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History Lesson: HAL Laboratory

From Japanese department store to Nintendo crown jewel in three easy eggs

Long-running Japanese coders HAL Laboratory thinks it's best represented by a dog lying asleep on a rug, incubating a clutch of three eggs.

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This is a bit odd, unless you imagine that inside those three eggs are Kirby, a copy of Super Smash Bros on N64, and current Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Which, er, is still a bit odd.

The point is this: HAL has proved extraordinarily influential for Nintendo. Its backstory apparently starts in 1980, in the big Seibu store in the shopping district of Ikebukuro in Japan. If you were a man in Japan with a passion for games, the dedicated computer department in here was mecca.

Two college students - Masahito Tanimura and chubby motorcyle-riding teen Satoru Iwata - were among the hobby's devotees. They loved games so much, they soon banded together to rent an apartment in Akihabara where they began churning out games for Japan's computer of the day, the MSX.

They called their little outfit 'HAL', after the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it sounded "cool" - though Iwata would later claim it was also because the initials were each one letter below IBM.

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HAL's first games - mainly puzzlers and simple versions of pub games - weren't that much more complicated than the digits-only baseball game that Iwata programmed on his pocket calculator in the '70s. But the Eggerland series of blobby mazey action titles - known as Adventures of Lolo in the West - saw Iwata and team flexing their creative muscles in an alluring way.

HAL also ported arcade hits like Pac Man to the VIC20 and C64, and created the HALNOTE word processor for the MSX - as well as a joyball controller and a scanner. Iwata also claims that he also ordered food for the office. "And I helped clean up," he says. We're pretty sure he doesn't do that anymore.

Then they heard about Nintendo's new machine: the Famicom (aka Nintendo Entertainment System). Iwata says HAL "used every contact we could" to get a meeting in Ninty's hallowed halls: and the famously grumpy Hiroshi Yamauchi eventually gave in, commissioning HAL to fix and finish the "seriously behind schedule" Pinball (available on the Wii's Virtual Console... don't bother with it, though).

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Kirby's Dream Land was the first ever Kirby game

From there, HAL developed over 80 games for Nintendo systems - including Kirby, a blob designed by Masahiro Sakurai. Interestingly, Miyamoto demanded that the original Kirby be sent back for tweaking after the carts had already been manufactured. His mad instinct proved right: the first game, Kirby's Dream Land on the Game Boy, sold 5 million copies worldwide and the series went on to spawn a further 19 games over the next 15 years.

In June 1992, HAL officially became part of the Nintendo family when it was saved from 5 billion yen of debt with investment from Nintendo. The resulting relationship has led to a number of memorable titles, most notably the all-star fighting game Super Smash Bros. More than two decades later, the two companies remain practically inseparable.

So inseparable, in fact, that the still grumpy Hiroshi Yamuachi surprised everyone in 2002 by appointing Satoru Iwata - by then HAL's president - as his successor. Sakurai left HAL in 2005 - and since then has headed up Project Sora and Sora Ltd, the teams responsible for Super Smash Bros Brawl, Kid Icarus: Uprising and the upcoming fourth Super Smash Bros. game.

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