By Josh Speer / July 16th, 2015
Have you ever lost a loved one in your life, be it a distant cousin, aunt or uncle, only to realize how much they influenced your life afterwards? I’m sure I’m not the only one this has happened to, but this week it is especially poignant. The sudden passing of Satoru Iwata shocked me and the gaming community to the core, and made everybody stop and take stock of their lives. For me, what was especially shocking was realizing how much Iwata-san influenced my childhood, without me realizing it until his sudden passing.
I’ve only been in the game journalism field for the past two years and change. Before that, I didn’t go out of my way to research the people who made my games, I just enjoyed the games they produced. And since so much of my childhood was spent as a Nintendo boy, I primarily played games on those consoles, be they NES, Super NES, Game Boy, DS, Wii, 3DS and more. Granted, I would often pay attention to the companies who made such great games, such as Intelligent Systems, HAL Laboratory and more, but the people behind those companies got lost in the shuffle. Thus, I was shocked to find that Satoru Iwata had been a part of two franchises that drastically shaped my upbringing, EarthBound and Kirby.
Until recently, I just thought of Iwata-san as the silly Nintendo Direct guy. I knew he was the CEO of Nintendo, but I didn’t have a clue he got his start with HAL Laboratory. Not just working for them, but he had been promoted to president of HAL way back in 1993. I always associated Kirby with Masahiro Sakurai, but Satoru Iwata also had a hand in the little pink puff. And I was utterly flabbergasted to find out that he also had a major role in EarthBound, acting as a programming director, programmer and co-producer. I still to this day feel my teenage years were intimately shaped by Kirby and EarthBound, particularly the latter, so to find Iwata had roles in both is like finding out he was my fairy godfather or something. It’s shocking, humbling, and saddening that I realized it so late.
As if that wasn’t enough, I also discovered that Iwata brought Nintendo out of the dark ages of the GameCube back into the light with the DS and Wii consoles. Though neither started out as a financial success, they grew wildly popular — especially the DS — and served to remind fans why we love Nintendo so much. Learning that he was also the main proponent of the Blue Ocean Strategy, which argued that “companies can succeed not by battling competitors, but rather by creating ″blue oceans″ of uncontested market space” was also integral to the health of Nintendo, especially in a market flooded with graphics snobs and framerate addicts. His guidance helped us all realize that a game doesn’t have to be graphically high tech or stick to overused genres to be successful. That very strategy is why Nintendo still exists today in a market full of those who spurn and mock it for being different.
And last but not least, to discover that when Nintendo once more hit rough times, instead of cutting the salaries of others, Satoru Iwata cut his own salary by half to help the company recover, really instills me with awe and respect for the man. I don’t mean any of this to be construed as Nintendo worship or fanboyism, but I greatly respect the good things that Iwata-san did for his audience, as well as for his company. Not everything Nintendo did in the years of his service was positive, but the vast majority of their decisions allowed the video game market to remain unique and diverse. I honestly don’t know when we’ll find another role model like him in the industry, and I can’t help but hope that Nintendo doesn’t suffer as a result of his abrupt passing. I myself feel like I knew Satoru Iwata my whole life without actually being consciously aware of it. He taught me to be creative, original, funny and compassionate. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder to pay attention to the great video game creators while they are around. You never know who the next big name is going to be.