Generations of children have grown up loving Super Mario Bros, Pokémon characters, the Legend of Zelda series and hundreds of other video games without ever hearing the name of Hiroshi Yamauchi, who has died aged 85. Yamauchi ran Nintendo for more than 50 years and turned it into a global brand bigger than Disney.
Unlike Walt Disney, he was not a creator. He did not even play video games, though in the early days he strictly controlled the games Nintendo launched. Yamauchi was, from first to last, a businessman. He knew that he had an audience of children – Nintendo’s Famicom brand name came from “Family Computer” – and he knew that he was in the entertainment business, rather than the technology business.
Outside Japan, the Famicom became the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Yamauchi’s games consoles did not have to have the most advanced specifications – he said “people are not interested in cutting-edge technologies” – but they did have to be affordable and enjoyable. And extremely profitable.
Yamauchi’s strategy of high-quality games and low-cost hardware wrested control of the games console business from US-based pioneers such as Atari and Magnavox and turned an obscure Japanese playing-card company into a colossus. It also made the reclusive Yamauchi, for a while, Japan’s richest man. As he was ready to admit, much of it was not planned. He was dragooned into becoming Nintendo’s president in 1949, aged 21, and getting into the home games market was a happy accident.
He was born in Kyoto. The family of his mother, Kimi Yamauchi, had no male heirs, so Kimi’s husband, Shikanojo Inaba, adopted her surname, on the assumption that he would take over the family’s playing-card company. However, Shikanojo abandoned his family when Hiroshi was five, and Hiroshi was brought up by his disciplinarian grandparents, Sekiryo Yamauchi, the president of the company, and his wife, Tei.
Hiroshi was educated in Kyoto and in 1945 went to Waseda University to study law. He abandoned his studies in 1949 when Sekiryo had a stroke. In the absence of his father, Hiroshi was asked to take over. This he agreed to do, on condition that he would be the only family member working at the company.
The young and inexperienced new president resorted to draconian rule. According to Game Over, David Sheff’s history of Nintendo, Yamauchi fired all the “old guard” managers one by one, “in spite of their years of dedicated service”. He also changed the name of the company to Nintendo Karuta (Nintendo Playing Cards), opened a new head office and started innovating.
An early success was making western-style playing cards under licence from Walt Disney. 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. These were to stand Nintendo in good stead when it eventually entered the games market, but it tried many other things along the way including instant rice, a “love hotel” (Sheff says “he was one of his own best customers”) and a taxi company. Setting up a games division was a better idea: the success of his playing cards gave Yamauchi a distribution system that could deliver products to Japan’s toy shops and department stores.
Nintendo began to enjoy success with electronic toys and had a hit with the Game & Watch series. These were handheld LCD games based on pocket calculator-type technologies. To progress, Yamauchi wanted a console like the Atari models that were appearing in Japan. This resulted in an even bigger hit – the Famicom – and then the Game Boy handheld console, both of which took Japan and then the US by storm.
The Famicom/NES made it clear that there was more money to be made from writing games, because each console buyer wanted five or more games. Yamauchi set up three competing divisions to create games. He also wanted to make an arcade machine, and asked one of his young designers, Shigeru Miyamoto, to create one. The result was Donkey Kong, which featured the first appearance of the Mario character. Miyamoto turned out to be the Shakespeare of games designers, and he helped to make Nintendo the world’s dominant games company.
Of course, not everyone was happy with Yamauchi’s autocratic rule, and the growth of a new market – adult games – enabled some of his suppliers to break away. The most significant was Sony, which converted a would-be Nintendo accessory into the PlayStation games console, and Square Enix, which took its important Final Fantasy series to Sony. Now adults, not children, formed a core part of the games market, and rivals were willing to supply the realistic, blood-soaked violence that Miyamoto, and Nintendo, would not deliver.
After running Nintendo for 53 years, Yamauchi finally promoted Satoru Iwata to replace him in 2002. Yamauchi served as chairman until 2005. At their 2008 peak, his Nintendo shares made him worth $6.4bn (£4bn), though that later fell to $2.1bn. He was also the principal owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team.
When, after years of estrangement, Yamauchi heard that his father had died of a stroke, he was grief-stricken. At the funeral, he met his father’s wife and four daughters that he did not know existed. Hiroshi and his wife, Michiko, had two daughters, Yoko and Fujiko, and a son, Katsuhito. Michiko died last year.
• Hiroshi Yamauchi, businessman, born 7 November 1927; died 19 September 2013
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