Satoru Iwata’s story is one laced with unbelievable risks, bright thinking in dark times, and a bold ambition to make a difference. For all that can be said about his charming mannerisms, his warm smile, his unquestionable love of video games, it should not be overlooked that Iwata was a visionary businessman who saved Nintendo by reinventing it.
He was a radical force; a revolutionary figure who commanded a century-old company as though it was his own start-up. Foreseeing a bleak future in retreading old ground, Iwata took Nintendo down the uncharted path, often with its future hinging on little more than his peculiar ideas. Those who believed in him were rewarded with the most prosperous period in the corporation’s proud history.
Even Iwata’s appointment to the head of Nintendo, in 2002, was unconventional by nature. He was the company’s very first elected president who had no blood ties to the Yamauchis; the family that had founded and managed Nintendo across three generations.
His promotion came at a bleak hour for Nintendo, with the GameCube languishing in the shadow of the PlayStation 2, with retailers and publishers abandoning the console. Little more than a year into his tenure, Iwata had to warn investors the corporation had begun losing money.
But in the same speech where he announced Nintendo’s half-year fiscal loss, Iwata revealed plans for a new system that would take the company on a bold new direction. The Nintendo DS was to be his first major gamble; a bizarre-looking handheld that housed two separate screens in a clamshell design. It was the first mainstream games platform to use a touchscreen and stylus, and one that clearly prioritised how it felt over how it looked.
The secret to the DS’s record-breaking sales was neither how it played or looked, however. A key part in its success was down to Iwata’s belief that he could ignite interest in people who didn’t typically play games. So for every New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Kart DS released for the handheld, there was also a Brain Age (pitched as a daily mental workout companion) and Nintendogs (a virtual pet simulator). The popularity of these unique games spread by word of mouth, with commuters playing them on buses and trains like walking billboards.
The DS, which underwent several revisions throughout its ten years on the market, sold more than 150 million units. Nintendo’s handheld business, which some felt was doomed by the arrival of Sony’s PlayStation Portable, was more prosperous than ever.
Even before the reveal of the Nintendo DS, at E3 2004, Iwata already had bigger and bolder plans in place. He said the handheld “should serve as a hint towards our next-generation console,” but few would have predicted how far Iwata was prepared to go. His second major gamble, the Wii, was so radical, so implausibly different, that it belongs in a league of its own.
At the Tokyo Game Show in September 2005, Iwata took the stage and held up a bizarre, one-handed game controller. This was perhaps the defining moment of his career; a wild and arguably reckless break from more than thirty years of tradition.
It was a concept that triggered internal controversy and resistance too. George Harrison, a marketing boss at Nintendo of America during this period, was flown to Japan in early 2005 and shown the motion controller for the first time.
“To be honest, at first I was sceptical,” he said in a recent interview. “I think a few of us were. You look at that remote, after years of standard controllers, and you don’t quite know what it is.”
“Nintendo, like all creative companies, will stumble again and again throughout its lifetime. That is a natural flaw of any person or business that dares to innovate.”
What followed TGS 2005 was a frenzy. A fever of debate, speculation and unforgettable excitement. “It was as though the audience didn’t know how to react,” Mr Iwata said of his Wii controller reveal. While there were significant reservations from some fans, the sheer enigma of the Wii had captured the imagination of the gaming world. The console became the fastest selling in history, brought games to entirely new audiences, and ushered in a new age of motion control.
Iwata would never reach that same height again. The 3DS initially struggled with a lukewarm reception to its stereoscopic 3D, as well as a declining market for handhelds, while the Wii U is a more clear-cut failure; another brave idea certainly, but one that did not connect with the masses.
Nintendo, like all creative companies, will stumble again and again throughout its lifetime. That is a natural flaw of any person or business that dares to innovate. That dares to expose itself. But Nintendo is undoubtedly standing on far more solid foundations now than it was thirteen years ago. Iwata’s legacy serves as a reminder of how far one can go if they never give up on their ideas.
Further reading: In Pictures: The Captivating Career of Satoru Iwata