Most people know of Satoru Iwata as Nintendo’s President and the guy who announced new titles during the company’s periodic Nintendo Direct online presentations. However, Iwata had a long and storied career in game development, and has left an undeniable mark on gaming. Join us as we look back at the life and times of Satoru Iwata.
On Sunday, Nintendo announced that its President Satoru Iwata passed away at the age of only 55. Industry veterans from around the globe have paid their respects. But does the average gamer understand why Nintendo’s president was instrumental in the company’s growth, or how he helped shape the industry as a whole? Here’s a look back at his remarkable achievements.
A Born Gamer (1959-1983)
The son of a municipal mayor, Satoru Iwata was born on December 6, 1959 in Sapporo, Japan, located on the country’s second-largest island. Even from a young age, Iwata was drawn to games. In high school, he began to experiment with programming, sharing some simple electronic calculator games he’d made with his fellow classmates. In 1982, he graduated from the Tokyo Institute of Technology University with a degree in computer science.
Development Days (1983-2000)
While still in college, Iwata managed to snag a few freelance gigs as a programmer for HAL Laboratory, Inc. At the time, HAL Laboratory was working on programming software and peripherals for computers like the MSX. Iwata was able to parley this experience into a full-time job at HAL and became HAL’s coordinator of software production. This roll required Iwata to help with game design, engineering, programming, and marketing for a series of popular titles such as Balloon Fight, Mother (the prequel to EarthBound), and the Kirby series.
By 1993, HAL was on the verge of bankruptcy, but Iwata believed he could help stabilize the company and was promoted to president. Under Iwata’s leadership, HAL flourished. In 1998, Iwata works closely with Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai to develop the prototype for Super Smash Bros., a game that would grow into one of Nintendo’s leading franchises. Around the same time, Iwata assisted in the development of Pokémon Gold and Silver for the Game Boy Color and helped program Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64.
Welcome to Club Nintendo (2000-2002)
On the cusp of releasing the GameCube, Nintendo hired Iwata Nintendo to oversee its Corporate Planning Division. However, a short two years later, longtime Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi announced his retirement and hand-selected Iwata as his successor. Iwata becomes the forth president in Nintendo’s 100-plus year history, and the first Nintendo president who was unrelated to the founding family through blood or marriage. Iwata had big shoes to fill, and with the lackluster sales of the GameCube, Nintendo was in sore need of a hit. Fortunately, Iwata had a head full of ideas.
Hello, Mr. President (2002-2015)
Iwata believed that video gaming was becoming an insulated hobby – that the industry needed more games that would appeal to a wider audience. To this end, Iwata pushed Nintendo to rethink the way it designed its hardware. The Game Boy had long been a staple of the mobile gaming market, but under Iwata Nintendo developed the Nintendo DS, a unique dual-screen handheld that went on to become one of the best-selling video game consoles of all time – second only to the PlayStation 2.
Not long after the Nintendo DS, Iwata pushed for development of the motion control-based Wii, a console that helped achieve Iwata’s dream of drawing in a swath of new consumers who traditionally didn’t buy video games. By 2006, Nintendo’s stock prices had nearly doubled under Iwata’s leadership. That same year, Iwata initiated a series of online interviews called Iwata Asks, a collection of informative sit-downs with Nintendo’s development teams that remains one of the most insightful chronicles on the development of Nintendo’s products.
Of course, Nintendo has also had its share of missteps. The company’s most recent console, the Wii U, hasn’t fared well commercially, and neither did the Nintendo 3DS when it originally launched. However, even during downturns Iwata always strove for improvement. After the launch of the 3DS, Iwata was instrumental in overturning the public’s perception of the handheld – initiating a price drop that encouraged new users to pick up the system, and rewarded early adopters with the Ambassador Program. And when Nintendo profits fell in 2013, Iwata announced that he would be cutting his pay in half for several months.
Most recently, Iwata has helped urge Nintendo into new markets, even overseeing a partnership with the mobile provider DeNA to publish a series of soon-to-be announced mobile titles starring Nintendo’s classic characters.
A Lasting Legacy
Last year, just before E3, Nintendo announced that Iwata would skip the industry’s big convention. After the show, it was revealed that Iwata had undergone surgery to remove a tumor in his bile duct. Of course, Iwata soon recovered and returned to his traditional duties as Nintendo’s President. Even after missing E3 this year, Iwata was able to participate in Nintendo’s shareholder meeting on June 26. Sadly, Iwata’s cancer returned, and on Saturday July 11, 2015 Satoru Iwata passed away.
By all accounts, Iwata-san was a lovable and charming personality – a humorous and whip-smart professional who helped lead Nintendo into a new era of profitability. He was a man who seemed to care about Nintendo’s fans, would even cordially respond to them via twitter, and made them laugh with some outrageous stunts during Nintendo Direct presentations.
Through his career, Satoru Iwata had a hand in the development of several of Nintendo’s most important properties, including Kirby, Super Smash Bros., Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and Animal Crossing. We wish his friends and family the very best. The industry is at a loss with the passing of this luminary.
Rest in peace, Iwata-san.