Video game pioneer and former Nintendo head Hiroshi Yamauchi dies at 85
Games industry unites to honour role at firm that dominated ‘golden age’ of console gaming
He was known as “the godfather of the console”, building the Japanese firm Nintendo from a playing cards manufacturer into one of the world’s most powerful computer games businesses. Now the gaming industry is paying tribute to the company’s former president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who died on Thursday at 85.
For a generation of gamers, Yamauchi’s Nintendo represented a golden era of mainstream gaming, dominated by classic titles like Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda and Metroid. In the early 90s, the company’s mascot Mario, a moustachioed Italian plumber, became one of the world’s most popular animated characters. A 1990 survey found he was more recognisable to American children than Mickey Mouse.
Yamauchi installed the company’s central doctrine – that gameplay is always more important than technology. It is the philosophy that would continue to define the company after his retirement, leading to the hugely successful Nintendo Wii, which introduced a motion control device for gaming but relied on cheap off-the-shelf hardware, unlike its expensive rivals, the PS3 and Xbox 360.
The company said it was “in mourning today from the sad loss of the former Nintendo president Mr Hiroshi Yamauchi, who sadly passed away this morning.”
Yamauchi took over the company after his grandfather, the previous president, suffered a stroke. He transformed Nintendo from a little-known manufacturer of Japanese hanafuda playing cards into the most powerful force in the global video game industry, and stood as president of the company from 1949 to 2002.
Yamauchi had a reputation for spotting talent and at a Nintendo factory he picked out engineer Gunpei Yokoi, who would eventually go on to develop the Game Boy handheld console. Yokoi had built a robotic arm for his own amusement, but Yamauchi saw the potential to mass-market the device as a product, kickstarting Nintendo’s expansion into the toy and gadget market.
Noting the boom in video games, Yamauchi later asked young artist Shigeru Miyamoto to create an arcade machine that would appeal to the growing global audience. The result was Donkey Kong, a massive success in its own right and the origin of the Mario character.
The long-standing president would go on to oversee the company’s entry into the home console business, which it dominated in the 80s and early 90s with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) consoles. At its height, Nintendo enjoyed a 90% share of the console hardware market.
Importantly, in the wake of the video game crash in 1983, where a glut of mediocre third-party releases for consoles such as the Atari VCS effectively devalued the whole industry, Yamauchi oversaw the introduction of Nintendo’s “seal of quality” programme, which restricted the numbers of developers that could release games on its systems.
He intrinsically understood the importance of good games and talented game designers, rather than engineers and hi-tech hardware. In 2004, he told one Japanese newspaper: “Cutting-edge technologies and multiple functions do not necessarily lead to more fun. The excessively hardware-oriented way of thinking is totally wrong, but manufacturers are just throwing money at developing higher-performance hardware.”
A shrewd businessman, Yamauchi ensured that Nintendo remained debt-free throughout his long period in charge. Unlike the consoles marketed by most of his competitors, Nintendo machines were always sold at a profit rather than as loss-leaders for software sales; he also ensured that game publishers paid in advance for the manufacturing of game carts, removing the risk for his own company. In this way, he helped to revolutionise the way the games industry functioned.
Although Yamauchi stepped down in 2002 to be replaced by current president Satoru Iwata, he remained a major shareholder and retained an advisory role.
“Hiroshi Yamauchi transformed a run-of the-mill trading card company into an entertainment empire in video games,” said Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop and life president of games developer Eidos. “He understood the social value of play, and the economic potential of electronic gaming. Most importantly, he steered Nintendo on its own course and was unconcerned by the actions of his competitors. He was a true visionary.”
Watch a report on Yamauchi’s life and influence on gaming, aired by SourceFedNerd on YouTube on Thursday, below.