Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pixelated Dreams: A Tribute to Hiroshi Yamauchi

Today, September 19th, 2013, Hiroshi Yamauchi, the long-time president of Nintendo (1949-2002), passed away at the age of 85. Mr. Yamauchi was the third generation head of a little company known as Nintendo. Formed on September 23rd 1889, it was originally, and for many decades afterward, a playing card manufacturer. They specialized in "Hanafuda" cards, which they innovated by adding hand-drawn artwork instead of generic designs, which made them more popular. The company had a unique line of succession as it's head, with the original founder Fusajiro Yamauchi only having daughters, and thus he adopted his son-in-law, Sekiryo, who then took over. Sekiryo also only had daughters, and thus he too adopted his son-in-law with succession in mind, Hiroshi's father, Shikanojo. However, Shikanojo eventually abandoned his wife and son, thus when Sekiryo became ill and wanted to hand his company on, he asked Hiroshi, his grandson, to take over Nintendo instead. He had to leave college to do so, but agreed, even though he would quickly earn a reputation as a hard and domineering boss.

And that is how the now infamous man became head of what would eventually become the most famous video game company on earth, a stint that would last the better part of 53 years. But when he took over in the late 1940s, things were much different, and it was a long road ahead before video games even became a twinkle in someone's eye. In post WWII Japan, which was still recovering in the late 40s,  playing cards were associated with gambling, which was largely illegal, and thus Nintendo's business wasn't great at the time. One of Hiroshi's first acts as company head, was to make a deal with American company Disney, to have family-oriented cards that featured Disney characters on them, a move that both increased their popularity once more, as well as foreshadowing Nintendo's own future "family friendly" image.

Nintendo's first toy, the "Ultra Hand".

Hiroshi tried to diversify Nintendo's business, by branching out into other ventures such as a taxi company, love hotels (places for couples to be alone), and even instant rice. But these ventures ultimately failed, and nearly threw Nintendo into bankruptcy. It wasn't until Mr. Yamauchi one day happened upon company engineer Gunpei Yokoi, a man who would one day be famous for working on such classic products as Metroid, Kid Icarus, and the Game Boy, as he was playing with a small plastic claw he had made to amuse himself during his breaks. Yamauchi was impressed, and ordered Yokoi to make it a commercial product, which eventually became a hot new item for Nintendo, the "Ultra Hand", and thrust them into a new and successful avenue, toy manufacturing. Gunpei Yokoi was at this point made the sole product developer, and his adeptness at electronics led to Nintendo innovating a line of electronic toys, something that at that time in the 1960s and 70s, had not yet become a big market. It was during this period that Nintendo finally began to grow from a small-time company, into a bigger force, and they began to compete firmly with other Japanese toy giants such as Tomy and Bandai.

Nintendo's first video game, the "Color TV Game 6"

With the 1972 release of American company Atari's "Pong", an arcade smash hit, even in Japan, the gradual rise of video games was born. Keen to get into this new venture as well, Nintendo negotiated to become the distributor for the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console, in Japan, in 1974. Mr. Yamauchi saw money in this new kind of entertainment, and thus wanted Nintendo to start making their own game system, which they did, in the form of 1977's "Color TV Game 6", pictured above. There would later be a "Color TV Game 15" as well, the number indicating the number of games built into the device. Much like the Odyssey, Nintendo's own product mostly had primitive versions of Pong, and other similar concepts, but it was still an important step, marking Nintendo's future direction as a company. Their first video game was actually an arcade game, called "EVR Race", which would be followed by several other successful arcade games in the late 70s and early 80s, such as an original, mechanical based light gun arcade version of later NES hit "Hogan's Alley", as well as games like Radar Scope, a space shooter that would see success in Japan, but not America. This would lead into Nintendo's biggest success yet.

Nintendo's first major international arcade hit, Donkey Kong.

Because Radar Scope was not successful in North America, and because Nintendo didn't want to lose money, Yamauchi originally wanted to use the same cabinets to make a new game based on popular American cartoon Popeye the Sailor. Original negotiations fell through however (even though they would eventually make a Popeye game a couple of years later), and so Yamauchi tasked Yokoi and new company artist Shigeru Miyamoto, young and fresh out of college, to design a new game concept to put in these cabinets. Thus Donkey Kong, Miyamoto's first major creation for Nintendo, was born in 1981 (the same year yours truly joined the world). The game's hero, known only as "Jumpman" in 1981, would eventually be renamed Mario, who would star in further arcade hits "Donkey Kong Jr." and "Mario Bros.", and ultimately became the face of the company and the biggest star in video game history. But that's jumping too far ahead.

During this time, other Nintendo game-related products were created, such as the digital watch/game creation "Game & Watch", first introduced in 1980, a product that would continue on until 1991. The Game & Watch was very similar to America's Tiger Electronics games, featuring limited animations on small LCD screens. But it was still a popular product for it's day, in some ways ahead of it's time. But despite the success of things like Donkey Kong and the Game & Watch, Nintendo in the early 80s was still just a smaller player in a market that at that point was dominated by Atari's 2600 home console, as well as it's many imitators. Nintendo wouldn't start becoming the force they are today, until they finally produced their first full home game console in 1983.

Nintendo's crowning achievement, the Famicom, later known as the NES in NA.

In July 1983, after messing with prototype designs, Nintendo released the "Famicom", meaning Family Computer, in Japan. It was their first true home video game console, and was also an instant smash hit. With the Famicom, Nintendo found their "true calling", if you will, and their production of arcade and other types of games decreased as they focused most of their attention on this new hit product. As is now well known (and has been covered by myself already in last year's Happy Birthday NES article), the same year that Nintendo and competitor Sega were having great success, the American home video game market suffered a massive depression due to overcrowding and lack of quality control. The mighty Atari 2600 faltered, it's competitors all but dried up, and Atari itself was in dire straights. Mr. Yamauchi saw this as an opportunity to grab a foothold in a now largely vacated US market, and set Yokoi and co. into redesigning the Famicom into what would be dubbed the "Nintendo Entertainment System", a console that looked a bit more like a toy, and was even marketed with the toy accessory R.O.B. "The Robotic Operating Buddy". Because of clever marketing, as well as a slew of outstanding hits, most especially Shigeru Miyamoto's newest masterpiece "Super Mario Bros.", the NES, released in 1985, became a smash success as well.

Nintendo's next innovation, the handheld Game Boy.

With the success of Miyamoto classics such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, as well as big third party hits like Mega Man and Castlevania, the NES quickly became the dominant game console, not only in Japan as the Famicom, but throughout much of the world, most especially North America. Yamauchi would later be both hailed and even somewhat reviled for the harsh business tactics he would employ, such as limiting companies to only so many releases on their system per year, and demanding that if a game appeared on the Famicom/NES, that it would not appear for some time on any competing console. But while harsh, these tactics did see the NES enjoy unparalleled success, and Nintendo itself finally grew to become THE giant of the industry. In 1989, their next big product, created by none other than Gunpie Yokoi, was the Nintendo Game Boy. The video game market had beforehand not yet seen a true portable gaming machine on par with the home consoles, with only limited LCD products such as Tiger and the Game & Watch existing. But with the Game Boy, all bets were off, as this was a real, honest to goodness video game console, that you could easily take with you on the go. The screen was limited to "black and white" (or rather, different shades of green), but no one really cared when you had huge hits like Tetris and Super Mario Land to take with you anywhere you went. And thus the true portable video game console market was born. Many competitors would pop up over the years, such as Sega's Game Gear, Atari's Lynx, and even Tiger's own last big gaming attempt, the, but none of them would have the success of the Game Boy line. Even to this day, Nintendo's portable systems rule the market, even while their home systems fluctuate.

The Japanese version of the Super Nintendo, the Super Famicom.

Nintendo's video games success would continue, as Mr. Yamauchi presided over the release of the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo console, the Nintendo 64 console, the Game Boy Color, the Game Boy Advance, and the Nintendo Gamecube console. Nintendo's success as a company grew to the point that they actually purchased an American pro sports team, the Seattle Mariners baseball team (a landmark in American baseball, as it led to Japanese players being allowed to play in the MLB). The character of Mario became an international icon, growing in popularity and recognition even over the iconic Mickey Mouse, and Nintendo's games in general have had astounding sales success, even while the sales of some of their home consoles have fallen behind the competition at times. Of the Top 50 highest selling video games of all time, well over half of those listed are Nintendo published products, that include the likes of Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Tetris, and Wii Sports. They have created arguably the most enduring and popular gaming brands in the history of the industry, and it's fair to say that in large part, Mr. Yamauchi "built that".

Hiroshi Yamauchi is largely known to those who follow gaming, as a man who was a strict leader, and an often ruthless businessman. And while all of that and more is true, I think it's fair to point out that he also took care of his employees, and gave men like Yokoi and Miyamoto all the credit for their creations, instead of taking it for himself as some of his contemporaries in the home gaming and computer markets have been known to do. He was not a man concerned with personal accolades, and he obviously didn't care all too much about his public image. He was concerned with the success of his family's company, and that is a part of him that most people don't realize. He apparently was deeply affected by the death of his estranged father, as upon going to his funeral, he met sisters and family that he til that time did not even know he had. He had not spoken to his father at all in his adult life, something that he deeply regretted, and as such he was a man that was committed to his own family, as well as being loyal to his employees. It's also worth noting that, upon fully stepping down from Nintendo to retire in 2005, he refused his entire pension, said to be as much as $14 million US dollars, because he felt the company could put the money to better use than in giving it to him. He also was reportedly responsible for a majority of 7.5 billion yen donated to create a new cancer treatment center in Kyoto, his home.

All in all, he was a complex man, and the details of his private life are sparse, because he was also a private man. But while he was often shrewd or even ruthless in business dealings, what is known is that the man did have a heart in private, and regardless, he deserves to be remembered as a key figure, in some respects the most prominent key figure, in the history of video games. His contributions to gaming speak for themselves, and we as gaming fans owe him much, and should honor his memory always.

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