Yesterday, Nintendo announced to the world that its president, Satoru Iwata, had passed away at the age of 55 due to a bile duct growth. The weight of his death was immediately evident, as fans and industry veterans gave their condolences, but also their respect for a great man in the industry who made a difference in more ways than one.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Nintendo was the pinnacle of the video game industry. Under the lead of President Hiroshi Yamauchi (who had himself passed away in 2013), Nintendo rose out of the ashes of the 1983 Video Game Crash through a combination of excellent games and strict copyright protection. The “Nintendo Seal of Quality” kept Nintendo from being flooded with low-quality games, thus bringing up the reputation of Nintendo as a whole. However, by the time of the Nintendo 64, the world had changed. The harsh policies which had protected Nintendo up until then became just as much a weakness as it was a strength. In 2002, Yamauchi stepped down and named Iwata as his successor. Nintendo had been a family business operating for over 100 years, well before the invention of the computer, and Iwata was tasked with bringing Nintendo into the next millennium.
If Yamauchi was the stern, yet caring father, both respected and feared, then Iwata looked to be the wise and gentle dad you could come to for advice any time. He had the aura of an everyman, so it’s perhaps not so surprising that, under his direction, Nintendo captured the world with the Wii, expanding video games to audiences that had rarely even thought of video games. At the height of the Wii’s popularity, one could often hear stories about children being unable to play their favorite video games because their grandparents were occupying it.
Of course, one could argue that this was merely an outward image, and when it comes to media and marketing, often times the surface doesn’t match up with what lies underneath. However, from every single report about Iwata that has ever surfaced, all evidence points to the man’s greatness, a level of talent, dedication, and love for games matched only by his humility. After his death, Kirby and Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai called Iwata the greatest leader he’d ever known, and Earthbound’s Shigesato Itoi described him as the kind of man who would always put others first.
Most have come to know Iwata as the President of Nintendo, and for his lovable Nintendo Directs, but he had been a part of the company for decades. First programming the original Balloon Fight in the 1980s, he became known as an incredibly efficient programmer who could solve even seemingly impossible tasks. He re-created the Pokémon engine from scratch for Pokémon Stadium and even improved upon it without any design documents available to him. When Pokémon Gold and Silver seemingly could not fit on the limited space of a Game Boy cartridge, Iwata stepped in and not only fixed their problem but figured out how to compress the data so well that they could add the Kanto region from the first game as well, which is to this day one of the best surprises in video games. He completely rewrote the code for Earthbound in order to get the game finished in time for release. Perhaps most amazingly, he returned to the trenches one last time to debug the complex code for Super Smash Bros. Melee so it could make its release date, after he had already become the General Manager of Corporate Planning at Nintendo.
It can be kind of an odd sight to witness president of a corporation, even one as beloved as Nintendo, receive such a massive and heartfelt outpouring of emotion, but I think it’s clear why Iwata was different. Starting as a humble yet hard-working programmer, he slowly rose to the top of Nintendo, doing so not through the political game but through honesty and a genuine passion for video games. Taking Yamauchi’s advice to never be afraid of risk, he carried forward Nintendo’s history of innovation into a new era, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Iwata’s legacy continues to inspire creators of all stripes to keep reaching for their dreams.