There are quite literally thousands of games out there but when it comes to gaming companies, there are only ever a few big ones that everybody recognizes.
Three of these are Sega, Nintendo and Sony, and here we’ll be exploring their unique origin stories as well as how they made huge impacts on society, technology and culture.
Sega: From Slots to Sonic
Though Sega is no longer quite as popular in the 21st century as it used to be in the 1990s thanks to the Mega Drive and Sonic the Hedgehog, there’s no doubt that the entire industry owes the former giant a huge debt. After all, it was Sega that led the charge when it came to home-gaming titles, with numerous innovative and unrivalled franchises that still continue on today. Plus, they helped to cement slot machines as a successful part of the gaming industry, which we can still see today. In many ways, Sega was ahead of the times for many decades, starting all the way back in the 1930s.
Although the company was officially established in 1960, Sega’s story actually begins as early 1933 with a man named Irving Bromberg. Bromberg was well known in the Northeast states of America for introducing some of the first vending machines and by the time World War II started, he was stationed in Hawaii creating and maintaining the American base’s slot machines. Bromberg was joined by his son Martin Jerome and co-worker James L. Humpert, and it wasn’t long before the three of them partnered up to create Service Games.
Following the war, the trio realised that the United States was no longer in need of slot machines and other coin-operated tech, so they began to sell their machines in Europe and Asia. It wasn’t long before Service Games was one of the leading names in the worldwide slot machines industry, and the company decided to set up shop in Japan permanently.
Even back then there was a clear framework in place upon which modern slot machines are still created today. Early slots such as the Sega Bell had three reels packed full of different, thematic symbols and some later models even had "double jackpot" and progressive slot possibilities as well as bonus rounds. The Sega Continental Star 3 alone had a bonus round that was triggered with the right symbols, a progressive jackpot that grew as you played and even a special reward. Some of these extra features are fairly standard nowadays in popular online slots such as Rainbow Riches, which according to Wink Bingo has numerous bonus rounds similar to those of the Sega Continental Star 3. To this day, bonus features and progressive slots are some of the ways slot machine operators attract customers, and it all goes back to Service Games.
By the 1960s, the company had begun shortening the name to Sega and split into two different branches to deal with manufacturing and distribution. The distribution entity, Nihon Goraku Bussan, began working on jukeboxes and in 1960, they released the Sega 1000 jukebox.
Around this time, another American businessman named David Rosen was taking an interest in Japanese gaming machines. In the beginning, Rosen worked on coin-operated photo booths but it wasn’t long before the company started making slot machines with the help of Sega’s Nihon Goraku Bussan department. By 1965, Rosen machines were in over 200 Japanese arcades and, following discussions with the Brombergs and members of Nihon Goraku Bussan, Rosen joined the company to create Sega Enterprises.
The very next year, 1966 the company released Periscope, a game that brought Japan and Sega onto the world stage of gaming. Throughout the 1970s, it became clear that video games were the way forward and so Sega began dropping titles like Turbo and Zaxxon, as well as distributing Frogger in America. In the early 80s, the company created Hang-On, Space Harrier, OutRun and After Burner, and in 1983 the SG-1000 console was released.
The story from there is well known: the company released several other gaming consoles including the Mega Drive in 1988. Three years later, Sonic the Hedgehog was introduced to the world and so Sega had their very own mascot that could contend with Nintendo’s Mario.
Alas, financial difficulties brought on by the launch of several lacklustre consoles, and the fact Nintendo was dominating the portable gaming sector led to Sega taking a backseat role as a third-party software development company. The company remains in business to this day, though they are far more popular in the amusement arcade industry than in console video games.
Nintendo: Why Card Games Still Appear in Super Mario
It seems, then, that Nintendo was the real winner of the video game industry boom that took place in the late 20thcentury. Though it’s certainly a shame that Sega had to lose out, considering Nintendo began as far back in 1889 it was about time the company gained worldwide success.
In the 19thcentury, the company was named Nintendo Koppai, a small Kyoto-based business founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi. Yamauchi created Hanafuda Cards, playing cards very similar to the sets of 52 playing cards we recognise today. In fact, there weren't too dissimilar at all if the many card games that appear in Mario releases as a homage to Nintendo's humble roots are anything to go by. For instance, Picture Poker in Super Mario 64 DS is exactly like the poker you'd find at many online casinos, while the blackjack minigame in New Super Mario Bros would fit right it at the best land-based casinos in Las Vegas.
This continued for half a century until Yamauchi’s grandson Hiroshi took over and began introducing plastic playing cards to Japan. This led to Nintendo becoming the largest company in the playing card industry, and yet Hiroshi understood even then that they needed to go in a different direction.
This happened in 1959 when Nintendo signed a deal with Disney to have well-loved characters printed on their cards. To accompany the new cards, Nintendo created books that taught card games and by the end of the first year, 600,000 packs had been sold. With all the extra revenue, the company started investing in almost everything you can imagine trying to find something that stuck. There was a taxi company, a short stay hotel chain, a rice food company, vacuum cleaners, toys and many more.
In 1965, the company hired Gunpei Yokoi – a maintenance engineer who worked on the toy assembly lines. Five years later, Hiroshi was touring the Nintendo factories and noticed that Gunpei had built an extending arm and, in perhaps one of the biggest gambles of history, decided to market the arm as a Christmas toy. Over a million units of the Ultra Hand were sold that year and so Gunpei was hired to create even more gadgets.
As with Sega, Nintendo began to see the popularity of video games around this time and so the company purchased the distribution rights for the Magnavox Odyssey – the first ever commercial home console. The company then went into creating arcade and home games, including 1975’s Donkey Kong. The rest, as they say, is history as Nintendo achieved great success with their arcade machines, home consoles and hugely popular gaming franchises.
Sony: Not So Twisted Transistor
Finally, we have Sony, a company that began as a humble radio repair shop located in a bomb-damaged Tokyo department store in 1945. The shop was set up by Masaru Ibuka, who was joined by his wartime research partner Akio Morita the next year. On May 7, 1946, the two founded Tokyo Tsushin Kyogo K.K. (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation).
Their first big hit was the Type-G, Japan’s first tape recorder but it was Ibuka’s ability to convince Bell Lab’s to license their transistor technology to the Japanese company that really got things started. Instead of looking into military applications of the transistor, Ibuka and Akio looked into communications and went on to create the first commercially successful transistor radio in 1955 – the Sony TR-55. From there onwards, Sony had completely changed how we listen to music, something they would continue to do for many decades to come. It's possible that without the Sony TR-55, we wouldn't even listen to music on the radio today, or perhaps we wouldn't have music online or on our mobiles. After all, without the Sony transistor radio who's to say there would have been demand for Apple to invent iTunes or for Spotify to provide streamed music? Clearly, just like Sega and Nintendo before it, Sony really did impact history.
They weren't done there though. The Sony TR-55 was followed by several other transistor radios (including slim versions of previous models) and throughout the following decades, Sony helped Japan's economy get back on its feet. During that time they expanded into multiple new areas including film, insurance, banking, music and, in 1994, they launched the PlayStation. Right from the start, Sony’s home console was a success and even now, other home gaming console manufacturers struggle to compete with the huge company.
Between Sega, Nintendo and Sony there's proof that even the most humble of beginnings can transform into huge success with some hard work, risks and inspiration. So, next time you're playing on your PlayStation or even playing online slots or cards, make sure you think about the inspirational origins of these three companies.