On Top of the Game: The History of Satoru Iwata

Satoru Iwata was born on the 6th of December 1959 in Sapporo, Japan. His father was a politician, and later, a municipal mayor. But rather than following in his father’s footsteps, Iwata developed an interest in video games during his teenage years, when he would fashion simple games using a calculator, which he would then share with his schoolmates; similar to how his future co-worker, the late great Gunpei Yokoi, would take influence from calculators in his inventing of the Nintendo Game & Watch back in 1980.

Following High School, Iwata then studied, and majored in, computer science at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. At the time, he was also one of the many various unpaid interns at the Japanese branch of Commodore, who during the second generation of gaming, was one of the biggest companies in the industry at the time, and would also continue to be fairly popular throughout Europe even following the Video Game Crash of 1983, which almost ended the industry. Whilst also assisting the subsidiary’s head engineer with technical and software-development tasks, Iwata along with several friends, rented an apartment in Akihabara, a district of Tokyo, and formed their own club, whereby they would create and code their own series of games. Their club would later evolve into an eventual second-party developer for Nintendo; HAL Laboratory Inc.

Iwata worked for HAL on a part-time basis whilst still attending university in 1980. Two years later, he graduated and went on to finally join Nintendo full-time, after he and HAL had worked with them closely, becoming the company’s fifth employee. However, despite his passions, and the promise he showed to Nintendo, his parents didn’t approve of his choice of career. Iwata would even go on to remark that his father must have likened joining HAL Laboratory to joining a cult; his father even going so far as to not talk to Iwata for six months after joining.

However, despite the lack of encouragement, Iwata became HAL’s coordinator of software production a year after joining Nintendo, and the two companies formed a very strong relationship with one another, resulting in HAL developing a number of games for Nintendo’s upcoming home console, the Family Computer, or Famicom; or as we know it as overseas, the Nintendo Entertainment System. The Video Game Crash of the early 80s was so absolute that it almost finished the entire gaming industry. But Nintendo still saw potential to be had in the market. A stroke of genius allowed the NES to ultimately revive the industry, and a worldwide interest in the medium and HAL helped the company to achieve this through the development of such games for the original NES, the Game Boy, and the Super Nintendo, such as Balloon Fight, NES Open Tournament Golf, and the universally acclaimed EarthBound. Iwata was also instrumental in pioneering the success of one of Nintendo’s most recognizable franchises; Kirby, after working extensively on the game Kirby’s Dream Land, alongside the franchise’s creator, Masahiro Sakurai.

However, by 1993, HAL was facing difficult times. With the company on the verge of bankruptcy, Iwata was subsequently brought in as president at the behest of Nintendo’s then-president, Hiroshi Yamauchi; the great-grandson of the company’s founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi. It was suggested by Eurogamer’s Martin Robinson that Yamauchi saw similar traits in Iwata that he did in Gunpei Yokoi, who would go on to invent the Game Boy among many other devices and games for Nintendo. And so, with Nintendo’s assistance, Iwata was able to stabilize HAL’s franchises, and continue to make games for the Japanese giants., including Pokemon Snap and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shard to name but a few.

Though not officially part of Nintendo at this point, Iwata also assisted in the development of many of their most popular games throughout the fifth generation, including Pokemon Gold & Silver. He also created a series of compression tools used for graphical purposes in their video games. He also worked as a go-between for Nintendo, and another second-party developer, Game Freak, and aided in the programming of Pokemon Stadium for the Nintendo 64, having ported the battle system used in Pokemon Red & Green into that game in a mere week. He also again worked with Masahiro Sakurai to bring the overwhelmingly successful Super Smash Bros to the Nintendo 64.

Iwata eventually took a position at Nintendo in 2000, as head of their corporate planning division. His focus for the next two years became reducing both the cost of video game development and the time it took to develop individual games. He himself had experienced these difficulties prior to this, after the long-winded development of EarthBound 64, which eventually wound up on the Game Boy Advance exclusively in Japan as Mother 3. During this time, the company saw a profit increase of 20 and 41%; values only partially attributed to his work at the time. Hiroshi Yamauchi subsequently retired as president of Nintendo on May 24th, 2002, after assuming his role as president in 1949. With Yamauchi’s personal blessing, Iwata then took over as Nintendo’s fourth president, and Yamauchi would then go on to advise him over the next few years. Iwata was the first president of Nintendo to be unconnected to the Yamauchi Family since the company’s founding back in 1889. Yamauchi’s final request to Iwata was “that Nintendo gives birth to wholly new ideas and create hardware which reflects that ideal. And make software that adheres to that same standard.”

By the time Iwata took over as president, the sixth generation of gaming was underway, with Nintendo competing with both the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, with their own home console, the GameCube. Unfortunately, the GameCube was commercially underperforming against these other sixth-generation consoles, and the company had at this point lost its number-one spot in the industry achieved with the NES and Super Nintendo. Online gaming has also begun to take precedent within the industry, which was another leap that Nintendo had failed to make ahead of the PlayStation 2 and Sega’s Dreamcast console. He commented on this, saying “we’re not negative toward the idea of going online; we’re just being practical.” At this point, Iwata also commented in an interview that he thought the gaming industry was becoming far too exclusive, and that he wanted to make a console experience that relied solely on bringing entertainment to a wide variety of people as opposed to relying on cutting-edge graphics, as their competitors were; working in collaboration with Gunpei Yokoi’s philosophy concerning lateral thinking with withered technology.

Iwata went on to use what is known as a “blue-ocean” strategy, in order to help the company more effectively compete with the likes of Sony and Microsoft. Iwata decided to focus on novelties and entertainment value instead of trying to make consoles matching the technical capabilities of their competitors, also working in conjunction with his desire to reduce the cost and lifespan of their video game development. One of their most significant moves was forming a partnership with Capcom, which helped to increase the appeal of both the GameCube ad Game Boy Advance, with such games as Viewtiful Joe 1 and 2, the Mega Man collections, and The Legends of Zelda games, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages.

Arguably, Iwata’s most significant move was to help the company revitalize interest in the handheld gaming market, with the transition of the Game Boy to the Nintendo DS, which went on to become the second highest-selling video games console of all time. He also oversaw the development of Nintendo’s next home console, the Nintendo Wii. Both systems went on to revolutionize modern gaming in their own way; the DS incorporated the use of dual-screen and touchscreen technology, whilst the Wii helped to pioneer motion control technology. The Wii also went on to become the fifth best-selling console of all time, selling over 100 million units worldwide and giving Nintendo back their number-one spot throughout the seventh generation of gaming. At the back of his immense success with the company, Iwata was included in Barron’s list of top 30 CEOs worldwide from 2007 to 2009.

In addition, Iwata also helped to improve public relations between the company, and its fans with regular responses through social media, his own personal segment on the Wii’s website entitled Iwata Asks, and on the back of his many varied and light-hearted appearances on Nintendo Direct. A prominent example was a mock battle between him and the president of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aime, showcasing the inclusion of Mii fighters in the then-upcoming Super Smash Bros for 3DS and Wii U. His presence on social media also instigated the creation of many Internet memes, based on times when he would deliver negative news.

Iwata’s health concerns began in 2014 when the company stated that he would not be attending E3 due to illness. It was later announced to Nintendo’s shareholders that he was undergoing surgery to remove a tumor found in his bile duct after undergoing a routine examination. After a successful recovery, he returned to work in October, having lost a considerable amount of weight, but stating he was feeling healthier as a result. Unfortunately, though he would often take indications in stride, his health issues persisted. In January 2015, he came down with a high fever, and scheduled meetings with shareholders were canceled accordingly. At an unspecified time, he had suddenly become ill again, and eventually, on July 11th, Iwata tragically passed away of complications from a bile duct growth at the young age of 55. Nintendo made a formal announcement the following day.

Flags at Nintendo were lowered to half-mast, and countless tributes and respects were generously paid to Iwata through social media, and the entire gaming community, lovingly reflecting on his many and varied accomplishments whilst at Nintendo. It was subsequently announced that both Shigeru Miyamoto and Genyo Takeda would stand in as co-presidents until Tatsui Kimishima was sworn in as president. One day after his death, a rainbow appeared over Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto, Japan, which fans dubbed as the Rainbow Road to Heaven, named after the iconic series of courses in the Mario Kart series. Over four thousand people came out to pay further tribute to Iwata at his funeral. Among other attendees were Shigeru Miyamoto, Genyo Takeda, Reggie Fils-Aime, Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yuji Naka and Dylan Cuthbert of Q-Games.

Genyo Takeda also gave the eulogy at Iwata’s funeral, in which he said:

“You succeeded in planting the seed in employees’ hearts that, in order to solve an issue, there is a fundamental cycle whereby you make a hypothesis, execute the plan, see the result and then make adjustments, and by which you have caringly nurtured these seeds to sprout and mature into plants… In the face of your unbelievable passing, it will surely take some time before we can emerge from this deep sorrow. Please know, however, that the seeds you have planted, and the plants that have sprouted will put forth small flowers as they bring smiles to the faces of people around the world, blossom into a grand flower bigger than even you, our leader, Iwata-san. Together with Miyamoto and others of our generation, we swear in our hearts that we will continue our efforts so that, someday, we can report and present to you the blossoming of these flowers. May you continuously watch over and guide us managers, our employees, and your family.”

Tragically, Satoru Iwata may no longer be with us, but he leaves behind an illustrious legacy that will never be forgotten. He saw through some of the very best, and some of the very worst times that Nintendo have gone through, but I personally have every confidence that Tatsumi Kimishima and all staff at Nintendo will put their hearts and souls into making the company as successful as it can be the many years of its existence to come, and that they will do their best to live up to the many great things that he did for the company, from the development of his many great games to the pioneering and sale of many great consoles. In the time of his presidency, Iwata went on to achieve great things, and the gaming industry will inevitably be proud to have been graced with his presence, influence, and passion for the medium, and to have impacted the lives of millions around the world.

Satoru Iwata

December 6th, 1959 – 11th July 2015


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