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Hiroshi Yamauchi dies aged 85, after 50 years at Nintendo

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  • Hiroshi Yamauchi went from university dropout to Japan's richest man
  • He died yesterday from pneumonia in a hospital in central Japan
  • He ran the firm from 1949 to 2002, overseeing birth of Super Mario Bros

By Matt Blake

PUBLISHED: 04:41 EST, 20 September 2013 | UPDATED: 05:12 EST, 20 September 2013

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'Visionary': Hiroshi Yamauchi died yesterday of pneumonia at a hospital in central Japan. He was 85

'Visionary': Hiroshi Yamauchi died yesterday of pneumonia at a hospital in central Japan. He was 85

Nintendo's 'visionary' former president, who oversaw the births of Super Mario and Pokemon, has died after a career spanning more than 50 years at the helm of the world's largest computer games company.

Hiroshi Yamauchi passed away yesterday at a hospital in central Japan after a battle with pneumonia. He was 85.

Revered as one of the video-game industry's founding fathers, Kyoto-born Yamauchi went from university dropout to Japan's richest man as he transformed the Japanese company from traditional playing-card maker to games-console giant.

The firm said it was 'in mourning from the sad loss' Yamauchi,  who was company president from 1949 to 2002 and engineered Nintendo’s global growth, including developing the early Family Computer consoles and Game Boy portables.

He is also known as the first foreigner to own a major league baseball team after acquiring the Seattle Mariners in 1992.

Nintendo, which makes Super Mario and Pokemon games as well as the Wii U home console, was founded in 1889. It made traditional playing cards before venturing into video games.

Reputed as a visionary and among the richest men in Japan, Yamauchi made key moves such as employing the talents of Shigeru Miyamoto, a global star of game design and the brainchild of Nintendo hits such as Super Mario and Donkey Kong.

'He’s not a hardware guy,' noted software entrepreneur Henk Rogers. 'He doesn’t understand games. He understands people and he plays people.'

A dropout of the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, Yamauchi’s raspy voice and tendency to speak informally in his native Kyoto dialect was a kind of disarming spontaneity rare among Japanese executives.

Powerful friends: Yamauchi, (centre) shakes hands with Microsoft CEO Bill Gates (left) and Nomura Research Institute President Shozo Hashimoto in Kyoto

Powerful friends: Yamauchi, (centre) shakes hands with Microsoft CEO Bill Gates (left) and Nomura Research Institute President Shozo Hashimoto in Kyoto

Revolutionary: Yamauchi made key moves such as employing the talents of Shigeru Miyamoto, a global star of game design and the brainchild of Nintendo hits such as the Super Mario Brothers (pictured)

Revolutionary: Yamauchi made key moves such as employing the talents of Shigeru Miyamoto, a global star of game design and the brainchild of Nintendo hits such as the Super Mario Brothers (pictured)

Yamauchi had little interest in baseball, but was approached to buy the Mariners, who may have had to move out of Washington state where Nintendo of America Inc. was headquartered to Florida without a new backer. The acquisition in 1992 made the Seattle club the first in the major leagues to have foreign ownership.

'Hiroshi Yamauchi is the reason that Seattle has the Mariners,' then-Sen. Slade Gorton said Thursday from his home in Bellevue, Wash. 'When no one else would stand up and purchase them and they were about to leave to go to Florida, he did, simply as a civic gesture.'

He sold the Mariners to Nintendo’s U.S. unit in 2004.

After being succeeded by President Satoru Iwata at the helm of Nintendo, Yamauchi stayed on as adviser, but his role increasingly diminished with the years.

'We will continue to treasure the values Yamauchi taught us - that what makes you unique lies at the core of entertainment. And we at Nintendo will continue to change the company flexibly to adapt to the times, as Yamauchi did, to carry on his spirit,' Iwata said in a statement.

The company has floundered in the past couple of years, hurt by a strong yen and competition from games on smartphones and tablets.

No aping about: Chimps play 'Donkey Kong' on one of the earliest Nintendo games consoles in 1981

No aping about: Chimps play 'Donkey Kong' on one of the earliest Nintendo games consoles in 1981

Ages of gaming: Yamauchi was Nintendo's president when the first-generation GameBoy (left) came out in 1989 and when the GameCube (right) was released in 2001

Farewell, Mr Mario: A 1983 screengrab of Super Mario Bros. on the NES. The game became Nintendo's flagship export as teenagers across the world followed their exploits on console after console

Farewell, Mr Mario: A 1983 screengrab of Super Mario Bros. on the NES. The game became Nintendo's flagship export as teenagers across the world followed their exploits on console after console

Yamauchi is survived by Katsuhito Yamauchi, his eldest son. A funeral is scheduled for Sunday at Nintendo, following a wake on Saturday.

Rob Crossley, associate editor of Computer and Video Games magazine, told the BBC: 'This man was the president of Nintendo during the NES, the SNES, the N64 and the Gamecube - the first two were transformative pieces of electronic entertainment.'

'Hiroshi Yamauchi transformed a run-of the-mill trading card company into an entertainment empire in video games,' Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop and life president of games developer Eidos, told the Guardian. 'He understood the social value of play, and the economic potential of electronic gaming. Most importantly, he steered Nintendo on its own course and was unconcerned by the actions of his competitors. He was a true visionary.'

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