Saturday, June 15, 2013

Nintendo Companion (トランシーバー コンパニオン, ca 1965)

The early days of Nintendo's toys and games are gradually being documented, thanks to the efforts of a handful of researchers, writers and collectors. But there is still plenty of ground to cover, stories to be told and inventions to be shared.

Every now and then a 'new' old toy pops up that is relatively unknown. The subject of this blog post is one the most obscure toys from this era. Beside being very rare, it is also an important piece in the history for the company, as it marks a number of firsts: Nintendo's first electronic toy and their first cooperation with Sharp.


The item we are talking about is the Nintendo Companion (コンパニオン). It is a toy walkie-talkie set, dating from around the end of 1965, possibly early 1966.


Very little information about the Companion exists. In fact, the only online information previously available was a blog post from last year, in French, by Nintendo historian Florent Gorges.


In 1965, walkie-talkies had been around already for a while. Invented by Motorola for the US Army during the second world war, by the 1960s they had entered the domain of (high-tech) toys.


So the Companion wasn't a novel idea. But for Nintendo it was an entry into a new market, that was very different from playing cards, their traditional product.


The Companion box design is quite formal, giving it the appearance of a serious electronic device. The photo of two kids on the front still makes it clear what the intended audience is.


In Japan, the common name for a walkie-talkie is 'transceiver' (トランシーバー), and this toy's full name is 'transceiver Companion'.


The text on the side of the box states that we are dealing here with a transceiver that is of "telephone type, all transistor, with extendable antenna" (テレフォンタイプ ・オールトランジスター・のびるアンテナつき). A set of two batteries is included (2台1組電池つき).


The Nintendo company name (任天堂株式会社) is printed on the short ends of the box.


The Companion is one of the earliest of Nintendo's toys; as is clear from the fact that the logo used is the ace of spades with the letter 'N'. This logo was used by Nintendo on their playing cards in the 1950s and early 1960s. [More about this logo here.]

At this time, Nintendo did not yet have the engineering and production expertise to create and manufactured such a product by themselves.

'任天堂株式会社' means 'Nintendo Co. Ltd'

For the Companion, Nintendo teamed up with Hayakawa Electric Industry. The text on the box mentions "manufactured by Hayakawa Electric Industry Co. Ltd." (製造元 早川電機工業株式会社). Hayakawa Electric is best known for their brand Sharp. [As an aside: Sharp gets its name from the mechanical pencils, invented by founder Tokuji Hayakawa, which were always sharp!]

As far as is known today, this was the first cooperation between Nintendo and Sharp. The two companies would remain partners; a few years on, Sharp would provided the solar cells for the Kousenjuu light gun games and later also produced licensed versions of the Famicom and Super Famicom.

It can be safely assumed that Sharp had the lead in the design work for the Companion. To what extend Nintendo staff also participated can only be speculated. In particular, it is unclear whether or not Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi was involved. But as he had just started at Nintendo, and was the only person with an electrical engineering background around, it is quite possible that he also played a part in specifying, selecting or reviewing this product.

"manufactured by Hayakawa Electric Industry Co. Ltd."

It is unknown what the retail price for the Companion was, and in what numbers it was produced. But given its scarcity today, it is unlikely that it sold in large numbers.

Nintendo did give away some of these in a sales promotion (prize draw), to boost sales of the Picture Book Trump playing cards.


But enough for the introduction. Let's open it!


The two handsets are neatly packed in a polystyrene tray.


The handsets are in very good condition. Especially when you consider they are close to fifty years old!


One of the handsets is blue and cream-white, the other is red and cream-white. Their height (without antenna) is about 16 centimeters.


The red handset has gold colored metallic trimming around the microphone and speaker. This color scheme looks remarkably like the one that would be used for the Famicom, almost 20 years later. The Companion name is embossed prominently in gold on the front.


A "push to talk" button is located on the left side of the handset. An on/off switch can be found on the other side. There is no volume control.


On the back of the handset we find the Nintendo card logo. The Companion is the only known non-card Nintendo item to feature this logo.


On the bottom of the back, the name of the maker is presented, including a Sharp logo.


The red and blue handsets are identical, except for the colors used. The blue handset has silver colored metallic trimming.


This handset also has an embossed Companion logo, in the same stylish font.


When the antennas are fully extended, they are a little over 60 centimeters long (excluding the length of the handset itself).


The two halves that make up the handset can be opened easily. This allows the battery to be replaced.


Opening the handset exposes all innards, giving us a full view of the electronics inside. The microphone and loudspeakers have Sharp logos on them.


Each handset of the Companion requires a single 9 volt battery (called 'BL-006P' in Japan).


For more information on the operation of the Companion, check out its manual.

The Companion manual can be found here

The Companion is a much more complex piece of electronics than the Nintendo Love Tester, which was released a few years later, in 1969. Although appearing later, the Love Tester can still be considered the first fully original electronic toy designed and produced by Nintendo without the help of any partner.

Another Nintendo toy that comes to mind when looking at the Companion is the Light Telephone, from 1971. The Light Telephone was also intended to be used to relay sound remotely over distance. It was an unorthodox and creative invention, be it less practical.


But the Companion was Nintendo's entry in the market of electronics, and as such a landmark in the company's history. Besides, I find these handsets extremely cute!

Isao and Florent check out the Nintendo Companion

Some time ago, fellow Nintendo aficionados Florent Gorges and Isao Yamazaki took a pair of Companion transceivers to the streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo. You can read more about their story on Florent's blog (in French).

Special thanks to Florent for contributing background information for this post.

6 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Yes, it's great, isn't it!? Thanks again for your support in getting it. Let's hope more appear in the future.

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  2. I have a set bought in Kobe in '66. Handsets only B- condition. Anyone interested?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Alex. Yes, I am interested. Can you please send a picture of the set to me? You can find contact details at the top of this blog. Thanks.

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    2. Erik...sorry, did not check back here until just now. I will get some photos and forward them to you. My direct email is alex.eyre@elltel.net.

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    3. If you haven't sold it yet, I'm a willing buyer.

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