Satoru Iwata: The Curious Genius

Late Sunday evening, Nintendo announced their President and CEO, Satoru Iwata, had passed away. Less than an hour later, Iwata’s name skyrocketed to the top of social media with a vast outpouring of condolences. But who was Satoru Iwata? For some, he was the visionary corporate strategist who fast tracked the Wii project into a global phenomenon. For others, he was a stationary leader, frequently dismissing the popularity of phones and tablets until earlier this year. But to Nintendo and technology at large, he was a fearless nonconformist. Discussing the Wii’s development in 2013, Iwata stated



“For me, I actually found that it would have been more frightening to take the conventional path.”


Iwata was born in the rapidly expanding city of Sapporo, the fourth largest city in Japan. Iwata displayed an early fondness for games and electronics. By the mid 1970’s, he had created a number of small games on his high school Hewlett-Packard HP-67 calculator, years before the popularization of video games in Japan. Iwata would jokingly refer to himself as the “number one master of calculators in Japan” Even the Japanese employees of Hewlett-Packard were impressed by the young student’s ability to override the system's step limitation and create a Star Trek game.


Iwata’s love of mathematics and algorithms continued to bloom, eventually attending the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1978. During this time, Iwata would begin development on early home computer systems. At age 20, he developed his first commercial game, Car Race ][ for the Commodore PET. A relatively simple game, Car Race required players to score points to extend their time. While the game never garnered much attention, Iwata would utilize his work as a resume.




HAL Laboratories quickly took note of the younger developer, hiring him in 1983. His first project was a sequel to Billiards, titled Super Billiards. Many fellow developers were impressed by the game’s then advanced physics system and quick development cycle. In 1984, Iwata would transition his focus from computers to home consoles with his work on the Famicom (Known as the Nintendo Entertainment System in America). In an interview with 4Gamer, Iwata expressed his desire to outshine Nintendo’s developers on their own console


“There was definitely a period of time after I began working at HAL when I sort of fancied myself to be the most proficient software engineer in the video games industry. Because I believed things like that I could write better NES code than even Nintendo's (EAD) engineers or that I could write the fastest, most compact code.”






Drawing from his physics and racing game experiences, Iwata helped develop Pinball and F1 Race for the Famicom in 1984. In 1985, Nintendo would publish Balloon Fight for their home console as well as an arcade version for their Nintendo Vs. System. The game was modern rendition of the Arcade classic, Joust. Players would glide their balloon-strapped hero into the air and gradually land on top the balloons of their airborne foes. Despite both versions running on similar hardware, the home version featured smoother animations. Nintendo’s Toshihiko Nakago asked Iwata how he altered the code, Iwata obliged


“That's when I told Nakago-san everything I knew. One thing I recommended was that instead of calculating the character's position using integers, they should also calculate it using decimal points, thereby doubling the precision. In this way, calculating gravity, buoyancy, acceleration and deceleration all become more precise and the movements look smoother. That's the kind of thing I explained at the time.”


Nakago was floored by the 24 year old Iwata’s advanced understanding of Nintendo’s own hardware. Later, Nakago would cite this conversation as a major influence to the original Super Mario Bros. underwater stages. Iwata would continue to provide guidance for a number of Nintendo games as an executive producer. He would go on to program Hole In One Professional, a golf game for the Famicom and the popular Japanese computer, the MSX. The game was a hit and an impressed Nintendo launched the Family Computer Golf series, or GOLF in North America.


By the early 1990’s, HAL Laboratories was experiencing serious financial difficulty. The company would turn to Iwata for guidance, becoming president of the company in 1993. Witnessing the success of their Game Boy title Kirby’s Dream Land, Iwata would help produce a full fledged sequel on the Famicom. While it’s successor, Super Famicom, had already received widespread adoption, it was decided the already popular NES would improve sales. The gamble paid off, with Kirby’s Adventure selling over 1.75 million copies worldwide. Iwata greenlite a series of Kirby titles on the Game Boy and Super Nintendo, each selling over a million copies.




With Hal Laboratories’ regained stability, Iwata turned his attention to the troubled development of Mother 2 (Known as Earthbound in North America). Iwata would help found Creatures Inc. (formally Ape Inc) to finish the project. While not a financial success in America, Earthbound became a bonafide cult classic, producing a sequel several years later. Creatures Inc. would later go on to develop the popular Pokemon card game, as well as a number of other Pokemon related toys and games.


Despite corporate success, Iwata’s heart was still in programing. He would voluntarily debug upcoming games and help younger programmers. Often the busy President would return to his lifelong hobby during his free time.


“Of course, I couldn't write code during the weekdays, but, well, my nights were my own, as they say. Or, I'd take work home on my days off and write code there. If I made anything cool, I'd bring it in to work on Monday to show it to everyone and they'd all be glad to look at it and that was fun for me.”


In 1998, Iwata’s long time friend, Masahiro Sakurai, approached him with an idea for a fighting game. Iwata became very excited at the prospect of working on an unfamiliar genera and began singlehandedly programing a prototype based on Sakurai’s designs. Iwata’s weekends were spent developing Dragon King: The Fighting Game, a unique 4 player fighting game requiring players to knock their opponents off screen. Masahiro and Iwata agreed the game would be better served with Nintendo characters. Despite Nintendo’s early resistance to the idea, Super Smash Bros would go on to be one of the company’s most popular franchises.


After nearly two decade, Iwata left Hal Laboratories to become the head of Nintendo Corporate Planning. During this time he worked alongside Nintendo’s longtime President, Hiroshi Yamauchi. Yamauchi recognized Iwata’s unique ability to work with programmers, designers, and fellow corporate executives. Unbenounced to Iwata, the 72 year old Yamauchi was preparing his retirement. In 2002, Yamauchi stepped down from his position after 53 years, with Iwata taking over as President and CEO of Nintendo. He would be the first head of Nintendo not related to the Yamauchi family.


But all was not well at Nintendo. The launch of the GameCube had underwhelmed investors and fans alike. Iwata worked with developers such as NAMCO and CAPCOM in publishing exclusives for their struggling home console. Iwata also helped reestablish relationships with Square-Enix after a nearly decade long absence from Nintendo consoles. Even Solid Snake joined the GameCube in the exclusive remake of the original Metal Gear Solid. In 2003, Iwata made the decision to cut the price of the GameCube to $99 dollars. But even with a growing library and competitive price, the GameCube sold just over 21 million units. A far cry from the PlayStation 2’s 155 million or the Xbox’s 24 million.


“In the end, the GameCube was built as an extension of its predecessors.”

“In fact, we shouldn't continue this business if our only target is to outsell GameCube.”


With a technological arms race on the horizon and Sony’s announcement of a handheld, Iwata would need to decide the future of Nintendo’s hardware. Rather than continue the trend of iteration, Iwata embraced a philosophy of reinvention. Before taking over as President, Iwata and Yamauchi approved the production of the Nintendo DS. The project was considered extremely risky, ditching the lucrative Game Boy for an alien concept. The DS would feature two screens in a folding clamshell case. While the technical specifications were an improvement to their prior handhelds, they were limited compared to Sony’s upcoming PlayStation Portable. Former President Yamauchi proclaimed "If the DS succeeds, we will rise to heaven, but if it fails we will sink to hell." Iwata took a cheerier tone.


“We believe that the Nintendo DS will change the way people play video games and our mission remains to expand the game play experience. Nintendo DS caters for the needs of all gamers whether for more dedicated gamers who want the real challenge they expect, or the more casual gamers who want quick, pick up and play fun.”




Iwata’s “Blue Ocean” strategy proved fruitful thanks to the DS’s unique bottom touch screen. People who had long shied away from playing games due to complex control schemes quickly adapted to tapping away. Casual titles such as the pet simulator Nintendogs and the puzzle collection Brain Age garnered a fanbase of all ages and backgrounds, as well as selling tens of millions of units. Iwata’s first launched console was a hit, selling more than 14 million units in its first year. It would go on to sell over 154 million units, making it the best selling handheld game system of all time.


Though Nintendo’s handheld division remained profitable, their home console market continued to slump. Sony and Microsoft were each preparing a jump into high definition with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Iwata and Miyamoto became concerned that another head to head battle might once again leave Nintendo in third place. Both agreed their time and resources would be better spent in research and development instead of manufacturing. They wanted a system that could be instantly understood with a relatively simple controller. Most of all they wanted a console that could be enjoyed together with “games that even the people watching can enjoy”




Its codename would be Revolution but it would come to be known simply as Wii. A drastically underpowered device compared to its competitors, the Wii would forego an HDMI cable for it’s signature motion controls. The packed-in title Wii Sports would educate the players of the Wii Remote's functionality. The concept was universally embraced, purchased, and enjoyed across the world. Nintendo had completely altered the video game landscape. Sony and Microsoft immediately began production on motion controllers of their own. For years, retailers struggled to meet up with consumer demand, resulting in the Wii becoming the hottest gift for back to back holiday seasons. By 2015, the Wii had sold over 100 million units, blowing away the competition and securing a spot as the second best selling home console of all time. In financial circles, Iwata was considered a visionary CEO, often compared to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.


For many game enthusiasts, Iwata became the face of Nintendo alongside their American president Reggie Fils-Aime and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Unlike his predecessors, Iwata would speak directly to his audiences during Nintendo’s E3 and GDC presentations. In 2006, Iwata would create Iwata Asks, as series where the CEO would interview Nintendo’s game creators and hardware designers. In 2011, Iwata would yet again reinvent the way Nintendo communicated with their customers with the Nintendo Direct livestream presentations. Rather than waiting for trade shows to provide a stage to announce new projects, Iwata would create his own. Unlike the dramatic showcases of other companies, Iwata’s interviews and presentations were humorous, casual, and bright.


But times were rapidly changing. The once novel idea of touchscreens became widely adopted by cellphone and tablet manufacturers. Nintendo’s latest handheld system, the 3DS, failed to capture an audience early on. But Iwata acted swiftly, slashing the price from $250 to $170. This would mark the first time a Nintendo would sell a console at a loss. Sales gradually picked up but investors and analysts began to question the direction of the company. In an effort to regain stockholder confidence, Iwata announced Nintendo executives would voluntarily receive a temporary salary reduction. His would be the most drastic.


“For cuts in fixed salaries, I’m taking a fifty percent cut, other representative directors are taking a 30 percent cut, and other execs are taking a 20 percent cut.”


Concern over Iwata’s leadership continued to grow with the launch of the Wii’s successor, the Wii U. Emulating their own DS brand, the Wii U would feature a large controller with a 6 inch touch screen. Many consumers confused the GamePad Controller as a peripheral to the already existing Wii, a console many users had already abandoned. Despite a year long head start, the Wii U would quickly be outsold by the PlayStation 4 and eventually the Xbox One. Investors unfamiliar with the video game industry were furious. How could Nintendo’s stock lose half it’s value in less than only a few years? How could Nintendo fail to meet their projected sales every fiscal year? Why was the Wii U sold at a loss? Iwata would once again offer up half his salary to garner support.




Returning to third place, Nintendo would need to reinvent itself. In 2015, Iwata announced a number of planned adjustments. Club Nintendo, a service designed to provide rewards for Nintendo console and game owners, would be shut down in lieu of a more modern system. Iwata would answer the demands of many analysts and investors with the announcement of Nintendo’s partnership with mobile developer DeNA. Nintendo’s first mobile title is expected later this year. But Iwata stayed firm on his beliefs, referring to some of Nintendo’s titles as “Free To Start” instead of the industry standard “Free To Play” Longtime Nintendo fans were assured a new traditional console would arrive in the future. More information on the NX will be revealed next year.


“So, with the plans for our smart device efforts, that will also take on this theme of giving people opportunities to learn from one another about games, and giving games an opportunity to spread across different generations of people, and give people more opportunity to communicate with one another about games. And I want to say that we’re going to be putting forth some effort to be able to provide some factual data that supports these viewpoints.”


Though Iwata continued to make time for interviews and shareholder meetings, his public appearance lessened. In 2014, it was revealed Iwata would not being attending the video game industry’s most significant trade show, E3. Iwata was suffering from a bile duct growth and entered surgery shortly thereafter. He would return to work after a brief four month absence. At the request of his personal doctors, Iwata would not physically attend E3 2015, though he would voice himself as a muppet for the event’s Nintendo Direct. Four weeks before his death, Iwata would alter his Mii character to reflect his weight loss.


“I have become a little slim because of the surgery for my disease last June. My body weight hasn’t changed since being discharged, so I decided to adjust my official Mii. Thank you. #Iwatter”


On July 11th, 2015, Satoru Iwata passed away while staying at the Kyoto University Hospital. He was 55 years old. From an ambitious teenager creating games to impress his friends, to the head of the most recognizable name in video games, Iwata remained humble, quirky, and joyful. As he once said


“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.”


Today, he’s a legend.