There are many reasons that we’ll never forget Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, but we’ve picked seven big ones that convey why we’ll miss the dearly departed leader of one of gaming’s greatest companies.
Henry here, and while I wear many hats at Laser Time, it’d be easy to say I’ve been a professional Nintendo fan for over seven years. I’ve always been a fan of the publisher, and I covered all its games for so long, going to E3s, preview and review events, and watching every Nintendo Direct as closely as possible, both as a fan and as a reporter. I covered the executives like I knew them personally, and that definitely included president Satoru Iwata.
I never met the man, and at best I stood within 10 feet of him a couple times. Unlike his company compatriots Reggie Fils-Aime and Shigeru Miyamoto, I never got a chance to ask him a single question as a reporter. Yet, without any contact with him, Iwata’s death this past weekend has left me feeling a degree of grief I didn’t expect. When I first read it I thought, “But, he’d been making appearances. He’d done new interviews. He was recovering from his ‘bile duct growth,’ wasn’t he?” It felt like a relative had passed away unexpectedly, and it’s been hard to really process the tragedy of it.
I don’t know how Iwata’s absence will change Nintendo or the game industry as a whole. And I think it’ll be a long time before gamers as a whole really understand how much Iwata had done for the medium. But, for now, I want to focus on his legacy, to help both myself, and hopefully all of you, get some idea of what the man leaves behind to us all.
7. No one expected him to become the president of Nintendo
In the pre-internet ’80s and ’90s, Nintendo fans knew little of the people behind their favorite games, though they knew president Hiroshi Yamauchi was a stern, exacting, and above all else, unapproachable boss. Yamauchi ran the company for an incredible 53 years, and some insiders expected him to hand Nintendo over to his son-in-law, Nintendo of America boss Minoru Arakawa. Then it went to Satoru Iwata, a man most knew from HAL, a company most famous for the Kirby series.
It was an out-there choice for such a traditional, family-run Japanese company. To put a developer in charge of a company that had just gone through a very rough patch with the N64 and the launch of the GameCube didn’t reflect the company’s conservative approach. It was the first of many unexpected moves that the man would make, as he subtly (and not-so-subtly) changed the company from the inside out.
6. He spoke “directly” to you
A big reason so many fans are feeling so touched by Iwata in both life and death is that he was one of the most forthcoming executives in gaming. Unlike Yamauchi, Iwata made a point of appearing at press conferences, and being the public face of announcements of new games and hardware. And he took that engagement to new heights with the inception of Nintendo Direct in October 2011. The livestreaming videos were a chance for Iwata to speak “directly” to the fans – and I hope you imagined his iconic hand motion when you read “directly.”
For a company that traditionally made major announcements around E3 or a Japanese convention – older fans will remember having to ‘wait for Space World’ to get news – Nintendo Directs were these randomly occurring events that were packed with unexpected reveals. New games, new iterations of consoles, price cuts, all these things were presented at Nintendo Directs, almost all of which were overseen by Iwata. While so many other gaming execs might delegate these kinds of things, Iwata seemed to take real pleasure in connecting with fans by presenting Nintendo games in this way. And it can’t be overlooked that Iwata presented them in English for western territories, making a deeper connection even if he wasn’t speaking in his native tongue. Iwata’s brand of Nintendo Directs became such a hit that the idiosyncratic presentations replaced the costly E3 press conference, which honestly felt a bit outdated for Nintendo by 2013.
5. He was always excited to ask developers questions
Iwata Asks are some of my favorite writing on the internet and, as a reporter, I came to think of them as a cheat sheet when writing pieces on Nintendo history. If I needed to fill up a Nintendo trivia article or dive deep into a certain series, I’d first check if there’d ever been an Iwata Asks piece on it, because the man’s interviews with many of the biggest developers in the world were always some of the most insightful and fun you’d find online.
Much like Nintendo Direct, the Iwata Asks series seemed to be created to pull back the curtain on the usually secretive process of making Nintendo games, and Satoru Iwata showed genuine interest when speaking with the many game developers he hosted. He’d get famous names like Miyamoto and Yuji Horii to open up about their long careers, as well as speaking to 30-plus year Nintendo veterans to open up about work 99% of gamers knew nothing about. Thanks to his clout both as boss and as a developer in his own right, Iwata spoke to these people on a level many had never seen before, getting them to reveal secrets of long-running series like Punch-Out!, Mario, Zelda, and more like it was no big deal. The series had just recently resumed after Iwata’s illness caused a break in them, making this final stop all the more heartbreaking. If you’re interested in Nintendo or just games in general, you owe it to yourself to explore the archives and read any (and every) one of them.
4. He didn’t act like an executive
Yamauchi was a distant man and very much like we imagine most gaming executives, especially Japanese ones. We expect them to be far-off taskmasters who make decisions on games and consoles that we aren’t privy to, and we’ll rarely see them speak outside of a stockholders meeting. Meanwhile, with American CEOs, we’ve come to expect bland bluster that comes from too much media training, and for them to leave the company within 5 years (usually in worse shape than when they found it). On both fronts, Iwata’s openness and commitment to his company was refreshing.
Beyond the Nintendo Directs and Iwata Asks, he’d address problems with a certain level of responsibility you didn’t expect from CEOs. When the 3DS had an early price cut, he wrote a personal letter to owners to explain the reasoning and how he wanted to make amends to early adopters. In an era where layoffs and obscene CEO bonuses are expected, Iwata made statements about avoiding cutting staff and giving himself a pay cut.
He seemed like he was invested as much in Nintendo’s legacy as his own work – he wouldn’t, say, quit after a huge flop and then go run Zynga for a year before running off with millions of dollars. Perhaps this was due to his background as a developer instead of a manager, but he didn’t seem like the typical CEO who ascended in business to get rich. And his atypical style will very much be missed in today’s gaming landscape.