Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata passed away over the weekend, and the internet has been awash in grief ever since. Most recently we knew the man as a high-level executive, the guy who held bananas and was sometimes a puppet in Nintendo's goofy promotional videos. But we should take this time to remember that Iwata wasn't merely a businessman, but an enthusiast and skilled programmer with a geniune love for games. His feats and accomplishments are many, and here are just a few of them.
It's hard to recall a time that Iwata (his chipmunk cheeks pictured on the far right) didn't work for Nintendo, but he actually started out at HAL Laboratory, a close affiliate. Starting in 1983, Iwata worked on games like Balloon Fight. A decade later he became president of the company, overseeing production on the Kirby and Earthbound games.And it didn't stop when Iwata reached upper-management. Dude was in a cubicle crunching code reviews as late as Super Smash Bros Melee -- not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
Far from your typical corporate goon, Iwata had a true passion for his profession. And he was damned good at it, too.
Though the fantastic interview series Iwata Asks, Nintendo has supplied us with a lot of fantastic production anecdotes over the years. One story told the tale of Pokemon Stadium, the Nintendo 64 battler that worked as a companion to the original Game Boy games. When Nintendo got the designs in from Game Freak, they were surprised to see that there weren't any corresponding documents or specs. It was like if you were handed a stack of empty cereal boxes and a tube of chapstick and then told to build this IKEA sectional sofa.
But before Nintendo could send a passive-aggressive fax, Iwata had worked it out himself by scouring through the original code of the Game Boy game. It took him one week and he had a fully-functioning battle system up and running on the Nintendo 64. And if you needed any more evidence that Iwata is basically Video Game MacGuyver:
One of the best parts of Pokemon Gold/Silver was the revelation that, after beating the main game, there was an entire region left to be conquered -- Kanto, the land from Red/Blue. It's one of the best gaming bonuses since The Legend of Zelda's second quest, and it's all thanks to Iwata. See, Game Freak was worried that they were running out of room, that this full-sized second area of the game wouldn't fit in the space provided on the Game Boy cartridge. But Iwata, wizard that he is, came up with a compression algorhythm that bought the team the digital real estate they needed. And it wasn't even his job. Satoru Iwata could get a invitation letter from Hogwarts and he'd probably say "I'm flattered Dumbles, but I gotta work on this game."
Nintendo has had a rough couple years, thanks in part to the shaky launches of the Wii U and 3DS. Iwata owned up to the commercial failures without hesitation, announcing that he'd cut his own salary by 50% not once, but two times. In a world where bailed-out bankers jump ship for bigger paydays, Iwata could have easily said "Hey, you guys remember the nuclear double-money punch that was the Wii and DS? The systems that earned us billions just a couple years ago? Cut me some slack." But Iwata took the humble path and slashed his own paycheck to reinforce his commitment to the company.
Earthbound might look somewhat primitive, but start to finish the game took five whole years to produce. And it almost didn't come out at all. At about year four, things were looking grim -- all of the graphics, sounds and scenarios were in place, but the game itself was just straight-up busted. Lo and behold, Iwata came along and got the ball rolling in about a month, and powered through the next year to its official release. All that time you were bugging Iwata to localize Earthbound 2, but he's the only reason we had an Earthbound to be a fan of in the first place. The video games industry was lucky to be in part molded by someone so enthusiastic and passionate as Satoru Iwata.
If you're still feeling nostalgic, check out Iwata dishing on his programming days on Game Center CX: