Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo chief for over 50 years, dies at 85

September 19, 2013

Hiroshi Yamauchi, who ran Nintendo for more than 50 years and led the Japanese company’s transition from traditional playing-card maker to video-game giant, died Sept. 19 at a hospital in central Japan. He was 85.

Kyoto-based Nintendo said Mr. Yamauchi, who owned the Seattle Mariners major league baseball club before selling it to Nintendo’s Seattle-based U.S. unit in 2004, died of pneumonia.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Yamauchi, who had little interest in baseball, was approached to buy the Mariners, which had threatened to move to Florida without a new backer. The acquisition made the Seattle club the first in the major leagues owned by interests outside of North America.

Mr. Yamauchi, a great-grandson of Nintendo’s founder, was company president from 1949 to 2002. He was credited with engineering Nintendo’s global growth, including developing the early Family Computer consoles and Game Boy portables.

Nintendo, which makes Super Mario and Pokemon games as well as the Wii U home console, was founded in 1889. It made traditional playing cards before venturing into video games.

Mr. Yamauchi succeeded his father as president in 1949. The company was almost forced to file for bankruptcy in the late 1960s after several failed attempts to expand its product lineup into toy guns, baby carriages and fast food, according to several books written on Nintendo’s history.

Chastened by the experience, Mr. Yamauchi vowed not to borrow money to fund Nintendo’s operations.

Mr. Yamauchi’s business philosophy was also that the quality of video games is more important than the hardware on which they are played. That point was driven home in 1977 when he met and hired Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s chief game designer, who went on to create game characters Mario the plumber, Donkey Kong and Zelda.

In 1980, Nintendo released Game & Watch, the world’s first hand-held game player. Next came the release of Famicom, or the Family Computer console, in 1983, a home video-game console system. That was followed by the introduction of the “Super Mario Bros.” game in 1985 and the unveiling of Famicom in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Hiroshi Yamauchi was born Nov. 7, 1927, in Kyoto and was a dropout of the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. His raspy voice and tendency to speak informally in his native Kyoto dialect was a kind of disarming spontaneity rare among Japanese executives.

After being succeeded by Satoru Iwata at the helm of Nintendo, Mr. Yamauchi stayed on as adviser, but his role increasingly diminished with the years.

In 2008, Mr. Yamauchi was ranked Japan’s richest man by Forbes Asia with a net worth of $7.8 billion amid surging sales of the Wii console. Nintendo shares have slumped more than 80 percent since hitting a record in 2007 amid competition from Sony and Microsoft, lackluster sales of its new Wii U and a shift by casual game players to smartphones and tablet computers.

— From news services

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