It’s been exactly one week week since the untimely passing of Satoru Iwata, the fourth president of Nintendo, and I still can’t really believe it. Every time I read an article or listen to someone talk about him, I start to lose my breath, I get choked up, and my eyes get misty. Iwata wasn’t just a company president. He put himself out there for the world to see, never shying away from taking a risk, and standing behind those decisions with genuine excitement and a smile. He, just like Nintendo’s games, encompassed joy. I didn’t know him personally, but he loved video games the same way we all do. We haven’t just lost a president: We’ve lost a friend.
This week on Retro Weekend, I want to take a moment to remember Iwata through the games he brought us. More than just a face of a company, Satoru Iwata was an accomplished programmer that brought dozens of games to Nintendo consoles. It’s safe to say that without Iwata, the last 30+ years of Nintendo would probably look very, very, different.
Hal Laboratory Inc.
Before he became head of one of the biggest video game companies in the world, Satoru Iwata toiled his nights away at Hal Laboratory, first as a part-timer, then a full-time employee. It was here that he began to make a name for himself as not just a programmer, but a leader with vision.
Balloon Fight – Balloon Fight is one of the first big Nintendo games that Iwata was attached to. In the game, you play as a boy who can float up in the air with his balloon helmet, pop enemies’ balloons and collect more balloons while avoiding CERTAIN DEATH. The game doesn’t have a fantastic Iwata tale behind it, but regardless, it helped get the ball rolling between Nintendo and Hal Laboratory.
Kirby’s Dreamland – Satoru Iwata didn’t invent the pink puffball we know and love to be Kirby — that was thanks to Masahiro Sakurai — but without Iwata pushing the game forward, Nintendo may have never had this mascot. Kirby’s Dreamland was also the jumping off point for Iwata’s vision: a world where games were played by everyone. Iwata wanted games to be fun and enjoyed by all, regardless of skill level, and Kirby gave him a chance to make something simple, cute, and accessible. And it totally is. Go try it. It’s one of the most enjoyable, short, pleasant experiences you’ll ever play.
Earthbound – One of the most notable cult classics of gaming, Earthbound may have not been so classic without the expertise of Satoru Iwata. With the team running into all kinds of development troubles, then-president of Hal Laboratory Iwata took a look at the product and gave them a choice. Work with their current code and spend nearly two years tweaking it, or start over. Iwata then took what work they had and in a month, built up a new, working code from scratch that would power the final game.
Pokemon – Not only is it said that Iwata was able to figure out a way to compress Pokemon Gold/Silver in a way to allow the game to include a whole other region, he was also responsible for figuring out the battle system in Pokemon Stadium on the N64. In about a week, the man was able to to (not-so) simply study the code of the original GameBoy Pokemon games and decipher how to piece together the battle system for their N64 counterpart. Say what you will about the evolution of Pokemon games, but without Iwata, those games may have evolved even less.
In 2000, Iwata truly became a part of Nintendo when he was hired as the Head of Corporate Planning. However, sitting behind his desk in Kyoto, Japan was not where he would stay. After continuing to work on software as well as marketing strategies focused on giving games a wider appeal, he eventually became president of Nintendo in 2002 when the previous president, Hiroshi Yamauchi retired. He was Nintendo’s fourth president, and the first to run the company outside of the Yamauchi family since its founding in 1889.
Super Smash Bros. Melee – The Gamecube had a rocky life, but without Iwata’s direction, the system could have had an abysmal time. Besides being a key factor in getting third-party support, he even took time to fix one of the Gamecube’s biggest games, Super Smash Bros. Melee, saving it from delay. When the original version of the game was oozing with bugs and glitches, Iwata took a trip to his old workplace at Hal Laboratory to check on Melee. Instead of offering suggestions, he became head of debugging and spent weeks studying code, fixing bugs, studying more code, and fixing more bugs. Thanks to Iwata, Melee wasn’t delayed and happened to be one of the Gamecube’s first — and biggest — hits.
Nintendo DS – Though Iwata wasn’t the one who directly conceived the Nintendo DS, he became president of Nintendo just in time for the handheld’s launch. In a way, the handheld encompassed all that Iwata had committed himself to: bringing a wide variety of fun, enjoyable games to a wider audience that would appeal to both hardcore gamers and those who never thought they’d play a video game. Nintendogs and Brain Age reached a whole new spectrum of consumers, while New Super Mario Bros. pleased the everyday Nintendo fan. Under the eye of Iwata, the Nintendo DS sold over 150 million units, making it the best selling handheld console of all time and the second best selling console of all time.
Nintendo Wii – Who knows if the Wii would have ever even been released if Iwata wasn’t president of Nintendo during its development and release. We all know the aftermath of the console’s release and how well it sold, but think about how big of a risk this was during its infancy. The system focused on motion controls, it was barely more powerful than a Gamecube, and there was absolutely no precedent for it, save for Nintendo’s failed light and infrared gun technology from the ’80s and ’90s. The combination of the Wii and DS was a knockout punch to the company’s competition because it introduced a whole new world to video games, where entire families could come together to play together. It was then that Iwata’s dream came true.
With the Wii U and 3DS, Nintendo hasn’t seen the same success as it did with its previous consoles, but that never stopped Iwata from putting a smile on his face and hosting a Nintendo Direct on the fantastic games that only Nintendo can do. I don’t know where Nintendo would be, let alone video games in general, without Satoru Iwata. His influence and his legacy has transformed the medium and helped push it in a direction where an even wider audience could enjoy it. Though his passing has left a deep sorrow on the gaming community, we’ll always be able to tap into the love and joy he brought through his work. From the entire staff at Invisible Gamer, we’ll miss you, Satoru Iwata.
4 Times Satoru Iwata was a Programming Badass
The Triumphs of Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata: From Programmer to President
Satoru Iwata Nintendo Chief Executive Dies at 55
Satoru Iwata: Five Classic Nintendo Projects The He Worked On Including Kirby, Pokemon and the Wii
Remembering Satoru Iwata