Remembering Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata

I had just finished teaching my fifth grade class in Japan when I heard the news that the President of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, passed away due to bile duct cancer. The news was a slap to the face to me; I had just been talking about Splatoon to some of my students.  While I am not as close to Nintendo as I was when I was a child, I cannot deny to say that Mr. Iwata’s work in the company hadn’t influenced my life.

“Above all, video games are meant to just be one thing: Fun for everyone.”
“Above all, video games are meant to just be one thing: Fun for everyone.” Photo courtesy of @yootsaito.

If you played anything from Nintendo from the NES days into the present, odds are you have experienced Iwata’s magic. Iwata started in HAL Laboratory (named after HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey).  He worked on games like Balloon Fight (which I didn’t play until recently) and the Kirby series. Kriby was such a unique title for me at the time when I was playing it on the Game Boy. It was around then that I started to realize that even handheld games could be as much fun and detailed like their console siblings.

The cult-hit RPG Earthbound (known as Mother 2 in Japan) was in severe danger of being cancelled until Iwata joined the development team. All issues were resolved when he stepped in. Fans of Pokemon Gold/Silver have Iwata to thank for his data compression skills — without it, we would’ve not had access to the new regions featured in the game. Hell, even when he was a General Manager of Corporate Planning for Nintendo, he stepped in to help debug Super Smash Bros. Melee due to fears of it not being in released in time. You could not argue that this man wasn’t dedicated to his company’s games.

I could go on and on about Iwata’s technical contribution, but what really made me respect him was his genuine love for video games and his availability to the public. This love for games was reflected in his approach of the industry. Under his watch as President, the wildly popular Wii, DS, and 3DS consoles were released. While the Wii U has some catching up to do, you cannot deny its creativity compared to the PS4 and the Xbox One.

Iwata once said:

We do not run from risk. We run to it. We are taking the risk to move beyond the boundaries of the game industry to reach new players and current players.

Iwata also started Nintendo Direct, a video stream where news of new games and updates would be shown to the viewer online. Personally, I like this approach over the blockbuster presentations shown in E3. Why do we need to see news in such a fashion? Slick, simple, and straight to point with that touch of Nintendo’s light-heartedness was the tone of Nintendo Direct, and they got the job done. Iwata was almost always present in these videos as well.

"Directly to you!"
“Directly to you!”

Iwata Asks, a roundtable discussion that involved Iwata and developers of a particular game, were always a great read. Even if I never played the games, it was really interesting to see behind-the-scenes of how the development took place. Iwata genuinely enjoyed discussions and you could see by reading all through the interviews. He’s been in the developer’s shoes before so even though he was the President first, he never forgot his roots. This is something I think a lot of people in the gaming industry could take from him.

He even did a semi-parody of his Iwata Asks segments on a episode of one of my favorite Japanese shows, Game Center CX:

Honestly, did the President of Nintendo have to do all of these things? No. But that’s why he was so damn loveable in the first place. Iwata made himself so accessible to gamers that you couldn’t help but like the guy. Whether he was randomly holding a bunch of bananas, fighting Nintendo of America’s President Reggie Fils-Aime to the death, or recently appearing in puppet form, Iwata always made his presence so light-hearted and welcoming, the inner child in me laughed along and enjoyed his appearances.

Iwata was no stranger to memes.  He basically welcomed them.
Iwata was no stranger to memes.  He basically welcomed them.

That dorky, game-loving child in me still exists thanks to Iwata. And I’m not the only one mourning his loss. People from all over the world, from young to old were quick to show their appreciation for his work online not too long after news of his passing. To be able to affect so many people’s lives all over the world through video games is a wonderful thing.

In 2005’s GDC conference, Iwata started his keynote address by saying “On my corporate business card, I am a corporate president.  In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

He couldn’t have been more right. Rest well, Iwata-shachou.