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Hiroshi Yamauchi

Hiroshi Yamauchi, the executive who turned Nintendo into a video game giant, dies at 85

By John Teti • September 19, 2013

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 Playing Cards

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]

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44 Responses to “Hiroshi Yamauchi, the executive who turned Nintendo into a video game giant, dies at 85”

  1. DrFlimFlam says:

    This man made the company that now decorates my child’s room, with Mario wall clings, posters, bedding, curtains, and decorations. The image I’ve seen making the rounds is the Mario end of level flag at half-staff.

    Seems right. 

    It’s funny to see solid state data start to come around a bit. It’s not there, of course, but a world where my files are on solid state sure beats a constantly moving lens and a spinning disc. His concept was right on, in that my N64 still works better than my PSOne (which is in fact the baby PSOne model that has seen maybe 40 hours of use), but yeah, it didn’t do much for Nintendo’s home console market share going on almost 20 years later.

    So long to a gaming giant.

  2. NakedSnake says:

    Hey, thanks for this article. I literally knew none of this and all of it was interesting. Especially the part about the Seattle Mariners… crazy stuff. That’s awesome that they’re owned by Nintendo now, too. This is also a great obituary. He comes across as a driven man whose suit and tie conceal the mad genius lurking inside. I love the anecdote about Yamauchi getting disillusioned with the playing card business when he visited modest HQ of the American card-manufacturing giant. It’s like a kid who decides to become a doctor after meeting one of his baseball heroes who turns out to be an idiot, leaving the kid to decide “maybe this career-in-sports stuff isn’t for me after all”.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      Makes “Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball” make a little more sense, huh?

      A very good obit. I knew Yamauchi was a driven, particular man who knew what he wanted, and I always admired that. Like Steve Jobs, he didn’t focus test or ask people what was best. He decided, and often he was right.

  3. Chum Joely says:

    The “Rabbit Coaster” game linked above (the one that says “fledgling toy company” in the article text) actually looks kind of fun. It’s just plastic beans racing down a curvy track, but they added an element of wacky fun… somehow. I guess Nintendo has just always had that power to make simple games a lot more fun and memorable than the sum of their parts.

    • John Teti says:

      Yeah, after I watched that video, I very much wanted a Rabbit Coaster for myself.

      • Chum Joely says:

        May I take this opportunity to point out that “likes” seem to be broken across the site at the moment (as I noticed in trying to “like” your comment and Matt’s just below it).

        And just in time for me to make not one, but two comments (in different articles) that people seem to be somewhat interested in responding to… Will my chance at a “most liked” placement from @stakkalee be forever just over the horizon?!  8^P

    • Matt Gerardi says:

      I’m astonished by how something that primitive can feel so distinctly Nintendo. The thing that really stuck out to me was how the beans are so evocative of the shape of a rabbit…even though they’re just beans. 

    • Dr. Clint Handsome says:

      I want a Rabbit Coaster level in the new Smash Bros.

    • uselessyss says:

      I also like the Ultra Hand link, which features many varieties of the box the “toy” came in. The best is undoubtedly the Australian box, which features some cheeky kids snatching a joey right out of its mother’s pouch.

    • Citric says:

      The nice thing about Before Mario is that it’s giving me something to read on a day when I’m sick as balls.

  4. zebbart says:

    Wow, what a career. It’s hard for me to imagine working a the same place for 50 years, but imagine working at that place for those 50 years! I mean, for 25 years your just sort of stumbling along, doing nothing interesting or important. You would think at that point the mold is cast, you’re going to be a modestly successful business man in a mediocre little company. Then you have some kind of instinct about a new venture, you make a few great choices about collaborators, and you revolutionize the world while riding the wave to the top. It’s that first 25 years that make this story so interesting to me. Jobs and Gates were sort of boy geniuses and while their paths had some bumps they pretty much rode from triumph to triumph. But Yamauchi it seems whipped a tired old mare into a world beater at a time in his life and the company’s when most people would be looking to finish off the retirement fund and sell out. What I would do for a Mad Men type series with ten seasons that gave us a year in the life of Nintendo Corp. for every five years from 1950-2000.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      Yeah, he had a reputation as being unyielding later in life and a jerk (relatively, for the business giant world) earlier in life, but both of those traits were necessary to have Nintendo reinvent itself.

      While you made that most important point, let’s not forget the critical part of John’s obituary: he made regular game designers into electronic game designers, some of the best(!) electronic game designers.  That is INSANE.  Things don’t work that way.  I have little tolerance for horrible bosses who grind out efficiencies in their field, but being a hard man that made other men and women their truest professional selves is something I can totally forgive. (And, come on, A.V. Club, this is Newswire-worthy!)

      Well done, Yamauchi!  You were 1 of the 1900s’ most interesting businesspeople, and you made my life immeasurably better.

    • NakedSnake says:

      That’s actually a really cool idea for a TV show. I’d love a 5 season show where each season covered 2 years from 83 to 93.

  5. templeruins says:

    Cartridges > CDs.  Carts are superior in every aspect and the question should be why didn’t we stick with them, not why did Nintendo stick with them too long. Modern SD cards can hold more than any high capacity DVD.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      The word “modern” is key, here. There was a long time where carts seemed way behind discs.

    • Citric says:

      Today they can, but the N64 was introduced in 1995.

      • Mr. Glitch says:

        Right. The biggest N64 games (RE2 & Conker, I think) were only about 64MB in size; less than a tenth of the largest CD-ROM games. 

        These days, flash memory can outstrip optical in terms of absolute capacity, but optical still holds a huge price/GB advantage.

    • Nintendo are still using cartridges for the 3DS.

      Carts have less memory capacity. Sure, modern carts can exceed DVDs, but that’s not surprising because DVDs are 18-year old technology. 
      Carts also cost significantly more to produce.

      • NakedSnake says:

        The fact that the 3DS uses carts is one of the major reasons I bought it. I feel comfortable knowing that my games will be able to work for a long, long time. 

      • templeruins says:

         Your last sentence gives the full and entire reason – they’re more expensive to produce. There is simply no question though that they would now be superior option for gaming.

  6. Citric says:

    I think one of his most important skills was the ability to recognize and foster talent. I mean, a guy who notices a really clever janitor and gives him an opportunity to show his stuff (Yokoi) is the kind of guy who should be running a company.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      For real. Good job getting that Miyamoto guy, too, who, once enabled by Yamauchi, is the most important figure in modern gaming.

      Because Pikmin.

  7. HobbesMkii says:

    He is the only owner in baseball history to have never seen his team play in person. I’m desperately curious as to why that was.

  8. It’s also worth noting that even though he had a reputation as a curmudgeon, upon retirement he refunded his entire retirement package back into the company. Let’s see an American CEO do that. 

  9. Cloks says:

    Here’s a great story about him stopping Donkey Kong being released on the Coleco Adam that needs to be shared:

    Yamauchi entered the room abruptly and, without addressing anyone, stood at the end of the table. He became, as one of those present put it, “unglued.”He began with a breathy, high-pitched tirade in a Marlon Brando monotone and quickly became loud and abusive. with a piercing cry, he swung his arm in an arc in front of him, shooting his outstretched index finger toward Greenberg.Yamauchi’s diatribe, all in Japanese, completely stunned everyone in the room with the possible exception of the Arakawas. Howard Lincoln said, “It scared the hell out of me.”The Coleco people weren’t aware that they had messed up Nintendo’s lucrative Atari deal- millions of dollars were in the balance- but they could see that they had somehow incurred Yamauchi’s unfathomable wrath. When Greenberg tuned to Arakawa for help, he was met with a cold stare. By the time Yamauchi wound down, no one in the room said a word.The translator finally began to speak. “Mr. Yamauchi is very upset,” the man said….Yamauchi spoke again, never wavering. He made it clear that there was nothing else to be said. No excuses would be listened to. Coleco had to refrain from selling “Donkey Kong” on Adam and announce the mistake, or there would be a lawsuit that would leave nothing of the company. There was no doubt that he meant it.Greenberg and his colleagues retreated from the suite, shaken. Afterward, at dinner in the hotel’s Japanese restaurant, Yamauchi, his tie loosened, turned to Howard Lincoln, who was still in a state of shock and said, “Sometimes this is the way you have to handle people, Mr. Lincoln. What did you think about that performance?”

  10. doctuar says:

    This is awfully sappy (and I’m British, so stiff upper-lip and all that, wot wot) but I actually cried when I heard Yamauchi-san had passed away. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because I saw his face in the header for the news article, recognised him and got excited. When I read the article, it brought me back down to Earth. I absolutely love Nintendo (not unequivocally) and my childhood would not have been the same without their video game presence. 85 is a good innings, I’ll raise a glass to that :)

  11. ferrarimanf355 says:

    The best case scenario for the Seattle Mariners is if Mark Cuban buys the team now. Then he could be Bud Selig’s problem now.

  12. Dariusz G. Jagielski says:

    Don’t forget that despite creating Nintendo as we know it, Yamauchi never played videogame in his life (you can check it in various sources if you don’t believe). AFAIK he hated those and was purely expanding to game market for $$$ (or rather ¥¥¥).

    I’m not judging, maybe that even makes his accomplishment more astonishing, but I’d rather not gamble my money into business area that I know nothing about.

  13. Mr. Glitch says:

    Hiroshi Yamauchi & Gunpei Yokoi also turned a bunch of flagging Tokyo bowling alleys into virtual skeet shooting parlors, and created the forerunner to the modern lightgun game with the original Wild Gunman. RIP, you fabulous mad geniuses.

  14. Adam says:

    With the introduction of the Famicom console, Yamauchi ,rightfully stated that the turnover of the toy industry, shelf life tends to be short, and then Nintendo happened to the world.