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Nintendo’s strange history includes tree bark and the yakuza

And don’t forget the love hotels.

With Nintendo Labo coming out next month, plenty of critics have focused on one aspect of the peripheral system: It’s just cardboard.

The critics have a point. It’s strange to see Nintendo coming out with a peripheral that seems to be glorified paper. But when you consider Nintendo’s history, the company might be getting back to its roots.

Nintendo’s original product wasn’t in video games. It couldn’t have been, since the company began in 1889. Instead, it made hanafuda, a style of Japanese playing cards used to play a variety of games.

These cards were originally hand painted on mulberry tree bark, but Nintendo eventually mass-produced them in order to keep up with demand. Much of that demand came from an unlikely source: the yakuza.

Since many forms of gambling were banned in Japan, the yakuza used hanafuda for high-stakes gambling in their illegal casinos. Most professional hanafuda players were expected to discard old decks and start new ones with each game, meaning Nintendo profited greatly from these casinos.

In the mid-1960s, Nintendo branched out from the card business to try all sorts of new ventures. These ventures included a taxi service, a love hotel chain and an instant rice brand, all of which were shut down due to financial issues. But the strangest and most lucrative venture started with an employee named Gunpei Yokoi, who managed the manufacturing lines at Nintendo.

Yokoi was not a toymaker, but in the spare time between maintaining the machines, he created an extending arm toy. This caught the eye of Nintendo’s president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who insisted it Yokoi develop it into a toy before Christmas. This extending arm toy made by a bored machinist became Nintendo’s first toy: the Ultra Hand.

The Ultra Hand became a huge success. The way Yokoi’s Ultra Hand blew up led Nintendo to focus on games and toys, and Yokoi continued to lead development on many of these projects. This began with projects like the Chiritori, a remote-controlled vacuum, and eventually led to him supervising Shigeru Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong in 1981. Mario, and most of Nintendo’s video game success, came more than 90 years after Nintendo’s founding.

So as strange as it might be to see Nintendo releasing a video-game-adjacent peripheral made out of cardboard, its long history of creating (and succeeding with) odd toys leads me to believe that Labo will do just fine.

Nintendo’s success started with tree bark. Why can’t it continue with cardboard?