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History Lesson: Nintendo Coin-Ops 1973-1981

By CVG Staff on Sunday 19th Jan 2014 at 10:00 AM UTC

In 1963 Hiroshi Yamauchi renamed his company from Nintendo Playing Card Co Ltd to simply Nintendo, and branched out into everything from food to TV to taxis to 'hourly rate' hotels.

Eventually he found a lucrative opening in the toy market, leading ultimately to the consoles we know today. The missing link between these business ventures could be found in Japanese arcades.

Nintendo's arcade business began with the early '70s acquisition of former bowling alleys, which were converted into venues for Laser Clay machines. These were enormous contraptions that projected simple white blobs onto painted backdrops of fields and sky, and players would shoot at them with life-size replica shotguns containing light sensors. The guns were hooked up to a computer via a chunky cable, and successful hits would be registered on an LED scoreboard.

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Nintendo secured interest from buyers for these hugely expensive bespoke machines in February 1973, but by the end of the year an oil crisis had constrained the Japanese economy, forcing many potential customers to scale back their ambitions. Yamauchi's response was to develop smaller, cheaper ideas based on the Laser Clay concept, ones that didn't require an entire building to set up.

Consequently Nintendo was able to ride out the brief financial meltdown while selling machines such as 1974's Wild Gunman, in which players shot at live action film of cowboys, and the bottle-blasting Shooting Trainer. In 1975 it released the far more complicated six-player horse betting game EVR Race, designed by Genyo Takeda, later a key developer of the Wii.

These semi-mechanical games gave Nintendo a foothold in an arcade market that, towards the end of the decade, was set to explode. However, it was Japanese rivals such as Taito and Namco that stole Nintendo's thunder in the nascent years of arcade video games.

While Space Invaders opened the floodgates, capturing the world's imagination with an entirely new entertainment experience, and Pac-Man demonstrated the commercial power of truly innovative design in this exciting new era, Nintendo's efforts were distinctly second rate.

Coin-ops such as monochromatic two-player board game Computer Othello couldn't compete with superior products coming out of Japan and the increasingly vibrant US market.

They were throwbacks to a bygone age, when people would be impressed simply by the novelty of playing games on a TV screen. Such was the pace of the industry's evolution, that bygone age had ended barely a year previously.

Attempting to keep up, Nintendo trod water. Like every other company that didn't have a global smash on its hands, Nintendo's games were me-too copies of famous titles with the occasional minor twist - a change of scene here, a different type of enemy there. Consumer appetite for videogames of any type meant they were never entirely ignored, but Nintendo was in danger of becoming an insignificant name in the business.

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That all changed with 1981's Donkey Kong, designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, a young graphic artist who'd worked on visual concepts for a handful of games in the previous couple of years.

Mentored by Gunpei Yokoi, the man behind the majority of Nintendo's mechanical arcade machines, Miyamoto envisaged a game based on Popeye. When the Popeye license negotiations fell through, Yamauchi instructed Miyamoto to create his own characters. Which he did, filling in the roles of Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto with a plucky red and blue hero, a generic damsel in distress and a giant monkey.

The design was revolutionary, introducing jumping and powerups to the platform genre. Unlike its contemporaries, which took place on a single screen, it had several different stages, giving players an incentive to keep inserting coins in the hope of seeing the next level.

Yamauchi's other money-saving tactic was to insist that the game ran on the same hardware as the earlier Radar Scope coin-op. Not entirely coincidentally, Nintendo had a couple of thousand unsold units sitting in a New York warehouse.

The game was launched in America, where it became an instant hit with bar owners, and as the orders flooded in, the six employees of Nintendo's US branch worked long hours, swapping chips and painting cabinets to turn each Radar Scope machine into a Donkey Kong one.

Nintendo had a hit to rank alongside Pac-Man (although it was nowhere near as successful back in Japan), and Yamauchi's gamble almost 20 years previously had set him on the road to becoming one of the world's richest men.

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Life in the games industry before Donkey Kong was fairly dismal for Nintendo, and while it did deliver a couple of decent titles nothing came even fractionally close to the success that lay just around the corner.

Here's a selection of the games that - in a parallel universe where Donkey Kong didn't happen - would have ended up being Nintendo's biggest releases before the company bowed out of gaming.

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