With the passing of Hiroshi Yamauchi last Thursday, Japan and video games as a whole lost a pioneering legend the likes of which will never be seen again. He was 85 and left an indelible legacy on the industry as a whole.
Assuming control of Nintendo at the age of 22 in 1949 and serving as its President until 2002, Yamauchi took a small playing card manufacturer and eventually transformed it into a massive force in video games in the 80′s and 90′s. Although he rarely played games himself, he had the vision to carefully choose the ones that Nintendo would publish and was able to enforce strict rules for Third-Party developers. From playing cards to toys and eventually home consoles, Yamauchi was able to lead his company and the industry itself into unknown and extremely profitable territory.
A firm believer in the concept of a game developer as an artist, he hired Shigeru Miyamoto in 1977 as an artist and fostered the development of the arcade game Donkey Kong, Nintendo’s first Western hit. After seeing the success of Atari in the US, Yamauchi ordered the development of Nintendo’s first home console, one that would change the face of gaming as we know it today. That console, the Nintendo Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System in America) is credited with reversing the fortune of the video game industry following the crash of 1983. As is well known, the NES was home to franchises that still live on to this day such as Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid.
From there on, Yamauchi oversaw the release of Nintendo’s Game Boy as well as their next three home consoles, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64 and GameCube to varying levels of success. Though visionary with the release of the NES and Super Nintendo, some would say he did falter by turning down a partnership with Sony on a “Nintendo Playstation” and demanding that the N64 be difficult to program for. His N64 directive was especially damaging to the console on the Third-Party front but certainly paved the way for some truly revolutionary First-Party releases.
The Game Boy however was a huge seller with around 120 million units sold worldwide. In the early 90′s it seemed like every other kid owned Nintendo’s handheld and thanks to popular franchises like Pokemon the system survived for 13 years, a lifetime in this industry. The influence of Nintendo on the home market is so staggering that most mainstream consumers will still refer to a video game as a Nintendo game no matter what console it’s actually available for.
On Friday, current Nintendo President and Yamauchi’s successor released a statement concerning his predecessor’s passing, stating that “The entire Nintendo group will carry on the spirit of Mr Yamauchi by honouring, in our approach to entertainment, the sense of value he has taught us — that there is merit in doing what is different — and at the same time, by changing Nintendo in accordance with changing times.” That “doing what is different” mantra has always been strong with Nintendo, especially in recent years with the Wii, DS and Wii U with their outside the norm control methods.
For myself, I only had passing interaction with the NES and Super NES as a kid, since our house only had a Sega Genesis. Nintendo hooked me however with the Nintendo 64 and it remains my favorite console to this very day. Hiroshi Yamauchi is a true legend, a man with a vision and one that will be remembered for decades to come.