So some of you have heard the news of Satoru Iwata’s passing. I’m still in shock, and quite upset. Iwata was one of the greatest gaming personalities of our generation. I’m not the only one who’ll say that, either. The man is responsible for many of the games that have made our lives better, the systems that remain popular today, and he managed to guide the big N through a dark time into a future brighter than any others. Iwata was more than a businessman, a CEO, a man in a suit.
He was a passionate developer. He was a skilled coder. He was an incredibly genuine man who loved every minute of what he did, and he never tried to hide it. Here, I’m going to show you just how incredible he was in everything he did. This isn’t going to be one big life story, as those are just plain bland and don’t really do him justice. Rather, this article is a love letter to his awesome accomplishments and a testament to his status as Boss (pronounced Baw-ss, like every legend should be).
Iwata’s gaming career was humble at first, joining HAL Laboratories when he graduated from university. He worked on many different games for the company, but his first feat of demigod stature was during the development of cult classic EarthBound. The team behind the game were burned out after a long and painful development cycle. At this point, any other developer would have either quit or simply gone on to release a badly-made game. With HAL in financial trouble, the pressure was certainly on the team to release something great. One day during development, Iwata said what’s possibly the most hardcore thing any game developer has ever said:
“We can keep working on [Earthbound] with what we currently have and finish it in two years, or you can throw it all away and let me rewrite it from scratch and end up with a better game in one. You decide.”
And with that, Iwata rallied the team and they re-coded the entirety of EarthBound, a game that had been four years in the making, from scratch, in six months. It’s no wonder that HAL Laboratories eventually appointed Iwata as president of the studio, which he proceeded to get out of financial trouble like the unstoppable badass he was.
Iwata’s involvement with Nintendo would eventually culminate in his control of the entire company globally, but his godlike contributions to Nintendo’s first-party studios began with a little game called Pokémon, dunno if you’ve ever heard of that one. Even though Game Freak had released the games that would define a generation, by the time they began work on Pokémon Gold/Silver the studio was still inexperienced in coding. They barely managed to fill the Game Boy Color cartridge with the Johto region alone. Now, that doesn’t sound like the games you adored as a kid. In fact, you distinctly remember going back to the region from the previous games to conquer their gyms and eventually your character from Red/Blue!
You can bow to Iwata once again for that one. Satoru goddamn Iwata offered to help Game Freak with their coding, and they jumped at the chance. Iwata compressed the game’s data to such an awe-inspiring degree that Game Freak implemented the entire Kanto region from Red/Blue as well, making Gold/Silver the perfect sequels we know and love today. But Mr Iwata’s badassery in the world of Pokémon did not stop there. Oh no, they didn’t. Pokémon Stadium‘s battle code was ported directly from Pokémon Red/Blue, and Iwata did it himself. Without any reference documents. In a week.
To put it simply, this was like trying to score a goal in soccer…by kicking the ball with a toothpick into a goal that was on top of a moving Ferrari. But Iwata did it and he did it hardcore. What a fuckin’ champion.
But Iwata was not done with the Nintendo 64. When work began on HAL Laboratories’ game Super Smash Bros., lead designer Masahiro Sakurai needed help with designing and coding a prototype for the game and Iwata was in no position to say no because he was the best person ever. By the time the prototype was finished, it was a roaring success with both the development team and the playtesting group. Super Smash Bros. proceeded to sell a bajillion copies and settle at least two thousand schoolyard arguments.
In addition, when Super Smash Bros. Melee was in danger of missing its deadline, Iwata himself took over coding for the game and wrapped up production just in time for the game’s release. All this while he was still President of the company.
It was at this point that Iwata was offered a position at Nintendo, but not as some back-room programmer. Oh, no. Iwata’s first ever position at the biggest video game company on the planet was the head of the fucking corporate planning division. During his time as head of corporate planning, he steered the Nintendo fleet into financial and critical praise with his personal involvement with some of the Gamecube’s best titles such as Super Mario Sunshine, Metroid Prime, Animal Crossing and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
A mere two years later he became CEO of that company, the first one that wasn’t from the Yamauchi family who founded the goddamn company…. in 1889.
That’s not a typo: The Yamauchi family had owned Nintendo since the end of the 19th century! But Iwata don’t care. Iwata don’t give any fucks, yo. As president of Nintendo’s global efforts, Iwata got personally involved with the hardware development of the Wii and DS systems, which proceeded to print money. You wouldn’t expect a CEO to be this involved with the R&D side of things, but Iwata was no ordinary CEO. He was Satoru motherfucking Iwata, and he wasn’t done yet.
It’s really no controversy that the launch of the Nintendo 3DS was lackluster at best. Very little good games on launch, the thing cost an arm and a leg, you know the rest. You’d expect any other company to be happy with their CEO simply apologising and laying off a few people. But Iwata was way better than that: He took personal blame for the 3DS’ launch and stripped half of his pay himself to avoid laying off employees. If he had been any more humble than he already was, his portrait would line the dictionary’s every page.
Not because he’d personify the word “humble”, but every other word in every language. As such, it’s no surprise to hear that Iwata was highly-respected amongst his peers…even those from rival companies who had every reason to hate Nintendo. When he won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Game Developer’s Conference, his speech was so heartwarming and inspiring that many contemporary developers still call it their inspiration. MEGA BOSS.
Satoru Iwata was one of the most loveable and authentic people in the entire video game industry, and it’s honestly not going to be the same without him. His replacement, no matter who they are, will have some mighty big shoes to fill and one beloved company to make better. Iwata’s contributions to gaming are monumental, and the games and systems he helped develop have made me who I am today (The Gamecube is still my favourite console). Rest in peace, Iwata-san.
“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”