In Pictures: The Captivating Career of Satoru Iwata
With the passing of Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, the video game industry has lost one of its most bold and inspiring luminaries. To honour Nintendo's fourth CEO, GameSpot has put together a short gallery chronicling Iwata's career, starting from aspiring developer to iconic president. Images for this gallery were found on the official GDC Flickr (http://bit.ly/1O0S20D)
Satoru Iwata was born on December 6, 1959 and raised in Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido, the largest and northernmost of Japan's 47 prefectures. Iwata’s love of gaming began at a very early age, as did his ambition to develop them. According to Iwata, the first game he ever played was Pong, which he “loved.” This spurred him to buy a Hewlitt Packard Pocket Calculator, which he used to program a baseball video game.
Iwata joined the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1978 and enrolled to study engineering and computer science. At the time, game programming was not commonly taught. Despite being unable to study game programming, Iwata’s innate desire to create games pushed him to independently seek out avenues through which he could realise his dream. Instead of studying, he travelled to a Tokyo department store--the first in the city dedicated to PCs--and met like-minded people with dreams of game design and development.
With the friends he made hanging out at the PC retailer, Iwata moved into an apartment in Akihabara, where he spent nights designing and programming games. The group would eventually form a company called HAL. Though Iwata didn’t know it at the time, this studio would deliver some of Nintendo’s most cherished video games including Mother, Kirby, Smash Bros., and more. HAL was named after the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Following the completion of his studies, Iwata became the fifth full-time employee of HAL. By his own account, he joined “the smallest company of any graduate in [his] class.” At HAL, he was a programmer, an engineer, designer, and also marketed the team’s games, “ordered food, and helped clean up.”
The small team at HAL eventually began hearing whispers about a project at Nintendo which involved the development of a machine “capable of incredible new graphics.” Convinced the hardware would be the platform for HAL’s breakout success, the team arranged a meeting with Nintendo. Its first task, however, was a rescue mission. Iwata and his colleagues were put to work with helping bring a game that had fallen behind schedule to completion. That game would eventually be released as NES Pinball.
HAL’s consistency earned it a close relationship with Nintendo and, over time, it was given the opportunity to develop franchises that would go on to become Nintendo icons, such as Kirby. However, its early days were spent doing work-for-hire arcade ports. In between it released numerous entries in the Eggerman series (known in the West as the Adventures of Lolo). As well as this, members of the HAL team took on consultancy work to keep the company afloat.
HAL would go on to work with Shigesato Itoi, a renowned Japanese writer, on his first game: Mother. Much, much later (E3 2015, in fact), the role-playing game would be released in the West as Earthbound Beginnings. Thanks to its unique visual style and mature themes, the Earthbound series as a whole has amassed a passionate cult following.
In 2000, Iwata became head of Nintendo’s corporate planning division. Two years later, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who had served as company president since 1949, retired and Iwata succeeded him as the fourth Nintendo president. He was the first Nintendo president who not part of the Yamauchi family through blood or marriage since it was established in 1889 as a Hanafuda card company.
Iwata’s appointment as the head of Nintendo came in the heat of a crisis. At the time, the Nintendo GameCube’s performance was being eclipsed by its main competitor, the PlayStation 2, and faced stiff competition from Microsoft’s first ever console, the Xbox. It was around then that Iwata began to think about distinguishing Nintendo’s consoles from its rivals, and also appealing to a wider audience by creating approachable, creative experiences.
Iwata’s vision for a successful new Nintendo was defined by “lateral thinking with seasoned technology,” a principle developed by Gunpei Yokoi, father of the Game Boy, Game & Watch, the modern day directional pad, and creator of iconic franchises such as Metroid. It posited that a creative person could take mature technology and find radical new ways of using it to create transformative experiences. The first fruit of this ideology was the Nintendo DS which, in the face of adversity from Sony’s slicker, more powerful PSP, went on to sell over 150 million units, making it the second-best selling console of all time.
At E3 2005 Satoru Iwata took the stage and proudly held a diminutive black box aloft, proclaiming it a gaming revolution. That same year, at Tokyo Game Show, Iwata reiterated the company’s ambition to expand the gaming audience and speak to a wider market and revealed a new controller that “attracts those who aren’t playing games and offers new sensations to veteran” would be the key. The Wii outsold the competition from Sony and Microsoft by a considerable margin and became a bona fide sensation. Importantly, it achieved Iwata’s ambition of placing video games firmly in the mainstream eye and attracting a wider audience. At the height of its popularity, Nintendo’s stock became the second most valuable in Japan.
Iwata’s most recent years were spent trying to maintain the momentum achieved by the Nintendo DS and Wii. Given the magnitude of the success, many would argue this was an impossible task. The follow-ups to both of those devices, the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U, marked a downturn in the company’s performance. At the heart of these missteps was marketing that failed to distinguish new hardware from old, and a slowness to properly capitalise on the move towards mobile and tablet gaming. Despite this, Iwata remained a shining beacon of Nintendo’s ambition and an unwavering leader, famously refusing to lay off staff.
Satoru Iwata 1959-2015