Satoru Iwata: Remembering a Legend
The news of Satoru Iwata’s passing on Sunday left the video game world mourning the loss of a legend. Many people have already taken to (social) media to express their grief and pay homage to a man whose influence on the industry was gargantuan. Personally, my childhood wouldn’t have been the same without Iwata’s genius crafting some of gaming’s best titles and characters. To honor the man who dedicated himself tirelessly to the same passion that I and millions others like me hold so dear, I’ve compiled a list of some of Iwata’s greatest contributions to the world of gaming.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love Earthbound. Over the years since I first played it back in the mid-90s, this quirky JRPG has found its way to the top of my greatest games list, and it wouldn’t even exist without Satoru Iwata.
You see, back in the early 90s, HAL Laboratory Inc. wasn’t doing so well financially. While they found success with the Mother and Adventures of Lolo series, the company was having trouble finding stability and success in the SNES market. Initially a programmer with HAL, Iwata was promoted to president in 1993, and all he did was produce some of the greatest games to ever come from HAL, one of them being Earthbound.
While Earthbound took a while to gather the fanbase and respect it deserves, it now comfortably rests near the top of many “Greatest JRPGs” lists. Iwata heavily influenced the feel and narrative of the game, and he also helped save the game from a potentially disastrous fate when he stepped in to reprogram a lot of the game when it was quite broken, despite his new title as president. Without Iwata’s passion, we’d be shy one amazingly epic JRPG.
Pokémon Gold/Silver & Pokémon Stadium
Many people may not know this, but Iwata helped in founding Creatures Inc. from the remnants of Ape Inc. (the company originally responsible for the Mother series of games). If you’re not sure why this is important, then you’ve clearly never played the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Yes, Creatures Inc. is responsible for the wildly popular Pokémon TCG, as well as many other Pokémon licensed games. In fact, Creatures Inc. owns one-third of the Pokémon share (Game Freak and Nintendo own the other two-thirds).
Iwata’s relationship with the company eventually led to him doing important work for two great games in the Pokémon series: Pokémon Gold/Silver and Pokémon Stadium. Iwata assisted with the development of the former during a rough time at Game Freak. The popularity of Pokémon Red/Green in Japan led to a desire to quickly localize the series in North America as well as create a worthy sequel. Problems arose as Game Freak tried to also develop a Pokémon game for the N64 (more on that in a bit).
With development delayed, Iwata stepped in to help with programming Pokémon Gold/Silver. The initial release was delayed (Game Freak was wise enough to fill that gap with Pokémon Yellow), but Game Freak was still in need of help for its first N64 game, Pokémon Stadium. Iwata once again stepped up and was vital to the development of this ambitious project. Without Iwata’s reworking of the Pokémon Red/Green code for a battle game, millions wouldn’t have experienced their own shot at winning a Pokémon tournament in 3D.
It was likely no surprise when Iwata eventually became the president of Nintendo in 2002. However, those were some rough years for gaming’s gold standard. The console wars seemed to be a two dog fight between the PS2 and the Xbox, with little love for Nintendo’s GameCube.
However, Iwata was undeterred in his genius and saw the need to revitalize handheld gaming. It had been a good, long run for the Game Boy series, but it was time for a change. Nearly 2 years after Iwata’s promotion to president, Nintendo released the future of handheld gaming: the Nintendo DS. Still, nobody could predict just how successful it’d be.
For years the Game Boy held the top spot for most sales of a console/system. While it was eventually eclipsed by Sony’s PS2, nobody thought it would be dethroned as the highest selling handheld system of all time. However, the DS did just that, selling over 154 million units, beating the Game Boy by over 35 million units. It even came close to dethroning the PS2 at ~155 million units sold, but 2nd place isn’t too shabby.
While president of Nintendo, Iwata’s vision to focus on handhelds certainly paid off. Without the Nintendo DS, we wouldn’t have the 3DS line of handhelds today, and we’d be sorely missing out on many amazing titles that’ve graced the screens of the highly popular dual-screen system.
Iwata’s focus on the handheld market was all part of a larger goal: to make video games more accessible for a wider range of players. He felt that gaming was becoming too exclusive, and some gamers were being left behind. He was quoted in 2006 saying, “”We’re not thinking about fighting Sony, but about how many people we can get to play games. The thing we’re thinking about most is not portable systems, consoles, and so forth, but that we want to get new people playing games.”
Iwata’s plan for Nintendo’s next console, the Wii, would seek to accomplish just that. The Wii was a huge innovation in the gaming industry. Motion controls were incorporated into a mainstream gaming system on a large scale for the first time. For many, the future of gaming was the Wii. A media blitz aimed at families, casual gamers, and various other demographics helped cement Nintendo’s little white box as the must-have console at the time.
Despite many people decrying the Wii for its lack of HD video output, the motion controlled console actually outsold its major competitors, the Xbox 360 and the PS3. It even broke the console sales record for a single month in the United States, an impressive feat. Even more impressive, in 2010 the Wii surpassed the NES as Nintendo’s greatest selling home console system of all time. With impressive sales numbers like that, it’s clear that Iwata’s vision to make gaming more accessible became a reality.
Seeing just a fraction of what Iwata was able to accomplish during his time in the gaming industry shows us just how important he was. He helped push boundaries in the gaming world, and even though he rose to the height of Nintendo’s CEO in 2013, Iwata was a programmer at heart. This is evidenced by the numerous times he stepped in to assist in the production of a game. He even went so far as to cut his own salary in half when Nintendo’s sales figures were lower than expected.
Iwata’s passion for gaming was undeniable, and his legacy will live on forever. While other individuals are responsible for creating beloved characters like Mario, Kirby, and Pokémon, Iwata had a hand in making each one of them special and readily accessible to gamers at large. The video game industry wouldn’t be the same without Satoru Iwata, and that’s why we all, together, mourn his death.