Hiroshi Yamauchi, Who Ran Nintendo for 53 Years, Dies at 85

Hiroshi Yamauchi, who ran Nintendo Co. for 53 years and became Japan’s richest man with help from a mustachioed plumber named Mario, has died. He was 85.

Yamauchi passed away yesterday, Kyoto-based Nintendo said in an e-mailed statement. He was Nintendo’s second-largest shareholder with about 10 percent of the stock, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and was the principal owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team.

The great-grandson of Nintendo’s founder led the company from 1949 to 2002, transforming a maker of Japanese playing cards into the world’s biggest producer of video games on the back of hits including Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong. He handed the reins to current president Satoru Iwata as he moved into an advisory role for three years.

“Yamauchi made the game industry what it is now,” Haruhiro Tsujimoto, president of game maker Capcom Co., said in an interview at the Tokyo Game Show today. “I appreciate his achievement.”

At the start of 1992, the year after the release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the company had a market value of 1.6 trillion yen. In 2007, it reached more than 10 trillion yen.

No Debt

In 2008, Yamauchi was ranked Japan’s richest man by Forbes Asia with a net worth of $7.8 billion amid surging sales of the Wii console. Nintendo shares have slumped more than 80 percent since its 2007 record amid competition from Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp., lackluster sales of its new Wii U and a shift by casual game players to smartphones and tablet computers.

Yamauchi succeeded his father as president in 1949, and the company almost was forced to file for bankruptcy in the late 1960s after several failed attempts to expand its product lineup into toy guns, baby carriages and fast food, according to several books written on Nintendo’s history.

Chastened by the experience, Yamauchi vowed not to borrow money to fund Nintendo’s operations. More than a decade after he stepped down, the company holds about $8.7 billion of cash and equivalents and no debt as of June 30, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Nintendo will carry on Yamauchi’s spirit,” Iwata said. “Nintendo will continue to make changes accordingly to fit the era.”

Nintendo rose 4.2 percent to 11,560 yen at the close of trade in Tokyo. The stock’s 26 percent advance this year trails the broader Topix Index’s 42 percent climb. The stake held by Yamauchi is worth about $1.6 billion, based on the current price.

Content Focus

Yamauchi’s business philosophy was also that the quality of video games is more important than the hardware on which they’re played. That point was driven home in 1977 when he met and hired Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s chief game designer, who went on to create the company’s iconic game characters. Mario eventually starred in a 1993 live-action movie, in which he was played by Bob Hoskins, and a cartoon television show.

In 1980, Nintendo released Game & Watch, the world’s first hand-held game player. Next came the release of Famicom, or the Family Computer console, in 1983, a home video-game console system. That was followed by the introduction of the “Super Mario Bros.” game in 1985 and the unveiling of Famicom in the U.S. as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

“I played with a family computer and card game of Nintendo when I was a child,” Kazuki Morishita, CEO of GungHo Online Entertainment Inc., said in an interview today. “He gave me an experience to make games.”

Yamauchi became the first foreign owner of a Major League Baseball team in 1992 when he bought the Mariners, who were on the verge of moving to Florida. Under his ownership, the team made the playoffs for the first time, signed Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki and built a new stadium.

“The Seattle Mariners organization is deeply saddened” by Yamauchi’s death, the team said in a statement. “Yamauchi will be remembered for his role in moving forward the opportunity for Japanese baseball players to play in the United States.”

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