The news of the passing of Satoru Iwata has been making its way around, and notably, has been posted by many friends of mine outside the video games industry, who don’t even play video games. The name “Nintendo” is still titanic, even to those that don’t play video games, and the ones who occasionally play, almost always play a Nintendo game. My girlfriend is not a gamer, does not understand gaming or the industry, and literally looks aghast when I buy games, particularly imports that I can barely understand, but she still plays Mario Kart 8.
Much of the thanks for that is due to Iwata-Senpai. I call him “Senpai” for a reason: he taught us, through his humility, love of gaming, and most importantly, his leadership, that games were fun, and that’s literally all that matters.
As an analyst who specializes in the industry, and its financials, that’s sometimes hard to keep into perspective. I would go days when I was writing every day for Gaming Bus where I wouldn’t actually play a game simply because I was pouring over numbers. Imagine that, a man who runs a video game site, professionally, who couldn’t find the time to play a damn video game. I bring this up for one reason: to show how easy it is for us, as this industry grows and becomes less a labour of love and more of a blockbuster industry where billions of dollars in commerce are conducted, to lose perspective that video games are fun. We get so lost in the minutia of quarterly reports, ROI, the “long tail” of modern releases based on microtransactions, new IPs and all of the other buzzwords and talking points that we, as pundits, have obsessed over for years that we sometimes forget the simple joy of seeing a mushroom crawling along the floor and saying “what if I jumped on that”.
I’ve argued both in favour of and against Iwata the Executive. I’ve cheered on his desire to keep Nintendo kid-friendly even as I’ve derided their poorly thought out and ineffective online system. I’ve defended the company for their insistence on supporting unpopular hardware even as I’ve derided their inability to keep anyone developing anything for it. I’ve lauded their ability to connect with an increasingly jaded fanbase even as I’ve slammed their ham-fisted approach to YouTube. Iwata the Executive was a mixed bag.
But unlike others like Activision’s Bobby Kotick, or Electronic Arts’ Peter Moore, Iwata the Executive is only a part of the overall picture. The stories about Iwata the Programmer are the stuff of legend, and some of the stories I see being passed onto Twitter today – like how he basically rebuilt EarthBound from scratch, and enabled Pokemon Gold and Silver to squeeze another world into a Game Boy cartridge – are head-shakingly awesome. Then there was Iwata the Leader, a man who could get a major, multinational corporation on a path that ran it counter to their larger, more well-funded competitors, keep it there, and do so with the quiet dignity of a man who is above leading with fear. This contrast is, in my eyes, the underlying reason why Nintendo is still flying strong, while Zynga, a company built by a venture capitalist whose headstone quote will be “we don’t fucking want innovation”, struggles.
All three of those pieces were tied together by Iwata the Gamer, the most important of them all. The man who went to work for HAL Laboratory straight out of college and who worked on so many great games – even the partial list is unbelievable – and who added so much flair to whatever he did. The gamer who, when releasing the Nintendo Wii, stated he wanted to destroy the wall that separated those who played video games and those who didn’t, meant it, and then pulled it off. Think back to the success of the Nintendo Wii. What most readers of this site will remember as a shoddy system that happened to catch fire with our grandparents was able to shatter the perception of just what a video game was to the same people who never considered them worth anything before having the ability to throw pretend bowling balls with a stick. Iwata wasn’t just a suit; his E3 presentations weren’t the dreams of PR hacks trying to make someone more “presentable”. He was the real deal, someone who loved video games, and who was universally loved because of it.
In my time off from writing about games, I’ve since bought a Wii U and have been actually playing video games a lot more lately. The game I’ve had the most fun playing throughout all of 2015 is a third person shooter where the goal is to paint the map – not shoot other people – starring kids that happen to be squids. That, right there, is Iwata’s legacy. In an age where everything has to be bigger, browner, and more pleasing to shareholders than their customers, Iwata bucked the system, successfully, based off of a simple, belief that video games are supposed to be about fun.