Leave Luck to Heaven: The Nintendo Playing Card Company

When I say “Nintendo,” you probably think of video games. If you don’t, you probably already know many of the facts that I’ll be discussing in this article. Otherwise, read on.

Nintendo is unquestionably the most famous manufacturer of video games and video game hardware in the world. History popularly recognizes them as “the company that saved home video games,” even though that might not necessarily be true depending on which region and marketplace you’re looking at. Since the mid-1980s, Nintendo went on to top the best-seller lists and become a household name worldwide. Mario is arguably as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

This success didn’t come from nowhere. Nintendo didn’t just spring up overnight. Their present-day incarnation is largely a product of the Japanese economic miracle post-World War II, wherein Japan suddenly sprouted an entire import/export industry in the decades following the war. Nintendo as a company produced everything from toys to home appliances, even a chain of love hotels. But they were around even before that happened…somewhere around sixty years before that happened, in fact; they were known as The Nintendo Playing Card Co.

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The Nintendo Playing Card Co. plaque. (img source)

The formation of Nintendo Koppai in 1889 stems from the invention of the card game, Hanafuda, but in fact arguably goes back another three centuries prior. In the 1500s, a Roman Catholic missionary named Francis Xavier came to Asia. Some of his crew brought along a Portuguese deck of playing cards to keep themselves entertained, and inevitably the decks and games played with them became popular throughout Japan. When Japan closed itself to outsiders in 1633, though, all these gambling games were banned. This didn’t stop people from trying to find ways to skirt the ban, of course, because you can’t keep quality entertainment down.

Since it wasn’t the games themselves that were banned, but private gambling in itself, Japanese card players invented their own decks and games, with unique designs to throw the Tokugawa Shogunate off the scent. Games called Unsun Karuta and Mekuri Karuta became popular in the ensuing years, along with potentially countless other games that were invented only to be banned almost immediately due to being used solely for gambling. These eventually gave rise to the game of Hanafuda, which employed cards that bore no numbers or suits, and whose games tended to go on for a long time, limiting its use for gambling. Which, again, didn’t stop people from trying, most notably the Yakuza. Hanafuda cards took a long time to catch on, but by the late 1880s, they eventually did, and in 1889, Fusajiro Yamauchi founded a certain playing card company to make and sell Hanafuda cards. The rest, they might say, is history. Nintendo went on to make appliances, toys, instant rice, and ultimately video games. But – you might be surprised at this point – they still make playing cards.

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Some packs of Nintendo-brand playing cards from the 1960s. (Read about these at BeforeMario.com.)

Yes, in Japan, the Nintendo company are as well known for decks of playing cards as the Bicycle company is in the United States. They have produced hundreds of unique deck designs, both Hanafuda (their most famous deck to date, for reasons unknown, bears the visage of Napoléon on its back side) and the more typical French arrangements, in various different sizes (the No.22 deck above is said to be the size of a typical Western poker deck), even obtaining licenses to produce decks bearing Disney characters in the 1950s. (The Disney decks, incidentally, are some of the most expensive and sought-after decks on eBay, tending to be priced around $600.)

Beyond just the historical curiosity factor of having a pack of cards with Nintendo’s name on them, Nintendo cards made nowadays (since the 1970s, if my data is correct) are manufactured in all-plastic materials, with no paper whatsoever. The Nintendo All-Plastic line (tending to come with serial numbers like NAP-06) are, in this writer’s opinion, some of the smoothest cards I’ve ever had the pleasure of handling. Yes, even beating out the PDX Carpet deck – these are just plain slick.

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Nintendo All-Plastic NAP-06, produced in 2015 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros.

Before I started this site, I decided that my card-collecting bucket list would involve owning at least one deck of cards from Nintendo. It didn’t matter which one – I wanted something that was uniquely Nintendo, both in style and in materials. While I can certainly dream of owning a deck with Bambi on it, my wallet lacks the capability to help me fulfill said dream, so I was willing to “settle” for a deck of Super Mario Bros. 30th Anniversary cards, for a mere $14 USD to import one from Japan via eBay.

And compared to other decks that I’ve spent $14 on, these are the ones I’m most likely to break out at the family gatherings, just because they have such attention to detail, in both feel and look. They almost feel as if they’re hovering when you place them on the table. They bend and flex so easily, even in stacks, that shuffling is as easy as breathing. The designs, already eye-catching for their Mario motif, also have a very pleasing reversed color scheme, making it much easier to identify a card’s color. Best of all, though, is that almost every single card is unique, even the rank-and-file. Every single numbered card has a unique Mario artwork or enemy drawn in place of one of the pips, with the only duplicate cards being the pair of Bowser jokers. The deck is not only a Mario fan’s dream, it’s a dream for the card player in general.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising to me that a Nintendo deck is just so darned good. After all, they’ve been doing this for well over a century.

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