The Card Game Origins of Nintendo

Written by Kieran Fifield

Founded in 1889, Nintendo is arguably the oldest gaming company in the world. After more than 130 years in the business, the fact that Nintendo is still releasing games to worldwide popularity and critical acclaim is a testament to the ingenuity, marketing savvy, and forward-looking focus of the people that make it tick.

When asked to consider the history of Nintendo, very few people actually know anything that stretches back earlier than Donkey Kong arcade games and the N64.

However, Nintendo has always been focusing on mass-market games since its inception, with card games being an integral part of the Nintendo story, both in the past and in the present. Read on to find out more about the curious card-playing origins of Nintendo. 

Hanafuda and a Domestic Empire

Nintendo was originally founded as a means of selling a specific, ornate type of playing card called Hanafuda in Japan. This is essentially a deck of cards consisting of cards with different icons, images, and patterns on them that can be used to play luck and strategy-based games similar to poker and blackjack (many games that use Hanafuda cards are simply called ‘Hanafuda’).

The reason that Nintendo’s founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi, decided to go into this business is that Japan had banned all ‘western’ style playing cards from the country entirely back in 1633. This was, therefore, a way to introduce playing card games into the Japanese market without technically breaking any of the rules.

Nintendo’s first Hanafuda products were incredibly high-quality, hand-painted by a team of artists on slabs of white mulberry back. This was, however, not a very good business model for Nintendo, as the high quality meant higher prices and a lower replacement rate.

However, once Nintendo switched to mass-producing lower quality cards and marketing them across parts of Japan where the gambling market was particularly strong, the company started to take off.

The company began to manufacture other types of playing cards in the mid-twentieth century when the rules surrounding gambling were relaxed and by 1951, the company had been renamed as the Nintendo Playing Card Co. Ltd. 

Diversification and Overseas Expansion 

Nintendo’s big global break came in 1959 when Walt Disney approached the company to request that they create an exclusive range of playing cards featuring Disney’s most well-known characters and settings. The first ranges were released in the 1960s, with different products being themed around different characters.

There were Mickey Mouse playing cards, Donald Duck playing cards, Lady & the Tramp playing cards, and a ‘premium’ Sleeping Beauty deck, which cost more than the others. The product line was an instant success, allowing Nintendo to gain its first major foothold in the US market and begin its expansion there and in Europe.

Later in the decade, Nintendo was dealing with falling sales and responded by diversifying into the realm of table games. Under the banner of Nippon Games, Nintendo began to release their own versions of mahjong, go, shogi, and chess, with varying levels of success.

One of Nintendo’s earliest ventures into the toy industry came with the somewhat bizarre release of the Nintendo Love Tester in 1969, a device that was designed to ‘scan’ someone the user had a crush on to tell them how much the person loved them. The Love Tester sold over a million units and cemented Nintendo’s push into other forms of entertainment beyond card and table games. 

The Enduring Legacy of Nintendo Card Games 

Despite Nintendo no longer manufacturing card games, you can still find plenty of them in their electronic titles, which perhaps serve as an ode to the company’s origins. Today, millions of people around the world continue to play card games online, so it is unsurprising that so many of Nintendo’s titles still feature minigames and bonus rounds consisting of classic card games.

These undoubtedly remain popular with gamers, given the huge popularity of online casinos that supply card and table games such as sic bo, mahjong, and pai gow poker. Similarly, more recent Nintendo games also feature casino games that complement the main plot.

In Super Mario 64 DS, players can enter ‘Luigi’s Casino’ to play poker, ‘mushroom roulette’, and blackjack. In Mario Party, players can play a wide range of Nintendo-themed slot games. In New Super Mario Bros., players can play a unique form of blackjack known as ‘Luigi Jack’, which can be played as an online multiplayer. The list goes on.

Playing card and table games are an important part of Nintendo’s origin story, and it is clear that the company has tried not to stray too far from its humble roots. With the rising popularity of online card and table games, that might be a pretty smart business move. 

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