Unlike many of my peers, I never got a chance to interview Reggie Fils-Aime. I saw him often enough though, usually towering over guests and journalists in Nintendo's booth at E3. Fils-Aime is a massive guy, both in terms of height and personality, and his larger-than-life presence has defined Nintendo's marketing over the past 15 years.
Fils-Aime, who announced his retirement today, is one of the more brilliant salespeople the games industry has ever seen. In a field where hobbyists tend to vilify executives as out of touch, Fils-Aime is known naturally as "Reggie." In fact, it's currently taking all of my willpower to avoid referring to him simply by his first name—a neat bit of branding calculated to make Nintendo seem like a best friend rather than yet another corporation.
Fils-Aime first burst onto the scene during E3 2004, where he proudly proclaimed he would be "kicking ass and taking names." His act was unapologetically cheesy, but his sheer enthusiasm made it work. Journalists and fans alike were immediately taken by him, and Nintendo's newest pitchman became a celebrity basically overnight.
E3 2004 turned out to be a critical show for Nintendo. GameCube sales were sluggish, and its failure to embrace the rise of online play had been roundly mocked at the previous year's show. E3 2004 was where the company revealed the Nintendo DS for the first time, of which chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi famously said, "If it succeeds, we rise to the heavens, if it fails, we sink into hell." Most observers thought Nintendo was on the way to the underworld.
In recounting his time at E3 2004, former USG editor Jaz Rignall recalled how his opinion on the Nintendo DS turned in part because of Fils-Aime's almost crazed enthusiasm. "I wasn't sure whether this new guy called Reggie Fils-Aime who'd taken the stage at the Nintendo keynote earlier in the week had anything to do with it, but regardless, in the space of a few hours, I'd gone from 'this thing's a bit crap,' to, 'so when can I buy it?'"
Nintendo's fortunes ultimately turned with the success of the Nintendo DS and the massive popularity of the Wii. Fils-Aime soon became ubiquitous, serving as the friendly face of Nintendo's marketing. He found a natural partner in Satoru Iwata, who launched the popular "Iwata Asks" series with Nintendo's various developers, and gamely participated in numerous social media friendly skits.
Fils-Aime's act perfectly complemented Nintendo's family-friendly message. While observers grumbled that Nintendo needed to make its games darker and more hardcore, Fils-Aime leaned hard into the idea that video games can be joyful. More impressive was that he managed to do so without sounding cynical or disingenous—a rare feat in an environment where cynicism detectors are almost always turned up to maximum.
Behind the scenes, Fils-Aime's interviews were usually terse, focused, and extremely on message. During the nadir of the Nintendo Wii U in 2014, Fils-Aime responded to a question from NPR about why the company wasn't seeing profits by saying simply, "What we haven't been able to do is to launch that steady drumbeat of software to drive that profitability. The entertainment business is a high-risk business. What I would tell you is, for us, it really is about driving a pace of software launches that can drive our overall profitability. We believe that really with the beginning of this past holiday, we now are on a very solid path of having key product launches not only in our handheld business, but in our home console business to drive profitability."
Fils-Aime is a master of quotes like these, which manage to answer tough questions without providing any particular insight into Nintendo's thinking on a given subject. He even managed it in bits like this one, where he would be bombarded by unfavorable numbers and still somehow manage to make it about Nintendo's messaging. Charismatic and fan-friendly as he can be on stage, Fils-Aime is a salesperson to the core.
Fils-Aime rose rapidly at Nintendo. Barely two years after joining the company, he was promoted to President of Nintendo of America. His tenure was marked by massive highs (the Wii and the Switch), and some precipitous lows (the 3DS launch, the Wii U). I have no idea whether the Nintendo Direct was his idea, but he almost certainly had a large hand in its creation, as it was partly meant to replace Nintendo's stage show at E3—an event that was right in Nintendo of America's proverbial backyard. Fils-Aime, of course, introduced the very first Nintendo Direct.
In some ways, it's hard for me to get too wrapped up in the Myth of Reggie. When it came down to it, he was an extraordinarily successful marketing guy. His background wasn't in video games, but in Procter & Gamble, Pizza Hut, and Guinness. His legacy is that of a charismatic pitchman with a preternatural ability to connect with his customers.
i miss reggie already— SungWon Cho (ProZD) (@prozdkp) February 21, 2019
And yet the news of his retirement nevertheless leaves me with a pang of sadness. He shined a spotlight on so many of Nintendo's best qualities: its focus on innovation, its commitment to quality, and its willingness to embrace the inherent silliness of video game culture (and let's face it, games are still pretty damn silly). His departure into a well-deserved retirement makes me miss Satoru Iwata all the more, particularly as other publishers coldly axe developers and cynically focus on pure monetization.
In that, I suspect that the current outpouring on social media is about more than just buying into his marketing persona (though that's certainly a part of it). It's about bidding farewell to an era where we were constantly reminded of just how much fun video games could be. For that reason more than any other, Reggie will be missed.