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Nobody really cared who the president of Nintendo of America was when Minoru Arakawa founded the company in 1980. With games like “Radarscope” and “Sheriff,” it was just another Taito wannabe trying to break into the U.S. arcade market.

By 1982, when Arakawa hired outside legal counsel Howard Lincoln on a full-time basis, the name Nintendo meant something.

Actually, the name “Donkey Kong” meant something, and the name Nintendo was vaguely associated with it.

“Donkey Kong,” Nintendo’s first hit, was the second hottest game in the hottest year in the history of arcades.

By 1987, when Arakawa hired former General Mills of Canada vice president Peter Main, Nintendo had a name and a sweet-selling home game console.

You cannot blame Arakawa for the great slowing of the arcade business, which happened in 1982, three years before Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System. You can make a strong argument, however, that Arakawa, Lincoln, and Main guaranteed that the business would never come back by selling well over 30 million game consoles in the U.S. market.

Howard Lincoln may have started out as a corporate lawyer, but in 1994, Nintendo Co. chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi promoted Lincoln to chairman of Nintendo of America.

Lincoln was the guy who flew to Moscow to secure the deal for Tetris and represented Nintendo on the floor of the U.S. Senate during the 1993 Joint Hearings on Video Game Violence.

In 2000, Lincoln retired to become the CEO of the Seattle Mariners professional baseball team.

Main was the marketing wizard behind so many great promotions.

Arakawa and Lincoln steered the ship and Main was the man who brought everybody aboard.

On Feb. 1, Main will end his stint as executive vice president of sales and marketing for Nintendo of America.

Lincoln’s jump to the Mariners was long overdue, and Main announced his plans a full year in advance.

But nobody knew that Arakawa’s time at Nintendo was also coming to an end.

On Jan. 8, in a surprise announcement, NOA founder and president Minoru Arakawa announced that he would retire, “effective immediately.”

Nintendo of America has not had a chairman since Lincoln’s retirement.

Former Nintendo of Canada executive Peter MacDougall will replace Main as executive vice president of sales and marketing effective Feb. 1.

And while Arakawa’s announcement came as a surprise to people at Nintendo of America, people in Japan must have known it was coming.

Tatsumi Kimishima, a former Sanwa Bank executive and the former president of Pokemon USA, was already in place as Arakawa’s replacement.

The real question is, “Why now?”

According to Main, the 55-year-old Arakawa is leaving because he needs the rest.

“After 22 years in a very, very competitive, hard driving business, Mr. Arakawa is truly looking forward to Saturdays in someplace other than the office,” says Main, who also divulged that Arakawa is constructing a home on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

I do not think that this explanation will satisfy many industry watchers.

Most people will speculate that Arakawa is taking the fall for allowing Xbox to outsell Nintendo’s GameCube over the holidays.

Microsoft sold 200,000 more Xboxes than Nintendo sold GameCubes, and the Xbox software-to-hardware tie ratio was more than 3.5-to-1, compared to the 2.5-to-1 ratio for GameCube.

The fall-guy theory is a distinct possibility. Yamauchi has long been highly critical of Arakawa, who is both his employee and his son-in-law. But there may be another reason for the sudden departure.

Yamauchi, who has been leading Nintendo since 1949, has been putting off his own retirement.

When he first took the reigns of the company, Yamauchi insisted that other family members be fired to prevent them from challenging him.

Having selected someone other than Arakawa to take over the company, Yamauchi may once again be consolidating power.

“Mr. Yamauchi has a son who still works for the NCL within the corporate marketing group,” says Main.

Yamauchi’s successor, however, will most likely be either Yoshihiro Mori or Satoru Iwata.

Mori, NCL’s managing director and general manager of corporate analysis and administration, first emerged as a companywide leader in the late 90s.

Mori conducted Spaceworld 2000, Nintendo’s Japanese trade show in which the GameCube was unveiled.

A man well versed in numbers and styled in Hiroshi Yamauchi’s image, Mori would likely continue Yamauchi’s practices of limiting press access to Nintendo and maintaining combative relations with competitors.

“Yamauchi is pushing Mori on to expand his involvement in things outside of Japan,” says Main.

“He has worked closely with the European group (Nintendo of Europe). He was very involved here last year in a big business review.”

Iwata, who recently transferred to Nintendo from HAL Laboratories, the company that created the Kirby games, is seen as a less rigid leader.

“Mr. Yamauchi has elevated a relative outsider in the form of Iwata,” says Main. “He chairs our global strategy meetings, not Yamauchi. He plays a very key role.”

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