Sep 232016


On this date in 1889 the original Nintendo Company was founded. That’s right – 1889.  It’s hard to believe because nowadays when we think of Nintendo we think of electronics, video games, and Mario. Nintendo Co., Ltd. (任天堂株式会社) is now a Japanese multinational consumer electronics and software company headquartered in Kyoto, Japan, and is one of the world’s largest video game companies by net worth. When it was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi it produced handmade hanafuda playing cards. By 1963, the company had tried to diversify into several small niche businesses, such as cab services and love hotels!! Finally it hit on electronic games and was a giant success.  The original word Nintendo is popularly thought to mean “leave luck to heaven” but there is no evidence for this. The Kanji characters are just read as Nintendo.

Card playing in Japan has a long and chequered history. Playing cards were introduced by Portuguese sailors in 1549 when they landed in Japan, carrying the missionary Francis Xavier. The crew of his ship had with them a set of 48 Portuguese Hombre playing cards, and eventually card games became popular, along with their use for gambling. When Japan subsequently closed off all contact with the Western world in 1633, foreign playing cards were banned. The ban was useless, however. Card playing, and associated gambling proved impossible to eliminate, so the government eventually lifted its ban.


Nintendo began as a card company named Nintendo Koppai (Nintendo Playing Card Co. Ltd.) which produced and marketed cards and a game called “Hanafuda.” Hanafuda literally translates as “flower cards” which refers to their designs. The twelve suits are all names of flowers representing the flowers that bloom over the 12 months of the year. The first cards that Nintendo produced were hand painted on mulberry bark. The handmade cards were slow to catch on, but then rapidly increased in popularity when the Yakuza (crime syndicates) used them in their gambling parlors. Thence, Yamauchi hired assistants to mass-produce cards to satisfy demand.

The cards are arranged in 12 suits of 4 cards each. The suits are the months of the year with a corresponding blossom. Here’s March represented by Sakura, the cherry blossom.

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There are 2 normal cards (1 point each), one poetry ribbon card (5 points), and one special card (10 or 20 points), in each suit. If there are two players, 8 cards are dealt face up on the playing field and each player gets 8.  The rest are the stock. Play is a little like gin rummy in that players try to form complete sets of suits, although the rules of play and scoring highly varied from place to place.

In 1956, Hiroshi Yamauchi, grandson of Fusajiro Yamauchi, visited the U.S. to talk with the United States Playing Card Company, the dominant playing card manufacturer there. He found that the biggest playing card company in the world was using only a small office. Yamauchi realized that the playing card business had limited potential and sought to diversify. He then acquired the license to use Disney characters on playing cards to drive sales. In 1963, Yamauchi changed the name Nintendo Playing Card Co. Ltd. to Nintendo Co., Ltd. The company then began to experiment in other areas of business using newly injected capital during the period of time between 1963 and 1968. Nintendo set up a taxi company called Daiya. This business was initially successful. However, Nintendo was forced to sell it because problems with the labor unions were making it too expensive to run the service. It also set up a love hotel chain, a TV network, a food company (selling instant rice) and several other ventures. All of these ventures eventually failed, and after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, playing card sales dropped, and Nintendo’s stock price plummeted to its lowest recorded level of ¥60 (i.e. nothing).


In 1966, Nintendo moved into the Japanese toy industry with the Ultra Hand, an extendable arm developed by its maintenance engineer Gunpei Yokoi in his free time. Yokoi was moved from maintenance to the new “Nintendo Games” department as a product developer. Nintendo continued to produce popular toys, including the Ultra Machine, Love Tester and the Kousenjuu series of light gun games. Despite some successful products, Nintendo struggled to meet the fast development and manufacturing turnaround required in the toy market, and fell behind the well-established companies such as Bandai and Tomy.


In 1973, its focus shifted to family entertainment venues with the Laser Clay Shooting System, using the same light gun technology used in Nintendo’s Kousenjuu series of toys, and set up in abandoned bowling alleys. Following some success, Nintendo developed several more light gun machines (such as the light gun shooter game Wild Gunman) for the emerging arcade scene. While the Laser Clay Shooting System ranges had to be shut down following excessive costs, Nintendo had found a new market.

Nintendo’s first venture into the video gaming industry was securing rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey video game console in Japan in 1974. Nintendo began to produce its own hardware in 1977, with the Color TV-Game home video game consoles. Four versions of these consoles were produced, each including variations of a single game (for example, Color TV Game 6 featured six versions of Light Tennis).


A student product developer named Shigeru Miyamoto was hired by Nintendo at this time. He worked for Yokoi, and one of his first tasks was to design the casing for several of the Color TV-Game consoles. Miyamoto went on to create, direct and produce some of Nintendo’s most famous video games and become one of the most recognizable figures in the video game industry. In 1975, Nintendo moved into the video arcade game industry with EVR Race, designed by their first game designer, Genyo Takeda, and several more titles followed. Nintendo had some small success with this venture, but the release of Donkey Kong in 1981, designed by Miyamoto, changed Nintendo’s fortunes dramatically. The success of the game and many licensing opportunities (such as ports on the Atari 2600, Intellivision and ColecoVision) gave Nintendo a huge boost in profit and in addition, the game also introduced an early iteration of Mario, then known in Japan as Jumpman, the eventual company mascot. That’s how you go from cherry blossoms on tree bark to a jumping Italian plumber and make millions in the process.


For a recipe I’m going to go with the card playing side of things, although my suggestion is suitable for video games as well. If you are holding a card party and are trying to figure out what snacks to serve the answer is simple: don’t serve anything that gets the players’ fingers sticky or greasy. Common folklore (much disputed) has it that the sandwich was invented by John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat. It is said that when playing cards he ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread, so that he could eat without utensils, and the bread would prevent his fingers from getting sticky. This part may well be true – or, being a busy businessman and diplomat, he may have ordered them while he was working at his desk (as his biographer claims). Certainly he gave his name to the food item, and he played cribbage a lot (for money). But he did not invent the concept of the sandwich. Putting food between slices of bread goes back to antiquity. You can’t imagine that it took until the 18th century for someone to come up with the idea. Nonetheless, sandwiches are good card-playing snacks.

I’ve made a lot of different sandwiches in my time, and I like to be inventive. When I was living in a hostel in China with no kitchen facilities I always had a loaf of bread on hand and made sandwiches from whatever I could find at the local markets. That meant I ate a lot of combinations of spicy pickles, vegetables, and meat between slices of bread. I’m not going to stop you if you think that slapping some ham and cheese between bread is your idea of a sandwich, but it’s not mine. I make them from whatever looks good at the market that day. As a reminder from a recent post, here’s a fig and Gorgonzola sandwich I made last month using local products.


My aim in making an interesting sandwich is to have a variety of tastes and textures and to make sure that everything is very fresh and locally produced where possible. When I can I like to toast the bread as well – adds color, flavor, and texture. Today I went to the market to see what looked good and came away with some Italian salami, mascarpone, Gorgonzola, and hake. So here’s the result (with stuff I had on hand added). I toasted slices from a granary loaf, and began with a layer of Belgian endive, then salami, then grilled fillet of hake, then mascarpone and Gorgonzola, with fresh arugula (roquette/rocket) on top. Here’s the sandwich in the making, and in the eating position.

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