The story of Satoru Iwata

Hiroshi Yamauchi knew that he wouldn’t be able to lead the company in the bold new direction that he wanted it to go in after the Nintendo GameCube’s launch. They were being beaten by Sony and Microsoft in this new console race. Luckily enough for Yamauchi, he’d appointed a rising star within Nintendo to handle software planning and be able to prove his leadership skills to Yamauchi for the final time. This rising star just happened to be Satoru Iwata.

Mr. Iwata joined HAL Laboratory in 1983, and began programming classics we play today for reliving the fun that came packed into these games. His first major project was Balloon Fight, which was clearly a high score game. Iwata knew what made games have good qualities: fun, above everything else.

Over time, Iwata became one of the best programmers at HAL, and it was simple to see why. EarthBound, Shigesato Itoi’s signature game, almost didn’t happen due to issues with the game’s code – in just six months, he would improve the build that they had and take it to the finish line. He accomplished a similar feat with Super Smash Bros. Melee eighteen years later so that it could meet the November 2001 deadline.

In 1993, he was appointed president of HAL, as it was a sinking ship at the time. Masahiro Sakurai had an idea of a pink puffball, whose name was Kirby. The Game Boy title Kirby’s Dream Land was mainly envisioned by Iwata – he wanted it to be an easy ride, so that all players of the game could enjoy it. He believed – rightfully so – it would make HAL more inclusive, and, above all, more fun.

His final tasks at HAL revolved around Pokémon, with the games being Pokémon Gold & Silver and Pokémon Stadium. For the former, he found that Game Freak had managed to fit only the Johto region onto the Game Boy Color (not called the Game Boy Colour in Europe) cartridge, but Iwata was able to compress Johto down so that Kanto from Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow could fit into the game. That’s down to Game Freak’s amateur talent at that moment in time.

The next programming feat he accomplished was much more impressive. In seven days, he was able to translate the battle system from Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow on the Game Boy to the Nintendo 64 without any documentation to guide him. That is an incredible accomplishment to undertake. Hiroshi Yamauchi saw how Iwata had turned HAL Laboratory around, and he got a job at Nintendo in 2000.

Now that he had a leadership position at Nintendo, he would aid development teams working for the GameCube  on such titles as Super Mario Sunshine and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, but before he would help these games be released, he would achieve the release date for Super Smash Bros. Melee by programming it himself to iron out any bugs and glitches to help it release in November of 2001 in Japan; he succeeded, and proved to Yamauchi that he could keep a watchful eye over Nintendo.

After becoming the CEO, he set to work on locking the deal for the genius ‘Capcom Five’, including Resident Evil 4 and Viewtiful Joe. The Nintendo 64 had lacked a strong support from third parties, and so it would have helped turning the Nintendo GameCube around. While it didn’t become a smash hit console, it was able to become a cult classic.

However, it was now 2004, and the Game Boy Advance wasn’t really cutting it anymore. The first step towards rejuvenating Nintendo was the Nintendo DS, the innovative portable system the gaming tycoon needed. It not only stood for ‘Developer’s System’, meaning that it would be easy to develop for, but also ‘Dual Screen’, which meant that there was now two screens, which was taken from the two-screened Game & Watches. This new system was the phenomenon Nintendo needed to stay as a driving force within the gaming market, but even so, the Nintendo GameCube was still faltering. The Nintendo DS had paved the way, but the next gaming console was set to rock the gaming world forever.

In the meantime, though, Iwata had travelled to Japan to deliver his keynote about not only his past as a HAL programmer and employee at Nintendo, but slso about a few of the upcoming titles for the Nintendo DS, which aimed to appeal to all gamers. These titles were Mario Kart DS, Electroplankton and Nintendogs. This showed that he was spearheading the company to appeal for all types of gamer, whether they were hardcore or casual. Not only did he make the audience laugh and make them understand he wasn’t some rich CEO, but he was able to show Nintendo’s direction in only fifty minutes.

After the Nintendo DS had launched, the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection system was introduced, with the first commercial use of it being Mario Kart DS. Players from across the world could now play with and against each other, but its original implementation was nothing compared to what was next in the Nintendo pipeline.

Nintendo Revolution is a bold name to live up to. That suggests a huge change in the gaming industry forever. And somehow… it really was a new beginning. It was the Nintendo Wii.

Motion controls were programmed into the Wii Remote, which were put to excellent use in Wii Sports, the game that has sold the most copies in video game history. The new focus were people who didn’t play games, and they were certainly pulled in, but with their attention undivided from waggling a Wii Remote, some hardcore gamers were unhappy. Luckily, Nintendo’s EAD department had created Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, specifically to fulfil these shoes.

The Wii and the DS has enjoyed massive success, but the Wii U hasn’t been so lucky, nor was the 3DS’ launch. They’ve both had rocky starts, but with the portable console space, the only competition has been the flops that are the PlayStation Portable and, a year after the 3DS launched, the PlayStation Vita. The 3DS could wrestle out of this uncomfortable position, but with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s launch looming, they needed third parties to join the fray – Iwata wanted to further relations with third parties, and improve their first party portfolio.

Nintendo Direct was born to showcase new games, and this was where people learned of Iwata’s humour; “please understand,” and “directly to you,” became memes since the initial Direct in 2012. Also infamous was the unforgettable sights of Iwata looking at the camera, with a banana bunch firmly within the grasp of his hand. It was unexpected, yet completely fit the vibe that he gave off. That vibe was one of fun, and wanting to give many enjoyment.

Before his passing, he was set to carry Nintendo to even higher heights. Mobile games! Theme parks! Under this tight supervision, the company from Kyoto was ready to become legendary yet again. Sadly, however, he left us before he could realise these ambitions.

The company needed a clear direction at the end of 2002, and Iwata was able to deliver. With his prior experience in games, he knew what worked and what didn’t. Even more than that, he was a major figure within gaming, and it was awful to see him go due to an infection in his bile duct. Many united to offer tributes of all sorts, and it was a beautiful sight to see. Let’s hope that the next CEO will be as lovable as Mr. Iwata.

Rest in Peace, Satoru Iwata

December 6, 1959 – July 11, 2015


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