No really. You won’t believe some of this stuff! You’re going to want to use your Google powers in some cases to fact check a few of these. I know I had to do some extra verifying just as I was putting this article together. Just to be sure. But these facts aren’t too awesome to be true. They’re awesome and they’re 100% fact.
It goes without saying that Nintendo is the #1 video game company in world history by sales and by market capitalization. Its most popular video game characters like Mario, Link, and Donkey Kong are iconic. It’s sold as many hardware units as Apple Inc. has sold iPhones. All it does is sell video games and it’s Japan’s third most valuable company with a value of over $85 billion (USD). If you really think about it, that might be hard to believe in itself.
Many people believe Nintendo means “Leave Luck to Heaven” in Japanese, but Nintendo has hardly left its fate to the gods. This company has painstakingly forged its path forward through rigorous trial and error.
Nintendo’s long and successful history hasn’t been without bumps in the road, false starts, and plenty of unbelievable and fascinating stories. Here’s a look at 20 awesome facts about Nintendo that you won’t believe:
20. Nintendo Has Been Around Since The 1800s
Here’s a neat fact: at one point in history, Nintendo and The Ottoman Empire both existed at the same time. Seriously. That’s how long the Japanese game company has been around. Nintendo started as a playing card company back in 1889. The Turkish Ottoman Empire existed until the end of World War I. That’s pretty concurrent if you ask me. And Nintendo’s transition from making playing cards to non-video game toys, before video games existed yet, to making video games. Talk about being brave enough and smart enough to disrupt your own business model before someone else does!
19. Nintendo Sold Playing Cards With Pinup Models on Them
Now if that neat little fact didn’t blow your mind already, then how about this: for a time before video games existed, Nintendo offered playing cards with hot pin-up models in varying states of undress on the backs of the cards. Given that gambling with Nintendo’s “hanafuda” and “tengu” cards was of dubious legality at the time, it may come as no surprise when you really think about it. But it’s still hard to believe considering the modern Nintendo company’s squeaky clean image and total lack of nudity or sexual themes in any of its games. Believe it or not, Nintendo 1.0 also ran “love motels” for a short time, which is exactly what you’re probably thinking it is.
18. Many Say Nintendo Means Leave “Luck to Heaven” In Japanese, But You Won’t Believe What It Really Means
Now a lot of people think Nintendo means “Leave Luck to Heaven,” or the less concisely rendered “Leave one’s fortune in the hands of fate.” However this is not the case. “Do” means shrine, sanctuary, or temple, a suffix often used by Japanese companies at the time to lend prestige to their name. “Nin” means “to let someone do.” And “Ten” is often interpreted as “luck.” So you can see how “Leave Luck to Heaven” might be extrapolated from it name. But viewed in historical perspective, “Ten” comes from the “tengu” gambling cards that Nintendo sold at a time when they were just made legal, but heavily regulated. The name Nintendo means “the company that is allowed to sell playing cards.” Not nearly as poetic.
17. Nintendo Tried to Sell Twister in Japan
The popular and very controversial party game, Twister, made its debut in the United States during the 1960s and sold millions of copies after Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor got all tangled up on the set of The Tonight Show, leaving the audience in hysterics. But the sexual undercurrents got the game rejected by the Sears Catalog, and one of Milton-Bradley’s competitors accused them of selling “sex in a box.” Well Nintendo, ever willing to try out new products, imported the game for sale in Japan, but it never caught on. Japanese social mores were just a bit too conservative at the time for the game to enjoy the success it did in the 1960s United States.
16. Universal Studios Tried to Sue Nintendo Over Donkey Kong
In the 1980s, Universal Studios filed suit against Nintendo over Donkey Kong, claiming that the popular arcade game was a trademark infringement of King Kong. At first, Nintendo’s lawyer in the United States was prepared to settle for around $5 million, but he sensed some weakness during developments in the talks with Universal, and thought Nintendo should fight. At a dinner meeting with people from Universal, where the American studio thought Nintendo was going agree to settle, Nintendo told them see you in court, and won the case, with the judge ruling that Universal does not own King Kong, and that even if it did, Donkey Kong is not an infringement of King Kong. This gave Nintendo confidence that it could hold its own in the US market.
15. Donkey Kong Was Supposed To Be Popeye The Video Game
So let’s back up a sec. The only reason the copyright controversy with Universal came up in the first place is because Nintendo didn’t get the licensing rights it sought to make the game it really wanted to make: Popeye, the video game! Seriously. When Paramount nixed the idea of a video game based on the turbulent love triangle between Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Brutus, Nintendo had to creatively rework the game to include original characters. Shigeru Miyamoto eventually settled on a love triangle between a gorilla, a carpenter, and his girlfriend, citing the major motion picture films King Kong and Beauty and The Beast as influences. Reportedly, he came up with the name Donkey Kong by looking up synonyms for the words “Stubborn Ape.” By June 1982, Nintendo had sold tens of thousands of Donkey Kong machines, grossing $180 million.
14. That Wii Sensor Bar Wasn’t A Sensor Bar!
With its 2006 debut, the Nintendo Wii completely revolutionized video gaming as we know it. Not only did the innovative gaming console set sales records among die-hard gaming fans, it opened up the market to demographics typically uninterested in gaming, selling to more non-gamers, females, baby boomers, and senior citizens than any video game console in history. Intuitive, easy-to-use, and elegant, its battery-powered game controllers did not communicate with the console by cable, but remotely by communicated with the sensor bar. Except: not really. The sensor bar didn’t transmit any data to the console at all. That thin wire it came with was only for power from the console. The “sensor” bar was actually an infrared transmitter with an IR source on each side. It simply helped the Wii-motes calibrate the right and left side of the television screen. And — you can try this yourself — two lit candles placed in front of the TV about the width of the “sensor” bar will accomplish the exact same result!
13. Nintendo Had the Same President for 50 Years From 1949 – 2002
Look out, Fidel Castro! Move over, Muammar Gaddafi! Take notice, Kim Jong Il! When it comes to long-serving head honchos with a decades-long tenure, Nintendo’s got some serious cred. Before Satoru Iwata headed up the Japanese video game giant, there was a benevolent dictator at Nintendo every bit as stern as Mr. Iwata is friendly. His name was Hiroshi Yamauchi, and he certainly oversaw the golden age of Nintendo’s ascendancy, because not only was he in charge when the original Nintendo Entertainment System came out, he had been in charge of Nintendo since the 40s! He was a no-nonsense, ruthless businessman with an unsurprisingly sharp acumen for what games the public would enjoy most. By the time he retired, he was the 11th richest man in all of Japan, with a net worth of nearly three billion dollars!
12. Mario Was The First Video Game Character To Ever Jump
Imagine a time long ago in video game years, so long ago that no video game character had ever even jumped yet in a video game. That was when Donkey Kong was in development at Nintendo, and as originally conceived, Mario did not jump to avoid the barrels launched at him by Donkey Kong. But then Miyamoto and his team thought it over and realized jumping would be the most natural reaction, thinking: “If you had a barrel rolling towards you, what would you do?” Thus video game history was made, and Donkey Kong’s popularity was sealed, because back in 1982, all you had to do to blow people’s minds was make the arcade game character jump. Back then, Mario had a modest jump, just barely clearing the barrels, and if he landed on a barrel, he died. By the time of the Super Mario Bros franchise, Mario’s jump was his main method of attack, landing on enemies to kill them, and his jumps became fantastically high. By some calculations, in real life Mario would be capable of a 27 foot high vertical jump!
11. There Is a Small Cohort of People Fanatically Dedicated To The Donkey Kong World Record High Score
In a documentary so amazingly surreal that it could be a scripted “mockumentary,” King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters chronicles the quest of an unassuming high school math teacher from Washington State to achieve the world record score in Donkey Kong. Steve Wiebe, a husband and father of two, discovers that the current record-holder, a strangely villainous character by the name of Billy Mitchell, will stop at nothing to maintain his world record, and has the support of a “good old boy” network of arcade game record hobbyists eager to keep out any would-be challengers. After successfully beating Mitchell’s record on a video taped game of Donkey Kong, Wiebe’s results were thrown out on “suspicion” that his arcade game board was tampered with. So Wiebe flew across the country to Mitchell’s own home town in New Hampshire to beat his record on a public arcade game.
10. Nintendo Requires Its Lead Designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, To Drive To Work
Imagine being so important to your company that if someone even starts a rumor on social media that you’re about to retire, your company’s stock price starts plummeting?! That’s how valuable lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto is to Nintendo and the video game industry as a whole. He’s so valuable in fact, that Nintendo doesn’t allow him to ride his bike to work, which is how Miyamoto would prefer to commute. They won’t even let him walk. The company forces him to drive to work every day rather than take a chance on his safety being endangered by other drivers. Small price to pay to be the best in your industry at something you love doing. Makes you wonder how much they’re paying him.
9. Nintendo Officially Encourages Watching Your Opponent’s Screen, Which Most Gamers Consider Cheating
You read it here! Nintendo officially encourages screen watching as a tactic in multiplayer games with a split screen! Now most video gamers consider that to be cheating, but Nintendo not only says it’s okay, they say you should do it! So next time you get some blow back for screen watching at a Halo party, you can let your friends know they’re being unreasonable. In the Super Mario Kart video game manual, it says: “How To Win in Battle Mode: Look at the color of the barrier on your opponents screen to determine where they are. Use the Star to your advantage. While you are invincible, it is possible to hit your opponent multiple times. You can eliminate Banana Peels with Shells. Always keep an eye on your opponent’s screen.”
8. Kirby’s Name Was Going to Be Tinkle Popo
Kirby’s Dream Land was created by Masahiro Sakurai, the same Nintendo developer who created Super Smash Bros. And apparently the fantasy adventure game, in which Kirby inhales his enemies and then spits them back out at his other enemies, has always suffered from lagging sales in the United States because the mostly-male video game audience considers the cute, pink little guy to be just too, well, cute. Well it could have been a lot worse. Nintendo might have gone with Kirby’s original name: Tinkle Popo. But as President Iwata revealed at a GDC 2011 keynote, he vetoed the name, knowing that it would probably never sell in the United States.
7. The Chain Chomps In Super Mario Bros. 3 Will Break Loose and Chase You If You Hang Out Long Enough
The Chain Chomps that made their debut in Super Mario Bros. 3 were absolutely terrifying, and still are today in their many present incarnations across Nintendo’s vast library of Mario games. Miyamoto says he came up with the idea for the chomping ball and chains from a childhood memory of an angry dog pulling its leash. Apparently there’s a neat little surprise for you in the Chomps’ Super Mario Bros. 3 debut: If you are brave enough and skillful enough to hang around a Chain Chomp for a long time without getting chomped, it will eventually break free and chase after Mario! It’s something very few people know about, but all you have to do is wait around until the Chomp pulls on its chain 49 times, and it will break free. Just get ready to run!
6. Nintendo Owned The Seattle Mariners For 20 Years
You may or may not have known this, but Nintendo has a lot of Ken Griffey Jr. games for some reason. That some reason is that Nintendo actually owns a Major League Baseball team in the United States, the Seattle Mariners, and Ken Griffey Jr. played for them for more than a decade. When Nintendo bought the team in 1992, the purchase actually did make sense. After all, Seattle, Washington had been Nintendo’s headquarters in the United States for years. Of course there was initially some reservation among fans about a Japanese company owning an American Major League Baseball team, but all these years later, it’s so normal that few are even aware of it.
5. For a Time, Nintendo Tried to Sell Legos Under Its Own Brand In Japan
The iconic Lego brick was invented by the Danish Lego company. (Lego means “Play Well” in Danish, by the way.) The genius behind it is how simple and versatile it is, allowing for an unlimited number of construction possibilities. Well for a time, from 1968 – 1972, Nintendo essentially ripped off the plastic block’s design with no license from Lego Company and sold Nintendo Blocks, shortened to N&B blocks. The N&B blocks had the same dimensions as Legos, so they were interchangeable, but N&B offered far more shapes than Lego, including more round blocks and custom pieces. As if selling unlicensed copies wasn’t savage enough, Nintendo actually did television advertising showing an unhappy kid playing with Legos, while a laughing, smiling kid played with N&B blocks, and it worked! The blocks were a commercial success, but Nintendo did discontinue the brand by the early 1970s, probably in response to legal pressure from Lego.
4. Wario Is A Word Mashup of Mario and “Warui” Which Means Bad in Japanese
The design team for the Gameboy title Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins didn’t want to just rehash someone else’s character for the bad guy. So, headed by designer Hiroji Kiyotake, they created their own arch-rival for Mario: Wario, a caricature of Mario whose name is a portmanteau of Mario and the Japanese word for “bad,” which works out great, because in English, the “W” in Wario is an upside “M.” It worked out even better in the case of Luigi’s evil twin, Waluigi, because his name is pronounced “Waruigi” in Japanese, so it meshes better with the word “Warui.” Since his early 90s debut on Game Boy, Wario has become a very well-established and beloved character in Nintendo fandom.
3. For a Few Months, Nintendo Has Been Teasing The Possibility of a Smartphone Controller
At a shareholder’s meeting last year, Shinya Takahashi was questioned about the difficulty of playing Nintendo’s most famous titles like Mario on a smartphone given typical virtual controls on touchscreen devices. Takahashi answered that his team has looked into third party controllers for smartphones and “may develop something new by ourselves.” While that shouldn’t be taken as a certainty, given that it was one comment at a shareholder’s meeting in response to a question, the fact that Nintendo is researching this, and that it would most likely be a very successful hardware piece, makes it worth keeping an ear to the ground on this one.
2. The Creator of Nintendo’s Sound Chip Would Go On To Invent The Sony Playstation
Here’s an awesome fact about Sega you won’t believe: That “SEGA!!!” chant at the beginning of Sonic the Hedgehog took up an eighth of the memory on the cartridge. Still, Super NES had superior sound to the Sega Genesis, and the story behind it is some truly Pirates of Silicon Valley level lore. Ken Kutaragi, an engineer at Sony, started designing the sound card for SNES without Sony’s knowledge to force their hand and push the consumer electronics company into the video game industry. When his bosses found out, they weren’t happy about it, but they ultimately approved the partnership with Nintendo. Next, Ken was going to create a CD-ROM add on for Nintendo consoles, and when that got the axe from Nintendo, Kutaragi went back to working in-house for Sony on a little project called Play Station.
1. Nintendo Games Are Censored In The United States
Just like you don’t get the same TIME Magazine cover stories in the US that you do in the rest of the world, the US gets sanitized versions of Nintendo games catering to the unique aspects of American culture. In the Japanese version of Mario Kart for instance, when characters win a race, their winning pose shows them holding a bottle of champagne to celebrate, with Bowser and Peach even drinking on screen. But the Nintendo of America didn’t want any depictions of alcoholic beverages in their games, so that part of Mario Kart never made it to the US. Another example is Miyamoto’s very first NES game, Devil World, which was never released in the US, because Nintendo of America had strict rules against any religious imagery. Perhaps most interestingly, Japan’s NES gun looks like a real gun. Since the United States has a far less restricted market for actual guns, Nintendo didn’t want anything that actually looks like a real gun to be sold with Nintendo consoles, so gamers instead got a futuristic-looking gun.