Two years ago, the video games industry lost an icon. I recall being at work that day, and late in the afternoon my phone had been buzzing, much more so than normal. It was one of those particularly busy days on the job, and when I left, the first thing that I saw on my phone was thus:
“Brandon, Satoru Iwata just passed.”
The simplest of sentences, with just a handful of words, threw me for a loop. People were rightfully upset. We knew that Iwata-san had complications leading up to his death, especially with the cancer diagnosis, but nobody expected him to be taken that quickly and out of the blue.
The death of Mr. Iwata was significant enough that the entire social media spectrum essentially stopped arguing amongst themselves and paid tribute to the man who had a strong hand in shaping the modern games industry. Having pioneered the era of the Nintendo DS and Wii, he was remembered as the public face of the company, the man who knew what everybody had wanted. With his quirky appearances in Nintendo Directs and his Iwata Asks column that went on the Nintendo site, he gave fans a rare look into the minds of gaming’s greatest icons within the company.
One of the more poignant points surrounding his passing was around the Nintendo Wii U. Nintendo had come out of an E3 conference with a weak showing, with a spinoff Metroid title that upset almost everybody, a few 3DS titles, and demonstrated a lack of promise for the floundering Nintendo Wii U. By this point in my timeline, I had sunken some decent cash into the Wii U and the lack of games got worse and worse. Third-party support was essentially non-existent. Iwata passed with the general public essentially disliking the company for a feeble showing. It’s one of the saddest notes because, if he had been alive now, he would have seen the strong success of the Nintendo Switch.
The Nintendo Switch launched with one of, in my opinion, the best games of all time in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Judging by the reactions and the immediate selling out of new Switch console stock everywhere, Nintendo is making the rounds again, but in great ways. The company finally found its bounce with a console that works. The main feature behind the console, the ability to play console-quality games on the go, changed how I play games forever. It’s a real shame that Mr. Iwata would not be able to see just how wonderfully this console has been received.
Looking at Iwata’s history in the games industry means going back to his school days. Iwata designed his first video game in high school, and went on to complete a computer science degree in Japan. During those years, he joined HAL Laboratories, and worked as a programmer collaborating with Nintendo, with a major release in 1983. HAL had faced some financial issues and Iwata later took over HAL Laboratories in 1993, bringing the company back to stability.
Iwata’s major shining era was when he joined Nintendo back in 2000, as a corporate planning head. Then-Nintendo president Yamauchi passed on the reins to Iwata in 2002, where he developed the Nintendo DS, Wii, and 3DS consoles. Iwata won many over at the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference, where he opened up his keynote speech with the following:
“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’s approach to leading the company worked, for the most part, because the company pursued a blue ocean strategy. The company pursued some risky endeavors, some of which were either shelved or not the grandest in reality, but with the success of the DS and Wii, Iwata had cemented himself and Nintendo as a juggernaut. With the lack of success in the 3DS and Wii U, Iwata finally chose to engage in the mobile gaming sphere with a partnership with DeNA, which launched the mobile title Miitomo. Nintendo finally stepped up its game and is demonstrating a strong sense of listening to its fans with the Nintendo Switch, which has seen a phenomenal lineup since launch and continuing for the rest of the year. Titles like Breath of the Wild opening the launch, followed up by Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and then ARMS, a great new fighting IP, and then again with Splatoon 2 later this month, with a large catalog coming out for the holidays made the Switch an incredibly well-justified purchase, much more so than the Wii U, which has become a distant memory of sorts.
The approach Satoru Iwata took in leading Nintendo made him a beloved icon in the industry. The love he had for Nintendo fans is a trait that will be dearly missed.