Early Nintendo: With 1966's 'Ultra Hand,' Future Game Boy Inventor Saved The Company
What's the symbol of Nintendo -- Mario the plumber? True, the little guy with the mustache, and his brother Luigi, and Princess Peach and Bowser... there's a large cast of characters that makes up a Nintendo universe. But we might never have met Mario and co. if not for "Ultra Hand," a plastic toy with an extendable grabber hand.
Long before Nintendo introduced its first gaming system it had a major hit with the “Ultra Hand,” a plastic toy that mesmerized kids and single (ultra) handedly pulled the company out of financial dire straits. Who came up with the idea? And how was this simple toy able to save Nintendo?
Nintendo has been around since 1889
You might be surprised to learn that Nintendo has been around for longer than the airplane. Founded in 1889 by Fusajiro Yamauchi, the company initially traded in playing cards for the first 60 years of its life. In 1956 Yamauchi’s grandson Hiroshi visited card manufacturers in the United States and realized that Nintendo would have only so much success in the card business.
This visit inspired Yamauchi to branch out into new businesses and niche markets that continued to maintain the spirit of the original company. Nintendo changed its business strategy in the early ‘60s, but didn’t change its identity.
The Ultra Hand Was Never Supposed To Exist
While working as an engineer for Nintendo’s trading card’s assembly line, Gunpei Yokoi was developing some of his own ideas, and one of them was an extendable grab arm. When Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi visited the factory he noticed Yokoi’s creation and was immediately drawn to the invention. He knew it would be a hit.
When Yamuchi called Yokoi to his office Yokoi thought he was going to be fired for working on his own projects. Instead, Yamuchi made him the manager of a new R&D studio, the first at Nintendo and asked his permission to put the Ultra Hand into production.
Gunpei Yokoi Became A Legend Of Gaming Innovation
Gunpei Yokoi would go on to be an MVP at Nintendo. Though he first won notice for making a plastic toy, he ended up with a legacy of innovations in electronics. Yokoi was the man behind the Game & Watch, an early Nintendo gaming product. He is responsible for the "cross" shaped controller, and the hugely popular original Game Boy. Yokoi also produced successful Nintendo game franchises, including Metroid and Kid Icarus.
How to play Ultra Hand
But back to Ultra Hand -- how did one play with it? Isn’t it just a plastic grabber? Released in 1966, the toy consisted of a series of interconnected, criss-cross plastic parts. The business end of Ultra Hand resembled a set of tongs; at the user end there was a set of scissor-like handles. The whole point of the Ultra Hand was that it was supposed to be used to grab a set of three colored balls placed on a series of small pedestals. It’s not clear if there was a point system involved with the game, or if it was just supposed to be a lot of fun to grab stuff. Whatever the case, people went wild for this toy.
Ultra Hand pulled single handedly pulled Nintendo out of the red
When the Ultra Hand was released in the late ‘60s it was a smash hit. The toy connected with people the way that nothing Nintendo had made up until that point. The Ultra Hand sold for $6 a pop, and Nintendo sold 1.2 million units.
Though the company was successful and long-lived, Nintendo had suffered a series of downturns. In fact, Nintendo was on the brink of bankruptcy when Ultra Hand came along. The success of Ultra Hand righted the Nintendo ship, and allowed the company to diversify into multiple businesses. Nintendo eventually settled on creating game devices. Nintendo didn’t immediately turn to gaming after the Ultra Hand, but its success gave them the idea to focus on kids.
Nintendo has never forgotten the success of the Ultra Hand
Even though Nintendo pivoted to gaming systems in the ‘70s, leaving plastic toys in the dust, the Ultra Hand has never disappeared from their memory. The Ultra Hand pops up in the WarioWare games as well as Mario Power Tennis and in Animal Crossing. Young people playing these games probably don’t realize that the Ultra Hand was actually a toy, only that it’s an interesting piece of design. If you’ve just got to relive the brilliance of the Ultra Hand then you can fire up the Wii and play Grill-Off with Ultra Hand, a game released in 2010.
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