Satoru Iwata, the president of Nintendo who oversaw the company’s massive success with the DS handheld and Wii home console and a prolific game developer with a career that spanned more than 30 years, died on Saturday. He was 55.
Iwata’s death was due to a bile duct growth. Nintendo announced his passing in a press release.
He was appointed president of Nintendo in May 2002, succeeding Hiroshi Yamauchi. He became CEO of Nintendo of America in June 2013. He was just the fourth president in the company’s history since its founding in 1889 and the first outside of the Yamauchi family founders.
Iwata missed E3 last year in June for a surgery to remove the cancerous growth in his bile duct. He went in for a routine check-up where his doctors detected the cancer early on and he began receiving treatment. He was also absent from this year’s E3 showing.
Iwata saw the highs and lows of the company through new hardware and software releases.
He oversaw the revitalization and continual worldwide growth of Nintendo with the DS handheld and Wii home console. The DS sold more than 154 million worldwide since its November 2004 release, while the Wii sold more than 101 million units in its lifetime since its November 2006 launch.
The DS family of handhelds, the successor to the long-line of successful Game Boy systems, introduced touch screen gaming with popular games like Brain Age (2005-06) and other Nintendo franchises using a dual-screen design. The Wii brought gaming to the masses with accessible titles like Wii Sports using the Wiimote and Nunchuk motion controllers.
Before his executive role at Nintendo though, Iwata started as a game creator.
Iwata was born Dec. 6, 1959 in Sapporo, Japan, the capital of the northern Hokkaido island. His father was an official. Iwata was fascinated with computers and games from a young age. One of his early favorite games was Pong. He took apart, studied and programmed on a Commodore PET computer in the ’70s, which had a similar CPU design to the future Nintendo Entertainment System. This knowledge would give Iwata a distinct advantage when he later worked with Nintendo.
As a teenager in the late ’70s he programmed games on a Hewlett-Packard HP-65 calculator, the first of its kind at that time. Iwata designed a baseball game that he showed to his friends in high school, who all enjoyed playing it. He credits this experience as one of the reasons he wanted to develop video games for a living.
While a sophomore in college at the Tokyo Institute of Technology studying computer science and engineering, Iwata co-founded HAL Laboratory, Inc., a small company started in February 1980 with a few fellow programmers he met at a computer store. They picked the name because each letter was one step above IBM. The group rented a small apartment in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, programming games after classes. Iwata decided to work at the company full-time after graduating college in 1982, becoming the lead game designer.
“My father didn’t talk to me for about six months after I joined HAL,” Iwata said. “They must have thought I was joining a religious cult.”
HAL would later have a close working relationship with Nintendo, uniquely tied to the company and some of its most popular games. The company made computer peripherals, ports of arcade titles and created games like Pinball and Adventures of Lolo for the NES throughout the ’80s. Iwata became the president of HAL in 1993, eventually turning around the company that was on the brink of bankruptcy from large financial debts. Nintendo played an important role in the turnaround, financially backing the company’s development for games on several of its platforms.
As a developer and programmer, Iwata created Balloon Fight (1985-86) for the NES and Earthbound/Mother 2 (1994) for the Super Nintendo, turning around the game’s difficult and lengthy development by rewriting almost all its code by himself. He helped create the Kirby franchise with games like Kirby’s Dream Land (1992) for the Game Boy, Kirby’s Adventure (1993) for the NES and several more Kirby titles throughout the years.
Iwata was also involved with the Pokemon series, helping localize Pokemon Red and Green (1996) for the North American audience in the fall of 1998, which would go on to sell millions. He worked with the Pokemon Gold and Silver line for the Game Boy Color, compressing the game’s code so the Kanto region could all fit on the cartridge when its developer struggled to complete the same task. He even single-handedly programmed the battle system in Pokemon Stadium (1998) for the N64 based on the Pokemon Red and Green code in only a week without any documentation, amazing the developers at Game Freak who joked, “Is that guy a programmer? Or is he the president?”
Iwata was the producer on the original Super Smash Bros. that released for the N64 in early 1999, encouraging HAL Laboratory and creator Masuhiro Sakurai (who also created the Kirby character) to make a competitive fighting game based on a prototype called Dragon King: The Fighting Game. Iwata programmed most of this early concept from Sakurai, with Nintendo eventually approving the use of its characters for the cast of the game that would become one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises.
Iwata officially joined Nintendo in June 2000 as head of corporate planning. Almost two years later he was appointed president at only 42 years old, a young age for the main executive of a Japanese company. Iwata was the first president of Nintendo who started his career in game development before taking on managerial roles, bringing a unique perspective to the position.
Even as a high-ranking Nintendo official, Iwata still made use of his incredible programming skills. He made sure Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) for the GameCube released on time, fixing bugs in the game’s coding himself for three weeks before the game’s launch.
Later in his career he was the executive producer on Animal Crossing (2001) for the GameCube. He was also credited on many Nintendo titles throughout the years, his input felt on numerous games.
He continued to be passionate about games while managing one of the biggest and most influential companies in the history of the industry.
“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,” Iwata said at the Games Developers Conference in 2005.
He also was in charge during the GameCube era, Nintendo’s follow-up to the Nintendo 64 that launched in November 2001 for North America, facing stiff competition from Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s first home console, the Xbox. The GameCube sold close to 22 million units in its lifetime, with experimental games of Nintendo franchises like Luigi’s Mansion, Super Mario Sunshine, Star Fox Adventures, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and the Metroid Prime series making up for a lack of third-party games.
Yamauchi described why he chose Iwata as his successor in 2002. “Taking into account the things I’ve encountered in my experiences as Nintendo president, I have come to the conclusion that it requires a special talent to manage a company in this industry. I selected Iwata-san based on that criteria,” Yamauchi said. “Over the long-term I don’t know whether Iwata-san will maintain Nintendo’s position or lead the company to even greater heights of success. At the very least, I believe him to be the best person for the job.”
After the GameCube Iwata took the company in a much different direction with the Wii. His vision paid off for Nintendo in what would define Iwata’s tenure as president. The enormous success of the Wii gave Nintendo a period of popularity it hadn’t seen since the NES days. The shift in philosophy with the Wii proved to be the right gamble.
Iwata believed that games needed to create new and unique experiences, otherwise the medium would become stagnant.
“If all we were to ever do is just continue to make sequels and not do anything new or different, people would view us as a very conservative company and a company that is unwilling to really take new initiatives and embark on new adventures,” Iwata said in a 2006 interview. “That’s not the type of person I am and not the kind of company I want Nintendo to be.”
Iwata faced the challenge of Nintendo being pulled in different directions, from the rise of mobile gaming to a shift in the home console market with high-end graphics and online multiplayer gaming. Nintendo is often accused of being slow to react to the mobile growth on Apple and Android platforms and the popularity of online gaming and social features found on other consoles. The company is also criticized for lacking the third-party relationships that its competition has on the PlayStation and Xbox platforms.
The decline of the 3DS, which released in March 2011 to struggling sales, was a challenge for Nintendo and its president. The more powerful handheld with 3D effects didn’t initially take off with consumers like the DS did. Iwata announced a massive price cut for the system less than six months after the handheld’s launch, dropping the cost from $249.99 to $169.99 because of slow sales and to promote its upcoming game releases later that year like Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7.
The 3DS now has more than 52 million worldwide sales in part to that steep price cut and a strong game library grown over the past several years.
The company continued to post poor financial results in recent years. When Nintendo began declining from the slow growth of its new 3DS and halting Wii sales, Iwata took a 50 percent voluntary pay cut in July 2011. He took another pay cut in early 2014 for several months due to the Wii U struggles, taking personal responsibility for the disappointments. He refused to lay off employees, believing a short-term financial gain wouldn’t benefit Nintendo’s long-term health. “I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world,” Iwata said.
He oversaw Nintendo’s current home console in the Wii U, the system that launched in November 2012 and has sold only 9.5 million consoles worldwide. The console’s tablet controller, unclear marketing and high price point negatively affected its growth, which some in the company admit hasn’t connected with the same audience like the Wii did. Even with some of Nintendo’s best first-party games, Wii U sales haven’t caught on, and might not ever.
The Wii U’s tablet, with few games taking true advantage of its potential, hasn’t helped Nintendo take over the home console market. Many consumers didn’t know the Wii U was actually a brand-new console, not an accessory to the Wii, due to poor the company’s poor marketing and lack of a clear vision.
Iwata is survived by his wife Kayoko. Close friends, colleagues, the game industry and fans around the world showed an outpouring of sympathy over his passing.
“I am truly surprised and saddened by this unexpected news,” Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario creator and senior managing director at Nintendo, said in a statement. “The entire development team at Nintendo will remain committed to our development policy which Mr. Iwata and we have been constructing together and to yield the development results which Mr. Iwata would appreciate.”
“Sad day for Iwata-san’s family, friends, and gamers everywhere. His passion, creativity & leadership elevated our industry,” Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, said. “Iwata-san will be sorely missed,” Jack Tretton, former president of Sony Computer Entertainment America, said. “Thanks to his vision and leadership, millions of gamers around the world have been entertained and inspired. His contributions will never be forgotten.”
The official PlayStation Twitter wrote the message, “Thank you for everything, Mr. Iwata.”
As president he was featured in the Nintendo Direct online videos for the past several years, outlining the company’s new game releases and important announcements directly to the community. In these Directs Iwata was often included in self-depreciating and humorous sketches that featured other Nintendo executives and popular characters, behavior highly unlike that of a president residing over a multi-billion dollar company.
He was also part of the“Iwata Asks” features on Nintendo’s website, interviewing other Nintendo creators about game development, their history, processes and philosophies in a personalized and intimate way.
Iwata was shaping Nintendo’s next transitional phrase in the company’s history. He was planning Nintendo’s future hardware, codenamed “NX,” rumored to be a platform with an all-new design philosophy. Iwata also announced that Nintendo games would be put on smartphones in a collaboration with DeNA, a Japanese mobile company, an idea which Nintendo resisted for years. Iwata’s influence on these new concepts for the company could all change Nintendo’s situation just like the Wii did almost 10 years ago.
Nintendo hasn’t announced a replacement for Iwata.
“He was a strong leader for our company, and his attributes were clear to most everyone: Intelligence, creativity, curiosity and sense of humor,” Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, said in a statement. “But for those of us fortunate enough to work closely with him, what will be remembered most were his mentorship and, especially, his friendship. He was a wonderful man. He always challenged us to push forward…to try the new…to upset paradigms—and most of all, to engage, excite and endear our fans. That work will continue uninterrupted.”
Under Iwata Nintendo expanded the growth of video games to a wider audience of millions of people who might not have ever played a game before. That will be Iwata’s legacy, bringing happiness and enjoyment through what he believed games should be.
“Video games are meant to be just one thing. Fun. Fun for everyone.”