Hiroshi Yamauchi: Nintendo chief's video games legacy

Hiroshi Yamauchi and Bill Gates Hiroshi Yamauchi and Microsoft's Bill Gates set up an "infotainment" joint venture in 1996
Nintendo playing cards When Mr Yamauchi took charge Nintendo was most famous for making playing cards
Nintendo Love Tester Nintendo's Love Tester was released in the 1960s - one of its first electronic gadgets
TV-Game 6 Nintendo's first games console, the TV-Game 6, only featured one game: Light Tennis
Shigeru Miyamoto Shigeru Miyamoto was hired by Mr Yamauchi in 1977. He became chief game designer
Donkey Kong sketch Mr Miyamoto created Donkey Kong and Mario for Nintendo
Game & Watch The Game & Watch range, launched in 1980, were many players' first handhelds
Nintendo Entertainment System Third-party developers were invited to create games for the NES console released in 1983
Legend of Zelda The Legend of Zelda, launched in 1986, is one of Nintendo's most popular franchises
Japan's All Nippon Airways jet featuring Pokemon Pokemon was created in 1996 as a title for the Game Boy handheld
Nintendo 64 and Sega Dreamcast The Nintendo 64, launched in 1996 outsold Sega's Dreamcast three-to-one
Nintendo Gamecube The Gamecube is regarded by some as a flop but still managed to sell about 22 million units
Dr Mario 64 Dr Mario 64 was one of the last Nintendo games released under Mr Yamauchi
Satoru Iwata Satoru Iwata succeeded Mr Yamauchi as president of Nintendo in May 2002
Hiroshi Yamauchi Hiroshi Yamauchi owned 10% of Nintendo's stock at the time of his death, aged 85

Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo's former president, has died aged 85.

Under his leadership, the Japanese firm was transformed, between 1949 and 2002, from being a playing card company to one of the titans of the video games industry.

The BBC invited two historians to discuss his achievements and legacy:

Iain Donald, Abertay University

Start Quote

Iain Donald

Without people like Yamauchi, gaming would never have become the broad field we now know it to be”

End Quote

For many gamers, the history of video games is paralleled by key gaming moments provided by Nintendo.

The company is responsible for multiple video-gaming firsts and continues to influence the game players, designers and developers of the future.

Today, Nintendo is one of the major video games companies challenging Sony and Microsoft over the handheld and console markets.

Yet it often surprises gamers to learn that the company started as a playing card manufacturer in 1889.

Hiroshi Yamauchi, who has passed away aged 85, led that company as president for more than half a century.

Much of what will be written today will deservedly credit Yamauchi as transforming Nintendo into a world-leading, innovative and quality-driven video games company.

His influence is far more wide-reaching than that.

Iain Donald

  • Teaches the history of video games at Abertay University in Dundee
  • Currently researching the cultural significance of historic games

Yamauchi led the company through multiple other transitions from playing cards through tabletop games, toys through to arcade and electronic games.

A shrewd and occasionally ruthless businessman he looked at multiple ways of increasing revenue streams, many that are far removed from the family-friendly entertainment company that we now associate with Nintendo.

In his early years as president he smashed a strike by factory employees, diversified the business by setting up as a taxi company and established a chain of "love hotels".

In the 1960s he moved the company into toy manufacturing creating many famous products such as the Love Tester and Custom Gunman.

The Love Tester was Nintendo's first electronic product designed "for young ladies and men" to determine how much two people love each other.

Custom Gunman gave the player a toy gun to shoot a target in the shape of a rival gunman.

Custom Gunman Custom Gunman was one of the toys Nintendo made before focusing on video games

At a time when video games get blamed for some of society's ills it is worth remembering that toys have always encouraged imaginary play.

The designer for both of these was Gunpei Yokoi, the creator of other more famous Nintendo hardware including the Game & Watch and the Game Boy - and the not so successful Virtual Boy.

On a personal level, my introduction to video games was with the Prinztronic Video Sport 800 but it was at school and in the playground that my interest developed as we played Game & Watch games - Parachute, Snoopy Tennis, Donkey Kong etc.

I know from playing what influence Nintendo had on my interest and passion, and with each further year at Abertay that I teach I see the influence they have had on other generations.

From the influence of the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) and Gamecube we see the students inspired to follow careers in the games industry.

All that without considering the massive success and broadened appeal created by the Wii.

Without Nintendo we arguably wouldn't have the industry, the innovation and the availability to study video games.

Without people like Yamauchi, gaming would never have become the broad field we now know it to be, and we wouldn't be discussing the positive and negative influences it continues to have on society, culture and education.

Gameboy

Tristan Donovan, games industry writer

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Tristan Donovan

[He] gave his game developers the freedom they needed to create the very best games they could”

End Quote

Hiroshi Yamauchi's time as boss of Nintendo is packed full of moments that changed the course of video game history.

Under his leadership, Nintendo introduced the world to a cast of loveable game heroes from Mario and Donkey Kong to Princess Peach and Kirby.

It popularised gaming-on-the-go long before the days of smartphones with the handheld game console Game Boy.

Yamauchi also gave his game-developers the freedom they needed to create the very best games they could, such as when he delayed the launch of the company's late-1990s console the Nintendo 64 so that game designer Shigeru Miyamoto could perfect Mario 64.

He oversaw the global phenomenon that was Pokemon, a game series that not only captured the imagination of a generation of children but helped ignite the popularity of Japanese animation and comics in the West.

But, for me, the most significant decision he ever made, the one that really transformed video gaming, was to ignore the analysts, the retail chains and the advice of consumer focus groups who told him that no-one in the USA wanted to buy games consoles anymore.

It was 1984 and Yamauchi was hoping to replicate the success that Nintendo's Famicom console had been enjoying in Japan in the USA.

Tristan Donovan

  • Author of Replay: The History of Video Games
  • Has written for Eurogamer Gamasutra and Stuff

But the year before, the video game boom, driven by the Atari VCS console and Space Invaders, burst. The US games industry imploded, companies crashed, retailers were left with unsold stock and consumers lost interest.

By the time Nintendo started touting its games console, rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES for the US and European markets, everyone had consigned game consoles to the dustbin of history as little more than a brief fad.

But despite the naysayers, Yamauchi insisted on pushing ahead with the launch of the console, convinced that if game players in Japan loved it, Americans would too.

History proved Yamauchi right.

By 1989 the NES had become such a success in the USA that Nintendo products accounted for 23% of all toy sales in the country and the company had overtaken Honda and Toyota to become Japan's most profitable business.

The NES's dominance also shaped the types of games we got to play.

Pokemon Stadium The first Pokemon games were released while Mr Yamauchi was in charge

Nintendo controlled who could and could not release games on its console and also imposed rules on what content could appear in games on a Nintendo console.

These rules barred graphic depictions of death, nudity, swearing and criticism of religion - rules that would have made a game with themes similar to Grand Theft Auto impossible at the time.

Some will say that's a good thing but equally Nintendo's insistence on family friendly games coupled with its dominance at the time helped cement the video games' image as a kids' plaything rather than entertainment for all.

Regardless, Nintendo saved the games console. Without Yamauchi's willingness to trust his gut instinct the games console as we know it would probably not exist.

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