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Before 'Paper Mario' There Was Cardboard Mario and Tabletop Zelda

Game researcher Nathan Altice looks at the fascinating history of NES board games.
All images used with permission by Nathan Altice

It's been said that we're in the midst of a board game renaissance. The sales of hobby board games, by which I mean games more complicated than Sorry! or Monopoly, grew by 21% last year, and it doesn't seem like things are slowing down. Like what occurs in most industries, the production and distribution of board games has happened in fits and starts, and drawing out that history is often harder than you might think.


Luckily, Game researcher Nathan Altice has plucked something strange out of game history: NES board game adaptations. In a long, well-researched essay, Altice explains the relationship between Japanese toy company Bandai and Nintendo. While Bandai is generally a company known for creating properties such as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers alongside a whole host of toys and other gadgets based off popular properties like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, what Altice points to in his essay in the long lineage of board games that we also produced by the company.

Bandai established board game series such as Joy Family and Party Joy with the purpose of creating iterated, conceptually similar games, and they released more than 250 of them between 1980 and 1990. I would strongly suggest reading Altice's essay in full, since he gives a very elaborate history of the games and where they come from.

What I find most fascinating about Altice's research are the NES board games that were released through a Bandai and Nintendo partnership. He highlights some adaptations of Mario games, The Legend of Zelda, and Gradius among others, and the board games seemed to make a strong effort to adhere to the visual style of the game box art. Additionally, he makes a strong argument for how Bandai and Nintendo were fundamentally at odds with one another, no matter how much cross pollination they had between their properties: "Time spent playing videogames was time not spent playing board games," he writes.

It's a fascinating take on some history that I certainly wasn't aware of, and I'm deeply curious about what Altice's research turns up in the future.

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