This is a mock feature story I composed for my Feature Writing class at HPU.


The Non-Gamer Who Shaped Video Game History
By Joseph Thurmond

In the beginning, he managed a company that made playing cards. In the end, he was overseer of one of the greatest video game companies the world will ever know.

That company is Nintendo, but you might not know about its surprising history. It started in Kyoto, Japan during 1889 under the guidance of Fusajiro Yamauchi and sold hand painted Hanafuda cards – standard playing cards – that quickly grew in popularity around the country.

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A modern set of Hanafuda playing cards with a “Mario” theme. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Thurmond)

As the decades passed, Yamauchi’s sons led the company. Sekiryo Yamauchi was in charge during the 1940s, but his adopted son, Shikanojo, never succeeded him. When Sekiryo died, his grandson, Hiroshi Yamauchi, took his place and attempted to take Nintendo in new directions.

It wasn’t until Yamauchi became interested in games that he tapped into the budding industry during the 1970s. Then, with the 1980 introduction of the GAME & WATCH system, Nintendo’s true climb to game prominence was marked, and it wouldn’t have started without the risky nature, shrewd decision-making and powerful influence of Yamauchi, who died earlier this week.

He had been battling with pneumonia in a Kyoto hospital and lost the fight on Sep. 19, 2013 at the age of 85. Around this time, he was the thirteenth richest person in Japan, with an estimated worth of $2.1 billion according to Forbes. He owned the Seattle Mariners baseball team, but famously never attended one of their games. It had also been around 11 years since he had stepped down as Nintendo’s president in 2002 due to health concerns, but he had remained an adviser to the company.

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Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who could be recognized by his signature aviator glasses. (Photo courtesy of Liberty Voice) 

“The entire Nintendo group will carry on the spirit of Mr. Yamauchi by honoring, in our approach to entertainment, the sense of value he has taught us — that there is merit in doing what is different — and at the same time, by changing Nintendo in accordance with changing times,” Satoru Iwata said, who is Nintendo’s current president.

What’s interesting about Yamauchi is that he wasn’t fond of games and preferred classic Japanese board games like Go. However, there’s no doubt that he put total faith and dedication into his company. He had a 10 percent stake in it as the largest shareholder, gave his $11 million dollar retirement allowance to the company and had a firm hold on Nintendo’s direction with its consoles and games.

When Yamauchi took his grandfather’s place in 1950 around the age of 23, he dropped out of college with no experience leading any company. However, he was a naturally harsh, strict and decisive man, taking immediate action to fire family members and any employees who went on strike to oppose him. That alone established his reputation for being one of the most intimidating men in this business.

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A company should always remember its roots. (Photo courtesy of Miriam H. Nadel)

“I expected he’d be the most powerful – not to mention scary – man I’d ever met. I was right. … [He seemed] like some kind of Mafia or Yakuza boss,” Argonaut Games founder Jez San said in a Nintendo Life interview.

In the beginning of Yamauchi’s presidency, Nintendo was only known for its playing cards, so he decided to take this  a step further in 1953 by introducing the first plastic playing cards in Japan. Nintendo also worked later with Disney to create cards with its characters on them. Despite the success from these ventures, he thought expansion into other markets would be profitable.

Yamauchi acquired a taxi business, an instant rice company and even a “love hotel” to meet this goal, but the business move proved terrible, bringing Nintendo to the brink of bankruptcy.

However, when he was said to have seen an employee playing with a makeshift extendable arm one day, Yamauchi immediately demanded him to design a marketable version of it. This became the Ultra Hand: the toy that brought Nintendo back from failure.

This employee, Gunpei Yokoi, went on to design more unique yet daring toys like the Beam Gun – the first toy in the Japanese market with electronic capabilities – and other electronic toys that could run rudimentary games. He would also oversee the creation of the Game Boy, which permanently popularized the handheld game console market starting in 1989.

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The original Game Boy, which actually turned 25 years old on April 21. (Photo courtesy of Retro Thing)

Seeing the potential in this field, Yamauchi gained the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey – the world’s first, true game console – in Japan and spurred the production of arcade machines like “Donkey Kong” in 1981, which was a major hit in the West alongside other arcade games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders.

The designer of this game, Shigeru Miyamoto, has created Nintendo’s most memorable franchises like “Mario” and “The Legend of Zelda.” Yamauchi personally interviewed and hired him as a game designer, and if he had not hired Miyamoto, the entire landscape of the game industry would be almost unrecognizable today.

Anthony Zirker, a High Point University student and an avid fan of Nintendo, may not know much about Yamauchi, but he compares him to Miyamoto in an interesting light.

“Yamauchi was not, himself, a gamer, but he had a sharp intuition for what gamers would play. Miyamoto was very much the same way,” he said. “He didn’t play many games, but his experiences as a child informed him what he thought others would want to play. It speaks a lot to how interesting a life you must have if you don’t play video games because you’ve already lived them.”

After “Donkey Kong,” Nintendo’s next product solidified it as a game company. In 1984, the Famicon was released in Japan and sold worldwide as the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. Despite the Western “video game crash of 1983,” which brought down major game companies like Atari, Yamauchi believed he could bring the game industry back to life. He did just that, with the Nintendo Entertainment System selling 61.91 million units worldwide.

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Yamauchi takes a shot with Star Fox 64, one of the most popular games for the Nintendo 64. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

Despite a stumbling period in 1995 with the Virtual Boy, Yamauchi maintained Nintendo’s relevance with the SNES, Nintendo 64 and GameCube for the next 20 years until his departure. But what’s most astonishing is that even though he disliked games, he held an iron fist over the game consoles’ concepts and designs, picked which games would be created and had the final say on every major decision made by Nintendo.

One of Nintendo Life’s main editors, Thomas Whitehead, offered to contribute to this article with this remark on Yamauchi.

“His vision and understanding of video games not only shaped Nintendo and brought the company to prominence, but played a major role in driving the entire industry,” he said. “It is clear that his approaches and ideas of flexibility, adaptability and forging a unique identity remain at the core of Nintendo’s corporate philosophy.”

According to The Asahi Shimbun, Hiroshi Yamauchi reportedly told current president Satoru Iwata that “You should do what other people will not do.” Although this strategy is not always successful, Nintendo and the game industry are where they are today because of the gambles Yamauchi took, and the rewards he reaped will benefit millions for generations of gamers to come.


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