TOKYO — Hiroshi Yamauchi, who transformed his great-grandfather’s playing-card company, Nintendo, into a global video-game powerhouse, died Thursday in Kyoto, Japan. He was 85.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, the company said.
Mr. Yamauchi, who led Nintendo from 1949 to 2002 and owned a majority stake in the Seattle Mariners, was Japan’s most unlikely high-tech success story. Named president of the family business at 22, he steered Nintendo into board games, light-emitting toy guns and baseball-pitching machines — fruitless forays that he later attributed to a “lack of imagination” — before the company arrived at arcade games. Its “Donkey Kong” and the original “Mario Bros.” became hits and gave rise to Nintendo’s wildly successful home video-game business.
The Nintendo Entertainment System, a console first released in Japan in 1983 as “Famicom,” unseated early leaders in the video-game industry, selling more than 60 million units thanks to shrewd marketing, close attention to product quality and a crop of games based on unlikely yet endearing characters that soon became household names.
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Under Mr. Yamauchi, who professed not to understand video games, Nintendo went on to dominate the business and make him a billionaire. When a successor machine was released in 1990, fans camped outside electronics stores for days in anticipation; it sold almost 50 million units. Next came the Nintendo 64 and Nintendo Game Cube home consoles, as well as Game Boy handheld machines.
Hiroshi Yamauchi was born in Kyoto on Nov. 7, 1927. He was raised by his grandparents after his father, Shikanojo Yamauchi, deserted the family. The Yamauchis had been makers of “karuta” cards, a Japanese playing-card game based on flowers, since 1889.
Mr. Yamauchi joined the family business in 1949 after his grandfather had a stroke. But the playing-card business was in terminal decline, and Mr. Yamauchi shifted the company’s focus to one toy after another until he found success with video games in the 1980s.
He was helped by the renowned video-game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who joined the company in 1977 and created “Mario Bros.”, “Donkey Kong,” “The Legend of Zelda,” Wii and other game franchises.
There were some misfires under Mr. Yamauchi’s watch. Its cumbersome, headache-inducing Virtual Boy portable console — a red box on legs with rubber visors that players peered into to play games in 3-D — was a flop. And from the late 1990s, first Sony, then Microsoft steamrolled into the gaming market with new consoles — the PlayStation and Xbox, respectively — challenging Nintendo’s dominance.
Mr. Yamauchi stepped down in 2002. In one of his last interviews, with the magazine Nikkei Business in 2003, Mr. Yamauchi offered a longer view of the gaming market. At the time, Nintendo was being pummeled by Sony’s immensely popular PlayStation 2 console. But he scoffed at suggestions that the battle for supremacy in gaming was over.
“That’s just not how this business works. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.”