He was loved, hated, reviled, respected, and feared by many of those who knew him, but there’s no question today that Nintendo or the video game market would be what they are without Hiroshi Yamauchi. On September 19th, he passed away at the age of 85.
He’s not the father of video games or was the first to bring a console to market. But he would create a juggernaut in Japan that would reach out to the rest of the world guided by his uncanny sense in judging people and the ideas that would make Mario more popular than Disney under his tenure.
He would take a design graduate and bet the future of his hardware on his ideas, introducing the world to Donkey Kong and Mario. Engineers would create Game & Watch, portable LCD games that would become the precursors to the Gameboy. The Famicom became the “Trojan Horse” in the bigger picture he foresaw in a network merging together families across phone lines enabling banking, stock trading, and shopping after the kids were done playing. Though it didn’t quite materialize, it demonstrated the foresight and daring that enabled Nintendo to break out of Japan and into the West, revitalizing the video game market that everyone had nearly written off after the Crash.
He could also be ruthless, dictatorial, and absolutely relentless in his pursuit of protecting Nintendo’s future whether it was in maintaining production control of the cartridges or who would receive the hottest titles in what quantities. Stores that dabbled in unlicensed titles could find themselves short of the season’s best selling games. Companies would find themselves agreeing to draconian terms, assuaging their pride with the trucks of money that sales inevitably brought with solid titles on Nintendo’s unstoppable system which enabled the company to briefly eclipse Toyota in revenues in the early 90s.
In those years, Nintendo was the 400lb Bowser in the room to beat. For nearly more than two decades since the Famicom first appeared in Japan, Nintendo’s influence would dictate the direction and impressions of a generation of gamers brought up by Mario, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and Mega Man. And a large part of that success was due to Yamauchi’s unwavering drive toward success.
After so many generations of consoles and with Nintendo’s influence having fallen from the lofty pulpit it had led the industry from in those early years, the company today isn’t quite the unstoppable giant that it was back then. Yet, despite new competition and a changing market, Nintendo continues to quietly ply on as Yamauchi did decades earlier steering it into new directions. Even when Yamauchi had stepped down from the board in 2005 (after having left the presidency in 2002), Nintendo continued to play by the rules he had set down for it.
That young designer that had world on fire with Donkey Kong and Mario — Shigeru Miyamoto — is still there, a little older but no less the child who went exploring in the countryside around his parent’s home, dreaming up of new things with which to amaze, enthrall, and celebrate the art of play. Every d-pad and handheld that Nintendo creates can also point back to Gunpei Yokoi, who passed in 1997, but whose influence continues to echo today.
Far fewer people probably even know who Hiroshi Yamauchi is compared to the Italian plumber that had become the face for his company. The fiercely competitive fire that Nintendo had sparked across the pages of magazines such as Gamepro and EGM, the eagerness of rivals to steal its thunder with their own hardware, and the scramble for sales that publishers new and old would build empires on, however, have become his enduring legacy.
So he might not have been the first to come up with a console. And he’s also had a few of his own ideas that didn’t quite pan out. In the 70s and 80s, he was just an executive who ran a card making company that dabbled in toys and electronics.
At the same time, Yamauchi also didn’t go out of his way to knock on doors to inform the public of who he was. He was seemingly content to work the long hours at his company without being mentioned in the credits of the same games they had created. True to Nintendo’s namesake and in between the hardball he played with his rivals in business and the occasional game of Go, things were left in “heaven’s hands”.
Nintendo was all the talking that he needed to do. Something for which the industry, and history, won’t ever forget.