Editor's Note, September 19, 2013: With Hiroshi Yamauchi's passing, IGN wanted to give video game fans another opportunity to reflect on his incredible story and enduring legacy. This story originally ran on IGN in May 2012.
Nintendo is a company that has brought joy to millions over the course of over a century. And, for most of that time, it was run by a man who never seemed to smile.
Hiroshi Yamauchi isn't discussed much any more. Today marks one full decade since his retirement was announced – ten years since he stepped down as president of Nintendo and Satoru Iwata took command. He surrendered the spotlight. It's understandable, then, that talk about him has subsided since.
But his legacy lives on. That stern, sullen, iron-fisted leadership that defined his reign still works to define the Nintendo we know today. That attitude. That aura of intimidation that seemed to cloak the man is still here. Echoing. Reverberating through time.
And the decisions he made and the gambles he took set his company on the path to success that it's still enjoying here in 2012, 85 years after his birth.
Now, don't get the wrong idea – this is no eulogy. Hiroshi is still alive and well. Still an active Nintendo shareholder, still holding on to a 10% stake in the company that makes him one of the richest men alive on the planet today. It's for no sad reason that we look back on his life today – rather, in recognizing the 10th anniversary of his retirement as president, it's our hope to remind you readers about the man who made Nintendo what it is.
And, perhaps, to offer you some insights you may never have had before.
Hiroshi's father ran out on his family when he was only five. This man, who would go on to bring such happiness to the childhoods of others, was denied any in his own – abandoned, left to wonder if he was even worthy of love.
It should be no surprise to learn, then, that the upbringing that followed was marked by resentment and rebellion. Hiroshi was taken in and raised by his grandparents – his mother having succumbed to the shame of her failed marriage and left him as well – and his treatment from grandmother Tei and grandfather Sekiryo Yamauchi was strict. Callous. Businesslike.
Sekiryo Yamauchi, at the time, was the second president of Nintendo.
You know that Hiroshi ultimately became the third – we wouldn't be here talking about him if he hadn't. What you might not know is that he had no desire to take the job. He had his own ideas about what his future would hold – the first of them being the life of a soldier.
World War II began when Hiroshi was only a boy, but he'd become a teenager before its conclusion and sought to enlist. He was denied by his grandparents. Likely rightfully so, considering his age and how the war was ended. But still it was a denial of an early ambition.
Years later Hiroshi found himself on a new path to a new future, enrolled in a prestigious university as a law student with aspirations of a legal career. But this dream, too, was cut short – when his grandfather's health failed him and he forced Hiroshi to take up the family business, to step into his position.
To become the president of Nintendo.
It was never what he wanted. But, once there, the young man – and his new company – thrived.
Hiroshi took the reigns of Nintendo in 1949 and immediately cleaned house. He was barely into his twenties, and he took decisive steps to assert his absolute authority and laid the foundation for a tenure that would endure for over half a century – he held that same job until 2002, remember. Firing anyone who would be a threat to him and firmly redirecting the company's focus, the man who'd lost his youth finally had a position of power that let him vent his built-up anger as he fully stepped into his adulthood.
It's at this point when the Nintendo we know began to take shape. Manufacturing playing cards was the company's sole business when Hiroshi stepped in, and while that industry had already kept Nintendo active for 50 years – having been founded way back in 1889 – the new president knew that hanafuda and poker decks wouldn't be enough to keep them relevant in the long run. Yamauchi began to aggressively expand the business, looking for new avenues and new opportunities for Nintendo to pursue.
Some of these you've no doubt heard about before, like the company's infamous "love hotels." Yes, the same Nintendo who today is known for its squeaky-clean, family-friendly image once facilitated the illicit sex lives of a whole generation of Japanese.
But is that really any surprise? Yamauchi had Nintendo investing in instant rice meals, which failed. He bought a taxi service, which folded. He was desperate to try to find something – anything – that could be Nintendo's next big thing. The thing that would truly separate his Nintendo from his grandfather's.
He found it, ultimately, in a toy store.
Ten years after Hiroshi Yamauchi became the president of Nintendo he made his first major move that would set the company up to become the video game juggernaut it is today. He inked a deal with the Walt Disney company, licensing iconic characters like Mickey Mouse to print a new line of kid-focused playing cards. Nintendo had enjoyed decades of card sales to adult customers, but targeting children and getting products on the shelves of Japan's toy stores sent the company's income soaring.
Hiroshi recognized a good thing when he saw it, and he immediately took action to refocus the entire company. Nintendo left behind its spin-off businesses (like the love hotels) and moved forward with a new identity as a pure entertainment company, and a new audience of children.
Toys were his next successful venture, as Hiroshi sought out a young tinkerer named Gunpei Yokoi and ordered him to invent playthings that kids would go crazy over. The first result was the Ultra Hand – a latticework, grabbing device that would extend to grasp distant objects when you squeezed two levers together. It was a hit. Then there was the Ultra Pitch, an automatic baseball-tossing machine. It flew off the shelves too. Hiroshi Yamauchi began to establish his most important reputation – he didn't create amusements himself, but he had a keen eye for talent in others and a sixth sense that let him instinctively know which products would sell well.
The toy line then led to, amazingly enough, some early precursors of classic NES titles like Duck Hunt and Wild Gunman. These came into existence under Hiroshi's watchful eye, standing at the helm as his engineers figured out how to create light gun technology. Then he took bold, decisive action to capitalize on it – he swept across Japan buying up failed bowling alleys and converted them into indoor shooting galleries, all using beams of light instead of bullets.
This was in the early '70s. What came next, at last, was Nintendo's first true step into video games as we know them.
Hiroshi Yamauchi was already nearly 50 years old by the time Atari created its groundbreaking first video game, Pong. Technology was quickly outpacing anything he'd ever imagined in his own childhood, and yet he kept displaying an instinctual knowledge for what kids would most enjoy in each new era. He led Nintendo confidently, at last, into video games – inking a deal to manufacture and distribute home Pong machines for the Japanese market.
It wasn't long after that before the president recognized the need for Nintendo to create its own games, and throughout the rest of the '70s you could see the modern version of the company finally taking shape. Roughly 30 years into his tenure as Nintendo president, Hiroshi Yamauchi found himself leading an old playing card manufacturer to become the company that would revolutionize the new media of video games.
Nearly every decision Hiroshi made from the dawn of the '80s until his retirement 10 years ago was absolutely critical in bringing Nintendo to the market-leading position it's enjoyed through these past three decades – any one of them is crucial enough that an entire article could be dedicated to them. As we wind down our look back on his life, though, let's just hit some of the highest of the high points.
He established the foundational structure of game development at Nintendo, dividing his employees into separated teams – R&D1, R&D2 and R&D3 at first, followed by more to follow in later years. Organizing workers like this wouldn't seem to be that revolutionary of an idea, but it's what he did afterward that was so effective – he pitted them against one another. Each team was in constant competition against the others, working tirelessly to create new games that would please the iron-fisted Yamauchi. His standards were ferociously strict. If he saw even one aspect he didn't like, he would kill a project months into development with a single sentence.
His praise, though – what a rare prize to win. If ever President Yamauchi complimented a piece of work, that would fuel an employee to perform at his best for months to come.
Hiroshi Yamauchi was a cultivator of talent, able to see some piece of future brilliance in a young and untested mind and bring it out through challenging, sometimes seemingly impossible assignments – it was he who took a chance on a kid named Shigeru Miyamoto and gave him the task that would ultimately lead to the creation of Donkey Kong, putting him on the path to becoming the legendary game designer we know today.
He oversaw the development of the 8-bit Nintendo, dictating its features and making incredibly bold promises to the companies who'd supply its components – he took huge risks with the company's finances that all ended up panning out and proving his predictions right. Because of his brashness and the #1 market position that first Nintendo console attained, Hiroshi Yamauchi became like an untouchable king sitting on a throne of millions and millions of dollars. Third-party licensees had to come to him begging for the right to make games for his machine, and he crafted business deals so airtight that Nintendo would make huge profits even if a third party's games failed to sell.
He - or rather his company - was unstoppable.
Hiroshi Yamauchi continued to enjoy his successes as the 8-bit era led into the age of the 16-bit Super Nintendo, then on through the Nintendo 64's life cycle and finally to the launch of the GameCube. The man turned 75 years old in 2002, though, and his age – perhaps combined with the fact that Nintendo had faltered through the end of the '90s – finally encouraged him to give up the job he'd held for over half a century. Yamauchi accepted retirement, and Satoru Iwata was named his successor.
Well... not exactly. Did you think such a stubborn, hard-headed man would go quietly into the night? No, Hiroshi kept himself active in Nintendo's affairs for years afterward by way of a chairman position, and even famously came up with the idea for the Nintendo DS in that era after he'd officially stepped down. He still kept his fighting spirit alive with wild quotes too, saying such crazy things as "If the DS succeeds, we will rise to heaven, but if it fails we will sink to hell."
If ever there's been one in the video game industry, Hiroshi Yamauchi was – and still is – a man of extremes. A man whose own satisfaction always seemed to be just beyond reach, even as he led a company who made joy a little easier to grasp for millions of others. This year marks 10 years since he retired, yes. It also marks 80 years since his father ran out on him. One would hope that if Mr. Yamauchi is reflecting on his accomplishments, he recognizes the redemption in the fact that he's had a hand in raising millions around the world - by bringing us all a smile.
Lucas M. Thomas would like to thank author David Sheff for his wonderful book "Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World," without which none of us would be able to have such insight into the history of both Nintendo and the president who shaped it as a company. You can follow Lucas on his IGN blog and Twitter.
Source : ign[dot]com