As the president of Nintendo for an amazing 53 years, Hiroshi Yamauchi is truly one of the legends of the home entertainment industry. Although he passed away today from pneumonia, at the age of 85, he leaves behind a legacy that is rivaled by very few.
Born in Kyoto, Yamauchi had aspirations of going to university to study engineering or law, but the Second World War stopped him realizing his plans. Even after the war had ended, and he was enrolled at Waseda University to study law, he was unable to obtain his degree, as he was brought in as president at Nintendo, a family business that was run by his grandfather until he had a stroke and could no longer carry out his duties.
Although young, Yamauchi ruled Nintendo with an iron fist; his opening gambit saw his own cousin fired, as he only agreed to take the job if he were the only family member working for the company. In the early years of his reign, many workers went on strike to try and intimidate and influence the young new director, but to no avail, as he struck back vehemently, firing long term employees to prove a point.
As Japan was occupied by the Allied forces until 1955, Japanese society went through a long list of changes, just one of these was the banishment of gambling (which stands to this day, with races and pachinko parlors exploiting loop-holes). At this point, playing cards were still very much associated with gambling, so they had a vogue appeal to them, one that Yamauchi took full advantage of, as he imported and sold plastic playing cards to an excited audience.
In 1959, he struck his biggest deal to date, namely an agreement with Disney to sell their playing cards. The kit came with a small booklet, which explained the rules for a variety of card games. It was aimed at a family audience and steered clear of the gambling angle, making them both mainstream and popular, in just one year Nintendo had sold over 600,000units.
After a visit to a card factory in America, Yamauchi became convinced that the card market was one that offered a limited potential for growth, so he invested in taxi firms, love hotels and instant rice. The foundations of the Nintendo we know and love today were not really formed until the tail end of the 1960s.
Although most look to Atari for being the first home-entertainment console, it was in fact the Magnavox Odyssey that official holds that accolade, as it hit the shelves in 1966. Noticing its potential, Yamauchi bought into the console market, and acquired a license to sell the Odyssey in Japan. Although these two companies had some difficulties later on, with a large lawsuit dividing them, the Odyssey introduced Yamauchi to the gaming industry, and how profitable it can be.
Nintendo’s first console, the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) really shook up the entire industry when it was released in Japan (as the “Famicom”) in 1983 and throughout the rest of the world between 1985-87. Yamauchi was convinced that it was artists, not technicians that made successful games, and the long lasting appeal these games still hold to retro gamers to this day is a testament to that. With that in mind, he made sure the NES was a simple system to design for, and that accessibility was far more important than trumping the competitions in regards to processing power.
A true stroke of genius by Yamauchi was that he hired three teams of designers, and he alone acted as the judge and jury as to whether or not a game would be published. This meant that a healthy rivalry was set up at Nintendo, as these teams strived to have their projects picked, which all but guaranteed their quality. Although some may question what qualifications Yamauchi had at discerning whether or not a computer game was of a high quality, his inexperience was actually what made him such a great judge, as he wasn’t impressed with technical specifics, just fun ideas and engaging gameplay.
Yamauchi stepped down as President of Nintendo in 2005, a year before the Nintendo Wii shot the games company back to the forefront of home entertainment market. But even 8 years after he left, he was still the second largest shareholder of the company, so his fierce business apparently stayed true until the very end.
Such an old fashioned and harsh president is seldom seen in modern society (and I’m sure many an employee feel happier for it), but there is no denying that Yamauchi was a visionary, a risk taker and a successful businessman, who dragged a family company out of its comfort zone and center stage to the international market, to become one of the most recognizable brands in the world.