In 1981, a young Swede called Owe Bergsten strolled through Singapore to pass the time before his flight home. It had been something of a busman’s holiday – after a busy Christmas running his electronics shop, he and his business partners had travelled to the Far East, idly looking for the products they could import before the next Christmas. Passing a camera shop, he spotted a two-button LCD game called ‘Fire RC-04’ in the window. An acquaintance had told him not long before that LCD games were the future, far better than the simple LED handhelds people had been playing recently. Owe bought it on a whim.Sitting down for the flight, he turned it on. Firemen holding a sheet blinked across the bottom of the display, catching figures falling from a burning building and bouncing them across to safety. Bergsten got hooked. He played Fire for the entirety of the return flight, playing pass-the-pad with his seat neighbour. When that flight was unexpectedly diverted due to fog, he played it on the 3 hour bus ride he was then forced to take back home to Gothenburg. As he travelled, always playing or waiting to play, he started to wonder who’d made this compulsive little rectangle, and if he could sell them too.Besides the labels for the buttons, he didn’t have much to go on when it came to information on the console itself: ‘Game & Watch’, ‘Made in Japan’, ‘Nintendo’. That last word seemed the best lead, so he called a local trade organisation, and came away with a telex number. Soon after, somewhere in its tiny Tokyo export office, a Nintendo employee pulled a short (and extremely abbreviated) message out of a printer. It read:
Apparently, no one really cared. A month and three more telexes later, Bergsten finally got a reply, asking him to explain what his company actually did. He had a decision to make.Over three decades later, an older, wiser, richer Bergsten looks at me across a table, presenting the telex he sent next. His well-appointed office sits in a building furnished almost entirely by the money he’s made through, for and with Nintendo over the years. That’s not an exaggeration: the building’s address is ‘Marios Gata 21’. 21 Mario Street. This telex set the course for the rest of Bergsten’s life, introduced Nintendo to Europe on a scale it had never seen, even arguably helped pave the way for its move into western markets as a whole. Without this piece of paper, gaming as we know it could be entirely different.He smiles as he shows it to me. “At that time it was very easy to lie, because the Internet was not invented.” So that first formal communication to Nintendo was a lie?“Yeah,” he laughs, “of course.”
I first heard of Owe Bergsten in a pub in 2017, his story told like some kind of Swedish folktale. It was the story of a man, a lie, a video game handheld, and a business empire, and it was told with such breathless enthusiasm that I kept buying pints so that I could hear more. This man sounded less like a successful business owner than some globe-hopping trickster hero. The more I speak to people who know him, the more it becomes apparent that that’s just how people talk about Owe Bergsten.Two weeks later, unable to stop wondering if anything about the story I’d heard was actually true, I organised to meet Bergsten at his office. When I arrived, I explained that I’d love for him to tell me the story of how he got here, from the beginning. Bergsten clearly understands his public perception, and plays up to it: “You want the true version?” he joked. “I have much better versions.”It turns out the story that had captivated me in the pub was, practically beat-for-beat, the truth. Honestly, I don’t really know how Bergsten could have better versions.Today, his company, Bergsala, is effectively Nintendo Sweden. It’s also Nintendo Denmark, Norway and Finland. Scroll to the bottom of any of those regions’ official Nintendo websites – you’ll see the name ‘Bergsala’ as part of the copyright information. It’s a position it takes seriously – kids travel to its nondescript headquarters, situated off a motorway exit south of Gothenberg, just to see the Mario warp pipe that pokes incongruously through the suburban scenery.There’s a Nintendo museum – or possibly a shrine – in the Bergsala lobby, complete with a picture of a young Bergsten beaming in a pile of Game & Watches. In his office, there’s a signed Miyamoto sketch of Mario, with hand-drawn Super Mario World font-style text reading “To Mr. Bergsten!” It’s not just a testament to what Nintendo did for Bergsala, but vice versa. In many ways, Sweden, through Bergsala, became a western testing ground for Nintendo, a huge early success that proved there was a desire for the work of Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi outside of their homeland. And it was built – in the nicest possible way – on a lie.
A very simple lie. Bergsten used his telex to present Bergsala as a much bigger company than it was, a distribution organisation capable of acting as Nintendo’s sole Swedish distributor for Game & Watch. Essentially, it didn’t sound like an electronics shop business with a side-hustle in Asian imports. It would have been unthinkable for Bergsten to guess where that little fabrication would take him – but he very nearly didn’t cross the first few hurdles on that journey.When Nintendo was suitably convinced it wasn’t dealing with a rogue Swedish operator (even though it… sort of was), Bergsten ordered 250 samples of the first models of Game & Watch – and couldn’t shift them. “It was actually very, very difficult to get it to sell,” he tells me. Part of that problem was how expensive a single game was in a market unused to buying them at all, but it was also down to the product itself. The first run of Game & Watches might have entranced Bergsten, but it wasn’t having the same effect on the general Swedish public.That might have been the end of it, until a friend of Bergsten’s returned from a holiday to Hong Kong with a new model as a souvenir. With a widescreen display, colour backgrounds and a classier gold casing, it made a far better first impression. “When I saw that game…I really was so much more impressed than by the first ones, because it looks much better.” It was enough to convince him he was on the right track: “I decided I had to go to Japan to meet this export manager who [replied to my] telex.”What followed feels more like a stage farce than a business success story. Ever the bullish salesman, Bergsten organised to visit both Nintendo’s Tokyo export office, and its HQ in Kyoto. Because he wasn’t yet a wealthy man, he booked the “very, very cheapest tickets”: he’d have a grand total of two days to visit two unfamiliar cities, he couldn’t change his flight dates, and if anything went wrong he’d be speaking English, a second language to him, to people who might not even speak it at all.And then, the day before his flight, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10’s engine stopped working. It came just two years after a fatal, engine-related related crash on another DC-10. Across the world, intact DC-10s were grounded for a day for checks (which really doesn’t seem quite enough in retrospect). Guess what model of plane Bergsten was booked to fly on.
He was forced to stay a night at the airport, leaving him with a single day to cover both Japanese cities. It wasn’t feasible, and he made the choice to head straight to Kyoto (“Every foreigner thinks that Tokyo is the centre of Japan, but all [Nintendo’s] power was in Kyoto”). He arrived on a Thursday night, went to bed exhausted, and woke on Friday with a plan to call Nintendo to let the team know what had happened, and when he’d arrive at HQ.“I first called the Tokyo office, and there was some answering machine saying something, which I didn’t understand. Then I called the Kyoto office, and there was another answering machine I didn’t understand. So I called my hotel reception reception and asked, ‘Can you please call this number and tell me what they are saying?’”The receptionist called back a minute later: “They’re saying that today is a national holiday in Japan, so everything is closed.” He’d gone from two days to meet Nintendo, to one day, to none at all. Unless he tried something else, he would have flown to Japan for nothing, and missed his chance to meet anyone from Nintendo.He summoned up a tried-and-tested strategy – he told a little lie, and managed to persuade Japan Airlines to extend his trip: “I persuaded [them] that this was an emergency and this was not my fault, and things like that.” It worked – again – and he had the Monday to, in his words, “force my way into Kyoto”. After nearly missing the train that would actually get him there (I told you this was a farce), he finally made it, with no real plan of what to do, other than just turn up and ask for someone to talk to him.
Owe Bergsten tells me he has four rules for conducting conversations with Japanese businessmen, learned from a friend before his trip to meet Nintendo, and still helpful today. They are as follows:
- Always bring a gift. “It should not be a wooden thing or anything, it should be crystal glass. That is the only thing you should buy.”
- Don’t nag. “I mean in the western culture we can blah, blah, blah, blah, too many things. In Japanese culture you should not ask for too much. The important things you should concentrate on to achieve them.”
- Try to get them to invite you to lunch, “or even better, dinner, of course.”
- You’ll never meet the right people, “because they have a wall of protection. You’ll meet someone on the periphery”. You need to work to meet who you need to.
Bergsten had inadvertently bypassed number 4 already, simply by choosing an airline that employed planes with occasionally terrifying engines, and heading straight to Kyoto HQ. He makes a point of telling me he used all of the other rules in the course of negotiating his first major deal with Nintendo.In what’s fast becoming clear is a typical Bergsten move, his first action was to just tell Nintendo’s export manager that he was in town unannounced, and ask to come to the office. It worked, and the export manager’s interest was piqued (“He said I was lucky. What could I do? I just had to”). Then came the negotiation. He didn’t remember rule number 2 – don’t nag – right away. First, he asked for the distribution rights for Sweden. Then he asked for Scandinavia. Then he asked for all of Europe. Remember, this was a man who owned an electronics shop business – he was just pretending to own a major distribution network.
Then he remembered the rule. “I suddenly realised that this was not the way to do it, so I asked for Sweden and we talked. We just talked.” They talked about a lot more than distribution rights. Bergsten explained Swedish history, Swedish culture, he laid out his country as much like a tourism guide as it was an advert for his business. And he did it with an ulterior motive: “I wanted the time to pass. And suddenly lunch time came.” Rule number 3. “He said, ‘Shall we go for lunch?’ ‘Yes, of course,’ I said, ‘that would be fantastic.’”Even better, lunch got abandoned in favour of a three-hour dinner. Well, dinner and drinks. “He drank a lot. I mean we both drank a lot […] so he was not 100% sober when he let me off at the hotel.” It laid the perfect groundwork for the piece de resistance: rule number 1.“I said, ‘I have a small gift for you. I would like to thank you very much for taking such good care of me.’” He handed the export manager a package, which he opened immediately – a small crystal ashtray. “Then when we got out of the car, he said to me, ‘Okay, you can have Sweden.’”The white(ish) lies, the bullish approach to business, the rules, and, perhaps most of all, the alcohol, led to a decision that altered the gaming business. But then, a kicker: “He said, ‘But remember the minimum order is 10,000 pieces.’” Bergsala had found it hard to sell 250 Game & Watch units in the months previous, and that’s not even taking into account the money involved: “10,000 pieces. That was the equivalent of €100,000 in orders – and that was a lot of money at that time for a small radio shop dealer.”Bergsten went home, had some “very, very tough negotiations” with the bank, and ordered 10,000 new Game & Watches. And then, because he’s Owe Bergsten, he upped the order to 30,000. He never really tells me why.
Once again, the units shifted slowly, but Owe was convinced that hardware itself was no longer the problem. “When you put it in the hands of a consumer,” he explains, “I mean you really understood how good it was. The problem was the dealers, they were not interested. So they were the middle man who originally stopped the success.” Once he eventually found a dealer who shared his belief – a small retailer that specialised in watches (soon to be Game & Watches) – the ball began to roll, really rather quickly.Christmas 1981, less than a year after his trip to Singapore, was when Bergsten’s approach finally paid dividends. But rather than a holiday boom, it was just the start. Those 30,000 units sold out quickly. In the first three months of 1982, Bergsten says the company sold 180,000 units. A month.Bergsten and Nintendo each knew they were onto a winner. In June of ‘82, he returned to Japan, and Nintendo showed him its new line of Multi Screen Game & Watches, which included a simplified version of Donkey Kong, the Miyamoto-made coin-op that had exploded in arcades across the world at around the same time as Bergsten’s early successes. It was clear how well this was going to do from the outset.
“We bought as many as we could,” he remembers with a smile. “We went around in Sweden showing this to big toy dealers […] It was the best sales trip I've ever been on, because everybody wanted it.” The demand was as unmanageable as it was welcome: “In the Christmas of '82, if a customer ordered 100 units, they got one.”As Bergsala’s success increased, so too did Bergsten’s friendship with Nintendo: “I went to Nintendo maybe three times a year, or something like that. Every time we got a price reduction, maybe just 100 yen, or whatever, but every trip was worthwhile.”By early 1983, Bergsala had sold 1.7 million Game & Watches in Sweden. To get a measure of that success, bear in mind quite how small Sweden is – in 1983, it was a country of around 8.3 million people. Bergsten breaks this down further for me. Bergsala's target market was almost exclusively 7-12 year old boys. According to Swedish census data, there were approximately 336,000 boys of that age at the time. "If you take that target group," says Bergsten, "you could say that probably every kid had five games.” His calculation isn't wrong.By comparison, Bergsten claims that Germany (61 million people in 1983) sold as much in a year as Sweden did in a month. It’s not easy to check the validity of those figures – Nintendo doesn’t release them publicly, and didn’t respond to me asking for them – but it’s very clear that Sweden massively overperformed. But then, in 1983, Game & Watch just stopped selling in Sweden.
“Everybody ordered too much, and we ordered [too much] also. But it was very much over in March or April of '83, and we had a huge stock [left over]. It was almost impossible to sell. The price of the double-screen was about €20 at that time. [Retailers] tried to sell it for four or five, and still it was not so easy to sell.”You might expect, at this point, for the story to switch from boom to bust – 1983 was the year of the Great Video Game Crash, after all – but it didn’t work out like that. While Europe had been interested in Game & Watch but still relatively ignorant of Nintendo as a whole, Bergsten suspected that the company behind his breakout success was going to be useful for more than its LCD games. He kept in touch, despite the downturn, even kept paying to visit, despite he and Nintendo having nothing to show one another. It was a worthwhile expense. “I think it was in August ’83, they showed me the Famicom for the first time.”Nintendo’s landmark home console had been released in Japan the month before, and was already a huge success. Bergsten took home some sample units and a TV capable of displaying the foreign NTSC signal they outputted. He became convinced that it would be another Game & Watch for him, inspired in part by the reaction of his staff: “All our personnel came early in the morning, they didn't go for lunch, and they stayed late in the evening just to play, play, play.”
He begged Nintendo to just release the Famicom in the west, but Nintendo said the flop of the Atari 2600 the year before, and the resulting crash, meant it couldn’t be confident in a TV-based game product. History tells us that Nintendo would recreate the Famicom as the Nintendo Entertainment System, releasing it in the US in 1985, and Europe in 1986. It’s perhaps the biggest testament to just how much Owe Bergsten had impressed Nintendo that history almost played out differently.Bergsten kept visiting, kept begging. In 1984, Nintendo showed him an early version of Super Mario Bros. (“I'm sure I was the first foreigner who saw it”), and he only begged more. “We were telling Nintendo, ‘we must have the TV game, we must have the TV game.’" It got to the point where Nintendo, possibly just to shut him up, suddenly seemed to change its mind.Bergsten paraphrases the meeting he had; "’You are the only country in Europe that are interested”, he was told in 1985. “But we are prepared to make a special Famicom version for you.’" This would have been an identical design to the Japanese Famicom, but with altered voltage, plugs and a PAL output.This wasn’t idle talk; Bergsala put in an order between 5,000 and 10,000 units (Bergsten doesn’t quite remember – it never happened after all), which was accepted. Later that year, as the US got its own new console, Nintendo changed its mind. It wanted to create a specific European NES, tailored for a different market. In retrospect, Bergsten says it was the correct decision – but it feels like only he could have almost forced Nintendo to make an incorrect one through sheer force of charm.
NES, somewhat inevitably at this point, became a huge success for Bergsala, and more or less cemented the company as a permanent partner for Nintendo. Bergsten became a part of the furniture. He says he was the first person outside of Nintendo to play the Game Boy (“I went to the factory. It looked exactly the same, but there was a lot of cables and a big computer in there, but you could hold it, and you could play it”), he played golf with the company’s board members, and has always stayed in touch with that export manager he’d gotten drunk with all those years ago.As Nintendo’s wealth and power grew, it expanded more confidently into the west. Nintendo of America – which had opened in 1980 as a coin-op focused business – was transformed into a fully-fledged arm of the core business. Not long after, it adopted one of Bergsala’s more unique business moves: “We started the Nintendo Club,” explains Bergsten, “and they copied that.”When NES launched in Europe, Bergsala had created a member’s club, Nintendo Videospelklubb, a way to connect the kids looking forward to its games, inform them about upcoming releases and, inevitably, put pressure on stores to buy in stock of games as those kids came in to ask when those same games would be available. Members were encouraged to take stickers to retailers to guarantee purchases – a sort of proto pre-order – and Bergsala’s comic book-like brochures of games are items of huge nostalgia to this day. It was an incredible success, an almost hilariously devious, corporate-sponsored grassroots movement.
At its peak, 450,000 people were part of Bergsala’s Nintendo Club – around 5% of the entire Swedish population at the time. Bergsten puts it bluntly: "There was a lot of power in that."It’s no surprise that, after he had a golf meeting with Nintendo of America founder Minoru Arakawa, NoA’s Nintendo Fun Club suddenly appeared, which was succeeded by the epochal Nintendo Power. Bergsten is too humble to say that his company and its successes were an inspiration for Nintendo to expand into the west so suddenly and meaningfully, but his Club is proof that Nintendo was very much paying attention.Elsewhere, Bergsala’s influence is much easier to spot. Nintendo of Europe was founded in 1990, and began creating country-specific businesses across the continent. Except in Scandinavia. It’s a mark of the esteem with which Bergsala’s held that not only did Nintendo apparently turn down lucrative offers from other companies to run its Swedish operation, it actively encouraged Bergsala to take over distribution across Scandinavia as a whole. In the early days, Nintendo worked almost exclusively with third-party distributors for its western releases. Today, Bergsala is the only non-Nintendo owned Nintendo distributor in the world.In the context of that global operation, Bergsala doesn’t really have to deal directly with Nintendo Japan anymore, but Bergsten calls his contacts there on their birthdays, and returns every year just to stay in touch. I like to think he still turns up at the office unannounced, for old times’ sake. He tells me it’s a business tactic, but I feel like it’s something closer to friendship. He may have told a lie to get Nintendo’s business, but the key was that it came out of love. He was a fan of Nintendo from its very first handheld, and he remains so. Nintendo saw that love, and gave him loyalty in return.
Bergsten’s repaid that loyalty, and even paid it forward. In 2008, a disillusioned Brjann Sigurgeirsson, head of game-for-hire developer Image & Form, saw a company called Bergsala in a local newspaper, which (incorrectly) listed it as a publisher for Nintendo games. On a whim, he called the company’s head office, asking if it could start publishing his games too – a move you might describe as ‘Bergstenian’. He went unnoticed for some time but, eventually, Bergsala got in touch, going on to buy exactly half of Sigurgeirsson’s company. After some early negotiations about what it should make, Bergsala told Image & Form to just make what it wanted, and it led to the much-loved and lauded SteamWorld series. It found its initial home – where else? – on Nintendo’s consoles.Sigurgeirsson went on to point Bergsten to another developer, Zoink! (most recently of Ghost Giant fame), and Bergsala bought half of that company, too. The two developers recently formed their own publishing outfit, Thunderful, with Bergsala owning half of that as well. Sigurgeirsson once asked why Bergsala always bought 50% of a company, rather than an outright ownership of 51%. He recounts the reply: “If we bought 51% of your company, you’d have no say. You’d feel like an idiot. And if we bought 49%, then we’d be the idiots – and you wouldn’t want to work with idiots, would you?”That mutual respect, the feeling that you’re working with an equal, even the winking humour – it all feels drawn directly from those years of working with Nintendo, except now Bergsala is the big business helping the bullish little guys.
Bergsten didn’t just bring himself and others prosperity, but introduced a generation to Nintendo. Mikael Forslind, CEO of indie developer Elden Pixels, grew up amidst Swedish Nintendo fever, even saying that his decision to get into gaming “has pretty much everything to do with Bergsala”. His first exposure to the company’s work, besides buying the games themselves, was through the Nintendo Videospelklubb magazine, and puts the effect of it simply: “Where I lived almost everyone owned a Nintendo (well, except for that one weird kid who had a Sega).”It went on to influence Forslind throughout his life, to the point where he applied for a job at Bergsala, designing his resume to look identical to the Nintendo Club magazines he grew up with. He didn’t get the job – “apparently you need some kind of education to work with sales and marketing” – so he returned to school and redoubled his efforts to break into the industry he loved so much. Several years later, after stops at other developers, he’s leading a company, making his own games – for Switch, of course.There are more who could tell similar stories, and even more than that who could tell similar stories without realising that it’s Owe Bergsten at the root of it all. It’s mind-boggling to think of the magnitude at which that one little lie in 1981 has had a positive effect – a butterfly flapping wings made of telex paper. Eventually, and inevitably, that flap hit me too.Back in 2017, when I finished conducting this interview, I said my goodbyes to Owe and headed to Gothenburg airport. While I waited for my flight, I started working on a preview I’d been putting off writing – it was for Super Mario Odyssey. As I wrote, I got enthused, got lost in the moment and, when I looked up again, I’d missed my flight home.
After I stopped screaming, it popped into my head just how neat a coincidence it was that I’d been writing about a game Bergsala would be selling in just a few months. And then I started thinking about how that game could be traced back through the years, the number of decisions made just half an hour down the road that could conceivably have led to a point where there wasn’t a Super Mario Odyssey to write about. If Bergsala hadn’t set the precedent, would the Nintendo of Europe office where I saw the game exist? If the NES release date had changed, would it have been hit by the video game crash, and changed how Nintendo makes consoles? Hell, I started my career at Official Nintendo Magazine, itself a reflection of those Nintendo Club brochures – would I be writing at all without them? If Bergsten hadn’t told that little lie, would any of this be the same? None of it is certain, and it hinges on the man who sent that telex.And then I snapped back to reality. I still had to get a plane home. I decided to nab a technique from the man I’d just spent an afternoon talking to. I queued for the airline check-in desk, and when I got to the front I told them I had to get home today, it was an emergency, that they should change my ticket for free. If he could do it back in 1981 and build a mutually beneficial business empire on the back of it, I could manage it for a budget flight to Luton Airport. Of course it didn’t work. I’m no Owe Bergsten.
Joe Skrebels is IGN's UK Deputy Editor, and he'd like to thank Brjann Sigurgeirsson, Klaus Lyngeled, Mikael Forslind and Owe Bergsten for helping him finally tell this IGN Inside Story. If you've got this far, you should probably take a little break from screens. Follow Joe on Twitter.
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