pronouns as one of the dialogues in the game read, “What a polite young man she was!”
- Similarly, the “Laboratory” guy says, “Remember to flash the toilet.”
You can find many more by doing a quick Google search.
But then again, Nintendo’s games have been highly successful in various foreign markets despite the problematic translations. If that does not qualify as a crushing defeat for the language barrier, what could it be?
It’s possible that Nintendo was just lucky there was voracious appetite for Japanese video games and culture at the time when the company expanded its gaming products overseas. Consumers probably weren’t bothered by the translations that left much to be desired because gamers didn’t care that much about the in-game dialogs and stories. Back then, video games were new, and players were more concerned about enjoying the action than nitpicking on the bad grammar and inconsistencies. Also, the exoticness of Japanese products may have effectively masked all the imperfections.
The solution – Localization
However, with the new games from Nintendo, localization is already considered a priority. Poor translations and unintended changes in the the thoughts conveyed by in-game dialogues and narrations are no longer acceptable. That’s why the embarrassing grammar mistakes and mistranslations in recent Nintendo games are no longer there. Nintendo also adopted a new system wherein localization experts are brought in, even before a game is completed, to suggest changes so that the localized version of the game is not that different from the original. This system has earned backlash from some fans, but it has been cost-efficient for Nintendo.
Want to make your video games as successful as Nintendo’s? Our localization experts are here for you!
The Nintendo story goes on, but on the other hand, anybody has a shot at succeeding in the global video game industry. What’s important is to have a distinctive and engaging game concept, a meticulously-optimized (software) code, creative marketing, and a topnotch video game translation or localization team. As with the Nintendo story, localization will make your game more relatable to prospective players in the foreign market you are targeting. This is something we at Day Translations, Inc. can competently and efficiently deliver.
Our global network of hundreds of language experts can turn your video game into its best possible localized version. Don’t hesitate to drop us an email at Contact us if you have questions or dial the telephone number 1-800-969-6853 to discuss with us the video game localization project you have in mind. Our customer service team is available 24/7 to attend to your needs.
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