Late Nintendo boss's legacy was 50 years in the making

Hiroshi Yamauchi wasn't much of a video-game player, but he led the Japanese cultural revolution of the '80s

Hiroshi Yamauchi in 1999.
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Nintendo patriarch Hiroshi Yamauchi, who died Thursday of pneumonia at 85, not only led the relatively small parlor-game company to video-game supremacy but also symbolized the rise of Japanese cultural dominance in the 1980s.

He led Nintendo through its most revolutionary years, pushing it from a humble operation in the '50s to a name synonymous with "game system" in the '80s. Yamauchi's influence can be felt in games as diverse as "Tetris," which he helped bring to Nintendo, and "Grand Theft Auto," which was inspired by his decisions decades earlier.

Nintendo was the first major Japanese video-game company and its rise marked the beginning of a seemingly unstoppable Japanese cultural influence that included children's programming like "Voltron" and fights over foreign cars in Detroit. Yamauchi led the wave of Japanese pop culture, though the small, tough businessman probably had more in common with Lee Iacocca than with Steve Jobs.

"Yamauchi has never played a video game in his life, and he had little interest in them," David Sheff wrote in 1993's seminal "Game Over: Nintendo's Battle to Dominate Videogames." "Still, he alone was the judge and jury when it came to deciding which games Nintendo would release. It was audacious, as he was either remarkably intuitive or terrifically lucky."

Yamauchi was only 22 when he inherited the small but stable Nintendo playing card company from his grandfather. He promptly fired most of the employees and replaced them with fresh blood eager to take the Kyoto-based company in a new, albeit risky direction. Equating complacency with lost ground, the young Yamauchi diversified Nintendo's portfolio with many businesses, including vending machines and a short-lived taxi service. He led the company into coin-operated machines just as parlor BB gun and skee-ball games moved from the boardwalk to indoor arcades. In today's landscape, Yamauchi's new direction for Nintendo would be the equivalent of Bicycle playing cards suddenly deciding to make a competitor to Sony's PlayStation 4.

His new gaming company hit it big with 1981's “Donkey Kong,” giving him and his team enough confidence to enter the then-burgeoning gaming market. The Atari 2600, which debuted in 1977, was getting long in the tooth, and its follow-ups, as well as competitors such as Intellevision, were more evolutionary than revolutionary. There was some innovation, but many games were clones of “Pac-Man,” “Space Invaders” and other earlier hits.

Going it alone

At one point Yamauchi talked with Atari about partnering on a new system, which would have given Atari fresh gameplay and technology, while the Eastern-focused Nintendo would have gotten a stronghold in America. But at the 11th hour, Yamauchi balked at the idea and decided Nintendo should go it alone. The big strategy: Market a game system as a toy, so it would be disassociated from the glut of poor games that were out at the time. The seemingly absurd decision to snub Atari paid off, as the game giant and its competitors lost favor with the American public. People suddenly stopped buying video games. In what was dubbed the Video Game Crash of 1983, Atari lost $583 million in one year. It would later declare bankruptcy.

“Imagine a CEO taking this approach: We're going to bring a home product to America, tell Atari we’re not going to work with you, and then sneak it into the major chain stores by marketing it as a toy. That's bold!” said strategic innovation consultant and author Scott Steinberg.

Young Generation Xers still waxing nostalgic about the first time playing, say, 1987’s “Super Mario Bros.” or “The Legend of Zelda” have Yamauchi to thank. Despite being a shrewd, often ruthless businessman, he valued user experiences over technology early on. It’s something companies and even consumers still gravitate toward: A quick look at the massive iPhone 5 lines shows how we still confuse fancy tech specs with better experiences. He didn’t seem to lose sight of that during his 53-year tenure.

"He made the company into a household name," Steinberg said. "It had its own magazine. It had its own breakfast cereal. It was the last one since 'Pac-Man' to leave an indelible print on pop culture."

Influence lives on

Aside from 1985's original Nintendo Entertainment System, nearly all game systems released under Yamauchi's watch were weak on technical specs but strong on gameplay. Even 2006's Nintendo Wii, released four years after he stepped down, maintained his mark of new gameplay experiences at a decent price. Set at $199 and using the previous generation's hardware in a new way, the Wii system was immediately profitable. In comparison, Microsoft released the original Xbox in 2001 and just recouped its investment a couple of years ago.

Yamauchi's early respect for the experiential, artistic side of the still-new video game industry was prescient: The NES (originally released in Japan as the Famicom) came out just a decade after the first major video game, 1973's “Pong.” And the first person Yamauchi took under his wing was Shigeru Miyamoto, the game genius behind “Mario & Luigi,” “Donkey Kong,” “Zelda & Link” and other major Nintendo franchise characters. “Grand Theft Auto” co-producer Dan Houser once said Miyamoto’s “The Legend of Zelda” inspired his violent open-world series -- the same one that, with its latest iteration, just made $800 million in sales on launch day.

Yamauchi influenced, if not paved the way for, today's billion-dollar gaming industry, but he seemed to always know that creating magical gaming experiences was the key.

"An ordinary man cannot develop good games no matter how hard he tries," he told Sheff. "A handful of people in this world can develop games that everybody wants. Those are the people we want at Nintendo."

Damon Brown is the author of "Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture."

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