History Lesson: Nintendo Coin-Ops

If only we'd bought shares in them...

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.

They 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.

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 they 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 videogames. 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 twoplayer 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.

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.

  1 2