In a press release from Nintendo dated July 13, 2015, it was announced that president and CEO Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015. According to the announcement, this was due to a bile duct growth.
The problem was one Iwata had been dealing with since E3 of 2014, where it was announced he would be absent due to health reasons only to later have it revealed that he was undergoing surgery for that bile duct. He was also absent from this year’s E3 due to more health issues, and various reports from others at Nintendo of Japan describe his startling weight loss over the past months and weeks. Most depressing of all may be that the last thing Iwata said in the public eye was an apology for Nintendo’s E3 presentations not living up to the expectations of the fans.
It has not yet been announced who will take Iwata’s position as president and CEO, but those are big shoes to fill. Iwata’s list of feats is extraordinarily superhuman. Back when it was revealed how poorly the Wii U was doing relative to its predecessor, the Wii, Iwata took a 50% pay cut as a way of showing how responsible he felt for the marketing blunder. And while this shows how great a guy Mr. Iwata was, it does no justice to his coding prowess.
Satoru Iwata was to programming what Bruce Lee is to martial arts. It’s nearly impossible to explain for someone like me with no coding aptitude, but you don’t need a lot of knowhow to see the complexity and brilliance of work such as that done for Earthbound. In Japan, they call it Mother 2, and it was in danger of never launching. Mr. Iwata decided that just wasn’t acceptable and he got his hands in the dirt and cracked open the source code and began his work. The result was a staggeringly complex program architecture that can be blamed for the game being so half-handedly localized for the western audience; people still haven’t figured it all out in its entirety to this day.
Iwata is also responsible for games like Pokemon Stadium and Pokemon Gold and Silver launching in the state they did. Pokemon Stadium was a result of Iwata simply being curious and experimental. As the story goes, Iwata decided to bust out the Pokemon source code and port it to N64, and Gamefreak programmers were stunned to find he had figured out their complicated battle structure in only a week (just a weekend by some accounts!) without any reference documents, and from that point Pokemon Stadium began its development. Later, Gamefreak would struggle to fit all of Johto into the 2MB Silver and Gold version GameBoy cartridges. Once Iwata was through with the game, however, he had compressed it enough to save room for all of the Kanto region as well.
One must be sure not to ignore his work with the Super Smash Bros. series. When Masahiro Sakurai first showed Iwata the original N64 version, it had no Nintendo characters, just generic human fighters. Having the title pit Nintendo characters against each other was Iwata’s idea. Then, later on when the N64 version was about to be delayed past the holiday season, Iwata personally showed up at HAL studios to clock in overtime for a week straight, ensuring the game lived up to company standards and would make it to stores when originally promised. His genius then shone through during the E3 press conference of 2005, where he announced Super Smash Bros. Brawl without telling HAL Laboratories, the developers of the games. Iwata’s thinking was this: the Wii needed a Smash Bros. game and he could take this announcement back to HAL and either they’d help make a third game for the franchise, or Nintendo could simply port Melee to the Wii.
The man was a programming savant with a head for his industry and a heart of solid gold. His legacy will forever live on in the countless games he made possible for millions, if not billions, of people to enjoy. Rest in peace, Mr. Iwata, as we all grieve the loss of a legendary creator.
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, 1959-2015