Saturday, September 17, 2011

Nintendo Ten Billion (任天堂 テンビリオン, 1980)

In 1980 Nintendo released a toy that would become a hit in their Japanese home market as well as abroad. Some of Nintendo's toys and early arcade games had been sold internationally before, but noting on the scale of Ten Billion.

Nintendo Ten Billion (1980)

The Ten Billion (テンビリオン) is a 3D puzzle (立体パズル). It was a response to the phenomenally poplar Rubik's Cube, which Nintendo's great inventor Gunpei Yokoi used as inspiration to come up with his own original puzzle.

It was not their first 3D puzzle. Many years earlier, Nintendo had already released Fifteengame and the Challenge Dice, both much simpler puzzles.

The Ten Billion came in a plastic case, and was sold for ¥1,000.

The top of the case contained a gold colored sticker with a "N", obviously referring to Nintendo. The Nintendo name was also included in the top and bottom of the game itself.

Nintendo copyright on top of the Ten Billion

The Ten Billion barrel is filled with 23 balls: four balls for each of the five colors (yellow, orange, red, blue and green) and 3 black balls.

The objective of the Ten Billion puzzle is to get all balls back into their original spot inside the barrel, after they have been thoroughly mixed by rotating the two drums (ドラム) in the middle of the barrel while moving the black plunger (プランジャ) up and down.

The Ten Billion owes its name to the 10 billion (10,000,000,000) different permutations in which the balls supposedly can be mixed. When counted properly, the number of permutations is actually around 450 times higher (4,509,264,634,875).

Front of Ten Billion Manual

The two middle sections of the barrel can be rotated independently, which moves ten balls at the same time.

The black plunger has three protruding pieces pushing against the balls. When the plunger is moved, three of the five columns move with it (moving a total of no less that 15 balls at once).

If you compare the image above with the one below, you notice that the column in the middle (with the two yellow balls and one orange and blue ball) did not change when the plunger was moved to the right, while the other two columns moved to the right with it.

Because of the large number of balls that move at the same time, solving this puzzle is very tricky. Nintendo provided to retailers a leaflet (解説書) with information on solving the Ten Billion.

Leaflet with instruction on solving Ten Billion

The leaflet shows step by step how to solve the puzzle, starting by moving the three black balls into the correct position, and then moving the colored balls in their right column, one column at a time.

For people not content with "just" aligning the balls in their original configuration, a final section in the leaflet provided sixteen additional challenges with various nice patterns for the colored balls.

Alternative patterns for the balls in Ten Billion

As mentioned, the Ten Billion was an international success and exported to many countries around the world.

German edition of Ten Billion, called "Teufelstonne"

In Germany and The Netherlands Ten Billion was sold under the name "Devil's Barrel" ("Teufelstonne" and "Duivelston", respectively).

In the United Kingdom, it was distributed by a company called CGL, which also distributed Nintendo Game & Watch games.

Teufelstonne Manual

For many people in the West, including me, Ten Billion was the first exposure to Nintendo's ingenuity. It was a serious brain twister with a high quality design.

Box in which Ten Billion was shipped to retailers

At the time, though, not many will have recognized and remembered the Nintendo brand name, as it was still very much unknown outside of Japan.

Of course, that would change very soon thereafter; an ape-centered video game and an avalanche of Game & Watch games made sure of that. But that is a different story.

Nintendo did create a follow-up to the Ten Billion: the Crossover. An equality interesting puzzle, but commercially much less successful.


  1. where can i buy one?

    1. Your best bet is to search on eBay or Yahoo Auctions Japan

  2. I live in Germany and got one of those things. But there aren't any golden stickers on it. Both sides of the plunger look the same. But they say "© 1980 BY Nintendo" and "PAT.PEND. MADE IN JAPAN"

    1. The golden sticker you see in the above pictures is on the clear plastic outer case, not on the puzzle itself.

  3. Great story and beautiful pictures. I have the exact same as in this story but without the outher case and any Nintendo copyright on the barrel. The quality is real good. Is it an early piece, before the copyright? Or is it because it was distributed by a company like CGL? Because of the quality I find it hard to believe that it's a fake or a reproduction.

    1. Thank you. If it doesn't have the copyright, it is most likely a reproduction. This one was copied quite a bit when it became successful.