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The life of Satoru Iwata

  • Date Published: October 11, 2020
  • Last Edited: October 11, 2020
  • Topic(s): Blog, Walkway

One of the most influential programmers and developers in the gaming industry

Satoru Iwata is one of the most widely influential and recognized programmers in the gaming industry. In 2005, Satoru became the president of Nintendo and led the company into new horizons. He’s creativity and achievements during his career have left a marking impression and it’s thanks to his dedication, we have the Gameboy, Pokémon, Super Smash Bros., and the Nintendo DS (Dual Screen).

“On my corporate 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, GDC 2005

Early Beginnings

Satoru Iwata was born to a politician in Hokkaido, Japan but was drawn to technology at an early age. Iwata would spend his free time at internet cafes playing games and took up a part-time job during school to save and purchase a Hewlett-Packard calculator. With this first programmable calculator, Iwata could create simple numeric games to share with his friends. Seeing his friends smile, filled him with passion and he found his calling in life.

Iwata attended the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1978 and studied engineering and computer sciences. Due to his experiences with programming in high school, Iwata soon realized that the courses faced at the university did not challenge him enough. Instead of studying, Iwata visited a computer store in Tokyo where he would meet like-minded individuals who share his same passion for game development.

These close group of friends would later go on to found HAL laboratories, known now for the creation of Kirby and Super Smash Bros. He acted as a game designer, programmer, and assisted with marketing. Iwata was so passionate about video games that he would work on weekends and holidays. His dedication garnered him respect amongst his colleagues and quickly rose to higher positions.

When Nintendo unveiled the Nintendo Family Computer (NES), the team at HAL was intrigued by the hardware. Iwata wrote to Nintendo seeking a partnership and traveled to the headquarters in Kyoto. The Nintendo management saw potential in him and HAL and hired them to assist them in the development of video games, including Balloon Fight and Joust.

Iwata would save games from failure, and improving the development process. After proving his abilities, HAL had the opportunity to create their intellectual property (IP). Satoru Iwata was compelled by an idea from a new designer named Masahiro Sakurai. The game turned into Kirby’s Dream Land for the Nintendo Gameboy and has since become an icon and staple franchise of Nintendo. Even though HAL Laboratories experienced early success, they were filed for bankruptcy in 1993.

satoru iwata

HAL was rescued by Hiroshi Yamauchi, then president of Nintendo, who offered to assist. In exchange, HAL Laboratories would become an exclusive second-party developer for Nintendo, and Satoru Iwata would become the president of HAL.

Satoru would become a driving force in the industry, helping out in the development for Mother 2 (Earthbound in North America), Pokémon Red and Green, Pokémon Stadium, and Super Smash Bros. by debugging games, fixing the programming, and making the code more efficient. Hiroshi Yamauchi offered Iwata the position of Head of Nintendo’s Corporate Planning division and a seat on the company’s board of directors in 2000. In 2002, Hiroshi was stepping down from being president of Nintendo, and Satoru Iwata would become his successor, leading the company to bigger and better heights.

“Video games are meant to be one thing: Fun – fun for everyone.” – Satoru Iwata

New Direction

Instead of competing with cutting-edge technology, Iwata sought to invent new and innovative ways to enjoy playing video games. He was at the forefront in developing the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii. Both consoles appealed to all ages and audiences. The Nintendo Wii brought forth motion sensor technology, allowing gamers to play more immersive experiences. This set a trend for the industry, as Sony Playstation began copying their designs of motion sensors into the Dualshock 3 Six-Axis controller and Microsoft created the Kinect.

satoru iwata

Satoru would become more recognizable within the industry. His interview videos with other game designers and programmers through a series called Iwata Ask’s would provide insight into the industry and anecdotes. These creativity videos were a success and became the primary method for communicating Nintendo’s games to the public.

satoru iwata

Under Iwata’s leadership, Nintendo found success and continued to be an essential figure in the industry. In 2014, a cancerous tumor was discovered in his bile duct, causing him to undergo surgery. Even through this difficulty, Iwata’s spirit remained strong and continued to work by exchanging ideas while at the hospital. On July 11, 2015, Saturo Iwata passed away at the age of 55.

The gaming industry lost an important leader but his impact and influence are remembered today. It’s thanks to Satoru Iwata’s passion for programming and video games that the industry is what it is today. His dedication and hard work have allowed us to enjoy the most celebrated and highly acclaimed video games ever released.

“On a personal level, he was my boss and he was my mentor and he was my colleague. But most of all he was my friend. And I’m a better person for it. I think every gamer is better for having Mr. Iwata’s vision and talent shape the passion we all share. Mr. Iwata, I hope you’re smiling, right now. Thank you.” – Reggie Fils-Aime

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