Nintendo has long positioned itself as the video game company for kids and families– from its early days selling the NES as a toy rather than a video game console, to remaining stubbornly committed to all-ages gaming in the face of increasingly mature competition. While that approach hasn’t always worked, the fact that Nintendo has been the only consistent player in the console market for the past 30+ years and is still going strong proves that the company is obviously doing something right with its goal to create games for everyone.
Beneath that friendly exterior– led by a falsetto, forever-smiling hero named Mario who has become as successful a fictional character and corporate mascot as any that has ever existed– lies a history of strong-arm business tactics, people going unpaid and/or unrecognized for their work, ties to prison labor and the Japanese mafia, causing seizures, and more.
In fact, the content that would comprise a video game detailing the things Nintendo wants to keep secret would probably be rejected by the company’s own standards department.
Here are 18 Dark Secrets That Nintendo Doesn’t Want You To Know.
18. Nintendo’s origins are tied to gambling and the Yakuza
Many people know by now that Nintendo was founded in 1889 as a playing card company, but that’s where the company’s origin story ends for most people– fast forward 90 years or so, and Nintendo started making video games and the rest is history. But there is a lot to unpack about the company’s origins.
The cards that Nintendo began its existence manufacturing were hanafuda cards, which are used to play a few different types of Japanese card games. It is commonly accepted that it was only when the Yakuza started using hanafuda cards– of which Nintendo was the primary source of in the early days– in its illegal gambling dens did Nintendo’s fledgling business begin to flourish.
17. Pokémon sent hundreds to the hospital
The one Nintendo franchise that has broken free from its video game roots and exists as a multimedia brand unto itself is Pokémon, and most of that has to do with the popular animated television series.
While the Pokémon anime has drummed up controversy for episodes featuring guns and racial stereotypes – all of which were banned for the show’s North American run– the series had its biggest PR nightmare when it literally sent people to the hospital.
In episode 38 of the original series, titled “Dennō Senshi Porygon”, a strobe-like effect during a particular scene caused nearly 700 Japanese citizens to be sent to the hospital with seizure-like symptoms. While many recovered during the trip, 150 were fully admitted into hospitals, and two remained there for several weeks. Fortunately, all the affected people fully recovered with no permanent injury.
16. Donkey Kong’s programmer was betrayed
All we ever hear about Nintendo’s breakout game, Donkey Kong, was that it was created by Shigeru Miyamoto. While the disproportionate amount of credit he gets for Nintendo’s early hits will be further addressed later in this list, this entry is all about one man in particular whose name you’ve never heard– the man who actually programmed Donkey Kong.
Not yet having the in-house talent to do the job themselves, Nintendo contracted the work of programming DK to a man named Ikegami Tsushinki. They then took his work and not only made thousands of extra DK machines without giving him the proper royalties, but they used his code to create Donkey Kong Jr., again without compensation.
15. “the world’s least eco-friendly electronics company”
Tech companies are notorious for not being especially “green”– look at how much work it is for a civilian to dispose of a single PC properly, and multiply that by a few million times and it’s easy to see how tough it might be for an electronics giant to be eco-friendly.
According to Greenpeace, which periodically releases rankings of electronics companies by how green they are, Nintendo is especially bad at it.
As the graphic illustrates, Nintendo isn’t all by itself at the bottom of Greenpeace’s list, but that doesn’t make it much better that any of them do so poorly. At one point, Greenpeace gave Nintendo a zero rating, and flat-out called it “the world’s least eco-friendly electronics company.” While Nintendo has made strides to improve in recent years, it continues to be the worst offender in the video game industry.
14. Nintendo helped to ruin Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag
After the video game crash of 1983, North American retailers were justifiably hesitant in giving video games another shot. Yet Nintendo was still determined to bring a new game console, the NES, to America. The plan: position it as a “toy” rather than a video game.
Nintendo enlisted the help of toy giant Worlds of Wonder, which was enjoying the success of its Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag toy lines. W.O.W. used its leverage to convince stores to stock the NES, which was instrumental in getting retail chains to take the risk on the system. However, once Nintendo got the foothold it needed, it pulled out of its deal with W.O.W. as quickly as it could.
13. The co-creator of Mario and Zelda spent decades without public recognition
Shigeru Miyamoto is credited as the creator of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda, among other iconic franchises. In fact, his is pretty much the only name that’s ever credited to those games, and if that seems dubious, it’s because it is.
Maybe it’s not a big surprise that Miyamoto didn’t work on those games all by himself, but what’s troubling is that another man had an equally important hand in the creation of SMB and Zelda— and most don’t know his face or his name. That man is Takashi Tezuka, and by most accounts, he did just as much– if not more– to craft those franchises.
12. Nintendo has been fined multiple times over price fixing
To some, Nintendo’s explosive growth in the ’80s seemed suspicious– and those people had every right to question just how quickly the company had managed to get into the tens of millions of homes, especially after retailers and consumers were previously distrustful of video games following the crash.
It turns out, Nintendo had been employing an illegal practice known as price fixing, something that it reportedly continued to do for years.
The first time Nintendo was formally busted for price fixing was in 1991, when the Federal Trade Commission ordered the company to pay out nearly $30 million in customer rebates and other fees. Nintendo allegedly continued the practice, and in 2002 they were fined a whopping $147 million by the European Trade Commission for the same reason.
11. Nintendo strong-armed during golden age
The Nintendo company was family-run for over a century, passed down from one member of the Yamuachi clan to another from its 1889 founding through the retirement of Hiroshi Yamuachi in 2002.
In addition to the aforementioned price fixing, Nintendo used its position as the number one video game company on the planet to force third parties into severely one-sided deals in which Nintendo always came out ahead– and unless companies didn’t want to make games for the NES, which wasn’t a smart move, they had no choice but to play ball.
Nintendo also had a complete monopoly on NES and SNES cartridge manufacturing, giving it full control over inventory and forcing other companies to license the cartridges directly from Nintendo– yet another one-sided deal designed entirely for its own benefit.
10. Prisoners packaging games
This is another case of Nintendo doing something that isn’t necessarily exclusive to it, but given that it’s selling itself as a company that makes products for children and families, it’s all the more disappointing to find out.
Nintendo is one of many companies to outsource production work to Chinese-based company Foxconn, which has drawn criticism for poor working conditions, a high death rate among its employees, and underage workers. In 2002, Nintendo was also one of several companies that admitted to using Signature Packaging Solutions for contract work, a company that not only employs prisoners but utilizes felons who are in prison for serious offenses like murder and assault.
Many find it troubling that people who are being incarcerated for violent, disturbing crimes were also packaging the Game Boys and Pokémon cartridges that young children would later be opening up on Christmas morning.
9. Nintendo didn’t support Rare when it needed it most
With the possible exception of Game Freak, which develops the Pokémon franchise, few outside developers have contributed more to Nintendo’s legacy than Rare. Not only was Rare one of the NES’ first third-party developers, the British company also developed the Donkey Kong Country series– also creating DK’s modern look which he retains to this day– and some of the most beloved Nintendo 64 games, including Goldeneye 007 which single-handedly sold millions of N64 consoles.
In all that time, however, Nintendo never made what many saw as the obvious move of buying Rare out, or even purchasing a stake in the developer. Worse, when game development costs began to rise dramatically in the 2000s and Rare needed extra financial support, Nintendo sat silently as Rare was forced to seek investments elsewhere. This led to Microsoft buying the company out and ending one of the most popular partnerships in gaming history.
8. “Artificial scarcity”
As anyone who is currently struggling to find an SNES Classic can attest to, Nintendo seems to have trouble keeping up with demand for its products. Before that it was was Amiibos, and before that it was Wii systems, and before that…you get the idea.
How can Nintendo keep completely underestimating how popular its products are going to be?
Can it really be that hard to make more SNES Classics or Amiibo figures in a timely fashion? Many people see Nintendo’s repeated failure to keep up with demand as a sign that it’s all intentional. By employing a tactic known as artificial scarcity, people argue, Nintendo deliberately releases less of a product in order to drive up demand, garnering free publicity and word of mouth in an effort to make its products seem like they’re just that popular and desirable.
7. Nintendo threatened stores that carried Sega products
While Nintendo’s strong-arm business tactics in the late-80s and early-90s were bad for its own contractors, it was even worse for any company that dared position itself as Nintendo’s competition. When Sega came along and started trying to sell game systems that directly took on Nintendo’s, it learned just how ruthless Nintendo could be.
While the NES was able to ice out Sega’s Master System fairly easily in the U.S., the Sega Genesis was a different story. Sensing that the Genesis was going to be a real contender, Nintendo used its clout to threaten to pull its products from any stores that also carried Sega products.
For the stores that couldn’t be fully scared away from carrying Sega merchandise, Nintendo was often at least able to convince them not to actively push the Genesis or have any kind of in-store display featuring Sega’s 16-bit console.
6. Virtual Boy blame
Not only did legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi conceive of Nintendo’s breakthrough Game & Watch line, but he also designed the Game Boy, was a key figure in the creation of Metroid, and invented the cross-shaped directional pad.
All of that makes it such a tragedy that Nintendo let him end his career with the company on a low note. Yokoi was working on the ill-fated Virtual Boy when Nintendo– against his wishes– released it before he was satisfied with it. Nintendo then let Yokoi take all the blame for the Virtual Boy’s failure, and he conveniently decided to retire from the company soon after. Nintendo claims he had always planned to retire when he did, but the timing seemed far too coincidental.
5. Nintendo has lost several cases regarding patent and copyright theft
Nintendo has long been considered an innovator in the video game field– but if various lawsuits are to be believed, Nintendo might not be quite as innovative as it seems.
In 2014, Nintendo and Phillips reached a settlement after Phillips was able to successfully prove that Nintendo violated two of its patents and used them for Nintendo’s Wii and Wii U consoles. In August 2017, Nintendo was ordered to pay $10 million to a company called iLife Technologies after it was alleged that Nintendo violated iLife’s patent of a motion-control technology that resembles the one used for the Wii. Nintendo has since successfully appealed, but the company is also known to have some of the best lawyers in the business.
4. Nintendo Power magazine’s control
Most kids who grew up playing the NES did so with an accompanying subscription to the magazine Nintendo Power. The publication became a must-have for young Nintendo fans, who pored over every issue and treated it like their video game bible. To get fans hooked, Nintendo even gave the first few issues away for free.
What few realized at the time was that Nintendo Power was essentially propaganda, a magazine created and sold by Nintendo itself for the purposes of having full control over its own press coverage. In its early years, NP was largely devoid of any sort of critical eye on the games it covered, drumming up excitement for every upcoming game and making them all must-haves for the magazine’s unwitting readers.
3. The Famicom/NES wasn’t Nintendo’s first home console
Before Nintendo invaded millions of homes with the NES– and its original Japanese equivalent, the Famicom– the company is mostly known to have laid the groundwork for its takeover of the console market with its arcade hits and popular line of Game & Watch handheld LCD devices.
The Famicom wasn’t actually Nintendo’s first home console– and that it got started like most companies did back then, making its own Pong clone. The “Super-TV Game 6” was released in 1977 as one of many Pong imitators of the era trying to capitalize on the popular Atari game’s massive success.
Worse, it wasn’t even one of the better Pong clones, and quickly faded into obscurity– as did Nintendo’s other three attempts at Super-TV consoles, each essentially duplicating some other existing game.
2. Creating its worst games and biggest rival with one bad decision
Nintendo inadvertently made Sega into a legitimate rival by being so restrictive to work with that companies jumped ship to the more welcoming Sega. Apparently not learning its lesson, Nintendo then went on to create an even more dangerous competitor.
After planning to create a CD add-on for its SNES with Sony, Nintendo then it switched sides and publicly announced it would be partnering with rival Phillips instead. The result was Sony going ahead and continuing work on the PlayStation, retooling it as a standalone machine and eventually destroying Nintendo’s N64 in sales.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Nintendo’s deal with Phillips allowed Phillips to create its own games based on Mario and Zelda, which are some of the worst video games ever made and continue to be a great source of shame and embarrassment for Nintendo to this day.
1. Nintendo once ran “love hotels”
In the 1950s, Nintendo’s newest president– Hiroshi Yamuachi– began to feel frustrated with the limited scope of Nintendo’s playing card business and started to look for other areas in which to branch out. In 1966, the company released the successful Ultra Hand, its first foray into toys which led to the establishment of the company’s games division. We all know what was to follow from that.
However, Nintendo tried a few other things in the ’60s before it hit on its destiny as a game maker. Among these attempts at new business opportunities were instant rice, a taxi service, a television station, and love hotels. Being exactly what they sound like, Nintendo’s love hotels were short-stay hotels that were specifically geared towards people looking for a place to hook up and would feature amenities like swings and vibrating beds. Mamma mia!
Do you have any other Nintendo secrets to share? Leave them in the comments!
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