Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo from 1949 until 2002, has died this morning of pneumonia. He was 85.
Yamauchi first assumed control of the company in 1949 upon his grandfather’s death. Both his grandfather, Sekiryo Yamauchi, and his great-grandfather, Fusajiro Yamauchi, had helped establish Nintendo Koppai as a successful card-making company, manufacturing Hanafuda cards. (Hanafuda cards are essentially the Japanese equivalent of Western playing cards.) With Nintendo Koppai’s new cards, Hanafuda became popular again in Japanese gaming parlors.
However, when Hiroshi Yamauchi inherited the company, he had no formal business training, nor any experience running a large manufacturing company. Although he struggled early on with insubordinate workers, Yamauchi ultimately demonstrated that he had complete control over Nintendo Koppai. Despite Yamauchi’s success at running Nintendo–he managed to partner with Disney to manufacture Disney playing cards–he decided to diversify upon seeing the limited scope of a playing card company.
Nintendo’s early ventures included a taxi company, instant-cooked already-portioned rice making, and love hotels rented by the hour: in other words, Nintendo was an early 3M. Yamauchi didn’t find much success in any of these businesses and thus established a toy-making enterprise upon seeing one of his engineers playing with a claw-like apparatus. Nintendo built a name for itself manufacturing complex electronics that impressed consumers around the globe–the Ultra Hand and Love Tester were amongst the early inventions Nintendo had to its name.
Yamauchi pioneered Nintendo’s diversification into the videogaming industry upon seeing the success of the Atari and the Magnavox. In the late ’70s, Nintendo released its first electronic gaming system under the guise of Yamauchi: the Color TV-Game 6. Yamauchi also spearheaded Nintendo’s efforts to enter the American arcade industry, creating unsuccessful (Sheriff, Space Fever) and successful (Donkey Kong) games alike.
Yamauchi carefully guided Nintendo’s foray into console-making, unilaterally deciding how the Famicom (NES) would run and look. While Yamauchi was ultimately a businessman at heart–he railed against a full-fledged 16-bit system with floppy disks and all–he made many executive decisions that defined the NES’ success. He made videogaming accessible, cheap(er), and engaging. Each game had to pass Yamauchi as a successful concept before it could be developed and sold–and Yamauchi’s intuition about games was abnormally good. While some corrections and product revisions were necessary upon release, the quality of NES units was leagues above arcade machines and other faulty gaming machines.
Bringing the NES to the American market was no small feat. After the videogaming crash of 1983, consumer confidence in videogaming was practically non-existent. Hence, Yamauchi moved to limit videogaming vocabulary from the NES’ components (software were Game Paks, the console was a Control Deck, and so on). He also sought to build consumer confidence by touting the quality of his games; he had golden “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality” stickers placed on cartridges to ensure their validity.
The launch was a success. Many of the changes that Nintendo implemented became commonplace facets of the industry: for instance, the advent of the D-pad. Yamauchi managed to easily capitalize on his success with the Super Famicom (SNES), and his company continued to produce brilliant games for years to come. His insights, however, started to falter with the release of the Nintendo 64, which Yamauchi tried to make difficult to program, ensuring only the best would develop for the console. Unfortunately, this backfired, both lowering the quality of games released and decreasing the sheer quantity of games developed for the N64. Yamauchi stepped down as president shortly after the GameCube’s release (for which he made easier to develop games), cementing his legacy as one of the greatest icons in the gaming industry.
To understate Yamauchi’s contribution to the gaming industry is impossible. He was perhaps the most important single figure in the history of modern gaming, given his ability to turn an ailing industry into a successful market, ultimately bringing competition along with him. While Yamauchi may not have been correct 100% of the time, his ability to both develop and market successful, quality products whilst fulfilling the wishes of the consumer earned him the respect of practically everyone in the gaming world. Many gamers today owe their childhood to Yamauchi’s ingenuity.
Yamauchi’s passing is a great loss to everyone in the gaming world–to players, to developers, to publishers, to the media. Here’s to one of the saviors of modern gaming–here’s to a real hero.