How Nintendo moved up to the next level
Japanese company that brought us Mario and the Game Boy began to lose its way but has enjoyed an incredible revival, says James Titcomb
Two years ago it was not unusual to ask what future Nintendo had, if any. The Japanese video gaming group was in trouble – revenues had fallen for six consecutive years to less than a third of their peak and its latest console, the Wii U, had been a failure.
In July 2015, Satoru Iwata, the genius who steered Nintendo through its greatest years, died of cancer. The company that had brought the world Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and the Game Boy appeared to be on the brink; the spectre of Sega loomed large.
Today, that picture is almost unrecognisable. Nintendo, left for dead, is once again the most exciting name in the industry. Last week, shares hit their highest levels since 2008 as it upgraded forecasts for the Switch, the company’s latest console. Its market value even briefly surpassed that of its old enemy, Sony. The company’s astonishing turnaround has been an underdog story worthy of Mario himself.
Compared to Hollywood or the music industry, video gaming is still relatively young, but Nintendo’s roots go much further back than the electronic games revolution of the Seventies. It was founded in Kyoto in 1889 as a playing card company and only dabbled in video games from around 1975. It was not until 1981 that its big break came with Donkey Kong, introducing the world to a barrelhurling monkey and a moustached hero. The game, created by Shigeru Miyamoto, catapulted Nintendo on to the world stage. Nintendo named its hero Mario and released a string of home and portable consoles, including the Game Boy, along with an astonishing series of Miyamotoinspired hits. But in 1994, Sony’s Playstation crashed the market, and in 2001, Microsoft released its own console, the Xbox.
Over time, both cashed in on the growing demand for high-powered, violent and, later, online games as they shifted from young players and enthusiasts into a mainstream pastime for wealthier adults.
Despite Nintendo producing what are seen as some of the greatest games of all time during this period, its consoles, the Nintendo 64, Gamecube