In 1949, when Hiroshi Yamauchi became the president of Nintendo, the company was a small-time manufacturer of playing cards. When he stepped down in 2002, Nintendo had transformed into a video game empire, responsible for such iconic franchises as Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong and Pokémon. Yamuchi died today of pneumonia at the age of 85 in a hospital in central Japan, the BBC reports.
"He understood the social value of play, and economic potential of electronic gaming," Ian Livingstone, co-founder of the British company Games Workshop, told the BBC. "Most importantly he steered Nintendo on its own course and was unconcerned by the actions of his competitors. He was a true visionary."
Yamauchi renamed the company Nintendo, from Nintendo Playing Card, in 1963, and began aggressively diversifying the company's offerings, reports The Verge. Nintendo's first toy, released in 1966, was the Ultra Hand, a plastic extendible reaching arm. The company's breakthrough in the video game industry came in 1981, when they released the massively successful arcade game Donkey Kong, which was designed by a young Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who would go on to create Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Starfox and Wii Sports. In 1983, the company broke into the home market with the Famicom, known outside Japan as the Nintendo Entertainment System, followed by the Game Boy, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64 and more.
Yamauchi ceded his position at the company in 2002 after the release of the Gamecube, which was widely considered a commercial failure compared to Microsoft's X-Box and Sony's Playstation 2. Since that time, Nintendo had two notable successes — the handheld DS and the Wii, which featured innovative motion-based controllers — but has more recently faced steep competition from the rise of smartphone-based games, particularly on the iPhone.
At the time of his death, Yamauchi was the second-largest shareholder of the $16 billion company, and had an estimated net worth of over $2 billion.