Sunday, September 11, 2011

Nintendo Mini Game Series - Introduction (ミニゲームシリーズ, 1971-76)

In the years following the second World War, lack of raw materials and a general struggle for survival meant that toys were a luxury which few could afford, and even then mostly at special occasions only.

Twenty years on, things were looking quite different. The post-war economic miracle was raising the standard of living for most in Japan. The country was on a trajectory that would lift it to second largest economy in the world (a position only recently lost to China). People had increasing funds for non-essentials, and children - of which there were many as a result of a baby boom - had more pocket money to spend.

Because of this, from the mid 1960s onwards, toys were being bought much more frequently; getting a new toy had become part of regular leisure time. The Nintendo Mini Game Series (ミニゲームシリーズ) was a range of toys that catered for this fast expanding market of simple, not so expensive, plastic toys.

Two of Nintendo's Mini Games: Puzzle Ball and Gun Game (1972)

The first games in the Mini Game Series were introduced around 1971-72, and new toys were added to the series until 1976.

The games were priced between ¥300 and ¥900, depending on their size and complexity. Although not cheap, they were affordable and the high manufacturing quality of the games also warranted these prices.

The Mini Game Series had a recognizable kangaroo icon as it's brand logo, with the word "Mini" (ミニ) on its pouch. The tag line for the range was "packed fun" (楽しさをパックした).

The kangaroo was the brand logo of the Nintendo Mini Game Series

Nintendo wasn't the only company producing these kind of games, and they also weren't the first. Their main competitor was Japanese toy giant Epoch, who had started their own Mini Game series around five years earlier. Nintendo followed suit and copied the packaging and some of the themes of the games (as did many others), but also added a lot of original ideas. In terms of sales, Nintendo and Epoch were both very successful with these toys, as the market was big enough for multiple players.

Two examples from Epoch's Mini Game series

All Mini Games were sold in blister packs with a plastic transparent front and a cardboard back. The Nintendo Mini Games came with a white plastic hook, by which they could be hung for display at points of sale.

Nintendo Mini Games were sold in blister packs with a hanging hook

The Mini Games were sold at various types of locations, including toy shops, news stands and petrol stations.

You could also find these Mini Games in the so-called Dagashi-ya (駄菓子屋), the small candy stores of which there were many all around Japan. Not many are left these days, but every neighborhood used to have at least one, which functioned as the local hangout for children.

Nintendo Mini Game Series flyer - front (1972)

In the 60s and 70s, travel in Japan was booming and these games also provided ideal diversion on the go (on trains, planes and automobiles), as illustrated on this 1972 flyer. "Yes! All play together" (さあ みんなで 遊ぼう) shouts the little boy below.

Nintendo Mini Game Series flyer - back (1972)

The Nintendo Mini Games came in two distinct sizes: the large packs were around 22 by 30 centimeters and the smaller packs around 19 by 26 centimeters.

The cardboard back of the blister pack was brightly colored and featured busy, almost psychedelic scenes (very much 70s style); all aimed at standing out in the shops and catching the eye of the little customers.

Nintendo Mini Game sizes: large and small

Instructions on how to play the game were always provided on the back.

The back of the Mini Game contained the instructions

A couple of years after the launch of the Mini Game Series, the packaging was redesigned. Gone were the busy drawings, replaced by a less exciting but more standardized look.

Redesigned Mini Game packaging (around 1974)

The packaging of all games now had the same design: a pattern of the familiar kangaroo against a red, green, yellow or blue background. This new design may have saved some design cost over the previous packaging (which required unique drawings for every game), but, more importantly, it made the games much more recognizable as part of the Nintendo Mini Game series, by now an established brand.

The back of the Nintendo Mini Game blister pack

As part of the redesign, the kangaroo logo was also slightly modified: a baby kangaroo peeping out of its mother's pouch was added, and the kangaroos were given eyes.

The Nintendo Mini Game logo was slightly changed around 1974

A number of the games that had been available in the original package design were released again in the new design, while a set of new games was also added around this time.

Bee Hive Game is one of the games that
was available in both package versions

To further boost sales, from 1974 onwards most of the Mini Games came with a mini brochure.

Mini Games Series mini brochure (around 1974)

This brochure showed the range of Mini Games for sale at the time.

The games in the Nintendo Mini Game Series can roughly be divided in four categories.

The first category consists of miniature versions of traditional games like chess, roulette and billiards.

Chess, Roulette, Billiards and Shogi (Japanese chess)

The second category contains all sorts of dexterity games that involve metal ball bearings.

Miracle Ball, Operation Bomber, Car License and Pitfall Game

The third group are portable versions of Nintendo games previously released in full size; like Time Shock, Hockey GameHopping Game and Rabbit Coaster.

Time Shock, Bee Hive Game, Hopping Game and Rabbit Coaster

The fourth category we will simply call "other". It consists of a wide variety of original games that do not fall in any of the previous three categories.

Gear Drive, Gun Game, Kurukurubanban and Bulldozer Game

A Nintendo logo and copyright notice can be found on most Mini Games, usually on the back.

The picture below shows the copyright notice (1976) of one of the last entries in the Nintendo Mini Game Series: a game called Sky Ring.

To respond to fierce competition and keep customers interested in buying Mini Games, it was necessary to regularly introduce new games. Over the lifespan of the Nintendo Mini Game Series, at least fifty-two different games were released (not counting color or package variants of the same game).

For a list of all games go to the Nintendo Mini Game Series overview.

A marketing leaflet for the Mini Game Series can be found here.

After Nintendo stopped selling the Mini Games, fellow Japanese toy maker Nichiten acquired a license to produce remakes of a number of these games.

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