It’s Never Too Late for a History Lesson

Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi

Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi

By now, most of the people who read this blog post will have heard of former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi’s death from pneumonia at a well-lived 85 years old. It is almost impossible to overstate the impact Mr. Yamauchi had on the video game industry; he inherited his grandfather’s modest playing card manufacturing company and turned it into a consumer electronics giant. A rebranded Nintendo Company Ltd. produced some of the most beloved video game hardware and software in the world, reviving American interest in games following the market crash of 1983 which took out Atari and its contemporaries.

Yamauchi’s tenure will always be defined by his management style. At the time of his succession in 1949, he had no management experience, having studied law at Waseda University but quitting before graduation in order to run Nintendo. To put pressure on the new, unproven president, some workers organized a strike; Yamauchi responded by firing everyone involved, and he continued to purge conservative employees who disagreed with expanding the scope of the company. For many years, he was the sole judge of potential products, even as the company began to look at different markets.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that Yamauchi had his eye on consumer electronics from the beginning, but Nintendo’s first home console wouldn’t be released until 1977. Yamauchi’s first major contribution to the company’s direction was introducing Western style plastic playing cards featuring licensed Disney characters into the Japanese market. The Disney license was seen as a necessary step to avoid the gambling connotations of plastic cards and instead project a family-friendly image. The strategy was a great success, and gave Yamauchi’s tenure much needed legitimacy following the mass firings.

Following a string of failed ventures in an attempt to diversify the company which included a taxi service, hotels, and even instant rice, rumor has it that one day Yamauchi spotted a factory engineer by the name of Gunpei Yokoi messing around with a self-made toy to pass time during breaks. Yamauchi put Yokoi to work making more toys for Nintendo, and by the 1960s they were established as a major force in the toy industry.

Nintendo’s first foray into what we consider the home video game console market was through a license to sell the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan starting in 1974. Impressed by the concept, Yamauchi began to hire employees from other electronics firms and released their first console, the Color TV Game, in 1977. That would also be the year Shigeru Miyamoto joined the company. In 1980 the Game & Watch handheld series made its debut, the first of many successful handheld platforms.

The Masayuki Uemura designed Nintendo Famicom debuted in 1983. The original design called for a 16-bit system that was a full-fledged computer with a keyboard and floppy drive, making it more similar to a Commodore 64 or Coleco Adam than what most people think of today as a video game console. Yamauchi, with his trademark obstinance, insisted that the hardware be cheaper than competitors while still being the most powerful console available for at least a year after release, a strategy that current president Satoru Iwata seems to have repeated for the WiiU.

Yamauchi’s strong will led to the revival of an entire industry, but he also oversaw the company through the Nintendo 64 years, where his dogged insistence on keeping the cartridge format and refusal to kowtow to third party developers led to upcoming industry darlings jumping ship to the Sony PlayStation. His focus on smaller, cheaper, more game-focused hardware is also cited as a reason for the Gamecube’s failure in the face of more multimedia capable competition. Near the end of his tenure, it could be argued that Yamauchi had become one of the conservative voices in the company that he tried to purge in his early years as president. Still, it seems almost unbelievable that a man with no business, marketing, computer science, or management experience was the head of the most famous and beloved video game company of all time, relying on little more than his own judgment of what constitutes quality. He should also rightly be commended for refusing his retirement pension and using the majority of his fortune on cancer treatment facilities toward the end of his life.

I want to end this brief retrospective not with a sappy, maudlin directive to play a game today, or to think about what video games mean to you, or to implore you to share this on Facebook. Instead, I would ask you to read more about the history of the industry and how games are made. If history is commonly marked by the passing of important and influential people, then Yamauchi’s death signals the end of an era that saw the rise, fall, and revival of an industry, an entertainment medium, and an art form. There’s no better time than now to look back towards our roots as historians, designers, and fans.

For further reading, you can’t go wrong with these books:

General History
The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon by Steven Kent

On Nintendo
Game Over Press Start to Continue by David Sheff
A 2004 BBC documentary: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFAC86B387D7B6D19

Critical Analysis
Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing by Stephen Kline

Social Science work on MMORPGs
Coming of Age in Second Life by Tom Boellstorff
My Life as a Night Elf Priest by Bonnie Nardi

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