Today marks the 34th anniversary of Golf for the Famicom. Everything the game has to offer is right there in its title: "Golf." Nothing more, nothing less. Golf is the video game equivalent of hot chocolate made with water: It's pleasant enough, but you forget about it shortly after turning the game off. Though still more engaging than similar Atari VCS games available at the time, Golf lacks the lasting appeal of true early Famicom classics like Super Mario Bros and Pro Wrestling.
Why commemorate this tiny star flickering in the boundless galaxy of game history, then? Because it's the first game programmed solely by Satoru Iwata, a talented game designer and programmer who went on to become President of Nintendo. He served as President from May 24, 2002 until he died of complications from bile duct cancer on July 11, 2015. Then when the Switch hit retail in March 2016, people eventually discovered Nintendo's staff utilized Golf to commemorate a mentor they dearly missed.
For a time, the Nintendo Switch hid copy of Golf deep in its guts. The game wasn't accessible through normal means, which initially baffled the hackers who discovered the stranded game. By Fall of 2017, the mystery was unravelled: to play Golf, you had to utilize a brand-new Switch that'd never been connected to the Internet, set its date for July 11 (the date of Iwata's passing), and make a "pushing" motion towards your TV screen with a Joy-Con in each hand—the trademark gesture Iwata used when he brought Nintendo Direct presentations "Directly" to viewers.
It's believed the Switch's baked-in version of Golf was difficult to access because its presence served as a digital "Omamori;" a Buddhist-Shinto charm that's available at Japanese temples and is supposed to bring good luck to its bearer. The charm is typically distributed in a sealed envelope and isn't supposed to be opened.
Another system update removed Golf from the Switch. Some Nintendo fans speculate the game was removed because the charm seemingly left behind for Iwata's spirit had been "opened," thereby rendering its blessings useless. Other fans speculate the charm was never meant to be permanent, and given the Switch's big success at retail, it had served its initial purpose.
Nintendo's never admitted it placed Golf on the Switch as a tribute to Iwata. There's a chance the whole thing might be an elaborate coincidence. It's possible, but at the same time, I can't think of another developer, programmer, social personality, or company President as beloved and respected as Iwata. And as Nintendo greets another young President, I'm reminded of how many Nintendo employees valued Iwata as a mentor and a friend. Rumors as far back as early 2016 suggest the Switch's engineers were highly motivated to make the system a success to honor Iwata's memory.
As hard as it was to read about Iwata's death as an admirer of his legacy, reading about his co-workers' reactions was far more heartbreaking. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild team (including Shigeru Miyamoto) would look forward to chatting with Iwata about new ideas, only to remember he was gone.
"The sadness runs deep," Breath of the Wild director Hidemaro Fujibayashi admitted to The New Yorker in an interview published in March of last year. "This is approaching spiritual talk, but we had the sense that he was watching over our work. That became a source of motivation, a drive for us to improve and be better."
The Breath of the Wild Team was doubtlessly feeling spiritual when it constructed Mount Satori near central Hyrule. From your first visit, it's clear the mountain is special. It's peaceful, covered lightly with haze, and is populated by faerie-like rabbits. There's a pool of calm water located under a cherry tree—the only cherry tree in Hyrule—and on certain nights, an ethereal stag known as the "Lord of the Mountain" will visit the pond and cast an unworldly pale blue light on his surroundings. The Hyrule Compendium explains the Lord of the Mountain is the "reincarnation of a sage that died on the lands it now protects." Indeed, when Link travels down the mountainside he finds an abandoned camp site, an overgrown orchard, and rusted tools—signs that someone once lived and farmed there.
When you consider how Breath of the Wild's team took the time to design a locale and encounter unlike any other within a game that already commanded so much time and so many resources, it becomes easier to understand why other employees within Nintendo also took the time to hide a game smaller than 31k on the Nintendo Switch. Wherever Iwata is now, his colleagues are determined to keep his memory alive in the most fitting ways they can conceive. That's an honor few people earn, and Iwata is worthy of it.