I was very shocked to learn that President of Nintendo Satoru Iwata had passed away over the weekend due to complications relating to a cancerous growth in his bile duct that had been plaguing him for the past few years. Despite his previous ill health that prevented him from making public appearances throughout 2014, he appeared to be in a state of recovery. Game aficionados around the world are surprised and deeply saddened by his passing.
I’m usually not the type of guy who admires or advocates the mascotry of a corporate executive, but Iwata was different. Since taking up the mantle of Nintendo’s fourth president, many of Iwata’s credits have been in the role of producer. But it’s important to remember that Iwata wasn’t just a businessman but also an established creator and talented programmer in his own right. During the 1980s, he served as the lead programmer on a number of beloved games by Nintendo and HAL Laboratory, including Balloon Fight and Eggerland: Meikyuu no Fukkatsu (an early Japan-only entry in the Adventures of Lolo puzzler series) among many others.
A close friend of writer Shigesato Itoi, Iwata also served as both a programmer as well as program director for charming cult-hit RPG Earthbound. He was no doubt responsible for many of that game’s bells-and-whistles that truly brought it to life and worked behind-the-scenes to set it apart from its contemporaries.
In recent years, Iwata was well-known for hosting the monthly web series Nintendo Direct, in which he would show off the company’s latest games and news in an off-beat manner. Sure, it was little more than advertising for his company’s products, but Iwata’s antics eluded a certain charm and likeability that is often absent in the corporate world of game publication.
Perhaps what was most interesting was his series of promotional interviews Iwata Asks, in which the president sat down with a number of different first and second-party teams to discuss the ins-and-outs of the games that they were hard at work developing. Due to the nature of Nintendo’s president interviewing his own staff, this series naturally tended to be fairly homogenized and obviously biased, but at the same time happened to be not only interesting but also provided a revealing look into the creative processes behind many of the world’s most famous Japanese games. The practices of Iwata Asks are more-or-less unheard of in the hush-hush world of Japanese game development, much less would any other company make them available outside of their native soil.
Aside from the glitz and glamour of public promotion, Iwata also proved to have a great deal of care for his staff: When asked by shareholders why he did not consider corporate downsizing in the face of Nintendo’s losses, Iwata stated,
“If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results … employee morale will decrease, and I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world … [I] know that some employers publicize their restructuring plan to improve their financial performance by letting a number of their employees go, but at Nintendo, employees make valuable contributions in their respective fields.”
Iwata’s love of his staff and the games they made, paired with his technical expertise and his affable public persona painted a much more down-to-earth and human portrait than that of his predecessor, imperialistic strike-breaking billionaire Hiroshi Yamauchi. He will be sorely missed by his friends, family, and the millions of strangers whose hearts he touched over the years.
Let’s all play a few rounds of Balloon Fight in his honor.
Rest in peace, Satoru Iwata. December 6, 1959 - July 11, 2015.