Yamauchi, M’s owner and Nintendo leader, dies

TOKYO — Hiroshi Yamauchi, who ran Nintendo Co. for 53 years and was once ranked Japan’s richest man, has died, the company said. He was 85.

Yamauchi was also the majority owner of the group that purchased the Seattle Mariners baseball team in 1992. He later transferred ownership to Redmond based Nintendo of American, but remained in control of the club.

Yamauchi passed away Thursday, Kyoto-based Nintendo said in an emailed statement. Yamauchi was the company’s second-largest shareholder with about 10 percent of the stock, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The great-grandson of Nintendo’s founder led the company from 1949 to 2002, when he transformed a maker of Japanese playing cards into the world’s biggest maker of video games on the back of hits including Super Mario and Zelda. He handed the reins to current president Satoru Iwata as he moved into an advisory role for three years.

In 2008, Yamauchi was ranked Japan’s richest man by Forbes Asia with a net worth of $7.8 billion amid surging sales of the Wii console. Nintendo shares have slumped more than 80 percent since hitting a record in 2007 amid competition for Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp., lackluster sales of its new Wii U and a shift by casual game players to smartphones and tablet computers.

After Yamauchi succeeded his father as president in 1949, the company was almost forced to file for bankruptcy in the late 1960s after several failed attempts to expand its product lineup into toy guns, baby carriages and even to fast food, according to several books written on Nintendo’s history.

Chastened by the experience, Yamauchi vowed then not to borrow money to fund Nintendo’s operations. More than a decade after he stepped down, that remains with the company holding about $8.7 billion of cash and equivalents and no debt as of June 30, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Yamauchi’s business philosophy was also that the quality of video games is more important than the hardware on which they’re played. That point was driven home in 1977 when he met and hired Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s chief game designer, who went on to create game characters Mario the plumber, Donkey Kong and Zelda.

In 1980, Nintendo released Game &Watch, the world’s first hand-held game player. Next came the release of Famicom, or the Family Computer console, in 1983, a home video-game console system. That was followed by the introduction of the “Super Mario Bros.” game in 1985 and the unveiling of Famicom in the U.S. as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

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