Hiroshi Yamauchi, a person without whom you would never have heard of Nintendo, has died at 85. Many of us think of Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto as a Nintendo old-timer, but Yamauchi assumed the presidency of Nintendo in 1949, three years before Miyamoto was born. The humble company he took over in postwar Japan—Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd.—bore little resemblance to the international icon he left behind when he stepped down in 2002, succeeded by Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s current chief.
Yamauchi dropped out of college to run Nintendo after his grandfather, who had been the company’s president, suffered a stroke. In the following decade, Yamauchi expanded his family’s playing card business, most notably by securing a lucrative licensing deal with Disney. But he also grew disillusioned with the potential of Nintendo’s niche industry—especially after he paid a visit to the U.S. Playing Card Company, the world leader in the field, and was surprised by the podunk feel of the outfit’s small Cincinnati headquarters.
Nintendo lacked focus in the ’60s as Yamauchi experimented with a wide array of new ventures in an effort to make the company’s scale match his own ambitions. These expansions included an hourly-rate “love hotel” and a remote-control vacuum cleaner (which looks like a proto-Roomba in retrospect). None of them panned out, except for a fledgling toy business that helped keep the foundering company afloat.
One of Yamauchi’s most important decisions was to pull an engineer named Gunpei Yokoi off the playing-card assembly line where he was working as a maintenance technician. In 1966, Yokoi designed Nintendo’s first true hit in the toy market, a telescoping grabber called the Ultra Hand. (Yokoi would go on to oversee the creation of the Game & Watch series of portable games, the handheld Game Boy console, the non-linear space platformer Metroid, and a number of other landmark Nintendo projects.)
Although Nintendo had dabbled in electric toys for a while—including the Yokoi-designed Love Tester—in the late ’70s, Yamauchi became convinced that the company needed to focus even more on the rapidly expanding electronic game market. He set up a partnership with Mitsubishi, and the result was the 1977 launch of the Nintendo Color TV Game line, each of which included variations on a simple game like Pong (called Light Tennis in Nintendo’s parlance).
By the dawn of the 1980s, the electronic games unit had provided Nintendo with a stronger direction, but Yamauchi was still looking for a way to escape the rapid turnover of the toy industry, where shelf life tends to be short. The Famicom console provided a way to do that. It was more versatile then the Color TV Game boxes, and it was powerful enough to play TV games that were comparable in quality to those in the arcades—where Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong was a hit. The Famicom took off in Japan, giving Nintendo a product with legs and allowing the company more room to breathe—its business no longer depended entirely on the ups and downs of the fickle toy industry. Ironically, when it came time to market the Famicom in the United States (as the Nintendo Entertainment System), Nintendo’s strategy was to cast the machine as more of a toy than a game console, as American retailers were wary of video games in the wake of Atari’s collapse.
Not all of Yamauchi’s instincts worked out. He insisted that the Nintendo 64 use a cartridge format at a time when the storage capabilities and easy development of optical discs were proving attractive to other game studios. Yamauchi was never overly concerned with the interests of third-party developers, an attitude that has continued to pervade Nintendo’s culture despite recent efforts to project a more open stance. The upshot of the Nintendo 64 cartridge format was that third parties gravitated toward Sony’s PlayStation, and Nintendo’s stature (and profits) fell.
Yamauchi stepped down from the presidency in 2002 (while continuing as an advisor), shortly after the release of the GameCube, with the company’s home-console efforts in the midst of a malaise that wouldn’t be broken until the Wii emerged in 2006. His 10-percent share of Nintendo made him one of the richest men in Japan.
Yamauchi’s influence in games extended to sports: He became the majority owner of the Seattle Mariners in 1992. Major League Baseball only approved the deal under the condition that Yamauchi hold less than 50 percent of voting shares, an unusual stipulation that reflected tensions between the U.S.—which was coming off a recession at the time—and fast-rising Japan. Despite the initial nervousness in MLB’s executive suite, the Yamauchi acquisition proved to be a boon for baseball, giving it an international sheen as Japanese players like Ichiro Suzuki paved the way for more of an Asian presence in the American game. (The Mariners are now owned by Nintendo Of America.)
But Yamauchi will be remembered most for, in essence, creating Nintendo as we know it today. He transformed a practically invisible playing-card concern into an entertainment juggernaut responsible for some of the most recognizable characters and most treasured pop-cultural works on earth. It was a quest as improbable as any that Mario and Link have ever undertaken.
[Nintendo playing card photo: Nintendo Wiki]