The videogame industry is relatively young, young enough where it’s still rare to lose giants, especially those still active within it. Satoru Iwata passed away earlier this month, leaving behind a legacy of his time at HAL Laboratories and Nintendo over the last thirty years. Not just a strong leader, Iwata was also a prolific programmer, one of the best in the Japanese game industry by his own admission. Beyond even that, however, he was a goofy, affable and yet incredibly capable man. That his laughter became a meme speaks volumes about the kind of person Satoru Iwata was. He lived a life of many accomplishments and it is appropriate now to look at all the things that he brought directly to you.
During the development of Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver, developer Game Freak was experiencing quite a bit of trouble fitting everything they wanted to do with the Johto region onto the rather small Game Boy cartridge. Time was winding down on the aging hardware and cramming the new generation of Pokémon, by then already one of the biggest names in gaming, in such a small space was a challenge for the studio. Upon hearing about this, Iwata aided Game Freak by compressing the game to a fraction of its original size. This allowed the developers to not only finish the highly-anticipated new Johto region, but also fit the entirety of Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow’s Kanto region into the game. Thanks to Iwata’s programming ability, he effectively doubled the size of what many still consider to be the best game in the series.
In the late ‘90s, Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai began prototyping an idea for a sumo game, tentatively titled Dragon King. Upon showing Iwata his prototype, Iwata became enamored with the title and the two began working together on it. During development, inspired by a screensaver on legendary developer Shigieru Miyamoto’s computer of Mario fighting Bowser, Iwata suggested they make the fighters into Nintendo characters. Fearing Miyamoto would be staunchly against the idea of Mario smacking around Pikachu, Iwata convinced him on his own with the idea to make the fighters toys. He then proceeded to work with the various teams through Nintendo to ensure no one had a problem, providing the foundation for Sakurai to bring Super Smash Bros. to fruition.
At E3 2001, Iwata gave a speech about what he saw as upcoming problems in the videogame industry. By Iwata’s estimation, the future would be nothing but games that are too expensive to stand on their own, causing frequent sequels that look the same as every other game out there. As a way to stem this tide, Iwata set forth with what he nicknamed “The Developer’s System.” He wanted a console where ideas sold better than graphics, incentivizing design over technology to float to the top. At reveal, the system was sneered at, pointed at by many as evidence that Nintendo feared Sony’s PlayStation Portable and derided as a panicked half-measure. Iwata’s gamble paid off, however, making the Nintendo DS the second most popular system of all time and the first of Nintendo’s enormous successes under his leadership.
The second part of Iwata’s plan for making it easier to develop games was the Nintendo Wii. Expecting that videogames were going to be too expensive for most developers to make in the High Definition era, he made the controversial decision to create the Wii with only an incremental upgrade to the Gamecube’s graphical hardware. As a consequence, this allowed the system to be sold for almost half the price of its nearest competitors, aiding its rocket-like ascension to ridiculous success. Paired with its motion controls and minimalist marketing, the Wii caught on like very few systems before it, and Iwata attributed its success to finally breaking down the barriers between “gamers” and everyone else.
Iwata’s contributions to Super Smash Bros. are more involved than its conception alone. With the Gamecube was about to launch alongside a fairly anemic lineup of games, all eyes were on Super Smash Bros. Melee to make a compelling argument for ownership. As development was supposed to be wrapping up, however, things were not looking rosy internally. The game code was bug-ridden, to the extent that it was very likely not going to make its December release date without significant issues. Iwata was already the General Manager of Corporate Planning by this point, a position so high up that his next promotion was to CEO. After discovering that the game might be delayed, he rolled up his sleeves and began working with the head of debugging at HAL Laboratories for the next three months, all the while continuing his duties as a Nintendo executive. Iwata programmed like a machine, fixing line after line of code, and got the game out in time for its intended release date. Within six months, he would be named the head of the company.
Fan-favorite Earthbound had its own troubled development. A year into the project, things were not going well, and director Shigesato Itoi did not have nearly enough experience with game development to manage it. Programmers were having a difficult time adding content with the way the game was made and even simple things like the screen scrolling were causing severe performance issues. Iwata sat down with Itoi and explained that if they continue on this path, the game will take two more years and risked getting cancelled. However, if Itoi were to allow him to reboot the game from the ground up, they could catch up in six months. Itoi agreed to trust Iwata and, true to his word, the rebooted project met that timeline.
It is not much talked about now, but the battle system in Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow was an absolute mess. Aside from all the balance issues, several glitches resulted from the game’s sloppy code, making a number of moves absolutely useless. In his spare time, Iwata decided to see if he could clean the game up a bit, and ported the game’s battle system to the Nintendo 64. Most impressively, he did this with no reference documents so he wouldn’t make the same mistakes from the original. When finished, he showed a producer at Nintendo what he had done, prompting them to greenlight what would become Pokémon Stadium.
When Yoot Saito, creator of games like Sim Tower and Seaman, had hit it big, he received a visit from Satoru Iwata in his capacity as a Nintendo executive. Iwata was looking for games to diversify the Gamecube’s library and was particularly focused on games like Seaman—quirky, off-beat titles that the player can personalize. Saito and Iwata became fast friends and would collude on ideas that, in Saito’s mind, never really went anywhere. In one meeting, Saito suggested a game that captured the feeling of seeing a girl on the train and wanting to talk to her, but not knowing her name. Iwata never stopped thinking about the idea, rolling it into features like the DS’s Pictochat and the 3DS’s Streetpass. After Iwata’s passing, Saito expressed surprise that, years later, Iwata had molded an idle thought of his into a tangible product.
Iwata was incredibly proud of the NES title Balloon Fight, a 1984 game for which he acted as Lead Programmer. Even as President, he made a guest appearance on Japanese retro-videogame show Game Center CX personally to explain Balloon Fight and the various idiosyncrasies he programmed into the game. So ingrained was this title to Iwata that, when Nintendoland developers showed him the Balloon Trip Breeze minigame in 2012, Iwata immediately remarked that it felt wrong. For the last time in his life, Iwata took a look at the code and fixed the problem right there, baffling the younger staff.
Iwata changed a lot about Nintendo in his time as CEO, but the most powerful change was born of his desire to bring Nintendo to its customers. Iwata founded the unprecedented Iwata Asks feature, a hybrid of marketing and journalistic archiving, interviewing his developers to figure out what makes them tick or what their thought processes were while designing games. He pushed forward with the Nintendo Direct, an occasional look at future games, usually hosted by him. His genuine excitement was recognized by fans around the world, with comparisons to Willy Wonka repeatedly being made. Though the similarities were at best surface-level, as Iwata would never seclude himself from the world, he still found time in his busy schedule to make videos staring at bananas, or voicing Muppets, or engaging in choreographed martial arts fights with other executives. His legacy has been built brick-by-brick over the years through all these accomplishments, but none will ever be as important as his connection with Nintendo fans.
Imran Khan is an Atlanta-based writer that tweets @imranzomg. He encourages you to consider donating for cancer research whenever you can.