Nintendo Tycoon Hiroshi Yamauchi Dies at 85

Hiroshi Yamauchi P

News of the gaming pioneer's death -- he grew Nintendo from a maker of playing cards into a global tech giant during his 53-years as CEO -- got the Tokyo Game Show off to a solemn start on Thursday.

TOKYO – Hiroshi Yamauchi, the man who transformed Nintendo from a regional maker of playing cards to the company behind the Mario franchise and the Game Boy console, died on Thursday at the age of 85.

Yamauchi took over Nintendo from his grandfather in 1949 at the tender of 21: Japan was still reeling from the destruction of World War II, and the Kyoto-based company produced elaborate cards used in gambling games popular with yakuza gangsters.

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The young boss set his sights far further afield than Japan's ancient capital, signing international deals, including a licensing agreement with Disney to use its images on Western playing cards that Nintendo sold in Japan. Recognizing the future of video games, Yamauchi steered the company into the new industry, creating arcade classics like Donkey Kong, where the Mario character first made an appearance.

Under Yamauchi, Nintendo launched seminal home consoles: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo 64 and the GameCube, as well as the Game Boy, which at its peak held a 90 percent share of the portable console market.

Stepping down as president in 2002, Yamauchi remained a major shareholder in the company his great-grandfather founded in 1889, and that he had turned into a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

“It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Hiroshi Yamauchi to the business of Nintendo and its expansion. He was the living embodiment of the company his great-grandfather founded,” Dan Sloan, author of Playing to Wiin: Nintendo and the Video Game Industry’s Greatest Comeback told The Hollywood Reporter. “He was capable of taking what was a playing card company and turning it into a global multi-media entertainment powerhouse.”

Nintendo has slipped in recent years from the heights it enjoyed when the Wii and DS consoles were setting sales records, and along with rival Sony, has had to battle Microsoft, the newest entrant to the console market.

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On Thursday at Tokyo Game Show, one of the world's largest events of its kind, Sony predicted sales of five million units for its PlayStation 4 by March, 2014. The console hits stores in the U.S. and Europe in November of this year and in Japan in February. This will be the first time a PlayStation console is released overseas before the Japanese market.

Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Andrew House, who began his career at Sony in the PR department at its Tokyo HQ, delivered the PlayStation keynote address in Japanese, and also announced the sales targets, at Tokyo Game Show.

Initial evaluations are rating the PlayStation 4 as a faster and more powerful console than the Microsoft Xbox One, against which it will go head-to-head, and was also being demonstrated at Tokyo Game Show.

Nintendo, however, does not participate in Tokyo Game Show, which is expected to attract 200,000 visitors as it runs until Sunday at the Makuhari Messe convention hall, north of Tokyo. Yamauchi, and his role in bringing Japan to the forefront of the global gaming industry, will nonetheless likely be in the air for the remainder of the gaming confab.

Twitter: @GavinJBlair