Hiroshi Yamauchi, who transformed Nintendo into a world leader in gaming over more than five decades at the head of the company, died of pneumonia at a Japanese hospital today. He was 85. Yamauchi was also the owner of the Seattle Mariners until 2004.

At Nintendo, where he was president from 1949 until 2002, Yamauchi supervised the development of some of the company’s most widely recognized products, including the Game Boy:

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.

Reputed as a visionary and among the richest men in Japan, Yamauchi made key moves such as employing the talents of Shigeru Miyamoto, a global star of game design and the brainchild of Nintendo hits such as Super Mario and Donkey Kong.

A dropout of the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, Yamauchi’s raspy voice and tendency to speak informally in his native Kyoto dialect was a kind of disarming spontaneity rare among Japanese executives.

Associated Press

Recently, the company has struggled to adapt to gamers’ evolving preferences for phones and tablets rather than dedicated gaming hardware such as the Game Boy. Hayley Tsukayama writes that Nintendo risks losing itself in the past:

I would love for Nintendo to make Mario games forever, but I also want the Wii U to be more than my Mario, Kirby or “Insert classic Nintendo character name here” console. I could quite honestly pop four AAs in my (still-working!) original Game Boy for that.

I’m not the only one. Times have been tough for Nintendo. The company has been particularly hard hit by the rise of mobile games, which largely appeal to the same kind of lighthearted gamers as Nintendo titles. Comparisons to Sega, which had to switch from being a hardware company to a publisher after poor sales, are everywhere, especially after the company confirmed this week to GamesIndustry.biz that it’s selling the Wii U at a loss. That news was particularly painful for Nintendo fans to hear just a week after the firm reported it had only sold 160,000 of the consoles in the past three months.

Still, Nintendo’s not stupid. It knows it must step up its efforts to build good games to keep competing in the console market. And it has some good games in the pipeline. On Sunday, the company began selling one of its most-anticipated follow-ups, Pikmin 3. The game puts players in a stunning world and has them solve surprisingly difficult puzzles by commanding a squadron of little critters called Pikmin, who come with different strengths. To win, you have to pick just the right balance to succeed.

It’s whimsical. It’s beautiful. It’s probably Nintendo’s best Wii U game yet. But it’s still not quite enough to make me say, “Go buy a Wii U. Now.” And that’s the kind of game that Nintendo really needs.

Hayley Tsukayama

The company’s newest product, the 2DS, resembles the old Game Boy, and it will be available next month. The market for such handheld devices continues to shrink, but Tsukayama writes that this cheaper addition to Nintendo’s 3DS line could be popular with gamers and help the company compete with its rival Sony:

It’s clear from Nintendo’s advertising for the 2DS that, unlike with the PSP or Vita, its main market doesn’t include gamers who are indulging in a Pokemon battle or two on their commute. It’s aimed at young children, also known as the kind of gamer who never feels even slightly goofy for playing Pokemon -- even in public.Michael Pachter, a gaming analyst for Wedbush Securities, said the company may have hit on the right kind of retro. The 2DS, he said, calls back to the easy-to-grip styling of the Game Boy. (Though, he added, he wouldn’t be surprised to see it fold again in later models.)

What really makes the 2DS strong, he said, is that it offers gamers a device that lets them play the 3D games made for the 3DS without the occasionally eye-straining depth. Many people, myself included, dial down the 3D effects on their 3DS and some people turn it off altogether. The company even warned parents when the 3DS launched three years ago that the extra effects weren’t good for the eyes of players under the age of 6. The 2DS solves that problem, Pachter said, and well.

“It’s really smart to allow people to play all the great software out there for the 3DS and to give them a lower price point option,” Pachter said, predicting that the lower price point for the 2DS (the 2DS costs $129.99, compared to $169.99 for a 3DS) will drive demand up by 20 or 25 percent ahead of the all-important Christmas season.

Hayley Tsukayama

Yamauchi is survived by his eldest son, Katsuhito.


See images of notable people who have passed away this year in the gallery below.