Five years ago today, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata passed away. We’re republishing this obituary from 2015 to pay tribute to the great man.
Satoru Iwata passed away on 11th July 2015, at 55 years of age. He was Nintendo’s 4th company President, and oversaw a period of extraordinary success and then evolution, while becoming hugely popular with fans for his personality and humour.
Born in Sapporo, Japan, Iwata-san’s interest in electronics led him to study at the Tokyo Institute of Technology; he began work at HAL Laboratory (a company closely associated with Nintendo and well known for franchises such as Kirby) while still studying, before joining the company full time upon graduation. He was a programmer first and foremost and worked on iconic games such as EarthBound, with that understanding and passion for games remaining a key strength throughout his career.
Satoru Iwata rose through the ranks at HAL to become its President in 1993, and such was his performance in that role that he would then become the head of Nintendo’s corporate planning division in the year 2000. His work earned the respect and trust of Nintendo’s 3rd President, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who appointed Satoru Iwata as his successor in 2002; he was the first President of the company from outside of the Yamauchi family.
Satoru Iwata retained some core beliefs at the heart of Nintendo’s policy throughout his 13 year tenure. The goal to deliver unique, compelling hardware and software would become a definitive identifier of Nintendo’s approach under its new President. Iwata-san’s key objective, throughout his tenure and repeated many times, was to achieve a “gaming population expansion by offering compelling products that anyone can enjoy, regardless of age, gender or gaming experience”. This strategy’s blueprint can be seen across the products and design choices driven by his leadership.
The Nintendo DS, taking the bold step to move away from the Game Boy brand, was released in 2004 and – by the end of its generation – would become the biggest selling family of portable hardware of all time. It’s second in the overall gaming console sales list, only behind PlayStation 2.
The hardware and its games were the definitive example of Satoru Iwata’s goal – it innovated with affordable technology, and delivered experiences suited to all gamers. The dual screen setup of the DS became iconic, while its introduction of touch-based games was revolutionary in its era.
The first home console launched under Satoru Iwata’s leadership was similarly revolutionary, utilising established technology and components in a manner that captivated a mainstream audience. The Nintendo Wii, despite its SD resolution and graphical power below its contemporaries, sold over 100 million units worldwide and brought motion gaming to the fore. It was also a hugely important move forward in Nintendo’s philosophy of placing conceptual ideas and experiences ahead of raw processing and graphical power.
The Wii and DS, between them, delivered a generation of dominance for Nintendo. In this period Satoru Iwata brought substantial profits to the company, in the process becoming recognised as a leading CEO in the technology sector. It was a generation of rebirth and re-imagining for the company, as it released memorable new entries to established gaming franchises while also giving rise to the ‘casual’ market. Satoru Iwata’s philosophy didn’t see such categories as divisions, however – all Nintendo system owners are gamers, regardless of their preferred franchises.
After extraordinary success with the Wii and DS Nintendo faced challenges in a new generation. The Nintendo 3DS launched in Spring 2011 to disappointing sales, prompting Satoru Iwata and his management team to react with an unprecedented major price cut on the hardware within six months of its launch. That move, along with a strong line-up of software, delivered a strong commercial turnaround for the system. Despite the rise of smart device gaming and a rapidly evolving market the 3DS has succeeded as a dedicated portable gaming device, passing 50 million unit sales to date.
The Wii U, launched in November 2012, has been Nintendo’s least successful home console since the GameCube era, and was undoubtedly the biggest test of Satoru Iwata’s management. The system’s GamePad-driven concept has struggled to capture the public’s imagination, resulting in poor sales.
Prior to E3 2014, it emerged that Satoru Iwata would miss the LA event, which surprised fans of the company. It later emerged that this was due to a bile duct growth, which was subsequently removed in June of that year. In the year following that operation until he passed away, Satoru Iwata not only remained at the helm of the company but began introducing key initiatives that have driven Nintendo back into profit and towards significant changes.
Key initiatives in the past 12 months have included the launch of the successful amiibo toys-to-life range, while a partnership was announced for Nintendo theme park attractions through Universal Studios. A vital announcement, in particular, was a corporate partnership with DeNA, with the companies working together on a new loyalty programme and a series of smart device apps utilising Nintendo IPs.
The move into the smart device market represented a change of course in Satoru Iwata’s leadership, recognising the importance of that sector and the potential for profitability. That announcement, along with confirmation of the ‘NX’ gaming platform to be revealed in 2016, brought renewed investor confidence in the company. In Nintendo’s 2015 AGM (Shareholder’s Annual General Meeting) Satoru Iwata was retained in his role as President, with smart device games, NX and the Quality of Life (QoL) sleep sensor all major upcoming projects for the company.
Satoru Iwata, following the respective sales of the 3DS and Wii U, was once again showing his capacity to respond to trends while pursuing a ‘Nintendo-like’ approach.
Beyond his business leadership, and the successes he delivered, Satoru Iwata will also be remembered for his humour and humility when fulfilling his role as Nintendo President. Iwata-san pioneered a new attitude for the company in which it communicated with fans, with the series of Nintendo Direct videos being a prime example. Iwata-san repeatedly demonstrated his love for Nintendo’s heritage, gaming and its fans through broadcasts such as these, imbuing the company with an enhanced sense of humanity to accompany its unique software output.
Throughout his leadership of Nintendo Iwata-san placed accessibility, fun, innovation and inclusivity at the core of the company’s mission statement. While this mainstream approach proved lucrative in the DS and Wii era, it still remained a key goal even in more challenging times. During Iwata-san’s tenure Nintendo portrayed a light-hearted approach to an increasingly noisy and cut-throat business, defying projections and criticisms to continue on its own course and to deliver products that it believes in. Satoru Iwata maintained his core belief in the right direction for Nintendo both in times of unmitigated success and in the current, more difficult generation.
Satoru Iwata would sometimes quote his predecessor when outlining the key message at the heart of Nintendo’s approach – “The True Value of Entertainment lies in Individuality”.
One of Satoru Iwata’s other most memorable and simple lines, aside from many wonderful Nintendo Direct moments, was at E3 2005 – as part of an exchange with Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime, Iwata-san said “I’m about making games and I’m about playing games.”
That, above all, is the greatest legacy that he’s left to all gamers.