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Farewell, Mr. Iwata

13 July on Blogs  

satoru-iwataSatoru Iwata’s passing hit me hard. I had to write something, but couldn’t find it in me to do it yesterday – not only did I need to digest the news a bit, but I also wanted to finish some other work to dedicate myself fully, and give it the time it deserved. So here it is.

We have many people in the videogame industry who proudly proclaim to be gamers above all, but very few had the authority to claim that like Satoru Iwata – and due to his very nature, I think the best format is not to mourn him, but to remember some anecdotes and stories from his career. I can only imagine he’d want us to celebrate our hobby in the most enjoyable way possible… and when you think about it, he literally enabled a lot of that with the amazing work he did during his career.

While Iwata thought like a programmer, it was his passion that manifested in his work, that spark of fun that shines so clearly from the impenetrable lines of Famicom Assembly code into fun experiences, and I believe this can be clearly communicated in his guest appearance on the traditional Japanese TV show dedicated to videogames, GameCenter.

His story about showing up at Nintendo (2:05) not only perfectly exemplifies his work ethics – his unshakable go-getter attitude – but also makes his love of videogames clear. So it’s no surprise when he starts talking about the first games he made (6:40) using a calculator. But my favorite segment is at 10:30, when he discusses how he programmed the Balloon Fight fish. Programming is about using math to create gameplay experiences, but even with the limited Famicom resources he managed to add a playful element to the underlying mechanics.

His career at HAL had several highlights – he made possible one of my favorite games: Mother 2 (Earthbound in the West). He goes over the details with Mother creator Itoi in this interview. APE had basically spent four years and the programming of the game had hit a severe roadblock. Iwata came to salvage the project, and after studying the code, he told Itoi there were two options: try and salvage the code – which could take a couple of years… or scratch it all and do it from zero, which he believed could be done in six months. Together, they managed to finish the game in the next 12 months.

But his programming prowess and project-saving skills didn’t stop there. This Pokémon Iwata Asks reminisces fondly of his work on the graphics compression tool for Pokémon Gold and Silver, which allowed them to include both Johto and Kanto regions in the game, as well as the time he redid all the undocumented battle code for Pokémon Stadium in a week. He was an accomplished programmer, motivated by his passion.

One of my favorite stories about Satoru Iwata, however, is from the time he was still president of HAL Labs, now fully-owned by Nintendo, and was called in by Nintendo’s original president, Hiroshi Yamauchi. It should be noted, Yamauchi had a very different managerial style: he was a ruthless entrepreneur with exceptional vision. His iron fist was responsible for many of Nintendo’s former policies of demanding exclusivity – and his employees fought for his hard-earned approval. Yamauchi was no gamer, and his employees nicknamed his office “The Hall of Mother Brain”, as they felt the same kind of dread when they went there to present their work. While his praise brought great bliss, he would also be an extremely harsh critic of what he didn’t like. So when Yamauchi called Iwata, he believe he was about to be fired. So he was extremely surprised when, back in 2002, he found out that Yamauchi was retiring and naming him the new president of the company.

It was under Iwata’s supervision that Nintendo started it path into new ground. He paved the way for the Nintendo DS – with the DS standing not only for “Double Screen”, but as he explained, more so for “Developer System”, because he wanted to give new tools for developers to flex their creative muscles. It was that same desire that pushed him to spearhead the Wii project. At that time, Iwata raised several concerns about the industry: he was afraid of an arms race going on for more technical power – which would result in skyrocketing game development costs and curtail innovation. He also looked at the industry from a clinical standpoint, and criticized Sony’s practice of focusing on game launch sales – heavily discounting titles mere months after launch, and thus slowly encouraging gamers to wait a bit (a scenario which also contributed to the predatory second-hand games market).

But ultimately, Iwata had a strong desire to share his passion. In what I believe to be one of his most amazing contributions, he decided to turn his internal review interviews into articles published to the public in the form of the “Iwata Asks” feature. I can only hope someone else in the company carries his torch now that he is no longer with us.

I don’t know that I can communicate his concern with the industry better than the man himself, so I encourage everyone to watch his 2011 GDC keynote speech.

This video, I feel, makes it clear that he was very serious about creating games, and was concerned with the risk of seeing them being trivialized. I was very disappointed to see some people criticizing Iwata for being “too conservative” and for not doing more to maximize profits. I find that especially funny, because Nintendo had just a few years of losses in all of its history as a videogame company – certainly much less than Sony, Sega and Microsoft. They championed different visions with the DS, Wii and Wii U and went against trends. They took risks with projects like Wind Waker, Mario Paint and Animal Crossing. And yet there are people complaining that they are “stuck in the past”, while Microsoft and Sony have line-up that can easily be divided into “yearly sequels” (Uncharted, Forza etc.) and remakes of games that are not even a whole generation old (Halo, Last of Us, Gears of War, God of War). But no, Nintendo is the one “rehashing” with Pokémon and Mario, despite their games releasing less often and with more changes. He cut his own salary amid the company’s financial lows and fought hard to go against demands from investors – such as going into the mobile market – which probably would have brought some quick cash but would be disastrous for the company in the long run.

Nintendo’s name in Japanese, 任天堂, which can roughly be described as “leave destiny to the heavens”, is actually a misnomer. The company always took the reins of the industry several times, and part of that daring was something Iwata can take credit for, and for which he will sorely be missed. His infectious smile – and even his apologetic nature for the moments when he disappointed us – are a sad reminder of a side of the industry we don’t get to see much. The human side.

Nintendo’s production model, unlike companies such as EA and Ubisoft, would be better referred to as “artisanal”. And we lost not only an executive, but a true artisan. His close friend Shigesato Itoi says it better than I ever could, so I leave it to him, in this wonderful translation by KameDaniRyuu:


“No matter the farewell, I think the most appropriate thing to say is “we”ll meet again.”  We are friends so we”ll see each other again.  There is nothing strange about saying it.  Yeah.  We’ll meet again.

Even if you didn’t have the chance to put into words how sudden it was going to be, how far you’d be traveling, or how you went much earlier than expected, I know you went wearing your best.

You always put yourself second to others no matter what, helping anyone who needed it whenever they needed it.  You were that kind of friend.  Although you may have been a little selfish for the first time ever by taking this journey.

The truth is though that I still don’t believe any of it.  I feel like I am going to receive a message from you inviting me out to eat at any moment.  I wouldn’t mind if you were to ask me like always if I had some free time.  Even still, I’d ask you as well.

Still, “we’ll meet again.”  It would be great to hear from you whenever and wherever; I’ll being calling to you too.  I’ll call if I have something to discuss or I want to tell you a great new idea I’ve had.

We’ll meet again.

Then again, you’re here with me now.”


And, in closing, and as a true testament of the love of Nintendo fans, some people started posting pictures of a rainbow over the Nintendo Headquarters in Kyoto.

So thank you, Iwata. I, for one, will be celebrating your love for games today, which I think is the most fitting homage one could pay to you.

P.S.: Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka, the composer of Mother and Mother 2 (and creator of the song Smiles & Tears that many have been sharing in this occasion) has published on his SoundCloud page a remix of the Balloon Fight theme in Iwata's memory. It's worth checking out.

Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)

Author, freelance videogame journalist, cinematography major and a little insane.