Hiroshi Yamauchi turned his family's struggling business into the global gaming powerhouse Nintendo during his five decades at its helm. The company dominated the industry for the better part of two decades with its top-selling Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) products. "Yamauchi's strategy of high-quality games and low-cost hardware wrested control of the games console business from U.S.-based pioneers such as Atari and Magnavox," stated Guardian journalist Jack Schofield, "and turned an obscure Japanese playing-card company into a colossus."
Yamauchi was born in 1927 in Kyoto, Japan, where his great-grandfather had founded a company that produced cards for hanafuda, a game that used floral images on card faces. There was already turmoil in Yamauchi's family by the time of his birth: His mother Kimi was the only daughter in her father's household and married a man her family hoped would eventually take over the company from her father Sekiryo. Yamauchi's father Shikanojo Inaba even took his wife's surname but internal discord prompted him to abandon Kimi and her young son--a breach for which Yamauchi never forgave his father.
Raised in Kyoto by his strict grandparents, Yamauchi entered Waseda University in 1945 to study law. In 1949, his grandfather suffered a stroke, and Yamauchi was asked to take over the company; the 21-year-old agreed to do so only if he would be the only family member among the executive ranks. This rid him of a problematic cousin and potential rival for power. A few years later Yamauchi summarily dismissed all managers at a certain level who came up during his grandfather's tenure, declaring them too resistant to restoring Nintendo to profitability.
The hanafuda playing-card craze had peaked years earlier. Under Yamauchi Nintendo moved into board games, toys, and even a mechanical baseball-pitching machine. He also looked abroad for inspiration. "An early success was making western-style playing cards under license from Walt Disney," Schofield wrote in the Guardian. "These used pictures of Disney characters and brought the old Japanese company a new market--families with children--and new experiences, such as television advertising."
Under his direction Yamauchi moved Nintendo into the emerging electronics-gaming sector in the 1970s. The company produced some early handheld devices that used new liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology and entered the lucrative new arcade-game industry with Donkey Kong in 1981. Yamauchi tasked a young game design-whiz at Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto, with developing a proprietary home-console system to rival the Magnavox Odyssey and Atari Video Computer System, each of which connected to existing household television sets.
In July of 1983 Nintendo shipped the first-generation of what would later be renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. The 1983 home-gaming console was originally called the Famicom, or "Family Computer," and it sold millions of units when it was launched in other countries. Nintendo followed with the popular handheld Game Boy in 1989 and then the vastly improved Super Nintendo console system a year later. Both product lines and their game software produced stunning revenue figures for Yamauchi's company for a few heady years.
Yamauchi's tenure at Nintendo lasted more than five decades. He was a formidable chief executive, known for a tough negotiating style and laser-like focus on keeping Nintendo at the top of the gaming industry. He subcontracted some of the NES manufacturing process, which reduced labor costs, and carefully controlled the software-based game development and releases with Miyamoto as his chief creative weapon. The company's best-selling game franchise was "Super Mario Brothers," a kid-friendly fantasy game launched in 1985 and continually refreshed for new releases with advances in console technology.
During Nintendo's most profitable years Yamauchi became, briefly, Japan's richest man. His company ceded some valuable market territory when its release of a new Nintendo 64 console was delayed in the mid-1990s. In the interim Sony's new PlayStation system won over gamers via superior technical advances. After years of rumors concerning his eventual successor, Yamauchi decided to bypass his son-in-law--a veteran executive with the Seattle-based Nintendo America--and instead chose a non-family member to take the reins when Yamauchi retired as chief executive of Nintendo in 2002.
Yamauchi owned a majority stake in the Seattle Mariners through the Nintendo America subsidiary. He paid $75 million for the Major League baseball team in 1992 but never attended a Mariners game. Business articles about his long tenure at Nintendo invariably cited the fact that he was not a gamer himself. He preferred to play Go, an old-school board game and competed at its master-level rank.
Yamauchi died in Kyoto on September 19, 2013, at age 85 from complications of pneumonia. He was predeceased by his wife Michiko and survived by their three children--daughters Yoko and Fujiko, and son Katsuhito. In 2003 Yamauchi was asked about the ultra-competitive rivalries between the company he still chaired and its rivals such as Sony, Sega, and Microsoft. "The gaming wars, they will never end," he declared, according to New York Times Asian correspondent Hiroko Tabuchi. "That's just not how this business works. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring."
Born November 7, 1927, in Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan; died of complications from pneumonia, September 19, 2013, in Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. Chief Executive Officer of Nintendo.
- Guardian (London), September 20, 2013, p. 38;
- Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2013;
- New York Times, September 20, 2013, p. A29.