Satoru Iwata, president and CEO of Japanese video game maker Nintendo, passed away on July 11 after battling cancer for over a year. The cause of death was disclosed as a bile duct growth. Iwata , who called Nintendo “a company of Kyoto craftsman”, was 55.
His passing marks the end of a wildly inventive and broadly celebrated 13-year tenure helming the Kyoto video games company. The highly revered figure in the Japanese gaming scene was considered the leading figure behind some of Nintendo’s most popular devices, including the Nintendo DS and the Wii. Most recently, he led Nintendo into the rapidly growing mobile gaming sector. He was a chief executive who had the brain of a games developer and the heart of a gamer.
Mr. Iwata, born on Dec. 6, 1959, in Sapporo, Japan, majored in computer science at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He got his start in video games as a contract programmer for HAL Laboratory, a game developer that works closely with Nintendo. The company, which Mr. Iwata later revealed was named because each letter is one ahead of IBM, gave him his first experiences creating games.
Over the 1980s, Mr. Iwata worked on a number of the company’s biggest titles such as EarthBound and Balloon Fight and helped develop some of Nintendo’s most memorable games. That list includes Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64, the opening salvo in a critically lauded and financially lucrative fighting series starring Nintendo characters like Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong that’s since sold in the tens of millions for the company.
He became company president of HAL in 1993, just after he helped put out the first installment of the Kirby franchise, Kirby’s Dream Land The game, which features a puffy, pink protagonist who gobbles up enemies and spits them out as projectiles, became a hallmark of casual gameplay for the mobile game device well before the era of smartphone games.
As president of HAL, he continued to work personally on the company’s products, including several titles in Nintendo’s wildly popular Pokémon series.
He joined Nintendo in 2000, and took over the helm of the company in May 2002 when he was promoted to president, succeeding longtime boss Hiroshi Yamauchi. He was only the company’s fourth president since its founding in 1889 as a playing card (known as hanafuda ) company, and the only president unrelated to the founding Yamauchi family. He became the chief executive of Nintendo of America in June 2013.
At Nintendo, he presided over a number of key titles including the release of Super Smash Brothers, a game which pitted Nintendo characters like Super Mario and Link from the Legend of Zelda against each other in fights. He also advised on the creation of early Pokemon games for the Gameboy.
As the gaming population started to decline, Mr Iwata knew that he needed to make easy-to-use consoles, a move that allowed the company to tap into a much wider audience beyond the traditional gaming community.
And he succeeded. Under Iwata, Nintendo ushered in the Nintendo DS, a dual-screen gaming handheld that succeeded the popular Game Boy, eventually going on to challenge Sony to become the world’s best-selling handheld game console when it was released in 2004.
Two years later, Nintendo launched the wildly successful Wii which was dubbed the computer game that even your grandma can play. It became arguably the most recognizable video game system in the industry’s history. The company last year released game-compatible figurines called Amiibo and recently made an alliance with Universal Parks & Resorts for a theme-park project.
But the company struggled to adapt to a changing video game business, having resisted the industry trend to develop games for smartphones and tablets and preferring to stick to a more traditional approach of designing games to be played on its own hardware. The serious threat posed by the rise of mobile phone eventually made Iwata reverse course in March 2015 when Nintendo struck a partnership with DeNA Co. , a Japanese game provider, under which the companies exchanged ownership stakes and set up a new mobile game platform to start their foray into mobile gaming.
However, the company remained committed to producing its own game platforms. It has plans to reveal more details about a new system, code-named NX, in 2016.
Aside from his executive role, Iwata was a very public figure to Nintendo followers through his appearances in the company’s Nintendo Direct broadcasts and his prolific “Iwata Asks” series of interviews with developers in which he picked the brains of Nintendo’s developers and delved into the anecdotal history of some of the company’s best loved projects.
Iwata’s playful, almost mischievous and refreshingly candid personal style endeared him to the fans in the gaming business, and tributes poured in on social media.
A Twitter user @fourzerotwo shred his tribute: Thank you Satoru Iwata, for your talents in development and your genius in leadership. You will be missed. #RIPIwata
Another user @Haruhichancom tweeted: We’ll miss you, #SatoruIwata
User @HeyitzriaBee has this to say:
User @SimsJames, in his tribute, created a collage of famous Nintendo game characters, expressing their mourning for Mr Iwata. “Farewell, Satoru Iwata. He brought a wealth of imagination to the world of #Nintendo!”
Nintendo hasn’t named a successor, but has noted that Genyo Takeda and Shigeru Miyamoto will remain as decision-making representative directors of the company, a position that under Japanese law gives them the right to make certain decisions on the company’s behalf.
Iwata, a corporate president whose background was in game programming, was a rarity in the gaming industry which is now significantly worse off for the loss of such a talented creator and passionate advocate.