Nintendo’s first hit game was in fact an arcade game – Donkey Kong – released in 1981. This game resulted from the conjunction of two bad events with one very good event. Not long before Donkey Kong came out, Nintendo was selling another arcade game, Radar Scope. Initially, it did well, causing Nintendo to order many units. Unfortunately, once the novelty wore off, popularity crashed back down in a matter of weeks. Stuck with a large inventory of an arcade game that wouldn’t sell, Nintendo needed a different game that could utilize the same hardware. Around the same time, Nintendo was trying to get the license for a Popeye the Sailor game for arcade. While the license didn’t pan out, the designer was able to translate the game he was thinking of to new characters – specifically, the now-iconic Mario and Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong the game utilized the Radar Scope hardware, which let Nintendo distribute it far and wide. It was such a hit that it got ported to many of the consoles that were popular at the time in the United States – the ColecoVision, the Atari 2600, and others. The money acquired from these ventures helped Nintendo of America when they decided to break into the home console market with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Nintendo didn’t exit the arcade business immediately after hitting it big in the home console industry with the Famicom/NES. Several games for the console had arcade equivalents, such as Balloon Fight and Punch-Out. This was facilitated by the fact that they used a variant of the NES hardware, called the PlayChoice-10, in their arcade machines. The PlayChoice-10 is similar enough to the NES that many NES emulators can also emulate the PlayChoice-10, allowing users to compare and contrast the different versions of games.
The NES was not the only Nintendo console that had an arcade counterpart. Working together with Sega and Namco, Nintendo released an arcade board called Triforce, which was a variant of the Gamecube hardware. Triforce was so similar to its home console counterpart that some Triforce games were even compatible with Gamecube memory cards, allowing you to unlock things in the arcade games if you had a related Gamecube game save file, and vice-versa. Among the games released for it was F-Zero AX, an arcade release of Nintendo’s high-speed racer series, developed by Sega.
This pattern of Nintendo allowing other companies to make arcade versions of their series has continued to today. Namco has made three Mario Kart games for arcade, all of which have included Pac-Man as a selectable character. Pokémon got several installments of a Japan-only arcade game, Pokémon Battrio, all made by Takara Tomy. Pokémon will also get a new arcade game, Pokkén Fighters, next year, in collaboration with Namco.
It’s no surprise that Nintendo itself has little presence in arcades these days. The company is stretched pretty thin as it is, supporting both the 3DS and the Wii U, and they want to give consumers a reason to buy their systems rather than playing their games at the arcade. But the impact Nintendo has had on the arcade and the impact the arcade has had on Nintendo are both non-trivial, and not something to be forgotten.