Nintendo of America was established in 1980 to sell Nintendo’s arcade games and Game & Watch handhelds in the U.S. But Nintendo products had been imported into the U.S. before that. This pre-NOA history is not well-documented. Nintendo was just one of many makers of inexpensive goods from East Asia that were sold in bargain stores and chintzy gift shops in the U.S., and nobody took much notice of this until recently. But you could definitely buy Nintendo-branded products here, particularly the “Roulette” board games it produced in the 1960s and 1970s. I have a Roulette board game with a price tag from the Circus Circus casino gift shop, and a smaller portable Roulette that’s been engraved with the name of a Las Vegas TV station — probably a promotional giveaway.
So I’ve tried to keep my eyes open for any Nintendo products with English packaging. “English” doesn’t mean “America,” of course; there’s a version of the classic Nintendo Ultra Hand toy that was apparently sold in Australia (the package art even features a kangaroo). But if I find something in English that seems like it’s been in someone’s attic in America for a really long time, that’s a clue that it might have been sold here in America.
Anyway: I can’t find any information online about this item I bought recently.
It’s Nintendo’s Kousenjuu (Beam Gun) SP, but it’s got stickers over the Japanese text on the packaging that read “Rifle-Roulette.” It’s in two pieces: the electronic roulette wheel itself (called “Electro-Roulette” in Japan) and the gun (called “Rifle”). These were sold separately in Japan — the rifle was actually the premium accessory, since you could also just buy a pistol-shaped gun that would work with the roulette wheel. Here, they were probably — probably — sold together. But who knows?
Everything is in ratty condition, so bad that I wouldn’t have purchased it if it wasn’t the only example of this Anglicized version that I could find. The boxes are trashed, and the rifle itself is severely warped. But amazingly, the English-language instruction booklets for both the wheel and the rifle are still mostly intact. I say mostly because they are starting to disintegrate. Fortunately, I got them before they fell apart entirely, and I’ve scanned them in.
These are pretty fascinating to flip through. Note that both of the manuals actually had an additional warning (about not leaving batteries in a toy if you’re not using it) printed up on a mimeograph machine, and hand-pasted in to each book. These manuals were probably created by Nintendo in Japan — note that they refer to “UM-2” and “006P” batteries, which is how they refer to C batteries and 9-volt batteries, respectively. So there’s a hand-written note in pencil in both books, maybe written in once the games got to America, to use “C” cell batteries.
The Beam Gun was a huge hit in Japan for Nintendo, and of incredible historical significance: It was Nintendo’s first collaboration with Sharp, which to this day is its close hardware partner. Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi worked with Sharp’s Masayuki Uemura on the Beam Gun, and Uemura eventually moved over to work for Nintendo, becoming the principal designer of the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. Until I saw this, I hadn’t seen any examples of a Beam Gun product in English.
The fact that the manual was probably made in Japan, and thus possibly by Nintendo, is a bit of evidence that we are looking at an official product made by Nintendo for export, rather than a U.S. importer buying Japanese stock and making their own ersatz English version by swapping out the manuals. But it’s not proof, either.
I’m mostly posting this because, as I said, I cannot find any other examples of this on the Internet. I’d love to hear from anyone who has encountered this as well, or any similar situation in which a Japanese pre-NES toy was stickered over with English or given an English manual. This shows, I think, that there are still things to be discovered—or at least documented!—about Nintendo’s early history outside Japan.