Nintendo's First Arcade Games Were, Well, Pretty Sucky

It's one of those quirks of history that Nintendo, a company synonymous with colourful characters and fun video games, made its very first independent venture into the world of arcade gaming with...a board game adaptation.

While 1981's Donkey Kong and 1983's Mario Bros. are most people's introduction to Nintendo arcade games, the company's first coin-op video game machines actually date back to the late 1970's.

Between 1973 and 1978, Nintendo, which was only just beginning to move away from its trading card, toy and other less savoury roots into the world of video games, released a range of arcade machines, most of them (with the exception of 1975's EVR Race and 1978's Test Driver) light gun shooters.

They were not, however, true video games. Each of these titles used a film projector to display pre-recorded imagery on a screen, and all the player had to do was shoot at things (or in Test Driver's case avoid obstacles) to progress.

We'll look more closely at those early games another day (which are fascinating in their own right), but for now, we're focusing on what came next: actual electronic video games, running code and displaying real-time graphics.

Nintendo's First Arcade Games Were, Well, Pretty Sucky

Two of these machines were released in 1978. The first was Computer Othello (top and left), a primitive adaptation of the classic board game. The other was called Block Fever, a shameless rip-off of established arcade hit Breakout. Both of these games would later be released on the Color TV series of home consoles.

Neither of these games are interesting as games. They are interesting, though, as both examples of where Nintendo was at in the late 1970's, and of what legacy their development left behind.

The negative stuff first: Block Fever was just the first in a long line of cheap, nasty knock-offs Nintendo would release in arcades over the next few years. Space Fever, released in 1979 (and its sequel, SF-HiSplitter) were both Space Invaders clones. Head On N, also out in 1979, was a Pac-Man clone. And 1979's Monkey Magic was, well, another Breakout clone. So even their inspiration was unimaginative!

But now the good stuff: Computer Othello was the first video game developed by Nintendo R&D1. This internal studio, led by Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi, would soon be churning out titles like Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Metroid, Duck Hunt, Kid Icarus and the Super Mario Land games. It was also the studio a young designer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto would prove his worth before being given his own team, which would then go on to create games like the Super Mario series and The Legend Of Zelda.

So while these early arcade games were not the kind of things you'd expect from Nintendo, that's OK! Everybody has to start somewhere, and if a few copycat games were what Nintendo legends like Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto needed to cut their teeth on, then by god, let's be thankful they did.

Nintendo's First Arcade Games Were, Well, Pretty Sucky
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.