The gaming world has lost one of its greatest heroes.
Nintendo’s president and CEO Satoru Iwata tragically passed away on 11 July 2015 after a battle with bile duct cancer, aged just 55. This news has stunned the gaming world, with Iwata leaving behind a legacy that few in the industry can say they have matched. To be the public face of one of the gaming industry’s biggest and most influential companies is no easy feat, and it was one that Iwata took on with endless enthusiasm and a simple philosophy that many other big names seem to have forgotten—games should be, above all, fun.
Iwata’s legacy began in the 1980s when he was hired by HAL Laboratory as a programmer straight out of his studies at Tokyo Institute of Technology. HAL are responsible for some of Nintendo’s most popular and influential games and franchises, including Balloon Fight, Kirby, Earthbound and Super Smash Bros, with Iwata having a guiding hand in the creation of all of them. His programming skills were considered legendary by his co-workers and peers, working miracles that made games better in every way; a graphics compression system that Iwata wrote for Pokémon Gold and Silver enabled the team at Game Freak to fit the entire Kanto region into the game, when previously they had filled the entire cartridge space halfway through development.
Iwata’s business sense was just as important as his programming skill; he was installed as president of HAL in 1993 while the company was facing bankruptcy, turning the company’s fortunes around. His success at this role led Nintendo to hire him to lead their corporate planning division in 2000—a time when games were becoming more expensive to develop than ever before. His strategy of focusing on reducing the cost and length of game development while still creating unique game experiences helped see Nintendo’s profits increase by 20 and 41 per cent in his first two years. Upon the retirement of Nintendo’s long serving president Hiroshi Yamauchi, Iwata was promoted to the position in May 2002 on Yamauchi’s recommendation.
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Iwata continued his focus on making unique gameplay experiences that appeal to a wide audience, rather than having top of the line hardware and graphics. The Nintendo DS and the Wii are the embodiment of this philosophy, known as the “blue ocean” strategy; neither of these consoles had the best hardware powering them, but did things no other gaming company was doing, with the DS touchscreen and the Wii’s motion controls making for gaming experiences unlike anything the gaming world had ever seen. Hell, old people started playing video games thanks to the Wii. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Iwata codenamed the Wii “Revolution”, because that’s exactly what it was.
Unlike pretty much every other corporate leader ever, Iwata wasn’t afraid to put himself in the public eye and subject himself and Nintendo to scrutiny. If Nintendo made a mistake, he would own up to it. He constantly asked gamers to “please understand”, a simple phrase that now means so much to the community. Yet, he never shied away from talking about good news or making a complete goof of himself either, with his appearances in Nintendo Direct updates and E3 press conferences becoming legendary among Nintendo’s fans. Who else could make holding a bunch of bananas the most hilarious thing?
The thing about Satoru Iwata that made everybody love him so much is that he understood what makes us play video games to begin with: fun. If something wasn’t fun, Iwata didn’t want anything to do with it. So many people in the gaming industry are so concerned with making something that looks amazing that they forget this simple fact. Nintendo made games fun again, and it is all thanks to Satoru Iwata. His legacy can be exemplified in this quote from his presentation at the 2005 Game Developers Conference, which I shall leave you with.
“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”
Rest in peace, Iwata-san. May your ride upon the Rainbow Road to heaven be a pleasant one.