By Jeff Neuenschwander / September 19th, 2013
Yamauchi took over as President of Nintendo in 1949 and served until 2002, succeeded by current President Satoru Iwata. During this time, he led Nintendo from being solely a card game production company to a major gaming company. Yamauchi was also the owner of MLB’s Seattle Mariners, purchasing the team in 1992 (though admitted never having been a baseball fan; this was done as a favor to keep the team in Seattle). As of 2004, the team is under the ownership of Nintendo of America with former NOA chairman Howard Lincoln running the team.
Yamauchi began his tenure as President of Nintendo after his grandfather, then President Seikiyo Kaneda, passed away due to complications from a stroke. Having no succession plan, Kaneda besieged his grandson to take the post, forcing Yamauchi to leave college before he could graduate. Yamauchi accepted and would assert his power early on in dealing with striking workers who protested his promotion, firing many long-time employees.
During the 50s and early 60s, Yamauchi would work toward diversifying Nintendo through a series of business ventures, which included a taxi company, a love hotel, and instant rice. With nothing seeming to work, he came across a factory engineer named Gunpei Yokoi (the eventual creator of the Game Boy) who would be seen playing around with an extendable claw. Seeing an opportunity to go into the toy market, Yamauchi ordered development of the claw into a sellable product. What came of it was the Urutora Hando (Ultra Hand), Nintendo’s first success in the toy market. Nintendo would go on to establish itself as a major player in the toy market with electronic toys like the Love Tester.
During the 70s, Yamauchi would lead Nintendo more towards electronics as he saw how technological breakthroughs drove prices down for them. He would negotiate a license to sell the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan as well as oversee the launch of the Color TV Game 6, Nintendo’s first home gaming device. Wanting to expand into North America, Yamauchi and his son-in-law Minoru Arakawa founded Nintendo of America and tested a number of their successful arcade games in the North American market. Unable to have success with any game, Yamauchi turned to Shigeru Miyamoto and his game, Donkey Kong, which would become Nintendo’s first worldwide hit.
During the 80s, Yamauchi created three separate research and development divisions to foster innovation and internal competition. The first major creation from this division was the Game & Watch series of handheld games. While successful, Yamauchi wanted a product that would last for a long time. This resulted in the creation of the Family Computer, or Famicom for short. The Famicom would come to the rest of the world as the Nintendo Entertainment System and be instrumental in the recovery from the North American Video Game Crash of 1983.
Yamauchi would continue to lead Nintendo as it became one of the leading names in video games. He would oversee the Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, the Game Boy series of consoles, and the beginning of the GameCube before stepping down from his post. Yamauchi continued to be the chairman of Nintendo’s board of directors until 2005, feeling that he was leaving the company in good hands.
Of course, everything wasn’t perfect when he was in charge. Before the Ultra Hand, Nintendo was in dire straits, nearly going bankrupt. Later on, strict third-party rules on the NES led to an investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice, Congress, and Federal Trade Commission. These rules, though becoming more lax throughout the NES’s lifespan and through the SNES, were designed to prevent another crash in the market but would have a negative effect on third party companies working with competing consoles. He also ordered the Nintendo 64 to be intentionally difficult to create games for to discourage untalented developers from creating games for it, which only resulted in a number of poorly developed games for the system.
But even with all that, Yamauchi was a major force for the modern video game industry, overseeing the resurgence of the industry after a catastrophe. He may have been heavy-handed—which even extended to him being the only person to approve games for his systems despite having never played them—but it was his heavy-handedness that gave us so many great titles during the NES and SNES days. Whatever your opinion on him is, it’s safe to say that the gaming industry would not be what it is today without him.
Hiroshi Yamauchi is survived by his three children and the millions of gamers that he helped entertain.