Satoru Iwata (Part 2): The Face of Nintendo
This article is part 2 of two. If you haven’t read part 1 yet and would like to do so before reading on, then click here.
Satoru Iwata had a myriad of accomplishments throughout his time at Nintendo. He conducted all of his work with a smile on his face and took responsibility when times were tough. Iwata saw both the highs and the lows at Nintendo, but he never steered away from his vision that gaming was meant to be enjoyed by everyone.
First Days at Nintendo
In 2000, Nintendo’s president, Horoshi Yamauchi, offered Satoru Iwata (President of HAL Laboratory) the position of head of corporate planning at Nintendo. Iwata accepted the offer and began an incredibly prosperous career at Nintendo.
Satoru Iwata’s role at Nintendo was to focus on the development of software for the GameCube. His strategy was to develop new ways to cut down development time, but not at the expense of that Nintendo charm.
During this position at Nintendo, Iwata still managed to find the time to assist in game development. Despite his increasing responsibilities, Iwata liked nothing more than to be “in the trenches”. Just like he helped with the previous title, Iwata assisted Masahiro Sakurai with Super Smash Bros. Melee to debug the game so that it could release so early in the GameCube’s launch window.
In May 2002, Hiroshi Yamauchi called Satoru Iwata into his office. This was rarely a good sign as Yamauchi was known to be somewhat of a tyrant at Nintendo. Iwata feared that he was about to lose his job, however that was not the case. Yamauchi revealed to Iwata that he was soon planning to retire (at the age of 74) and wanted Iwata to become the next president of Nintendo.
When the company was first established way back in 1889, Fusajiro Yamauchi had established Nintendo as a company that produced and distributed Hanafuda Playing Cards. The position was passed down through four generations, carrying on the legacy and venturing into different business endeavors. Therefore, Hiroshi Yamauchi offering Satoru Iwata the role of president was a shock to both him and everyone else at Nintendo.
In a board meeting, Hiroshi Yamauchi stated that he chose Satoru Iwata to be his successor as he believed him to have a vast knowledge of Nintendo’s hardware and software. Satoru Iwata had demonstrated quality leadership skills throughout his time at HAL Laboratory, and Yamauchi believed that the combination of these two qualities allowed him to be the best person for the job.
Satoru Iwata became president at a time when Nintendo was struggling to remain relevant in the gaming landscape. In his new role as president, Iwata had growing concerns of the direction that the gaming industry was taking. What with Microsoft’s new Xbox console and their emphasis on first-person shooters, as well as the Playstation 2 and its array of mature single-player titles, Iwata believed that gaming companies were only focussed on targeting the “core gamers”; they lacked experiences that could reach a wider audience and that anyone could easily pick up and play. Iwata’s strategy moving forward was to focus on making games fun and accessible so that the market wasn’t exclusive. This was seemingly a risky move at the time, but Nintendo’s philosophy has always been to the beat of their own drum. Nintendo were beginning to think about their next line of systems, and Satoru Iwata intended to shake things up.
“Today there are people who play and who don’t; we’ll help destroy that wall between them.”
– Satoru Iwata
In 2003, Nintendo were deciding on their next handheld console. This would be the first console that Iwata would be president for from its very beginning. Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto were reminiscing over the Game & Watch and its two screen design. Miyamoto then suggested that their new handheld should imitate the design of the dual-screen Game & Watch and that the bottom screen should be a touchscreen. Satoru Iwata had always greatly valued Miyamoto’s ingenuity and loved the idea.
When the DS was first released in North America on November 21, 2004, it was met with mixed reviews with some seeing the dual-screen design as a gimmick. Iwata didn’t let the criticism change his belief in the device. He wanted the DS to be accessible to people of all ages. His answer to this were a variety of Brain Training titles that would feature various puzzle games. Players would use the stylus as a controller and turn the DS on its side, similar to a book. This new method of gameplay could be easily accessible to everyone as it was similar to motions that would take place in everyday life. It wasn’t long until everyone and their grandparents were playing these games.
Studies have been conducted to show that these titles actually improve cognitive development. One study in particular conducted a study that had elderly patients play Brain Age for four weeks. The results showed that the continuous training of the brain from the DS title supported the possibility that it improved processing speeds from the elderly (Nouchi, 2012).
Satoru Iwata planned to continue his everyone is welcome approach with their home consoles. Iwata had conducted a year-long analysis of the gaming industry and the directions that it was taking. He concluded that companies were focusing more on the technology rather than the games themselves. Therefore, he decided that the next home console should focus on innovation and inclusiveness rather than new technology and graphical prowess. This philosophy is one that Nintendo still follows to this day and has since received a lot of criticism by the core gaming market. Some people believe that if Nintendo were to make a console that rivaled the power of their competitors’ products, then they will succeed. But Iwata always focused on the gaming experience that was easily accessible to the broader audience – a realization that he had back when he was overseeing the development of Kirby’s Dream Land on the Game Boy.
A Gaming Revolution
Nintendo decided on the code name Revolution for their new home console, which perfectly sums up the impact that this console had on the gaming landscape. This eventually came to be called the Nintendo Wii, which was designed heavily on innovative motion controls. Bundled with Wii Sports, the game was fun for the whole family, and was often taken out at parties and social gatherings.
At E3 2005, Satoru Iwata pulled the Nintendo Wii (still known as the Revolution at the time) out of his jacket pocket to show off its small size. At this time, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 were also being shown off, and both of these consoles were considerably larger than Nintendo’s newest console. This small design has since become a staple for Nintendo’s future home consoles.
When designing the Wii Remote, Iwata, Miyamoto, Genyo Takeda, Kenichiro Ashida and Akio Ikeda wanted to create something that was easily accessible to the general consumer.
“I felt that it should be both ‘Simple’ and ‘Comfortable’. I believe this is the overarching concept behind Wii. I was always aware that the controller should be usable by anyone, and that it shouldn’t be seen as an enemy. Indeed, it should make you want to pick it up.”
– Akio Ikeda
The Nintendo Wii was released on November 19, 2006 to raving success. They were very difficult to find in stores within the console’s first year and everyone and their grandmother wanted one. The Wii went on to become Nintendo’s highest selling home console (at the time of writing this), and Nintendo’s third best selling console ever, at 101.64 units shipped worldwide (according to VGChartz).
Nintendo had broken out of its gradual decline and it was largely thanks to Satoru Iwata’s philosophy that gaming is for everyone. He tore down stereotypes that games were either for kids or for core gamers, and everyone was playing Nintendo.
Iwata: The Face of Nintendo
Hiroshi Yamauchi rarely spoke to media and often remained in his office at Nintendo. This wasn’t the way that Iwata wanted to run the company and decided that as president, the fans needed to know his face. Iwata often attended conferences, got up on stage, delivered heartwarming speeches and regularly conducted interviews.
“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.”
– Satoru Iwata
Under Satoru Iwata’s leadership, he dismantled the invisible wall that barricaded Nintendo. He had begun conducting interviews with fellow developers, a series known as Iwata Asks, so that fans could learn more about the games that they loved so much. Iwata also launched Nintendo Direct. These were short videos, predominately broadcasted live, that announced gaming news in a way that showed off Nintendo’s fun and quirky side. Iwata often appeared in these Directs himself, showing us his passion for video games.
Nintendo had always been curious about 3D gaming. 3D Hot Rally was one of Iwata’s first games for Nintendo and he always wanted to further pursue the technology. Nintendo later tried with the Virtual Boy, and even had prototypes for 3D technology on the Game Boy Advance and the GameCube that never saw a retail release. Satoru Iwata finally got his chance to release a passion product of his with the Nintendo 3DS.
A concept of Luigi’s Mansion on the Nintendo GameCube had been made in 3D that took place on a 4-inch LCD screen. This was revolutionary for the time, but unfortunately the prototype never saw a retail release. However, the 3DS did receive Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon, and this tidbit sheds some light as to why the sequel landed on the handheld.
Iwata and his team wanted the 3D effect to be adjustable with the 3D Depth Slider. This allowed for varying levels of 3D in which the player could decide what level of depth they preferred at different sections of a game. This was the first example of varying levels of 3D ever created.
“What’s more, even the same person will desire differing depth of stereoscopy depending on the situation, and think things like, ‘I want it to be more three-dimensional here,’ or ‘Now I want it flat.’”
Unfortunately, the Nintendo 3DS didn’t see the initial success that the DS and Wii had. Sales were at an all time low for Nintendo, and Iwata was forced to cut the price of the system only after a few months into its lifespan. Iwata felt responsible for this disappointing launch, and took a 50 percent pay cut to avoid firing employees. He was not alone in this, as other top executives also took pay cuts, but none more drastic than the president himself.
While this is common practise in Japanese business, this still represented a great sense of leadership that Satoru Iwata had. He would admit to his own mistakes and take the blame head on, making him beloved by those who worked alongside him. During this time, he also turned to fans and uttered, “please understand”.
Following this downhill trend, the release of the Wii U one year later was met with similar disappointing sales figures. The system was marketed poorly and consumers weren’t sure what the Wii U actually was. Some people thought that it was simply an add-on to the Wii. The reveal trailer for the Wii U at E3 2011 led people to believe that is was just a new controller for the Wii. It never stated that it was a new console and had taglines such as: “Draw on the new controller” and “Play on the new controller”. The name ‘Wii U’ also led to confusion among the gaming community.
When the Wii U released in 2012, Nintendo kept going forward with the casual gaming strategy. However, smartphones and tablets were then beginning to increase in popularity and the fickle casual audience were no longer paying attention to Nintendo.
Nintendo’s following fiscal year reports were at an all time low and shareholders were beginning to lose faith. While the 3DS had begun gaining momentum with consumers, the Wii U did not. Iwata took full responsibility and chose to make changes where he saw necessary. Nintendo no longer chose to have press conferences at E3 and ultimately decided that the Nintendo Directs were a more efficient and cost effective way of announcing their games.
Nintendo later announced Amiibo which saw huge demand amongst fans. There were even some consumers who didn’t even own a modern Nintendo console but still bought a few of these figures. In 2015, Nintendo announced that they had achieved their first profitable year in four years and were getting ready for a big holiday season. Things were beginning to look up for Nintendo.
Iwata later announced that they were partnering with a mobile development company known as DeNA, despite previous anxieties towards the newly founded market. Fans were shocked and sceptical by this announcement, but Iwata put their minds at ease by stating that Nintendo were not going to abandon their consoles and that they had a new console in the works known as the NX. Iwata’s last official act at Nintendo still has ripples to this day, as their mobile gaming strategy is currently having a positive effect on Nintendo’s brand.
Taken Too Soon…
During a routine physical examination in 2014, Satoru Iwata was informed that he had a cancerous growth in his bile duct. He underwent a successful surgery, but when he appeared in the following Nintendo Direct, he had noticeably lost weight. However, Iwata didn’t let this affect his his positive attitude and he remained as cheerful and upbeat as ever. Iwata even changed his Mii character to reflect the weight that he had lost.
Iwata didn’t attend E3 2015 due to his illness, making it the second consecutive E3 he had missed. Despite being in hospital, Iwata continued to work from his bed, exchanging ideas with Tsunekazu Ishihara about a mobile title that later came to be Pokémon Go.
Later that month, Iwata attended a shareholders meeting in good spirits. However on July 11th, Satoru Iwata passed away at the age of 55.
The news shocked the video gaming community and fans gathered to pay their respects to one of the greats in gaming. Thousands attended his funeral on a rainy day, to which Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yuji Naka stated: “Even the sky in Kyoto is crying.”
Those within the gaming industry paid their respects on the day, including tweets from competitive companies.
Fans also took to the internet to pay their respects with art and heartwarming messages.
“One of the most overused words in the English language is ‘unique’. That’s what all of us want to be in some level or another, but very few of us truly are. Satoru Iwata was one who clearly was unique, in the fullest meaning of the word… on a personal level, he was my boss, he was my mentor, and he was my colleague, but most of all he was my friend.
– Reggie Fils-Aime
Despite Satoru Iwata’s passing, he continues to have an impact on the gaming community to this day. His belief that gaming should be for everyone continues to thrive throughout Nintendo with the Switch catering for every demographic. At the time of this article, the Switch has since seen a spike in core third-party support from companies such as Bethesda, EA, Ubisoft and From Software. However, Nintendo are continuing to release games that encourage players of all ages with titles such as 1-2-Switch, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Nintendo Labo. Nintendo’s next president, Tatsumi Kimishima, has stated that he intended to follow the path that Iwata had set out for Nintendo, and fans saw the fruits of that labor. One of Iwata’s last decisions as president was to sign a partnership with DeNA so that they could release their games on mobile devices. Iwata was initially against this idea, but the idea of reintroducing Nintendo’s IPs so that consumers are reminded of their consoles has appeared to have paid off.
Iwata has also had an overarching influence on the gaming landscape outside of Nintendo. He created a ripple effect that is still being seen to this day. We are still seeing the use of motion controls in aspects such as VR, and even touch screens in mobile gaming. Without Satoru Iwata, one could argue that gaming would still just be for the core gamers and that there would be less variety out there today. Iwata aimed to challenge the idea of gaming, and we can safely say that he has succeeded.
Early in the Nintendo Switch’s life, hackers were able to uncover a little secret in the console’s hardware. As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, one of Iwata’s first games (and one of his first big achievements) was programming Golf for the Famicom back in 1984. This game was later found in the Switch’s hardware under the filename “flog” and it was only able to be activated on July 11th (the day of Iwata’s passing) when the player would move the Joy-Cons in the same motion that Iwata would make in Nintendo Directs.
Enthusiasts (including popular YouTuber Gaijin Goombah) later theorized that this was an omamori charm in honor of the late president. For those who are not familiar with the concept of the omamori, they are charms said to contain a spiritual presence to bring the holder good luck and protection.
Having this embedded in each and every Nintendo Switch acts as a piece of Satoru Iwata that’ll be with us wherever we go as gamers.
Thank you for everything, Satoru Iwata. Rest in peace.
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