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Hiroshi Yamauchi: Thinking about the past and wondering about the future

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Hiroshi YamauchiNeedless to say, anyone who has grown up in either arcades, or with the early Nintendo home consoles, has suffered a loss as the industry itself has. Hiroshi Yamauchi, who died September 19 at the age of 85, is someone who has made some of the biggest names in the industry through his actions as President of Nintendo. He also, partially through his corporate policies, ended up incidentally forging the home console market into something of his own image after the video game market crash of 1983. He was a game changer and his death really started to make me think about my past, not only as a gamer but as a person, since I grew up alongside the rebirth of home consoles and grew up alongside the market.

Now, when I say that Hiroshi Yamauchi forged the industry post-1983 in his image, many of his decisions actually did start up the early editions of the console wars. His choices and attempts at control for the market did lead to the rise of not only Nintendo, but Nintendo’s competition. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Sega, Sony or Microsoft. Without Yamauchi’s ambition and desires for market control, Nintendo would likely have not tried to branch out from being a trading card company, let alone joining toys and video games. Subsequently, without his desire for market control, Sega, Sony and Microsoft all probably would not have joined into the competition.

Just for an example, if Nintendo hadn’t screwed around with Sony and Phillips for a disc-based gaming add-on to the SNES, we wouldn’t have ended up with the Playstation or any of its successors or the short-lived CDi. And without seeing the remarkable success of the Playstation 2, we probably wouldn’t  have seen the Xbox. In terms of making some of the big names in the industry, just a single example would be the gamble he took on an unproven artist with an industrial design degree who would go on to create some of the biggest franchises in gaming including Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros, and The Legend of Zelda. And even after his 2002 retirement, Hiroshi Yamauchi’s hands didn’t entirely leave the reigns as he continued to advise the company.

That being said, why exactly did his death make me think of my past? It’s because Nintendo’s emergence in the home console race and the rise of its subsequent competitors runs almost exactly parallel to my life. I was born in 1984, a little over a year after the Japanese release of the NES and over a year before the North American release of the console. I grew up on the NES, Gameboy and SNES as well as the competition that largely rose out of Nintendo’s success and policies. So even while branching out from Nintendo, I was supporting something that Yamauchi either accidentally or incidentally created. Then again, when I was a kid, I didn’t have many friends, was shy and just couldn’t relate to others all that well. It was games that really started to give me a voice. They also started to give me a direction while showing me what games could be, since Nintendo was one of the first video game companies that started to at least imply the barest essence of plot and story while trying to imply a larger world. Much like you never forget your first Doctor (from Doctor Who), you never forget your first console since everything that after built off of what came before. My first consoles were Nintendo. So Nintendo has always stuck with me, even when I strayed or when I criticized them for any number of issues.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. We must wonder what happens now, since Hiroshi Yamauchi is no longer going to be remotely guiding Nintendo. While Yamauchi had been a gamechanging company President, not all of his decisions were great, at least not for Nintendo. Just for an example, sticking to the cartridge-based home consoles when the Nintendo 64 was developed and released. It alienated a lot of third party developers and publishers since it cost more to develop for while the disc-based systems were proving to be cheaper to develop for and proved to be far more versatile. Then there was also the issue of screwing over Sony, which directly made a successful competitor that most third party developers and publishers jumped to. There was also the rapid exploitation of Mario to the point of almost beating that poor warhorse to death. While there were a lot of great decisions made, there were also a lot of questionable decisions made under his watchful eye. It’ll be interesting to see how Nintendo evolves without any of Yamauchi’s guidance and continued influence.

I have one thing to say for his part in bringing Nintendo to the states, reviving the American home console game industry, and helping shape the industry into what it is. Yamauchi-sama, thank you for the memories.

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