On the Life and Legacy of Satoru Iwata, President of NintendoFiled inside: Editorial
As an eight-year-old running around with my Atomic Purple Game Boy Color, I spent much of my days beating my way through Pokémon Gold, clobbering the Elite Four, and taking down the game’s true, final challenge: Red, the protagonist from the original Pokémon Red and Blue. At the time, I’d never truly considered the sweat and tears poured into the development of that game I held so dear. When I had heard of the passing of Satoru Iwata, I was saddened, especially upon learning that that final trial of my quest — the entire second half of Pokémon Gold and Silver – was all thanks to him.
While Satoru Iwata is mostly known for his role as president of Nintendo, in reality, the man was so much more than that: a businessman, a legendary game developer, and most importantly of all, a passionate gamer. He played a heavy role in the creation of a number of classic games such as EarthBound and Kirby, and oversaw the launch of the Wii, which is arguably Nintendo’s most successful home console. Given the sheer weight of his accomplishments, it would be a massive understatement to say Iwata’s death has left a deep cut in the gaming world.
Iwata first entered the industry while studying at Tokyo Institute of Technology. There, he and a number of his friends began a programming club which would later become HAL Laboratory, Inc., the studio credited for the creation of Kirby, EarthBound, and Super Smash Bros. In 1982, Iwata became a full-time programmer at HAL Laboratory, following a few years of part-time employment while attending university. In 1983, he became HAL Laboratory’s coordinator of software production and helped build a relationship with Nintendo – a relationship that has lasted to this very day. While at HAL Laboratory, Iwata worked on several classics, such as Balloon Fight, NES Open Tournament Golf, and Kirby’s Dream Land. Although they had many successful games under their belt, by 1993 HAL Laboratory was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, causing then-president of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi to recommend Iwata become head of the studio. Following his rise to HAL Laboratory’s presidency, Iwata worked with Nintendo to save the developer from going under.
In the 1990s, Iwata took part in the development of Pokémon Gold and Silver. While Game Freak had just managed to fit the playable region of Johto onto the games’ cartridges, Iwata was able to compress the games to a small enough size to fit in an entire post-game using a set of compression tools he created himself . This feat led to the inclusion of Kanto, the playable region from the original Pokémon Red and Blue, which Iwata insisted be added simply for the enjoyment of players. He also aided in the development of Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64, by porting over the battle system from Pokémon Red and Green, without using any reference documents.
In 2000, Iwata was poised to move on to bigger things. He became a part of Nintendo when he secured the position of head of its corporate planning division. Following President Hiroshi Yamauchi’s retirement two years later, Iwata rose to the head of the company, becoming the first Nintendo president to be unrelated to the Yamauchi family since the company’s founding in 1889. At the time, Nintendo was struggling to compete with Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s Xbox, as its GameCube was performing poorly in the financial sense. Given his experience as a game developer, Iwata pushed for innovation at Nintendo, focusing on beating the competition by introducing novel and fresh hardware.
In 2004, the world was introduced to Iwata’s vision of innovation: the Nintendo DS. The DS, the successor to Nintendo’s Game Boy, ended up becoming the company’s most successful piece of hardware. In 2006, the Wii was released, which nearly doubled the share price of Nintendo’s stocks. However, while the DS and Wii were financially and critically successful, Iwata’s next project, the Wii U, failed to make a splash. Consequently, Nintendo’s finances plummeted, causing Iwata to voluntarily cut his pay in half in both 2011 and 2013.
In 2014, the public became aware of Iwata’s health issues, as he opted to not be present at that year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. After he underwent surgery to remove a tumor in his bile duct, he survived for another year until his sudden death earlier last month.
While it is still too early to say what will become of Nintendo’s future following Iwata’s death, as a lifelong gamer and Nintendo fan, I cannot thank Satoru Iwata enough for shaping my childhood. From developer to Nintendo visionary slash president, Iwata’s contributions to the gaming industry are innumerable. Thank you, Mr. Iwata, for your help in revolutionizing the world of video gaming during the past three decades. You will be deeply missed.