Hiroshi Yamauchi, former Nintendo chief, has passed away at age 85 after battling pneumonia. He leaves behind a legacy that stretches far beyond his 53 years of service at the Kyoto-based video game giant.
Yamauchi was the grandson of Nintendo’s founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi, who started the company in 1889 as a maker of playing cards. He inherited the title of president from his own father in 1949. A Waseda University dropout, Yamauchi brought his company back from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1960s after multiple failed attempts to expand product lineups.
Many will remember Yamauchi for his vast contributions to video game consoles and software. He led the way for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), known as “Famicom” in Japan – selling more than 60 million units worldwide.
“Yamauchi had a huge impact on today’s generation of leaders at Nintendo, including game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who designed Donkey Kong as Nintendo’s entry into the U.S. arcade game market. The game launched in 1981 and it was a gigantic hit in the arcades. Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. helped the NES become the dominant home console in the 1980s,” said VentureBeat.
Despite having little interest in baseball, Yamauchi bought the Seattle Mariners in 1992 after a heated dispute with the Major League Baseball owners’ committee. In 2001, the Mariners signed Ichiro Suzuki, the most celebrated Japanese major-leaguer, opening the floodgates for imported talent from the Land of the Rising Sun. At the time of his passing, Yamauchi had never actually attended a game.
A keen eye for business and a hatred of debt, coupled with his trademark gravelly voice and thick Kyoto accent, set Yamauchi apart from his Japanese competitors. To this day, Nintendo remains debt-free.
“Yamauchi developed a strategy that set him apart from other consumer electronics manufacturers in Japan. From early on, he farmed out the production of Nintendo’s video game machines to smaller suppliers, allowing the company to maintain a relatively small staff and low overhead costs. Nintendo approved only a handful of games each year, whether designed internally or by outside companies, ensuring that prices and profit margins remained high,” wrote The New York Times.
In 2002, Yamauchi passed the torch to current CEO Satoru Iwata. Yamauchi would go on to be named Japan’s richest man in 2008 – with a net worth of nearly $8 billion thanks to the breakout Nintendo Wii home gaming console. He was the company’s second-largest shareholder with about 10 percent of its stock.
Yamauchi’s death comes at a time of great uncertainty for Nintendo as the video game market increasingly shifts toward smartphones and tablets. The gaming giant has struggled to gain the support of third party developers. Bloomberg reported that Nintendo shares have tumbled more than 80 percent since peaking in 2007.
Yamauchi leaves behind a son, Katsuhito. The video game pioneer’s funeral is scheduled for Sunday at Ninteno’s headquarters in Kyoto.
“The entire Nintendo group will carry on the spirit of Mr. Yamauchi by honoring, in our approach to entertainment, the sense of value he has taught us – that there is merit in doing what is different – and at the same time, by changing Nintendo in accordance with changing times,” said Iwata.