Giant maker

Yamauchi, who transformed Nintendo from playing card company to gaming colossus, was a master of play

At least two generations of children the world over have grown up rescuing princesses in The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros without ever hearing of Hiroshi Yamauchi who, until 2002, ran the video game giant Nintendo. Yamauchi passed away last week having transformed Nintendo from a company that manufactured playing cards to one that arguably almost single-handedly saved the video game industry, much like a character from its games.

Yamauchi, who took over in 1949, was not a hardware man. His genius lay in recognising other people's, and giving them the tools they needed to create something that would truly change the game. He pulled Gunpei Yokoi, the man who went on to develop the handheld GameBoy console, off the playing-card assembly line and hired Shigeru Miyamoto, the dreamer behind Zelda, Mario and Donkey Kong, who still serves as Nintendo's one-man brain trust. As much as getting into the home video-game market was a happy accident a fact Yamauchi readily admitted his strategy of low-cost hardware paired with high- quality games made the Japanese company a serious contender in a business then dominated by American manufacturers, most notably Atari. Atari's implosion led to what is now called the video game crash of 1983, which almost destroyed the still-fledgling industry. It was only with the launch of Nintendo's home-gaming system in 1985 that the industry regained its footing.

Of course, not all of Yamauchi's instincts served him well. In the 1990s, he had a falling out with another Japanese company about profit-sharing, and that firm went its own way. Later, it launched a rival to Nintendo's system the Sony PlayStation. In many ways, Nintendo has been left behind in the market it helped create; its Wii console is a distant third behind Microsoft's XBox and the PlayStation. Perhaps it's time for another Mario to slay Nintendo's dragons.

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