By now, you have probably heard the very sad news of the passing of Satoru Iwata, CEO of Nintendo. He succumbed to complications from a bile duct growth at the young age of fifty-five on July 11, 2015. The rainbow image you see was photographed over Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters the following day by Twitter users Kaorin12111 and Bakatetu2. It has been labeled Mr. Iwata’s Rainbow Road to Heaven.
Mr. Iwata succeeded long-time president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who passed away in 2013 but had stepped down as president in 2002 due to his own declining health. Mr. Iwata had gotten his start as a programmer for HAL Laboratories, where he worked on such titles as Balloon Fight and EarthBound. In 1998, his co-worker, Masahiro Sakurai, showed him a prototype of a fighting game featuring Mario, Fox McCloud, Samus Aran, and Donkey Kong. Iwata backed Sakurai when he took it to the top and HAL thus created the now-blockbuster Super Smash Bros. line of games. When Super Smash Bros. Melee was about to go live, Iwata was in the pits himself, programming code weeks before the game’s launch.
I want you to think about this. Iwata became HAL’s coordinator of software in 1983, HAL’s president in 1993, and head of Nintendo’s corporate planning in 2000. Yet, in 2001, he was getting his hands dirty writing code for a game. There is not an executive of any other video game publisher that would like to undertake anything so beneath his pay grade.
The following year, Iwata assumed control over Nintendo and became known for his “Iwata Asks” series of interviews at Nintendo, talking to key developers about their ideas, their plans, and anything in the sphere of the universe. He often spoke to the gaming public in interviews, asking people to understand his position. In the tenure of his presidency, Iwata saw the fortune’s of Nintendo rise and fall like a sinusoidal wave. Although Nintendo had a brilliant first-party lineup of games for the GameCube, it was not as strong a seller as the Xbox or the PlayStation 2. A reversal of fortune followed in the seventh generation of consoles with the Nintendo Wii becoming the must-have console of its day and easily outpacing the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. A slump followed the lightning strike of the Wii; the Wii U failed to emulate its predecessor’s success and the situation grew so dire that Iwata took a 50% pay cut as Nintendo was hit by severe losses in market share…but all in the name of not passing on the losses to the employees. Nintendo pulled out of Brazil and other executives took sizable pay slashes as well. The company still dominates the handheld market against the PlayStation Vita, however.
And now, in the midst of this turbulence, Mr. Iwata is no longer with Nintendo or with us. Perhaps Mr. Iwata’s sudden passing reflects the apparent aimlessness of Nintendo in the past year, what with the dearth of must-have games for the Wii U and talk of the creation of the Nintendo NX, which still remains shrouded in mystery. For all of the ups and downs at Nintendo, Mr. Iwata never appeared flustered about the prospects of the company. He wore a constant smile that he used to rebuff criticism of the course he was charting. Whether you were right or wrong, Mr. Iwata, I will say this to you: I will never understand why you left so soon.
I dedicate my next game of Melee to you.