July 2017 marks a big anniversary for Nintendo: The company has now been producing video game hardware and software for 40 years, beginning with the Color TV Game 6 and Color TV Game 15 in July 1977.
Like most game hardware of the 1970s, Nintendo’s first two machines were Pong clones. In fact, they were done on the up-and-up, since Nintendo obtained a license from Magnavox, the maker of the first home game machine, called Odyssey. (Later, the two companies would end up in litigation over Magnavox’s patents on game hardware.)
Nintendo released the two models at the same time. There actually seems to be some historical discrepancy about the exact launch timing of the two units, but Nintendo’s official word on the subject was that they were released that July.
Color TV Game 15, the higher-end, ¥15,000 model, had more game variations and hand-held paddle controllers. Color TV Game 6 had fewer games, and the paddle dials were built right into the body of the system, but was much cheaper at just ¥9,800. (Because of the huge swings in exchange rates and inflation over 40 years, it’s difficult to meaningfully compare those prices to 2017 dollars. One play of an arcade game cost 100 yen at the time.)
According to the book The History of Nintendo, both these machines were significantly less expensive than competitors’ machines at the time, which often broke the ¥20,000 mark. Nintendo’s legendary frugality was on full display.
Color TV Game 6, as the name implied, played two variations each of “tennis,” “volleyball,” and “hockey,” which were each themselves just minor variations on the standard ball-paddle game layouts. Color TV Game 15 added more variations on these games, plus Ping-Pong and a “penalty shot” game.
The low price made the units a big hit. It was actually the more expensive 15 that was pushed harder in the marketing materials, and sold 700,000 units, twice as much as the 6.
The original model of the 6 was so feature-reduced that it didn’t even have an AC adapter, and could only be powered by batteries. Nintendo quickly replaced this with a version that could be powered by a wall plug. (Neither the 15 nor the 6 included an AC adapter in the box; that was sold separately. Some things never change!)
The Color TV Game line marked the company’s entry into all forms of video game, not just home consoles. While video games were already available in Japanese arcades by 1977, and while Nintendo did make coin-op amusement machines, it only made electro-mechanical games as well as its line of EVR, or “Electronic Video Recording” machines, which were games played with live-action clips shot on 16mm film. It didn’t produce an arcade video game until Computer Othello in 1978.
It was not long after the launch of these first units that Nintendo hired a fresh-faced young designer named Shigeru Miyamoto. For my book Power-Up, I asked him what he thought of these first two machines. “They were bad,” he said. The company tasked him with improving the designs for the next two games in the Color TV Game lineup, 1978's Racing 112 and 1979's Block-Kuzushi (a Breakout clone).
Nintendo would release one more “dedicated” game machine, a home version of Computer Othello, in 1980. That same year, it had a huge hit with the Game & Watch line of LCD games, and then began working on its first cartridge-based system, the Famicom, or NES, which would come out in 1983. This would of course become much more popular than the Color TV Game 6 line—but it’s worth remembering that Nintendo first entered the gaming market back when the dominant players were Atari and Magnavox.