Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This feature was originally published in September 2020.
25 years ago, Nintendo was at something of a crossroads. 1995 saw the company in a dominant position in its homeland, where the Super Famicom was still the most popular video game console with over 90 per cent of the domestic market. However, the launch of the 32-bit Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn at the conclusion of the previous year served as a reminder that the games industry is constantly evolving, and although Nintendo could count on titles like Donkey Kong Country and Seiken Densetsu 3 to shift units, its 16-bit powerhouse was coming to the end of its lifespan – not that NCL PR manager Hiroshi Imanishi would have admitted that back in ’95.
One of the company’s longest-served employees, Imanishi joined Nintendo from Doshisha University of Law and would prove instrumental in turning the firm into one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies. He began his career with Nintendo in various admin, planning and finance roles before being assigned the task of creating a ‘Games’ department in 1969 after the breakthrough success of Gunpei Yokoi’s iconic Ultra Hand, which sold over a million units and is credited with turning Nintendo from a playing card company to one more focused on innovative toys and gadgets. He was responsible for recruiting the likes of Yokoi, Genyo Takeda (who is credited as being Nintendo’s first games designer) and Masayuki Uemura, the father of the Famicom.
Imanishi – who retired from the firm in 2002 – was seen as Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi’s right-hand man and most trusted aide; he was intimately involved with Nintendo’s draconian but ultimately successful licencing policies during the Famicom era and even masterminded the midnight launch of the Super Famicom in 1990 – an attempt to thwart Yakuza gangs intent on stealing stock before it reached stores.
Imanishi’s name might not be as famous as that of Yamauchi and Shigeru Miyamoto, but his contribution to making Nintendo the company it is today cannot be understated – and, as head of the firm’s PR machine, his word was taken very seriously in the ’90s. A rare English-language interview with the Jason Brookes-era EDGE magazine in September 1995 reveals he was in a particularly bullish mood – something which could be said of Nintendo as a whole:
According to the mass media, the 32-bit war began last year in Japan… but in fact, there is no war at all. In Japan, the only platform to have more than 11 million units on the market is the Super Famicom. Forthcoming games such as Seiken Densetsu 3, which is going to be released in September, will surely achieve sales of more than two million cartridges. Donkey Kong Country had sold 2.6 million as of March, and Dragon Quest and a new Mario game [Yoshi’s Island] are going to be released this year. This year, the Super Famicom market is unique.
When pressed on whether or not he considered Sega or Sony to be the more dangerous rival, Imanishi was dismissive:
You could say that because 64 is bigger than 32, the Ultra 64 will have no rival hardware! [Laughs.] In Japan, with 90 per cent of the current market, Nintendo does not have any rivals. At any rate, Nintendo does not have any rivals for the hardware, but as far as software is concerned, our rivals are the licensees.
He also dismissed CD-ROM out of hand, stating that it’s “not the future”, but interestingly, he cannily predicted the arrival of games like Minecraft, Roblox and Super Mario Maker many years ahead of time:
In the future we would like to see gameworlds being created not just by programmers. The player should be able to determine his own setting and participate in the world creation. It will be more than interactive!
In so many ways, Imanishi is indicative of the hubris that seemed to permeate all the way through Nintendo in the middle of the ’90s; the company stuck with cartridges despite clear evidence that optical media was the way forward, and it even decided to launch its N64 console with minimal third-party support (as Imanishi says during the EDGE interview, “Nintendo won’t be inviting third-parties to produce games. First we have to prove the Ultra 64’s capabilities with in-house software”). The company was also about to launch the Virtual Boy, arguably the firm’s biggest hardware flop.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to pick holes in Nintendo’s strategy, and history certainly seems to suggest it fumbled its chances of winning the console war of the late ’90s. The Sony PlayStation sold 102.49 million units globally while the N64 could only muster 32.93 million – still better than Sega’s Saturn (less than 10 million) but a far cry from the glory days of the NES (61.91 million) and SNES (49.10 million).
Nintendo has, of course, seen its fortunes rise, fall and rise again since the days of the N64, and it’s currently enjoying a period of particularly sustained success with Switch. One would imagine that having weathered the storms of the N64, GameCube and Wii U, Nintendo is smart enough to make the next hardware transition with a little more humility and wisdom than it did back in 1995 – but again, hindsight is everything, and the video game industry is anything but predictable.
Just ask Hiroshi Imanishi.