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Satoru Iwata: A Gaming God

Readers of some of my previous work will know how much I love video games. Ever since I unwrapped my first home console, a Sega Mega Drive (Genesis to my American friends) on Christmas Day back in 1992, I’ve never looked back. Over the years I have owned a Nintendo NES (Famicom in Japan), a Sega Saturn, Playstation 1, 2 and now 3, as well as a number of handheld consoles.

So, it was with a great sadness and a very heavy heart that I recently read of the passing of Satoru Iwata at the tragically young age of just 55 years old. In reading the reports in the aftermath of his death, I was stunned to learn just how many of the games I loved as a child had been, at least in part, influenced and developed by Mr Iwata.

Photo : Tiger Pixel on Flickr

He is probably best remembered for creating the Kirby series of games, which have proven to be a big hit with Japanese gamers from the 1980s onwards, and indeed achieved global fame during the golden age of the Gameboy and the Nintendo NES in the early 1990s. Yet Iwata’s work went far beyond just Kirby. He was also a major player in the conception and further development of two of Nintendo’s flagship franchises, which continue to spawn hit games to this day: Pokemon and Super Smash Bros. From humble beginnings, it really is remarkable to think of all that Iwata achieved in his 55 years.

Born in Sapporo, on Japan’s northernmost Island of Hokkaido, Iwata was the son of a local municipal mayor. However, the young Satoru had little interest in following his father into politics. From a very early age, it was clear that video games were his passion and that they would go on to greatly shape his life and future ambitions.

As early as his high school days in the mid-1970s, Iwata was developing video games in his free time. Using an electronic calculator as a basis for development, he created a number of simple, number based games that proved a big hit with his classmates.

Keen to see him realize his potential, Iwata’s parents bought him his first computer, a Commodore PET, around the same time. Much to their astonishment, rather than waste time playing game on the fledgling console, Iwata set about taking the system apart, eager to learn how its components worked and how to craft more advanced systems of his own. It is probably no coincidence that the CPU utilized by the Commodore PET was actually an early version of a similar CPU that Nintendo would later integrate into their NES (Famicom) console several years later. In the fullness of time, Iwata would go on to develop several games for what was the biggest games system in the world at that time.

A computer science degree at the Tokyo Institute of Technology led Iwata to set up his own programming firm, HAL Laboratory, named after the infamous sentient computer from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, in 1982. It was at this time, shortly before the commercial launch of Nintendo’s Famicom (NES) system worldwide, that Iwata would embark on the first of what would prove to be several successful tie-ups with the gaming giant.

Unfortunately, such early success also came at a price. Although initially supportive and patient of his son’s hobby, Iwata’s father was dismayed that his son had not grown out of his gaming obsession and “got a real job”. In the 1980s, the pair did not speak to each other for more than 6 years.

Nonetheless, Iwata continued on undeterred, striking up a close friendship and highly profitable working partnership with Nintendo’s then president, Hiroshi Yamauchi. Indeed this friendship would prove crucial to Iwata’s long term success, when HAL hit financial difficulties at the start of the 1990s. HAL and Nintendo collaborated closer together than ever before, with Iwata being made president of the company in 1993, despite only being in his early 30s at the time. Such a move was almost unheard of in Japan’s corporate world at that time, where promotion had always been based on time served and seniority rather than actual competence or potential for success. It has been speculated by many that Yamauchi saw many of the same qualities in Iwata as he did in his other great protégé Gunpei Yokoi, the inventor of the world famous “Nintendo Game in Watch and later the Gameboy handheld console.

With HAL now on a far more stable financial footing, thanks in no small part to Nintendo’s support as well as Iwata’s growing business acumen, the highly beneficial relationship between Iwata and the gaming powerhouse continued to bear fruit. The Gameboy Colour console, was viewed by many as revolutionary when it was launched in the late 90s. Promising 16 bit style graphics on a handheld system for the first time, it did not disappoint. The greater detail in the consoles graphics and animation was largely due to the graphical compression tools that Iwata himself developed, allowing games to use a far greater palette without the additional memory constraints.

Nintendo Gameboy
Photo : William Warby on Flickr

When Iwata finally joined Nintendo officially as head of corporate planning in 2000, it was the final conclusion of a courtship that had lasted almost 20 years. Just two years later, with Iwata’s mentor Yamauchi retiring, Iwata found himself as the new president of Nintendo, the first such individual not to have any blood links to the Yamauchi family lineage since Nintendo’s founding as a gaming card company back in 1889.

Despite having been in charge of Nintendo since 1949 and clearly looking forward to a gentle and well-deserved retirement, Yamauchi remained a powerful background presence in those first few years of the new era, offering advice and guidance to Iwata whenever he needed it.

Nintendo was, at that time, a company in transition. The Gamecube console wasn’t the success everyone had hoped for and was failing badly against the superior hardware of the Sony Playstation 2 and the Microsoft X Box.

Again, it was Iwata’s “out of the box” style of thinking that turned things around.

Rather than focus too heavily on hardware capabilities and such like, Iwata instead looked back to his time as a games developer and realized the key to success was not more powerful processors or superior graphics cards. It was very simple. Make games that are fun and people will buy them.

With this philosophy now central to Nintendo’s corporate strategy to new consoles, the handheld DS and the Wii home console system were launched to great success.

In particular, the Wii, with its use of motion sensor technology and wand like controllers was a revolutionary concept. Several poor imitators such as Sony’s eye toy and X-Box Kinect tried and failed to emulate the Wii’s success.

Photo : Chris Elt on Flickr

For all his success, Iwata never forgot his humble roots. Despite having scaled the very peak of the gaming industry, he maintained a close connection with the ordinary gamer right until the very end of his life.

Shunning the bombast of events like E3, Iwata instead held smaller conferences and Q and A sessions with fans over social media. His famous “Iwata Asks” interview series highlighted not only Nintendo’s new products but also the unique humour and camaraderie that Iwata had fostered in the Nintendo offices.

His sudden death due to complications from an intestinal tumor leaves a void that may never be filled in the gaming world. Farewell Iwata-San and thanks for everything.

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