Hiroshi Yamauchi, the man who transformed video game giant Nintendo into what it is today from its root as a playing-card company, died Thursday in Kyoto, Japan, from pneumonia. Yamauchi was 85 years old.
Brian Shea, editor-in-chief of the website VideoGameWriters.com, spoke to us about the impact Yamauchi had on Nintendo and the video game industry as a whole.
Who was Hiroshi Yamauchi?
> If you look at Nintendo’s history, he was the man who ushered Nintendo into the electronics industry. He helped recreate Nintendo to be at the forefront of names when you think of electronics or video games. He took over the company as president in 1949 after his grandfather suffered a stroke. At the age of 22 he was president of Nintendo at the time when it was a Japanese business making playing cards. They were seen as a gimmicky product in Japan. He wanted to expand beyond that and to innovate beyond trying things, from individually rationed instant rice to by-the-hour “love hotels.” And taxi services as well.
He tried to introduce new elements as he saw fit. He was really enamored by the mid to late 70’s with the electronics explosion coming from companies like Atari and Magnavox.
He hired a team and put together the Color TV Game Six, a small device hooked up to color TV with six games. He hired former Sharp employees and released Color TV Games 15 which just had 15 games.
It’s remarkable how long he lead the company–shepherding it and the gaming world through pivotal moments.
Absolutely. A lot of people look at Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of “Mario Brothers,” “The Legend of Zelda,” and his first big game “Donkey Kong” in 1981 that caused Nintendo to be a hit in the U.S. In the late 70’s, Yamauchi was wanting to break out in the U.S. He brought over the biggest hits in Japan and in 1981 brought over “Donkey Kong.” In 1983, Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan and in the U.S. in 1985 with “Duck Hunt,” “Super Mario Brothers” and “The Legend of Zelda.”
Nintendo wasn’t the first major game system in the U.S., but it was the most popular and what brought games into people’s homes, correct?
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) has been credited for saving the video game industry. In the early 80’s Atari and Magnivox Odyssey right out the gate were super popular. But then the industry faced a huge crash. A lot of people credit the crash to the game “E.T.”, based off the movie, which was arguably the worst game ever created. They literally buried copies in the desert. The popularity of the NES saved the industry from going under.
Was Nintendo’s Game Boy a precursor to the handheld computing and smartphones we use today?
Even before the Game Boy, Nintendo had the Game & Watch, the first ever portable video game system–the first one to have a micro processor. That was the predecessor to Game Boy in the late 70’s.
Games are no longer just for the young. Is it true that Nintendo’s Wii is being used by all demographics?
The thing is the average age of a gamer is in the mid-30’s and that is credited to them appealing to larger demographic. It is the highest grossing entertainment industry in the world. People grew up…we think of games and that they are for kids. When you have kids growing up on these games, they do not grow out of them as the industry matures alongside them. Grandparents playing the Wii, that was what Nintendo was trying to do, to be a more accessible product. That was after his time. He relinquished his role as president in 2002. His vision was carried on, though.
Was Yamauchi like a Steve Jobs for gaming?
That was the parallel I would draw. He is most known for being able to pick out what people want before they know they want it, which was what Jobs was amazing at. He hired people who were visionaries because of their unique characteristics. He innovated the industry like no one had ever done. We are talking about a man who cared so much for the company he spent 63 years as president, worked until his mid 70’s as president and didn’t take his retirement pension when he retired, which was estimated between 8 and 14 million dollars. He said the company could use it better than him. When he first started out he created three research and development studios in the company to compete with each other to get the best ideas. He was a predecessor to Steve Jobs. He hired skilled people to create products, but you could even say he was the main architect.