Satoru Iwata: 1959-2015
To say that I’m a Nintendo fan would be something of an understatement. The worlds that they created have always had a special kind of hold on me in the best possible way. Those worlds are more to me than just a distraction. They’ve inspired me, comforted me, and fueled my imagination for as long as I can remember. There are many people responsible for those worlds, but at the end of the day, it was one man’s job to take responsibility for them. I’ve thought a lot about what I would say to that man if I ever got the chance, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I would only need two words.
The man holding the bananas you see above is Satoru Iwata. He was the president and CEO of Nintendo, one of the largest entertainment companies in the world. He wasn’t a mysterious suit at the top of a long corporate ladder. He was a gamer who made his way to the top without losing sight of who he was, and what he was doing. He sold fun for a living, and he had fun doing it. He was a visionary, he was a goofball, and he passed away on July 11th. It can be sad when celebrities pass, but this one is hitting me a little differently than normal. Perhaps because he wasn’t a normal man.
Entertainment companies are strange entities. They touch our lives in incredibly personal ways, but we rarely get to learn much about the people who run them. Take music, for example. Everyone has a song that moves them, be it something that helped them through a tough time, or something that perfectly expresses what joy is to them. Those artists and what they created can mean a great deal to us, but they typically have no idea who we are. Take that a step forward to the record labels that distribute that music, and things get even more distant. If an artist is far removed from their audience, the label’s CEO is on an entirely different planet. Satoru Iwata took his job as president of Nintendo in a different direction. Instead of maintaining a serious, business-like attitude, he let his fans see the kind of man he really was: a quirky, lovable goofball. He was never afraid to make jokes at his own expense. He managed to walk the line, being respected enough to be taken seriously, while being approachable enough to not be taken too seriously. While Nintendo has always been a very secretive company, Iwata moved to bring a certain degree of transparency to what they were doing, while maintaining the high standards his predecessor set for the brand. Flling the shoes of the, let’s say eccentric Hiroshi Yamauchi was no small feat, but Iwata did so with grace and charm.
He had an honest to goodness muppet made of himself at the Jim Henson Creature Shop, which turned into a rabbit and told Shigeru Miyamoto to “do a barrel roll”.
Who he was is also a big part of what made him such a special CEO. He pushed the company to take risks. He celebrated when they paid off, and went so far as to take a 50% pay cut when they didn’t. He was confident yet humble, creative yet business savvy. He was a rare breed of CEO, and the world would be a better place if there were more like him. One of the first quotes I remember reading from him after his appointment to CEO was:
“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”
His leadership pushed Nintendo to create the Nintendo DS and Wii , two of the most successful gaming platforms of all time.
That quote could sound like corporate BS coming from anyone else, but Iwata believed what he said, and I believed him. No matter how dark things got for Nintendo, I never felt like they weren’t trying. The internet can be harsh on a lot of things, and in my experience, Nintendo attracts far more venom than any other game company. They get chastised for not being grown up enough, ignoring technology trends, and countless other things much more harshly than Sony, Microsoft, or even Sega. Sometimes, even often times, that criticism is warranted, but, Iwata never let it bother him. He and his company had a plan. When everyone thought that replacing the Game Boy brand was suicide, they released the Nintendo DS, the best selling portable game system of all time. When the internet cried foul (myself included) at a “kiddie” Legend of Zelda, they gave us The Wind Waker, which is one of the most beautiful games ever created. When the game industry was forging further and further into hardcore territory, Nintendo made a console your grandmother could play and named it Wii. Under Iwata’s leadership, Nintendo always strove for the unexpected. It was a bold strategy that didn’t always work out the way they wanted, but for every Wii Music, there was a Mario Galaxy. For every E3 2003, there was an E3 2014. Every stumble was followed by a Mario-sized jump in the air towards greatness. The game industry wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Nintendo, and that is largely thanks to Satoru Iwata.
This is taken from an actual Nintendo-produced video of Satoru Iwata fighting Reggie Fils-Aime, the president of Nintendo of America to promote Super Smash Bros.
On a more personal note, what Iwata’s role did for me was give me a place in the world of modern gaming. While I deeply respect the current industry leaders and the games they make, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Fallout just aren’t for me. Modern games are outstanding, and I’m thrilled that they exist, but I can’t play them. As PlayStation and Xbox started to become more and more prevalent, I felt like I was being left behind. Much of the Nintendo 64 era left me wanting as a gamer, but when the GameCube hit the shelves, suddenly games were beautiful again. Not only that, but they were being made with a certain classic sensibility that made things feel fresh and familiar all at once. Sure, the rest of the industry was forging ahead into a future of Halo, realism, and online voice chat, but Iwata lead his company to the future by a different road. One that was focused on fun above all else, and resulted in some of my favorite memories of the last 13 years.
How I felt when I heard the news.
During his time as president, I got to play The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker which has been my favorite video game of all time since, Metroid went 3D and completely blew me away, the Super Smash Bros. series brought me some of the craziest competitive gaming memories of my life, my favorite Nintendo character came back after a far-too-long hiatus in Kid Icarus: Uprising, Nintendo saved and published Bayonetta 2, The Nintendo DS and Wii became pop culture phenomenons, Super Mario Galaxy got an orchestral soundtrack, New Super Mario Bros proved that 2D gaming was not dead, I got into the healthiest shape of my life thanks to Wii Fit, Street Pass got me carrying around my 3DS like a crazy person, Earthbound made me smile, Virtual Console gave me my old games on my HDTV, Rhythm Heaven made me happy like no other, I played Mario Kart with my wife, I played 4-Swords with my friends, Sonic and Mario joined forces, Symphony of the Goddess brought tears to my eyes, the return of Punch-Out!! ruled my life, that first Twilight Princess trailer set my imagination on fire, I got my first paycheck as a Nintendo employee, Nintendo Power ended and gave birth to Nintendo Force, my friends banded together to surprise me with a Wii U at launch… this list could go on for days. Many of these may seem like small things, but to me, they were everything. Video games have always been more to me than just entertainment, and these memories rank right up there with some of the best moments of my life. The bottom line is, whether directly or indirectly responsible, all these things were possible because of Satoru Iwata’s actions. He didn’t know me personally, but he had a tremendous impact on my life, and I will always be indebted to him for that.
I didn’t know much about the man, but thanks to his quirky personality, and clear passion for video games, I always felt like I knew him. I can’t say that about any band, director, star, or CEO I’ve ever known of. Iwata may not have been the reason I fell in love with Nintendo, but he was certainly a big part of why I still love them today.
Now that he’s gone, I find myself thinking again of what I would say to him if I had the chance, and I keep coming back to the same two words. Even though I didn’t necessarily agree with all of his decisions, and I frequently didn’t understand, or even like the direction he was steering my favorite brand, I always, always respected the man, and trusted him with Nintendo’s future. He proved me wrong more often than not, and through the course of his career, he was responsible for delivering some of the best times of my life. So, if I had a chance to talk to him, I would only need two words.
Image courtesy of @projectTiGER_