Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata died over the weekend, the company has just announced. He was 55.
A short statement released by the Japanese gaming giant said: “Nintendo Co., Ltd. deeply regrets to announce that President Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015 due to a bile duct growth.”
Iwata, who was also CEO of the company’s U.S. unit, had surgery to remove the growth in 2014 before returning to work in the same year.
“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.”
During his time at the top of Nintendo, Iwata scored some big successes, among them the DS handhelds and Wii consoles. But the business has also been through a difficult period of late, the result of increasingly tough competition from Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox machines, and a reluctance to create games for smartphones.
An announcement in March, however, indicated a change in strategy as the business finally signaled its intention to fully embrace the mobile space. And Iwata delivered more good news in the same month, announcing the company’s first annual profit in four years.
A real rarity within the gaming industry, Iwata’s path to CEO started as a young game programmer. He began working as a freelancer for the closely Nintendo-affiliated studio HAL Laboratory while studying computer science at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. After graduating college in 1984 he joined HAL full-time, helping to create some of its iconic games like Earthbound, Balloon Fight, and the Kirby series. He was promoted to president of HAL in 1993, leading the studio to be one of the premiere game makers of the Super Nintendo and Game Boy. Toward the end of his tenure at HAL, a little side project between Iwata and Masahiro Sakurai grew to become Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64, now a tentpole for the company that itself celebrates numerous characters from Iwata’s illustrious development career.
Iwata joined Nintendo as a director in 2000. Two years later, he became the company’s fourth president in its 126-year history, and the first to come from outside of the family that founded the business.
Although his career took him from the coding trenches to upper management, Iwata always remained highly involved in the design process of Nintendo’s games. Even after formally leaving HAL, he continued to offer his insight as a consultant. At Nintendo, Iwata’s hand was felt in games from franchises like Mario, the Legend of Zelda, and Animal Crossing.
More than just a presence within the company, Iwata’s passion for games was felt by fans through his popular series of Iwata Asks videos, in which he would conduct in-depth interviews with the designers. The public also saw him leading the regular Nintendo Direct videos that shared updates about upcoming Nintendo games and system features. Under his leadership, Nintendo of America stopped throwing large press conferences at E3, instead opting to put the games first and share news through the Direct videos.
More than just a savvy, cost-saving acknowledgement that the vast majority of its fans would be getting the news online anyway, the Direct videos gave Nintendo’s upper management a quirky intimacy and that reinforced the earnest affection that many of Nintendo’s fans feel for the company and its games with which they grew up. Most recently, Iwata was immortalized in muppet form for the E3 2015 presentation.
The game programmer-turned-president was popular with gamers for his sense of fun and passion for the industry. There was certainly never any doubt about Iwata’s commitment to the cause – speaking at a gaming event back in 2005, he said, “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.”
Nintendo said Monday that senior managing directors Genyo Takeda and Shigeru Miyamoto will run the company until Iwata’s successor is chosen.