For long time gamers, saying that the Fall Tokyo Game Show is the Japanese equivalent of E3 is a sign of how much things have changed. Until the 2nd half of the 2000s, the fall of the Tokyo Game Show (TGS for short) was the annual display of why the Japanese Gaming Industry was the center of the Video Gaming Universe, and for many of those years, Nintendo presided as the center the gaming world span upon, with one man sitting upon its’ Chrysanthemum Throne serving as its’ unquestioned leader.
Hiroshi Yamauchi would lead the company to heights that its 19th century founders could never wrap their heads around. Considering what Nintendo and TGS meant and still mean to gaming, it’s almost fitting that the dawn of the latter would herald the sunset of the man who defined the former. On September 19th, the world learned that Hiroshi Yamauchi passed away the night before at the age of 85 due to complications of pneumonia. He is survived by 3 children (2 Daughters and a Son), a Son-In-Law and other unknown members of his family.
Born on November 7, 1927, Yamauchi’s early aspirations of becoming either a lawyer or an engineer were cut short by the Second World War, where he was sent to work at a Military Factory due to his age. Four Years after the war’s end, the sudden illness and eventual death of his Grandfather would permanently interrupt the ambition of his youth, and he would take on the role that would define his life. His first significant impact on Nintendo would establish his merciless, Imperial Style of leadership, and would earn him the title of “Emperor Nintendo”, one of many monikers that would follow him for the rest of his life.
On the Business side of things, Yamauchi’s first Success would come from producing Western Style Playing Cards in Japan. With the Disney License and the foresight to include a teaching tool with each pack of cards behind him, he would guide Nintendo to becoming a Publically Traded Corporation in 1962. However, his ambition would not allow him to be content with being a big fish in what was ultimately a small pond, leading him to a decade defined by business misadventures that included Love Hotels among their number. The cumulative toil of those failures would put Nintendo in the now inconceivable position of near-bankruptcy.
With Nintendo in dire straits, Yamauchi would change the company’s fortunes by once again turning to the Business of entertaining families. Spearhead by Gunpei Yoko’s Ultra Hand, Nintendo would carve out a substantial niche by being a leader in the electronic toy market. As this was happening, the 1970s were being defined by electronics becoming cheaper by the day, leading to toys becoming more sophisticated and for the groundwork to be laid for a Revolution that Yamauchi realized Nintendo needed to be the ground floor for. In 1974, Nintendo became the Japanese Distributor of the Magnavox Odyssey, a move that would lay the foundation to change the company forever. The following year, they would release their first videogame in EVR Race, which would be followed by their first console (Color TV Games 6 and 15) in 1977. While these forays would be successful enough for Nintendo to continue their videogame adventure, it would be Yamauchi’s hiring of the unheralded Shigeru Miyamoto In 1977 that would define his company for the next 35 years.
As the 1980s began, Yamauchi’s ambitions lead Nintendo to enter the American Market, a move that needed a signature game to justify the expense. In 1981, the Miyamoto developed Donkey Kong would prove to be that game, selling over 60,000 units. Riding the coattails of their 100+ Million Dollar hit, Nintendo would become one of the leading Video Game developers of that time period, but that would just be the beginning of his greatest success, as the company was on the precipice of a Golden Age that would define its' new bread and butter Business.
In 1983, Nintendo would launch the Famicom Gaming System which eventually would go on to be produced for 20 years, but its’ Japanese success was only a primer to what would be Yamauchi’s greatest accomplishment ever. With the Crash of ’83 still fresh in the minds of Toy Retailers, Yamauchi would mortgage Nintendo’s very life on the success of its new Gaming System in America. The 1985 American launch of the rechristened Nintendo Entertainment System would both look nothing like its’ Japanese namesake and would come packed with the Robot Operating Buddy (better known as R.O.B.) to cross what was now a colossal barrier of entry. In the end, those two moves would ultimately save Western Console Gaming, and the near 62 million unit seller would change the world as we know it. If Yamauchi never had another business success, the fact that he ushered in modern video gaming would've secured his legacy, but his story would not end there.
Despite the Famicom/NES being the face of the company in the 1980s, Yamauchi’s company also had designs on the portable video gaming market, and in 1980 it released its’ first Game and Watch, a product that would go on to sell 43 million units between its' many forms. However, portable videogames would not take their modern shape until the Game Boy launch in 1989. Despite seeming like a relic of a somewhat unimaginable archaic age, the Game Boy was hailed as Revolutionary at the time, and would end up selling well over 118 Million through its’ many revisions. Despite the recent changes to portable gaming, Nintendo's Portable Gaming Consoles still dominate their sector of the market
As modern portable gaming was becoming a reality, those same realities had made the NES outdated from a technological standpoint, and, in 1990, Nintendo released the Super Famicom in Japan, a system that would be one of the two pillars of the iconic “16-Bit” era. With the 1991 launch of the Super Nintendo in North America and a 1992 launch in Europe and Australia, the near 50 million unit seller kept Yamauchi’s company on its’ throne for another console generation. However, there is no Golden Age that lasts forever.
On his way to Video Game Dominance, Yamauchi was not afraid to dictate policy in an Iron-Fisted Manner, and he dealt with many situations in the same manner he dealt with the labor dispute that defined the first couple years of his leadership. Because of this, there is no discussion of Yamauchi’s life that doesn’t include how his Draconian Tactics helped to make Business harder for partners all across the board. There are many who will say that it was those tactics that helped to save video gaming, but by the mid-1990s those partners, 3rd party developers in particular, had grown tired of Nintendo’s policies, which many said were grossly outdated at the time. The groundwork was laid for competitors to cut into Nintendo’s Market Share, and the Nintendo 64, which was released in 1996, ultimately finished behind the Sony Playstation, ending Nintendo’s first age of Dominance. Before Yamauchi stepped down from being President in 2002, Nintendo would launch the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo Gamecube in 2001. The final product that would be launched while he was with the company in an official capacity was the Nintendo DS in 2005, ending more than 55 years of involvement in the company his Grandfather bequeathed to him.
Despite Video Games defining a big part of his legacy, Hiroshi Yamauchi would end up never playing one of them, meaning that his full story cannot be told without his mentioning his life outside of them. Despite numerous stories about his younger days, Yamauchi would remain married to Michiko Inaba till her death in 2012; she bore him 3 children through their years together. In 1992, he would expand his Business Holdings to the Seattle Mariners, where he would not only save the team from moving down to Florida, but would open the floodgates for Japanese Baseball players to flourish in the major leagues. Beyond that, Yamauchi’s lasting contribution outside of Nintendo would be his majority funding of a $83 Million Dollar Cancer Center in Kyoto, which may end up being more important to numerous people than the company he was responsible for building into its’ modern incarnation.
Make no mistake; Yamauchi was definitely not a Willy Wonka type individual who aged gracefully into being a Grandfatherly Saint. From many different accounts, he carried himself like a Yakuza Boss and was not afraid to verbally destroy those who crossed his will. On the subject of gamers themselves, he would say things that would implicate him as being slightly intolerant of them at best. Instead of damning him, however, it’s those aspects of his life that help to bring him closer to being human for most. Hiroshi Yamauchi’s ambition drove him to have a spirit of bold capitalism that is rarely seen in this age. Without his penchant to take risks, you, I and almost everyone who reads this website would have a different life than the ones we have now. His influence would not only make Videogames an acceptable part of pop-culture, but would inspire countless artists to bring their stories to life. By leaving luck to heaven, Yamauchi will inspire many to forge the very myths our descendants will be inspired by, a legacy that all aspiring creators wish to leave on their world.
Thank You Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi
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