The lost world of the first Nintendo consoles

Before Nintendo embarked on its own distinctive creative direction in video games – a direction that revolutionized the industry in the 1980s – it played a game of following the leader by creating the first Japanese-only consoles that were inspired dominant American gaming trends at the time.

In the 1970s, dedicated home game consoles that played variations of the hit Atari Pong game were incredibly popular, with dozens of manufacturers throwing their hats into the ring. Nintendo was no exception and contracted with Mitsubishi to develop its own line of dedicated Pong-like consoles between 1977 and 1980. As the machines progressed they became more sophisticated, playing much more than a simple game of Pong. You can almost see Nintendo gaining its creative voice by tracking these gadgets through time.

In the slides ahead, you’ll see five early Nintendo-dedicated consoles (all of which had a set number of built-in games that couldn’t be changed), a rare handheld game, and finally, a Japanese console that blew the lid off everything. for the veteran game creation firm. All predate the 1985 appearance of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States, which made the company name famous in the Western world.

I owe great gratitude to Nintendo collector Erik Voskuil and his excellent site BeforeMario.com for bringing some of these consoles to my attention. Most of the photos of these rare early Nintendo consoles have been digitized by Mr. Voskuil, who has done more to introduce the English-speaking world to these rare Nintendo gems than anyone I know.

When you’re done reading, I’d love to hear about your first experience with Nintendo products in the comments. What was your first Nintendo console?

1. Nintendo 6 Color TV Game (1977)

Nintendo’s very first console (seen here) was a joint effort with Mitsubishi Electronic, and it played three variations of Pong: hockey, volleyball, and tennis. All in glorious color, mind you, which was a notable feature at the time. You could play each of the three games in single or double mode, which (in marketing logic) brought the total number of games to six. This console, and its sister you are about to see, sold quite well in Japan, paving the way for future consoles from Nintendo.

(Picture: Nintendo)

2. Nintendo 15 Color TV Game (1977)

Nintendo 15 color television game (1977)

Game Show 15 seen here was released at the same time as Game Show 6, and it featured detachable controllers as well as 15 game modes, including Tennis, Volleyball, Hockey, Table Tennis and Game of shooting, which were all more or less variations. of Pong. Lots of two-player fun was to be had, of course, which partly explains the high number of game variations.

(Picture: Nintendo)

3. Nintendo Racing 112 Color TV Game (1978)

Nintendo Racing 112 color television game (1978)

In 1978, Nintendo began to move away from Pong clones by introducing this console – complete with steering wheel and shifter – which played 112 variations (!) of the same color air racing game. With two plug-in paddles for multiplayer racing action, it sounds like a lot of fun.

(Picture: Nintendo/Beforemario.com)

4. Nintendo Color TV Game Breakers (1979)

Nintendo color television game block breaker (1979)

This Block Breaker unit, which played a game very similar to Atari’s hit arcade title Breakout (1976), marked a notable change for Nintendo in video games: it was its first console to prominently display the Nintendo name on the case. This is because it was the first video game console designed by Nintendo alone. Even more impressive, legendary Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto is said to have designed his case. Given the increased gameplay complexity (and six game modes), many people say this is the most fun entry in Nintendo’s Color TV Game series.

(Picture: Nintendo)

5. Nintendo Computer TV Game (1980)

Nintendo computer game show (1980)

In 1978 Nintendo released Othello (based on the popular strategy board game) in the arcade. Two years later, he designed a home version of the game called Computer TV Game. It did exactly what you might expect: allowed one or two players to play Othello on a TV at home. But it did it in a way you might not expect, by including the real Othello arcade circuit board in its plastic shell. As a result, the unit proved bulky and expensive, making it a very rare Nintendo artifact today.

(Picture: Nintendo)

6. Nintendo Computer Mah-Jong Yakuman (1983)

Nintendo Computer Mah-Jong Yakuman (1983)

And what is this strange Nintendo curiosity that we have here? Not exactly a video game console, but a sophisticated electronic version of the popular Asian game Mah-Jong in portable, battery-powered form. I find this portable console most interesting in that it informs the Game Boy (released six years later) of its use of a link cable. By connecting two Yakuman handhelds with a special cable, two players can compete on the go. Very neat, very Nintendo.

(Picture: Nintendo/Beforemario.com)

7. Nintendo Family Computer (1983)

Nintendo Family Computer (1983)

And here we have the culmination of Nintendo’s early experiments in video games: the Nintendo Family Computer (or “Famicom” for short), a cartridge-based home television console released in 1983 that served as both a showcase for the fast-growing roster of Nintendo original hit arcade games (think Donkey Kong, Mario Bros.) and a new home for industrious Japanese third-party video game designers (think Square, Namco, Enix). Two years later, a revamped version of the Famicom would emerge in the West as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and the rest is history.

(Photo: Evan Amos)

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Timothy C. Mayo