“In My Heart, I Am A Gamer”: Memories of Satoru Iwata

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.

Satoru Iwata

Rin: This wasn’t the post I was planning on writing this week. I think many other blog writers, tech journalists, and gaming fans can echo the sentiment that we expected July 11th to be just another day. Not the day that we would lose one of the most treasured people in the gaming industry to cancer. While I usually don’t take celebrity deaths hard—the last one I cried over was Steve Irwin, but who didn’t—I’ve spent the better part of the last two days on-and-off crying over too early demise of Nintendo’s previous president and CEO, Satoru Iwata. I’ve never realized what an impact he had on me, and I’ve found so many who felt the same.

Dom: Same here. I’ve played so many Nintendo games and watched so many Nintendo Directs, but I wouldn’t have thought that Mr. Iwata’s passing would have me continuously on the verge of tears over the course of a few days. It was a surprise, undoubtedly, and it’s incredibly hard for many of us to compose ourselves.

I’ve heard stories of his legendary programming skills through anecdotes, which only makes his personable attitude more impressive.

Rin: Seriously! When someone’s first programmed game is on a calculator that only uses numbers (nothing like those fancy TI-83s we had in my day), you know you’re dealing with someone whose not only got that creative spark, but also determination and a love for games. In an episode of the popular comedy gaming show Game Center CX, Mr. Iwata (as a guest) recalls his time first joining Nintendo as telling them “I think I could program Famicom games, so please let me program for the Famicom,” despite having no previous experience in game making. Mr. Iwata had such faith in the future of technology and games that he devoted himself to improving both software/hardware and the feel of games. With this level of love and his kind demeanor, it’s barely a surprise that the previous owners of the company, the Yamauchi family, broke tradition and gave Mr. Iwata the presidency in 2002.

Dom: A strong computer programmer, businessman, and fun guy? It almost seems unheard of in this day and age.

The biggest thing that stuck out to me about Mr. Iwata was his commitment to fun. He spoke often about how he wanted games to be fun, and he really committed to it, as evidenced by the Directs. He was in control of an amazingly large and influential company, and still had no problem being a goof in its public videos. This has been so important recently. The games space has been having a problem with fun in the last few years. Not so much the debate of “should games be more than fun”; that’s a different question for a different day. I’m referring to how many games want to be dark, edgy, and grim; they want to be toys and art, but don’t have that commitment to being enjoyable. It’s almost like fun is a dirty word. But not for Nintendo—not for Mr. Iwata.

Satoru Iwata Shigeru MiyamotoRin: It’ll be a long time, I think, before we see someone in the games industry that had as much fun with his job as Mr. Iwata did. Sure, there’s Reggie and Shigeru Miyamoto, but they’re not replacements, nor would they want to be.

Fun is the vital part of Mr. Iwata’s legacy, and reading through the library of games he worked on, I came to realize he was responsible for a lot of the fun I had in my childhood. Back before my brother got his N64, my childhood was filled with three game series: Metroid, Wario Land, and Kirby. The first two I only ever watched my mom and brother beat, feeling like I wouldn’t be able to do it myself; however, I could always get into the Kirby series without feeling pressure to be super amazing at it, or fearing getting wrecked right away. Back in this era of my life, I didn’t enjoy doing boss battles—they’re still not my favorite thing in the modern era, but I’ve come to accept the necessity and the adrenaline rush that come with gaming. So, I played through my brother’s file on Kirby’s Dream Land 2, going through all the non-boss stages repeatedly until I knew them like the back of my own hand. While my brother was the one who beat King Dedede and Dark Matter in the end, I was the one who figured out how to get all the Rainbow Drops to unlock the final weapon. Both of us had our own ways of playing, and neither of us were “wrong” for how we chose to do it. Many of the games Mr. Iwata helped produce carried this same kind of sentiment.

Mr. Iwata thought this sort of openness of experience was integral both in terms of game mechanics and game accessibility. While Sony and Microsoft continued to compete for the attention of the more “hardcore” gaming audience, Nintendo (under Iwata’s direction) scooped up the people left behind. With non-threatening, more casual systems like the Nintendo DS and the Wii, Mr. Iwata and his team were able to attract entirely new audiences to the gaming scene: younger kids, the elderly, people that just didn’t have time to quote-unquote “git good”. These people found enjoyment in the era of quirky games like Nintendogs and Wii Sports; games that put more of an emphasis on the experience and having fun than amazing graphics and deep storylines. Anyone could pick up these games, and many did—the DS was the second best selling console of all time, just behind the PS2. Mr. Iwata didn’t care about the skills deemed necessary by competitors and other gamers themselves to play games, he wanted people from all walks of life to be able to enjoy and come to love games just as he had, and I think he can rest easy knowing that he accomplished this with so, so many people.

While it’s true that Nintendo may have made some missteps in the past, Mr. Iwata was positive that these fallbacks were nothing more than temporary: you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet. He knew he had something great, and he knew better than anyone else what games could truly be. While I’m glad that he no longer has to suffer, I’m sad that he couldn’t get to see the next generation of Nintendo games come out, and that he isn’t able to put his gentle humor into this new era. Without a doubt, he will be missed for a long time to come.

Dom: All I can say is Rest in Peace, Mr. Iwata. Please understand, you’ve inspired us all.

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About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.