1981: Nintendo Game & Watch Octopus – How flower art and the Yakuza lead to this site

Why is a PC-snob who has never swung Link’s sword or sideswiped a friend’s cart writing about Nintendo? Because they were my first.

A long time ago, in a country far far away

nintendo game watch - hamafuda
Top: old cards
Middle: modern cards
Bottom: modern cards with pokemon mimicking old cards

In 1633 Japan cut off all ties with the outside world. To rid themselves of any lingering foreign funk and the indecency of gambling they banned a number of fun things including western playing cards.

This set off a two century cat and mouse game between inventors of new card games (which were immediately used for gambling) and the government banning them.

After 200-years of card-prohibition shenanigans the government realized the people really want to play cards. Hanafuda, a new game that took considerable time to complete and used image combinations instead of points to determine a winner was ill-suited to gambling and so the government relaxed their laws. Gamblers were thwarted for several minutes before creating a point system allowing betting.

Art design + Yakuza = Profit

nintendo game watch - tattoos
The Yakuza originated with the Bakuto, illegal gambling criminals from the early 1600’s. The word itself is an 8-9-3, the worst possible hand in Oicho-Kabu.

In 1889, Fusajiro Yamachi combined the bark of a mulberry tree with excellent hand painted art to create high quality Hanafuda decks, selling them out of the stores of his new company Nintendo Koppai.

The cards didn’t take off until the Yakuza, who have an obvious predisposition to excellent illustration and gambling, used them in their dens. Popularity exploded and Nintendo became the largest game maker in japan.

The same year the government underwent extensive reform, creating the Meiji Constitution which probably said some stuff about rights and due process and so forth but more importantly relaxed the ban on card games. Nintendo, already enjoying success and having the means of production, capitalized on the surge of new gaming.

nintendo game watch
From “Pale Flower“, a Yakuza gambling movie. Hamafuda cards originally had flower designs before Nintendo put plumbers on them.

Bizarro Tommy Calahan

nintendo game watch - disney
Partnership with disney. As lucrative then as it is now.

Things went smoothly for 40 years. Fusajiro grew the company until he retired in his 70’s. His son took over, adding games and inventing new ones for another 20 successful years until he suffered a stroke in 1949. Unable to run the company, he called on his grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi who dropped out of school to run the entirely foreign and unfamiliar family business. This incidentally is pretty much the plot for Tommy Boy.

Instead of an incompetent but well-meaning Chris Farley, Nintendo was now helmed by the strangely ruthless and effective Hiroshi. The employees, angry that their new boss knew nothing and was barely out of high-school, went on a general strike.

Hiroshi fired everyone involved and decreed that all new designs must first be approved by himself. He likely said this in the 3rd person. Regardless, he pushed through a number of modern initiatives like licensing the great mouse and taking Nintendo public.

Hiroshi gets a mechanical hand

nintendo game and watch - love hotels
Nothing says love like deception and windowless hotel rooms rented by the hour.

Everything game related Hiroshi touched was successful. This lead him to make the same mistake most successful men make at some point in their lives; believing that because they are good at one thing they must be good at everything.

Failed ventures into taxis, instant rice (an instant ramen precursor) and obviously a chain of love hotels (which are exactly what they sound like) ensued. Awesome playing cards can only prop up so many disasters and Nintendo teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.

Walking through his dying factory, wondering if perhaps people misunderstood what the love hotels were for and whether he should have named them Short Stay Sex Trade hotels instead. Hiroshi hoped for rain and kicked a box of instant rice that was tumbleweeding through the plant. The box rolled to a stop against Gunpei Yokoi, a factory worker who was messing around with an extendable, mechanical hand he had built.<some creative license is used in this paragraph. ed>

Like a kid seeing the thumb-removing trick for the first time, Hiroshi’s mind was blown and he immediately reshuffled Nintendo to produce Yokoi’s mechanical hand, dubbing it the Urutora Hando – the Ultra Arm. Itching a scratch no one knew existed, the Ultra Arm sold hand over fist and Nintendo gained the upper hand. Marshalling all hands on deck, Nintendo handily transformed into a toy company.

nintendo game and watch - hand
They focus on love a lot for a toy company. Maybe a mechanical hand makes perfect sense.

Hiroshi and Yokoi rule the world

Recognizing talent, Hiroshi moved Yokoi from linework and maintenance to head of design. While Nintendo was a game card giant it was a tiny toy company. Bandai and Tomy owned the market. Luckily, toys have short production runs and thrive on newness and Yokoi was a toy inventing machine.

Over 1-million units sold.

His hits include a tumbler puzzle, an RC vacuum cleaner (so you can vacuum from your couch!), a softball throwing machine, a Love Tester of dubious accuracy and of course the light gun (which first showed up in arcades “shooting” cardboard targets all the way back in 1936, and was also Sega’s first successful product in the 60’s).

Yokoi was an accomplished electrical engineer and continued working on toys until 1974 when Nintendo opened a video game division. While traveling, Yokoi noticed a businessman killing time by idly trying to spell anatomical features upside down on his LCD calculator (probably).

Predicting our current hand-held shambling zombie, phone obsession by 50-years, Yokoi realized humans often want to be distracted and insulated from other strange humans and invented the Nintendo Game & Watch.

An octopus grips my mind

Most of my first memory of my father is hazy. An apartment, an open window, seeing my dad walking towards the flat with his arms holding as many bulging bags as they could. In my memory they were white and plastic but in reality might have been just luggage. Regardless, my dim 4-year old lizard brain knew they promised toys.

My dad was returning from some out-of country trip and delighted in bringing home the latest european toys, years before they showed up in Israel. The rest of the memory, from the moment I was handed that first game, is vivid and clear and has entirely wiped out less important details like my family’s reunion.

I was in control of a tiny deep sea diver and drunk with the power. The slim, hand-held LCD is part of a series of combination watch/video games Yokoi designed for Nintendo. Each game is baked in, requiring a separate unit per title.

nintendo game watch - back
Includes a tiny foot. That’s just considerate.

Using the same display technology as in calculators, the games feature left and right movement buttons, rudimentary sound and a tiny fold-out leg that lets them stand up and proudly fulfill their secondary function of alarm clock. They had no off-switch but used very little energy allowing impressively long life out of a tiny watch battery. Over 40-games were produced in the series.

Yokoi continued at Nintendo, mentoring a young art-student named Shigeru Miyamoto. Miyamoto went on to create Nintendo’s most famous current properties while Yokoi kept knocking it out of the park with the Gameboy, before striking out horribly when he tried making that handheld go 3D and left Nintendo shortly after.

nintendo game watch - virtual boy
It’s exactly as dumb as this looks, even with the matching headband.

Gameplay holds up

A few years ago I tracked down a unit for my brother’s birthday. Although not a gamer, the octopus also left a strong impression on him. For under $100 a nice man from Japan ebay’d me a perfectly working, clean unit from 1982. It’s surprising how addictive its simple game-loop still is.

You guide a diver from the safety of his boat down and along the seafloor towards a chest of loot. The journey requires a handful of predetermined steps using the right button. Thwarting your progress is a giant octopus who snakes tentacles out into those positions.

Like in frogger, you have to hop back and forth to spots empty of deadly octopus flesh until you get to the tiny chest and steal what you can before returning to your boat and converting your loot into actual score. Wait too long and the arm pattern makes an impossible barrier before wrapping you up and squeezing the life out of you while your mates stare impassively ahead.

nintendo game and watch - octopus
Do not let the sleepy eyes fool you. This octopus is a killer.

Aside from having charming “graphics” there’s a manic element of gambling. You don’t want to waste time left-buttoning all the way back to your boat at the slightest danger, especially when you are close to the chest and stuffing your pockets. But whatever you steal doesn’t turn into points on the score-board until you reach the boat. Like in great roguelikes, death is often your own fault in overreaching.

The game sped up at set point intervals that also rewarded additional lives (charmingly rendered as extra divers waiting their turn on the boat). Thanks to the magic of usenet, a review of the game from 1982 survives.


Once my dad came home with a Commodore 64 I lost all contact with Nintendo. Hiroshi continued running the company through its greatest early triumphs until easing out and retiring in 2005, just before the Wii exploded. Yokoi left Nintendo in the 90’s and formed a company with coworkers – Koto Laboratories. The last product he produced with once-nemesis Bandai was the Wonderswan, a Japanese-only, handheld competitor to the gameboy. The unit was technically competent and innovative but Bandai failed to capitalize and Nintendo drowned it with a vast library of games. 

nintendo game watch - wonderswan
Yokoi never saw the WonderSwan make it to production in 1999. He died two years earlier in a car crash.

I picked random games for previous Fond Memories posts. Instead I will now look at the history behind my favorite game each year since I started playing in 1981.

What did you think?

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