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The Mount Rushmore of Nintendo Part Four: Satoru Iwata

There are many people who’ve made Nintendo the giant it is today. Join us as we take the next four weeks to dive into the lives of four people who left an indelible impact on one of the games industry’s largest corporations. Check out part one of our series, which covers Hiroshi Yamauchi, here, part two, which covers Gunpei Yokoi, here, and part three, which covers Shigeru Miyamoto, here.

For a lot of gamers, Satoru Iwata held a special place in their hearts. From his laconic manner to his wiry smile and his quirky sense of humor, Iwata defined Nintendo’s approach to games for over a decade, defining some of its greatest successes, such as the Wii and DS, and overseeing its greatest failure, the Wii U. Whenever Nintendo announced new games at a Nintendo Direct, he was front-and-center, “directing” the audience’s attention to whatever he had in mind.

Iwata himself had emerged from humble origins to become the president of one of the most influential game companies in the world. [1] As a young man, he became interested in video game development, creating one of his first games, a baseball game, for his calculator while still in school. While he initially pursued an education in engineering and computer science, he always returned to games, oftentimes hanging out with friends who shared the same passions as him. From there, he and his friends rented out an apartment in Akihabara, Tokyo and began designing their own games. [2]

Eventually, they founded HAL, a video game company that, at its onset, only employed five people full-time, the smallest business of anyone in his graduating class. [3] From there, Iwata worked with Nintendo in creating games on their emerging Famicom. Early games like NES Pinball eventually morphed into full-time work with Nintendo on projects such as Kirby’s Adventure and Balloon Fight. Despite working at HAL, Iwata became involved in Nintendo’s overall infrastructure, eventually joining the company officially in 2000.

That would culminate in 2002 when Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi chose Iwata as his successor. At just 42, Iwata faced a challenge with the GameCube which, by that point, was being heavily outpaced by Sony’s PS2. Iwata decided that Nintendo’s next console should focus more on creating unique gameplay experiences that weren’t possible on competing platforms. At the Game Developer’s Conference in 2005, Iwata explained what challenges he thought the games industry was currently facing:

On the other hand, what’s more prominent in my thinking these days is how our industry is getting smaller. We are smaller in the amount of risk we are willing to accept. We are also smaller in how we define video games. The list of genres seems fixed: shooters, sports, platform, puzzles, and so on. When is the last time we invented a new genre? But as importantly, even within these genres, we have reduced the environments we use. The racing tracks, the soundtracks, the bosses, the heroes, are starting to looking [sic] more and more alike. Consider Tiger Woods Golf and Mario Golf, each a successful franchise, but using two different looks for the same genre. Such variety is becoming harder and harder to find. [4]

To combat the industry’s slow decline into stagnation, Iwata pivoted Nintendo with the Wii, a quirky system that sought to redefine not only what it meant to be a gamer, but what it meant to play games at all. Similarly, the Nintendo DS, released two years before the Wii in 2004, focused on providing the technology necessary to create new experiences never before seen in a handheld system. By seeking to innovate and avoid the pixel-pushing wars of his competitors, Iwata successfully rescued Nintendo from the doldrums of the GameCube era, securing a large casual following in the process.

The Wii was Iwata’s greatest success.
Photo by Evan-Amos

Yet, not all of his innovations would work out. The 3DS, a marvel of hands-free 3D, was overpriced on launch, selling below expectations until a sharp price cut boosted sales. The Wii U, the successor to Nintendo’s most popular console and casual darling, was a commercial flop, pinned between the smartphone revolution and the success of Sony’s PS4.

Yet, Iwata always looked for the next big innovation. In early 2015, he hinted at a new system in development, codenamed ‘NX’ that would implement a “brand new concept[.]” The end result, the Nintendo Switch, would recover Nintendo from years of naysaying and doubt, rescuing the Kyoto-based giant from the obscurity of the Wii U.

However, Iwata would not be there when the Switch launched. On July 11, 2015, he passed away from a bile duct growth, leaving behind a legacy of peerless games and innovative consoles that continues to be remembered to this day.

If you’re interested in learning more about Satoru Iwata, check out his 2005 keynote at the Game Developer’s Conference, titled “Heart of a Gamer.”

Footnotes:

[1] Satoru Iwata, “Heart of a Gamer” (presentation, Game Developer’s Conference 2005, San Francisco, CA, March 10, 2005).

[2]-[4] Ibid.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4

Written By

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Marc Kaliroff

    June 11, 2020 at 1:37 pm

    By far Nintendo’s most fascinating individual leader to date. There was no one quite like Iwata, a guy who understand everything about games from both a technical and accessible standpoint. I miss seeing his enthusiasm for new games in the directs, but I will forever miss reading the Iwata Asks every now and then. His Q&As were partly the reason as to why I pursued writing.

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