“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a programmer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”
Many gamers and Nintendo fans were left aghast when Satoru Iwata suddenly passed from bile duct growth on July 11th. Many mourned the quirky engineering CEO from Nintendo who navigated the company through both its hardest of times and its wealthiest.
Insiders who knew Iwata and were with him until the end were aware of his ongoing problems with cancer. In 2014, Iwata suddenly cancelled his E3 plans for surgery to remove a tumor. Doctors said they were lucky to have caught it early, which was why it was such a big shock for everyone that it came back and ultimately took Iwata’s life. He worked until the end, even attempting to visit 2015’s E3 presentation — only to cancel on doctor’s orders.
Iwata succeeded Hiroshi Yamauchi as Nintendo’s 4th President of Japan, and was the first person not related to the Yamauchi family to take the position. He started off in HAL Laboratory in Tokyo in the 1980s, helping to develop the Kirby franchise and later one of Nintendo’s biggest selling titles, Super Smash Bros. 64. Iwata claimed he had been “hooked on programming since high school” and was responsible for porting Pokemon to the N64 in Pokemon Stadium — a feat he accomplished within a week.
However, HAL Laboratory was starting to go through some severe financial difficulties at the time. Iwata proved he had bigger guts than anyone else at the company and steered it back into the black. Yamauchi recognized his natural talent as a leader and promoted him to oversee Nintendo’s Corporate Planning Division. Soon after, he was elected as the new Nintendo President around the time the Gamecube hit shelves.
Iwata was left to steer Nintendo through yet another road of difficulty, as the Gamecube proved to be a flop. He saw eye to eye with the former Nintendo president, however, and realized technology and graphics alone would not save the company.
“Please understand, I am not saying technology is unimportant. But if we are focusing on just technology, we will not succeed.”
During his tenure, the Nintendo DS and Wii came out, both being critical successes and flying off the shelves faster than Nintendo could produce them. Their plan worked — the inexpensive console, quirky and innovative gameplay mixed with casual player friendly games caused the Wii to be in heavy competition with Sony for the best selling console of all time.
While many investors criticized Iwata for some of his riskier decisions, such as the Wii U, he stood firm and never backed down. He believed in his employees and his decisions with a confidence almost unseen in any other CEO. Instead of laying off employees, he made cuts to his own paycheque to support them, saying “employees who fear being laid off will not make games to impress people around the world.”
Above all, he was approachable and friendly. He was a rare CEO who was “liked by everyone” and his sense of humour shined with Nintendo Direct. While many CEOs would stick to boardrooms and stay out of public sight, Iwata delighted talking to and interacting with fans. He made Nintendo the fun, eccentric company it is today with a real child-at-heart feeling known by many fans. Nintendo retained its child friendly format through Iwata as well, so that people would continue to grow up with the company, like the adult fans who grew up with Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto’s games in the 1980s.
That was why it was so much more devastating with his sudden passing, as many fans, children and employees who grew familiar with the smiling Nintendo CEO were suddenly left floundering. Iwata was responsible for saving the company through the terrible Gamecube and Wii U phases, and Iwata had a plan to save the company again.
But above all that, every Nintendo fan remembers Iwata not as a CEO, but as a person. Like a dear ol’ Dad who made corny jokes and would excitedly share with you the new gadget he got. He was a gamer, like me and you.
Rest in peace, Satoru Iwata.