“High Score” Gaming History – The Rise of Nintendo

Netflix’s new Docu-Series “High Score” focuses on the development and creation of video games during the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s featuring stories and interviews from key developers and gaming figures.

The second episode focuses on the rise of Nintendo.  Nintendo was originally founded as Nintendo Karuta in 1889, selling Japanese playing cards known as hanafuda.   They eventually expanded to table top games and electronic toys, and began developing games in the 1970’s.  In 1980, Nintendo founded Nintendo of America and released the game Radar Scope, which was a failure in that it was viewed to be too similar to Atari’s Space Invaders, with game players desiring something new.  The game created a financial crisis for Nintendo of America but is also credited with prompting the creation of Donkey Kong, which would go on to be a massive success and position Nintendo for video game dominance until the late 1990’s.

Donkey Kong

  • Release Date – 1981 by Nintendo (Japan)
  • Created by – Shigeru Miyamoto
  • Inspiration – King Kong, Popeye, Beauty and the Beast
  • Gaming Genre – Platform game

Donkey Kong also featured an important character known as “Jump Man”, who we know today as Mario.  However, Donkey Kong’s success and everything that has come since could have been stopped in its tracks with Universal Studio’s lawsuit against Nintendo in 1982, claiming that Donkey Kong infringed on rights to King Kong which was under the Universal umbrella.  John Kirby, who defended Nintendo in the lawsuit, travelled 6,000 miles to Japan for multiple interviews on the game’s development and reviewed similar unlicensed uses of King Kong.  In the end, Kirby not only showed differences between King Kong and Donkey Kong, but also used other cases to prove that Universal was fully aware that King Kong was public domain and they did not even have the broad rights they were claiming to have.

Kirby, who was interviewed for High Score’s second episode, was memorialized in the credits as he passed away in 2019.  His legacy however, lives on not only in the success Nintendo had, but also in the famous Kirby character which was created by as a tribute to his contribution.

During the time of the lawsuit and related appeals, the video game industry was faltering.  1983-1985 saw a severe video game recession, particularly in the US, as the result of poorly received games (Atari’s ET for example), poor quality games, and market saturation of consoles leading gamers to hang up their controllers.

After successfully defending itself against the Universal lawsuit, Nintendo sought to reimagine its Famicom console into a sleeker, front-load design silver entertainment system.  The new design, coupled with a strict licensing policy to maintain integrity of the games played on the system, adding a quality seal to games, and pioneering a new branding and targeting strategy, was well received and revitalized the US video game industry.

Propelling off its recent success, Nintendo introduced “Game Play Counselors”, an army of video game experts tasked with helping players beat games so they would buy more.  Shaun Bloom, one of the original Game Play Counselors, discussed how he cheated his way to his dream job by putting answers to test questions on pieces of paper behind his sunglasses.  Nintendo also got into the print game with “Nintendo Power”, a magazine on gaming and tips and tricks.  The first issue from 1988 focused on the release of Super Mario Bros. 2 and included a Claymation version of Mario on the cover, to give customers the ability to see Mario in 3D for the first time.

Nintendo would continue its dominance, at highest holding over 90% of the market share of the $3B gaming market in 1990, until it started to become challenged by competitor Sega, boosted by a certain hedgehog..