How Super Mario Helped Nintendo Conquer the Video Game World

Super Mario, one of the most iconic characters in video game history, made his inauspicious debut in 1981. He wasn’t much—just a handful of colored pixels on a grainy screen, a figure trying to save his girlfriend from a giant ape named Donkey Kong. But by the time the 1990s came around, Mario had not only rescued his lady love from her simian kidnapper; he’d become the face of Nintendo itself. 

It all started a century earlier in 1889, when Fusajiro Yamauchi founded a small company named Nintendo Koppai to manufacture hanafuda, a popular type of Japanese playing cards used widely for gambling. (The word Nintendo translates roughly to “luck-heaven-hall,” or a place where your fortune is placed in the hands of the gods.) Business boomed for many decades—Nintendo is still one of the top hanafuda manufacturers in the world—but when Yamauchi’s grandson, Hiroshi, took over in 1956, he began looking for ways to diversify the company’s revenue streams.

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