Hiroshi Yamauchi was the President of Nintendo Co. Ltd. for more than fifty years. During his reign, he transitioned the company from a playing card manufacturer into one of the world's leading video game hardware and software developers. He also became the owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team in 1992. In 2008, he was Japan's wealthiest businessman. Yamauchi died of pneumonia on early September 19, 2013, at the age of 85 years old.
Yamauchi was raised by his grandparents after his father Shikanojo Yamauchi severed ties with the family. Born and raised in Kyoto, Japan, he was sent to a preparatory school at age 12. He planned to study law or engineering, but World War II disrupted his studies. Since he was too young to fight, he was put to work in a military factory. Once the war ended in 1945, Yamauchi went to Waseda University to study law. He married Michiko Inaba. With the absence of Yamauchi’s father, who had abandoned his son and wife, Kimi, his grandparents met to arrange the marriage.
Yamauchi succeeded his grandfather Sekiro Yamauchi as head of Nintendo in 1949 at the young age of twenty-one after his grandfather had a stroke. In the following years, he consolidated his power, firing a number of employees that his grandfather had personally hired, and began looking for ways to keep the business afloat and expand as playing cards began losing their profitability. In the 1960s and 70s, he branched Nintendo's business into a variety of fields ranging from instant ramen to love hotels before turning to the toy market.
The company's first successful toy was the Ultra Hand, an extending arm with a claw grip designed by Gunpei Yokoi, who prior to that point was a maintenance employee on the card printing line. The toy was released in time for the 1966 holiday season and proved to be a popular seller. Yamauchi continued driving Nintendo into the toy market in the following years before eventually turning to electronic toys and video games in the 1970s.
Creation of a Video Game Giant
Initially, Yamauchi championed creating arcade games while he set his eyes on expanding to the lucrative American market. Nintendo's first entry into the arcades were with electro-mechanical games like Wild Gunman (later a video game), followed by video games like Computer Othello and Sheriff. The company entered the home video game market with the Nintendo Color TV Game console, released in Japan in 1977.
The company's first major arcade hit in Japan, Radar Scope, was not a popular seller in North America. However, the company's fortunes changed and saw enormous success after Yamauchi made the decision to hire a young artist, fresh out of school; Shigeru Miyamoto. Miyamoto's first arcade title, Donkey Kong, proved to be a smash hit, and cemented the company's place in arcades for years to come.
After the success of several large arcade titles, Nintendo's prospects seemed bright. However, the video game industry crashed in 1983 and the production of games slowed down significantly. Despite evidence to the contrary, Yamauchi was convinced that video games could still prove to be a strong industry. It was his particular style of business leadership that would spearhead the revamping of the video game business model. Yamauchi attributed much of the industry's failures on the part of Atari, especially their very relaxed (and constantly partying) executives.
Taking enormous risks to produce the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States), Yamauchi is credited for helping start the rebirth of the video game industry after the disastrous collapse of the early-mid-1980's. Part of this rebirth and revitalization of the market was due to Yamauchi's institution of requirements that companies developing software for the Famicom and NES had to be officially licensed by Nintendo, and all games released on Nintendo hardware was required to pass certification testing. These requirements were especially important, as no such rules existed in the pre-crash console market, allowing shelves to overflow with shoddy products that weren't guaranteed to work properly. The NES was later followed by the SNES console. Expanding on the Game & Watch, the Game Boy also established Nintendo as the world leader of handheld gaming for decades.
Yamauchi's successes in building Nintendo into a video game industry powerhouse were marred by some decisions made during and after the SNES era of the early to mid-1990's. After halting the development of a CD format add-on for the SNES that had been in development in conjunction with Sony, the scorned Sony went on to develop and release the first PlayStation. It was also ultimately Yamauchi's decision to continue use of the cartridge format for the Nintendo 64, leading some very high profile developers such as Squaresoft to abandon development for Nintendo hardware and move to Sony's platform and its CD-ROM media.
After spending half a century at the helm of Nintendo, Yamauchi stepped down from his position as company president in 2002. His successor was Satoru Iwata, the first head of Nintendo to not be part of the Yamauchi family line. Under Iwata's leadership, the company has continued the development of highly successful video game hardware and software and has generally promoted a more outwardly relaxed picture of the company in contrast to Yamauchi's more hard line management methods. After stepping down from his role as company president and CEO, Yamauchi remained Nintendo's largest shareholder until his death.
Major League Baseball
In 1992, Yamauchi purchased a majority stake in the Seattle Mariners Major League Baseball team. At the time, the Mariners were in search of new ownership and were threatening a move to Florida. Yamauchi's bid to become the team's owner was met with resistance from several high ranking figures within the league including Commissioner Faye Vincent, who opposed a foreign interest becoming owner of an American baseball team. However, strong support for Yamauchi from the Seattle community allowed the sale to go through.
Yamauchi remained owner of the Mariners until 2004, when he sold the team to Nintendo of America. Notably, Yamauchi was not particularly a fan of baseball; he purchased the Mariners as a way to give back to the Seattle community, where Nintendo of America is located.
Yamauchi was an avid player of the Japanese board game Go. He was officially ranked as a 6th Dan in the game, marking him as a masterful player. Publicly, Yamauchi was not known to have an active interest in playing video games; his involvement and interest in the industry existed mostly at the business level. He is said to have once tried a version of Go for the Famicom, but quickly grew irritated with it and handed the controller to an employee.
- On Leaving Nintendo: "Coincidental to my leaving the company, I would like to make one request: that Nintendo give birth to wholly new ideas and create hardware which reflects that ideal. And make software that adheres to that same standard. Furthermore, this software should attract consumers as new and interesting. Lastly, and of equal importance, is completing these products quickly and at a cost comparable to today's current market. I imagine most people question the feasibility of my request, but Nintendo has always pursued those objectives. I'd ask that the company continue to follow this goal as my final and only request to the new management staff. I can't say what these new types of software will be, but I'm sure they'll release it during my lifetime."
- "[RPG players] are depressed gamers who like to sit alone in their dark rooms and play slow games." (In 1999, after Squaresoft cut ties with Nintendo.)
- "I have been saying this for some time, but customers are not interested in grand games with higher-quality graphics and sound and epic stories. Only people who do not know the video game business would advocate the release of next-generation machines when people are not interested in cutting-edge technologies."
- Comments on Microsoft:"There are many people in the industry that know nothing about games. In particular, a large American company is trying to do engulf software houses with money, but I don't believe that will go well. It looks like they'll sell their game system next year, but we'll see the answer to that the following year."