By James Daly
In the wake of Satoru Iwata’s passing, people all over the world publicly expressed their sadness at such a loss, along with their appreciation for Iwata’s contributions to the video games industry. In fact, approximately 4,000 people attended Iwata’s funeral to pay their respects but, regrettably, I was not one of them. Instead, I offer this brief account of Satoru Iwata’s career and, dare I say, legacy.
Satoru Iwata began his career at HAL Laboratory as their Coordinator of Software Production. During this time, he helped develop a healthy relationship with Nintendo in order to produce games for the Famicom gaming console. During this time he worked on several games including Kirby and EarthBound, but his first game as a developer was Balloon Fight back in 1985, a game that is still revered for its simple but fun, arcade-styled action. Iwata rose to the position of President of HAL Laboratory just in time to save the company from bankruptcy, and further strengthen their relationship with Nintendo.
Iwata’s first official Nintendo project was Pokémon Gold and Silver for the Game Boy Color and, although he was not a Nintendo employee at this time, it was Iwata’s tinkering that allowed the games to be more expansive by including the Kanto region along with the new Johto region, thus increasing the game’s playtime exponentially. Iwata also worked on Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64 around this period, and it was his contribution to this title that helped establish his talent. Iwata dissected Game Freak’s battle system from Pokémon Red and Blue and reverse engineered it before porting it over to Pokémon Stadium, amazing Shigeki Morimoto, the president of Game Freak and the man who originally developed the battle system, almost to the point of disbelief.
Inevitably, Iwata took a position at Nintendo in 2000 as the Head of Corporate Planning, although this position did not keep Iwata from personally working on games. Within two years, Iwata succeeded the esteemed Hiroshi Yamauchi as the new President of Nintendo in 2002.
As President of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata oversaw some of the best and worst periods in Nintendo’s history. With regard to the latter, Iwata essentially was the force that kept Nintendo going during difficult financial periods, even going so far as to reduce his own salary by 50% to reduce business spend. Actions like this demonstrated the selfless manner in which Iwata conducted himself, and made his success seem even more impressive as moral integrity doesn’t traditionally accompany accomplishment in the business world.
In terms of success, Satoru Iwata oversaw the production of the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii, two consoles which changed the way video games were seen forever. The revolutionary move of bringing touchscreens and motion controls to home video gaming not only allowed new mechanics for game developers to explore and utilize, but also made video games accessible to new audiences outside of the typical 18-35 demographic. The practice of inputting complex sequences of key commands became irrelevant as games could be played using the more simple methods available on these pioneering consoles.
As a result, Iwata’s dream of changing the gaming industry for the better was now achievable, and many would argue that he did just that during his lifetime. Satoru Iwata was a visionary and a revolutionary within the video gaming industry, an industry that will be eternally grateful to him for his innovation and devotion. He didn’t shy away from a challenge, and was always ready to do what was right, including the odd line of code whenever necessary. His legacy is such that it seems impossible to imagine a successor now, but if any company could find one, it would be the Nintendo that Iwata so bravely redefined.