So farewell then Iwata San. In the small hours of Monday morning Nintendo announced that their president of 13 years had died following a battle with cancer. It was a shock for everyone who has been following the fortunes of Nintendo over recent years, not just due to the sudden nature of his passing. Whether he was leading them to gold and glory during the Wii and DS double punch years, or appearing as their steady, smiling rock during this uneasy Wii U period, Satoru Iwata was more than just Nintendo’s President and CEO. He was perhaps the physical embodiment of Nintendo’s central philosophy. Of how they did things differently to their rivals, and above all else, how he wanted people who played video games to have as much fun as humanly possible.
He was also a man who deeply cared about this industry’s wellbeing and its future. The games he pushed Nintendo towards making were intended to break down the barriers between the enthusiast community and less experienced gamers, with a focus on fun, tightly designed gameplay. One of his many quotes, currently being circulated via moving tributes on social media, really encapsulates what a unique president he was. “On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”
There is evidence of Iwata’s game development roots dotted throughout Nintendo’s history. Retro classic Balloon Fight, cult favourite Earthbound, Nintendo icon Kirby and the mighty Super Smash Bros series; all of them can be directly attributed to Satoru Iwata in some form. His passion for game development never dimmed. For example, in 2001, when he was on the verge of succeeding from previous Nintendo president Yamauchi, he still found time to get heavily involved in the debugging of Super Smash Bros Melee in order to get it ready for the launch of the Gamecube.
He proved as shrewd a businessman as a designer. His decision to differentiate Nintendo from their rivals Sony and Microsoft by leaving the high end arms race and adopting a Blue Ocean strategy paid dividends when the Wii and DS took the world by storm. His desire to bring games to all audiences, and erase the traditional stigmas attached to the industry, achieved a great deal of success, though it wasn’t one he could prolong when the Wii U comprehensively failed to take off. Nevertheless he was working to secure his company’s future right to the end, penning a deal with Dena to bring Nintendo franchises to mobile phones, and other deals such as one with Universal to bring Nintendo’s cast of well-loved characters to their theme parks.
So where will Nintendo go from here? Iwata will no doubt be a big loss to them. The only employees at the company with his recognisability are Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo of America head Reggie Fils Aime. But Miyamoto, now aged 62, had repeatedly stressed he wishes to spend the remainder of his career designing new games and nurturing the next generation of developers. As for Reggie, Nintendo are unlikely to hire a non-Japanese president any time soon. Other potential candidates could be Satoru Shibata, current head of Nintendo of Europe, the experienced Genyo Takeda, and ex-head of NOA Tatsumi Kimishima.
But it would seem that whoever does eventually take the reins won’t herald a radical change of philosophy at the company. Currently the company is profitable, has penned a raft of new deals and in all likelihood will be announcing a new console sometime next year. Iwata’s legacy will live on in the direction Nintendo takes over the next couple of years, and whatever comes from the Dena deal and the NX project, it will in all likelihood have been part of his masterplan.
But boy, it will be sad when Satoru Iwata isn’t the one introducing the next Nintendo Direct. It’s hard to imagine any other president of an international company so willing to act like a fool just to entertain video gamers. If only every president and CEO could be as likeable, friendly and passionate about their industry as him, then the world would be a much happier place.