The gaming community still reeling from the tragic news of Nintendo president Satoru Iwata passing away. Although he led the company for the last 13 years, Iwata’s influence has been felt by Nintendo fans since the mid 1980s as first a programmer and then president of the closely-affiliated HAL Laboratory, where he was instrumental in bringing some of Nintendo’s most iconic games and hardware to life.
You may know him as the lovable goof from Iwata Asks and Nintendo Direct videos, but did you know that Nintendo’s President was also a famously talented programmer? Today, we look back over Satoru Iwata’s illustrious career and celebrate a few of his many achievements.
He was fundamental to the creation of Kirby
HAL Laboratory might be most recognized by Nintendo fans for creating Kirby, that little pink puffball known for saving Dream Land — and sucking other Nintendo characters up and pooping them out over the edge of the map in Super Smash Bros. Iwata did not create the character himself — that honor goes to Masahiro Sakurai — but he did guide the developmental process of the character’s debut in Kirby’s Dream Land, leaving an indelible stamp on the iconic character.
Iwata set out to create the game that became Kirby’s Dream Land as a game for beginners, something so simple and accessible that anyone could pick it up and play to completion, regardless of their gaming experience. The game was a huge success, and has been followed by 23 more Kirby games since, and many appearances in other series like Super Smash Bros. That belief in making games accessible to everyone would remain a guiding ethos for the rest of Iwata’s career.
He was a coding master
Iwata was no armchair quarterback. He started his career freelancing as a programmer for HAL while still studying computer science in college. Although he moved into upper management by the 1990s, Iwata never lost his coding chops, and was well known for being one of the few gaming executives who would regularly roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty with actual code. One of the most famous examples was Earthbound (or Mother 2, as it was released in Japan).
The development team of this quirky SNES RPG was apparently running into trouble getting it to run smoothly. With the threat of substantial delays looming, Iwata — then the president of HAL — decided to take measures into his own hands. Looking back in 2013, Iwata said “I can help you if you would like but there are two ways to proceed: If we use what you have now and fix it, it will take two years. If we can start fresh, it’ll take half a year.”
His legacy as a beloved and prolific creator of games is absolutely secure.
Iwata sequestered himself for a month and came back with squeaky-clean, completely re-written code. This allowed Earthbound to become a beloved cult classic in an era some consider the golden age for Japanese RPGs.
That would be far from the last time that Iwata would get down into the trenches show off his programming skills. When developing Pokemon Stadium for the N64, Iwata, still president of HAL, took it on himself to reverse engineer the battle system from Pokemon Red and Blue by simply looking at the code without any sort of specification document from the designers. It took him just one week to build a working version, prompting Game Freak’s Shigeki Morimoto, who created the battle system initially, to remark: “I created that battle program and it really took a long time to put together. But when I heard that Iwata-san had been able to port it over in about a week and that it was already working … Well, I thought: “What kind of company president is this!?”
He is also credited with helping out in Pokemon Gold and Silver, writing the compression software that allowed the developers to squeeze the entire Kanto region from the first game onto the Game Boy cartridge in addition to the new game’s world as a bonus for completing all of the gyms. Few major gaming CEOs know how to code, but even fewer are as famously talented as Iwata was.
He helped create, and save Smash Bros.
Just like with Kirby, Masahiro Sakurai is credited with creating Super Smash Bros., but the process was facilitated by Satoru Iwata. Sakurai came to Iwata in 1998 with a prototype for a four-player fighting game called Dragon King: The Fighting Game. Iwata liked the concept and helped to develop the project further until Sakurai hit on the idea of using Nintendo characters, thus birthing one of the most beloved fighting franchises of all time. As other fighting games were veering toward complex combos and hardcore intensity, Smash was an evolution of that accessible design principle that Iwata used in Kirby. The control scheme was simple enough for non-genre-aficionados to pick up quickly, without sacrificing depth for more advanced players.
The follow-up, Super Smash Bros. Melee for the GameCube, was apparently plagued with bugs in 2001, and did not look like it was going to make its planned release. Just like with Earthbound, Iwata took it on himself to fix things, and so he went back to HAL for three weeks to personally take charge of debugging. “I did the code review, fixed some bugs, read the code and fixed more bugs, read the long bug report from Nintendo, figured out where the problem was, and got people to fix those.” Iwata told Japanese gaming magazine 4gamer. “All in all, I spent about three weeks like that. Because of that, the game made it out on time.”
He reinvented the wheel with the DS and Wii
Iwata ascended to the Nintendo throne during the rough period after the GameCube had launched, which was created under the leadership of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the company’s previous president. Iwata’s first real launch after becoming president in 2002 was the Nintendo DS handheld in 2004. Many in the industry were skeptical of the device, calling its two screen design a gimmick. Iwata silenced critics, however, after it became the best-selling handheld gaming console of all time, trailing narrowly behind the PlayStation 2 as the second-best selling gaming console of any kind. Classics like Brain Age reached out to whole new audiences, and helped cement Nintendo’s position in mobile gaming so much that the 3DS still thrives today, despite the rise of smartphone gaming.
Even more impressive, though, was the breakout success of the original Wii two years later. Iwata personally oversaw the system’s development, eschewing competitive pressure from Sony and Microsoft to focus on more graphical horsepower, and instead putting development efforts into an innovative motion-control scheme. The gamble paid off. The Wii sold more units than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 combined in its first year. By sidestepping the entrenched conventions of gamepad controls, the Wii’s intuitive controls welcomed in whole new swathes of players that had not played video games before. Friendly games like Wii Sports bridged generations and brought whole families together on a scale that video games never had before, making the Wii instrumental in gaming’s transition into the mainstream and the explosive growth of “casual gamers” over the last decade.
The successful launches of the DS and Wii did not secure the same for their descendants, however. The 3DS and Wii U both suffered from lackluster debuts that sent quarterly profits spiraling. In a move uncharacteristic for many CEOs, Iwata always took personal responsibility for shareholders’ losses. Rather than cutting staff, as many suggested, Iwata took 50-percent pay cuts in 2011 and again in 2014 in response to losses.
His future plans include mobile games and a new console
Iwata’s final surprise as CEO has just as much potential to shake things up, but only time will tell. Nintendo announced in March that it has formed a partnership with Japanese mobile gaming giant DeNA to bring its beloved franchises to smartphones, reversing the company’s previous position on mobile licensing. Little is known about what these games will look like, but the first will supposedly arrive later this year, with four more rolling out by 2017. At the same time, he also announced a “brand new concept” for gaming hardware with a device code-named NX. Again, very little is known about the device, but Iwata promised to reveal more in 2016.
The success or failure of the NX and Nintendo’s mobile initiative will be an interesting postscript to the career of Satoru Iwata, but as the above evidence suggests, his legacy as a beloved and prolific creator of games is absolutely secure.