Satoru Iwata (Part 1): Before Working at Nintendo

Satoru Iwata (Part 1): Before Working at Nintendo
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Satoru Iwata was loved and respected by coworkers and fans all around the world. We all knew Iwata as president of Nintendo, but his path to reaching this highpoint has its own story…

Growing Up

Satoru Iwata was born in Sapporo, Japan on December 6, 1959. From a young age, he showed promising signs of his intelligence as he enjoyed reading encyclopedias in his spare time. His father, Hiroshi Iwata, served as a prefectural official and always wanted his son to do the same. However, Satoru Iwata was always fascinated by technology and wanted to pursue its possibilities.

Iwata had a very busy life throughout high school. He showed promising leadership skills from an early age and respected the opinions of those around him.

When Iwata was a teenager, the Sapporo Subway had set up pay-by-the-hour computers. Playing on these computers were Iwata’s first experience with video games, and he would play a game called Game 31 every weekend.

Iwata worked part-time washing dishes and saved up enough money buy a Hewlett Packard 65. This calculator had a magnetic card reader on its side that allowed users to write and input simple programs. With this, he created his first of many video games (a baseball game), as well as various number games. A sense of pride would well up inside him when he saw his friends playing and enjoying his creations. Ever since then, Satoru Iwata was convinced that his future was in creating video games.


Finding His Way

In April 1978, Satoru Iwata enrolled at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and majored in engineering and computer sciences, as there were no courses available for video game design at the time. Iwata felt that he wasn’t challenged during these courses as he had dedicated so much of his time in high school to learning as much as he could about computers.

Iwata bought himself a Commodore PET 2001 with the money he had received for graduating. He would spend days disassembling and reassembling his computer in order to learn more about the insides of computers and gaming technology. 

However, Iwata’s true passion was making video games. He aspired to share his knowledge and his games so that he too could learn more. However, computers were expensive back then and not many students at his school were able to own one.

The first game that Iwata had programmed and officially released was Car Race. He was able to make this game while working as an Intern at the Commodore Tokyo Offices.

Car Race was a very basic racing game that had a simple black and yellow color-pallet. The aim of the game was to drive past as many other cars as possible, racing against the clock and building up a high score.

Iwata often hung out with friends who shared in his passion for computers and video games at a Seibu department store. He would often bring in his own games and offered advice to whomever would listen. Iwata was in his element around those who shared in his passions of computers and video games, and his talents did not go unnoticed. Iwata was asked to join a new company that a few friends were forming; this company was HAL Laboratory. The name was craftily chosen so that each letter put them one step ahead of IBM.

Iwata joined part-time as the only programmer while he was still enrolled at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. However he wasn’t just a programmer; as the company was still in its early days, he also worked as an engineer, game marketer, designer and he would often quip that he was the one to order food and clean up around the small single bedroom apartment that they conducted their work in Akihabara.

The first peripheral that Iwata and his coworkers at HAL created was the PCG. As computers lacked processing power in the early 80s, this peripheral allowed computers with no graphic display abilities to display graphics. This was a revolutionary invention at the time and helped paved the way for the development of computer graphic technology.

In 1982, a young starry-eyed Satoru Iwata graduated from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and agreed to work at HAL full-time.

“The first company I worked for was HAL Laboratory. It was a tiny company. When I began there, I was one of only five workers. So my parents were vehemently opposed. For about half a year… my father didn’t speak to me. Although we did argue. I had abnormally strong faith in the future. Confidence without any basis. Youth is a wonderful thing!”

– Satoru Iwata

Satoru Iwata’s father wasn’t happy with his son’s decision to work for a startup video game company. However, Iwata refused to let this stand in his way. He had strong faith that the path he was following was the correct one, and his confidence spurred him on to continue. Satoru Iwata later went on to become Coordinator of Software Production at HAL and took on a lot of overseeing roles at the company.

After a short while working full-time at HAL, Nintendo released the Famicom in Japan. Iwata fell in love with the console’s concept and was convinced that this was the future of video games. He was determined to be apart of this new movement and HAL had soon begun developing games for Nintendo.



Iwata’s First Games for Nintendo

The Famicom had a similar chip set as the computers that he had tinkered with growing up. At their meeting with Nintendo, Iwata appeared to know more about the hardware than Nintendo themselves had. Nintendo were happy to let HAL Laboratory begin developing games for the Famicom, and thus the long-lasting partnership was born.

With all of this knowledge about the Famicom’s hardware Satoru Iwata was immediately put to work. His first task was to develop Joust, a game originally created by Atari, for the Famicom. He was given a short deadline of only three months, to which he finished it in two. The deal between Nintendo and Atari did not proceed, so Joust didn’t see store shelves for another four years.

Nevertheless, Nintendo were very impressed with Iwata’s programming abilities, and they gave him the task to fix their game Pinball. The game was initially planned to be released in 1983, but had to be pushed back due to complication. So Iwata got to work and was able to finish the game and release it the next year. HAL Laboratory worked on the ball movement and the way that the flippers responded. They did such a good job on it that they reused this work on a later Game Boy title: Pokémon Pinball.

Iwata then got to work on a few more titles for the Famicom, including a simply named Golf.

At the time, Golf was a technical marvel. Nintendo had reached out to many software development companies about creating a golf game for the Famicom. They all declined saying that it was impossible to fit a golf game that contained 18 holes onto a cartridge. Iwata saw this as a challenge and created his own compression routine. This was a practice that was very uncommon for the time, but Iwata recklessly agreed to undertake the challenge. His innovation paid off and Golf was released on the Famicom in 1984.

HAL Laboratory, and especially Satoru Iwata, were beginning to make their presence known. They earned the respect of many big names at Nintendo, including their president at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi. Nintendo’s president was so impressed that he invested money into HAL Laboratory, making the company a second-party developer for Nintendo.

With this change in structure, Iwata was promoted to Development Manager. The first game that Iwata programmed after the changes was Balloon Fight, a game that has had some cameos in various Nintendo titles over the years. The game ran so smoothly on the Famicom, that it even ran better than the arcade version; a feat that was very rare at the time. The calculations to to track the player’s movement was so accurate that they used the same process for the underwater levels in Super Mario Bros.

Iwata then got to work on 3D Hot Rally, but he had sensed that it was missing a certain flare to it. He then looked at some of Shigeru Miyamoto’s work, such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda; he wondered what it was that made these games stand out. Iwata then worked closely with Miyamoto and made some changes that better captured that Nintendo magic. You may even recognize some unique faces in the image below.

The game was released in 1988 and Iwata learned that the content of a game is more important than its technical achievements. Being a good engineer is one thing, but imagination is really where games flourish. Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto gained respect for one another and went on to have a long-lasting professional relationship and friendship.


President of HAL

In 1991, HAL Laboratory was in extreme debt as they had recently built a new office for their expanding business as well as Japan’s poor economic state at the time. HAL needed a new hit, something that contained that Miyamoto charm. Satoru Iwata had a knack for foreseeing gaming trends and Hisroshi Yamauchi took notice of this. Yamauchi agreed to assist in recuperating this debt, but only if Satoru Iwata was to be made president of HAL Laboratory. Iwata reluctantly agreed and immediately set to work at paying back the 1.5 billion yen that the company owed.

During this period, Iwata had begun displaying his leadership skills that would ultimately land him the top job at Nintendo. He spoke to each employee to learn more about them and their currently assigned tasks. His top priority was assigning employees to the correct tasks to increase productivity.

It was during this period of struggle that Iwata stumbled upon a young creator with a revolutionary idea – a 19 year old Masahiro Sakurai with a pink puff ball called Twinkle Popo. They wanted to create a brand new IP that was easily accessible for people of all ages, but still offered a lot of challenge. However, the initial reception did not meet expectations and Miyamoto suggested re-branding it. And so, Kirby was born. 星のカービィ (Kirby’s Dreamland) then went on to sell over five million copies, adding to Iwata’s newfound belief that there is magic in accessibility.


“What Kind of Company President is This!?”

During Iwata’s time as president of HAL, he took on an unorthodox role within the company. He fulfilled his role as president, but also did hands-on work with the development of many titles both within and outside of HAL.

Mother 2 (Earthbound) was struggling in its production and they went to Iwata for help. Iwata thought that it was best to restart the project from scratch (whilst still keeping the game’s art designs) rather than trying to mend all of its issues. They did just that and the game was completed and released in less than a year.

A few years later, Game Freak had released Pocket Monsters Red and Pocket Monsters Green in Japan to critical success. Hiroshi Yamauchi urged them to localize the games for the western audience, but Satoshi Tajiri (Game Freak president) found the task to be too difficult due to the games’ text and issues with the source code. With Iwata’s previous success of fixing games in order to see a release, he was put to the task alongside Teruki Murakawa. They determined that in order to release the games internationally, they needed to make an entirely new version that was more polished. Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue released in in North America and Australia in 1998, and was an instant phenomenon.

“I think it’s amazing that the biggest hit the game industry has ever had, Pokémon, was a Game Boy game. I think there’s so much to learn from that. Cutting-edge graphics and impressive CGI are tools, but they aren’t the only tools we have.”

– Satoru Iwata

Iwata always saw the importance of gameplay and innovation over graphical fidelity. He continued with this philosophy throughout the rest of his career.

When Game Freak were developing Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64, they realised that they had no specification documents left for the battle system. Iwata didn’t work at either Game Freak nor Nintendo, but he acted as an intermediary between them. He studied the original source code for the battle system and was able to successfully implement it in Pokémon Stadium in just one week.

“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!?”

– Shigeki Morimoto

As development for the Pokémon sequels (Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver) progressed, Iwata created compression tools that would allow for the games to contain the original Kanto regions in addition to the new Johto region. This became a monumental success and the team at Game Freak were amazed as to how much he could fit onto a Game Boy cartridge.

Iwata also helping Masahiro Sakurai in the development of Super Smash Bros., an unorthodox fighting game that featured many beloved Nintendo characters duking it out, for the Nintendo 64. Iwata gave Sakurai the green light to begin development, but HAL didn’t have any spare developers to assist him, so he took it upon himself to help bring the game to life.

Iwata had finally managed to pull HAL Laboratory out of its 1.5 billion yen debt. Nintendo’s president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, then offered Iwata the head of corporate planning position at Nintendo, to which he accepted.


Satoru Iwata helped HAL Laboratory out of its debt and turned it into a company that is still making games for Nintendo today. He played a very active role as president, always willing to help other developers who didn’t even work at HAL. Iwata followed his dreams and always had faith in his path in creating video games.

As we all know, his journey did not end here. Click here for Part 2 of the article, which goes through his role at Nintendo, both before and while he was president. 


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