Commentary

Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo's Autocratic Visionary, 85

Hiroshi Yamauchi, a college dropout who took a “run-of-the-mill” family firm that manufactured playing cards in Japan to the pinnacle of high-tech success around the world and became known as “the godfather of the console” in the process, as The Guardian’s Keith Stuart reports, died yesterday from complications of pneumonia. He was 85. 

Yamauchi was the third president of Nintendo, which was founded by his great-grandfather, Fusajiro Yamauchi, in 1889, according to the Nintendo Wikia. He led the company for more than 50 years and is the last of the Yamauchi family to be president. He was succeeded by the current president, Satoru Iwata, in 2002.

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“Yamauchi installed the company's central doctrine -– that gameplay is always more important than technology,” Stuart writes. That’s where rich characters such as Mario, Zelda, Pokemon and Donkey Kong come in. Not that Yamauchi himself indulged.

“‘I have better things to do’ than play video games, he told interviewers,” reports the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Chawkins, who goes on to characterize Yamauchi as “a gruff and uncompromising businessman who autocratically transformed Nintendo.” 

“His legacy is incredible,” writes the Verge’s Sean Hollister, citing David Sheff’s 1994 book Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered The World for its details on how “the Japanese company has come to earn more money than the big three computer giants or all Hollywood movie studios combined,” as an Amazon blurb puts it.

“Yamauchi comes across as a Japanese Steve Jobs of sorts, a ruthless man who terrorized his employees to come up with the next brilliant idea, and one who insisted on having the final say on how products were designed,” Hollister writes. “At the same time, he seems to have been a fantastic judge of character.”

Indeed, he wasn’t the creative force behind the games that made a global household name out of an obscure Japanese company -– that would be Shigeru Miyamoto, the son of a friend of Yamauchi who joined the company in 1977 as a “concept artist.” But he is credited with Nintendo’s overtaking “early leaders in the video game industry, selling more than 60 million units thanks to shrewd marketing, close attention to product quality and a crop of games based on unlikely yet endearing characters that soon became household names,” as Hiroko Tabuchi writes in the New York Times.

Fast Company’s Addy Dugdale has put together a slide show that takes us from images of hanafuda -- "Japanese playing cards" -- that the company manufactured when he took over as president at age 22 in 1949 through the evolution of Famicom into Nintendo Entertainment System, the birth of Super Mario, and the genesis of Wii.

In 1992, Yamauchi took a 55% stake in the Seattle Mariners with a group of minority investors from the Seattle area. “Prior to that purchase, it appeared as if the team was about to be offered to a group looking to relocate it to St. Petersburg, Fla.,” Geoff Baker reports in the Seattle Times.

“Mr. Yamauchi deserves unending thanks for his key role in saving baseball in Seattle,” Mariners minority investor Buck Ferguson said yesterday. But numerous reports tell us that he never, ever watched the Mariners play.

Despite all the triumphs, there were some “misfires,” too, as Tabuchi reports:

“The company’s cumbersome, headache-inducing Virtual Boy portable console -- a red box on legs with rubber visors that players peered into to play games in 3-D -- was a flop. And beginning in the late 1990s, first Sony, then Microsoft steamrolled into the gaming market with new consoles -- the PlayStation and Xbox, respectively -- challenging Nintendo’s dominance.”

Saying he had “no energy left,” Yamauchi retired as Nintendo’s president in 2002. “He left the company in good shape: sales reached $4.5 billion and profits almost tripled to $1.3 billion, thanks in part to the success of a new portable video game player,” Tatiana Serafin reports in Forbes. “At his request, he gave up his retirement $11 million allowance and asked that it be included in company profit instead.”

He resigned as a director three years later but remained the company’s largest shareholder with about 10% of the shares. Forbesestimates Yamauchi’s net worth at $2.1 billion as of April; he was No. 13 on the Japan “richest” list and ranked as the 891st richest person in the world, with a net worth of approximately $2.5 billion. 

As recently as 2007, he was ranked as Japan’s richest individual by Forbes Asia but Nintendo’s shares have dropped more than 80% in the face of stiff competition since then, report Bloomberg’s Robert Fenner and Takashi Amano. 

“Yamauchi made the game industry what it is now,” Haruhiro Tsujimoto, president of game maker Capcom, tells Amano in an interview at the Tokyo Game Show today.

That in a week when, as ABC News’ Alan Farnham reports, Grand Theft Auto V, “the latest iteration of the violent videogame, which retails for about $55, had sales of $800 million on Wednesday, its first day out, hijacking the previous record for first-day sales set by Grand Theft Auto IV ($310 million).”

But “Mario is the #1 best-selling franchise in the world, appearing in over 200 games and selling more than 285 million units,” according to the Video Games Sales Wiki. Yamauchi exits with the last harrumph.

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