Satoru Iwata's 10 Greatest Achievements

Why do so many people care about the untimely death of Nintendo's president? Because he was far more than just an executive.

Profile by Jeremy Parish, .

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Originally published July 2015.

Satoru Iwata's death on July 11 struck a massive blow to video games as a medium and as an industry. Iwata was a giant — not simply some stuffed shirt who saw business as a quest to get the biggest numbers on a sales ledger, but also a world-class programmer who had quietly guided Nintendo's home console business, behind the scenes, from the very beginning.

Iwata couldn't have been more different in style and background from his predecessor, the late Hiroshi Yamauchi. Where Yamauchi had little interest in video games and cut an imposing figure while avoiding the public eye, Iwata made many of Nintendo's greatest creations possible. And his warm, self-effacing personality translated wonderfully to the company's Nintendo Direct videos; he was "the uncle who works at Nintendo" personified, except that he didn't just work there — he ran the business.

The loss of any talented game creator is always a tragedy; but Iwata seems especially heartbreaking to countless score of game enthusiasts. His video presence (and his determination to speak to Western audiences in English, despite it not being an entirely comfortable language for him) gave him a connection to fans other executives could only dream about. But even more than that, Iwata played a key role in creating countless games that touched people's lives — changed them, even.

Why are so many people gutted to hear of Iwata's passing? The challenge isn't to come up with reasons — the hard part us whittling the list down to 10.

1. Launched the Nintendo Direct series

Nintendo has long been criticized for being the last console maker to embrace online gaming; ironically, then, it has been by far the pioneer in harnessing the power of the Internet for marketing. Nintendo Direct videos, which run on an unpredictable schedule but generally pop up every few months, have become a sort of year-round mini-E3 for Nintendo fans, bringing new announcements and details on games for an hour at a time. And Iwata hosted the program, the president of the company speaking "direct to you," the consumer. More than just a calculated means by which to whip gamers into a capitalist frenzy, Nintendo Direct also helped turn corporate executives into amiable, relatable personalities. Stilted as Iwata's English may have been, it was impossible to see him as a stuffed shirt when he was on-screen gazing philosophically at bananas or bowing in apology for business plans gone awry.

2. Salvaged EarthBound

Shigesato Itoi's Mother series — better known in the U.S. as EarthBound — has been a cult obsession for American Nintendo fans since before the games ever made their way to the West. EarthBound Beginnings was meant to have come to the States on NES, but didn't actually make its way over until 25 years after the fact. And EarthBound for Super NES went from weird video game obscurity to highly coveted collector prize thanks to a loyal army of fans who continued spreading word of its quirky excellence across the Internet. But there never would have been an EarthBound without Iwata; with the RPG running long over schedule and still resembling an unplayable hot mess of a game, Iwata stepped in an brought order to the chaos of its underlying code. Given EarthBound's impact on so many people's lives, you could argue that this was the most important thing Iwata ever did.

3. Salvaged Balloon Fight

Of course, EarthBound wasn't Iwata's first salvage job for Nintendo. In fact, that's how he came into the company's orbit. When internal development teams found themselves struggling to complete some of their early NES projects and get them running to the standard of their arcade counterparts, Iwata helped get several games up and running within the limitations of the home console hardware. Most famously, he polished the code for Balloon Fight — a blatant Joust clone, yes, but a marvelously designed one... and one that played smoothly on NES thanks to Iwata's knack for programming.

4. Took a leap of faith with DS and Wii

Iwata didn't come up with the revolutionary concept behind the Nintendo DS — that was an initiative spurred by his predecessor, Yamauchi. However, Iwata — still freshly minted as NCL President in 2004 — saw the unconventional handheld system through from conception to launch, pushing it out the door to get the jump on Sony's PSP. While initially presented as an alternate product line to the Game Boy family, the DS quickly became a replacement instead as players took to its accessible interface and unique software. Two years later, the Wii debuted and did likewise for console game design. Nintendo saw its greatest successes of all time under Iwata.

5. Salvaged the 3DS

Not everything Iwata touched turned to gold, however, and the Nintendo 3DS initially seemed a poor successor to the original DS. A mere half-year after the 3DS's debut, Iwata took dramatic steps to turn the system's fortunes around; apologizing for its issues, he initiated a significant price drop, spearheaded new software initiatives, and offered a remarkable library of free (and partially exclusive) games as a make-good to early adopters to compensate for the quick price drop and thank them for their loyalty as "ambassadors." The 3DS will never hit the highs of the DS at its peak, but Iwata's bold steps didn't merely save the system (and likely Nintendo's business); the 3DS just might be gaming's greatest comeback story ever.

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Comments 26

  • Avatar for SOUP32 #1 SOUP32 3 years ago
    Such sad news :(
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  • Avatar for ChairmanYang #2 ChairmanYang 3 years ago
    As time goes by and as Nintendo evolves, it'll become more and more obvious that Iwata was absolutely inimitable. I'm a little frightened that the 3DS/Wii U period will be remembered as Nintendo's last creative golden age.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #3 cldmstrsn 3 years ago
    All these reasons are why I'm so sad that he his gone. I'm actually surprised at how upset I am. Like many people I never had the pleasure of meeting him but all those Directs and all those times he spoke to show what the company was cooking up made me feel a part of it and excited for more great games. Thanks again Iwata. Also thank you Jeremy and the entire USGamer team for these articles they are great to read even if they make me feel sad.
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  • Avatar for michaelburns64 #4 michaelburns64 3 years ago
    I can't be the only person thinking about editing the complete Iwata Asks archive into a cofee-table book type presentation... right?
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #5 Mooglepies 3 years ago
    Iwata had a surprising influence on a great deal of my early videogaming library. I have a feeling he's going to be sorely missed, not only by his friends and family but by people the world over.

    What a legend.
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  • Avatar for Natabuu #6 Natabuu 3 years ago
    Great article. I knew he coded back in the day at HAL and Nintendo, but had no idea he got hands on as recently as Mario Kart 8.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #7 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @michaelburns64 Nintendo needs to do that, along with a massive tome showing off all those SMB/Zelda graph paper sketches. They never will, but we can dream...
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  • Avatar for docexe #8 docexe 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Hopefully, someone will preserve them for posterity, even if only through unofficial means.
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #9 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    Thanks for a great piece, Jeremy. I had suggested elsewhere that Nintendo should put an Iwata tab on the eShop home pages, giving users a "Direct" link to games he worked on personally. Seems like a good way to remind people of all he did.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #10 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    An absolutely magnificent list of the man's achievements, hitting on each and every virtue the man had.
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  • Avatar for frankiecowley93 #11 frankiecowley93 3 years ago
    All very real achievements, and good point about him being a very different man to old Yamauchi - i believe that played a big part in the direction Nintendo took in the early 2000s, not sure they'd still be around if a clone of Yamauchi had taken over.
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  • Avatar for InsertTokenz #12 InsertTokenz 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Going by this article, there also needs to be a "Satoru Salvages" book done up as a companion piece to "Iwata Asks", filled with stories from other devs recalling how Iwata helped them in times of need. (I guess the title "Satoru Saves" might have a better ring to it though) :)
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  • Avatar for themblan #13 themblan 3 years ago
    Best article yet on Iwata.
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  • Great article Jeremy! Mr Iwata will certainly be a hard act to follow.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #15 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago

    I know; Jack Welch twiches involuntarily every time he hears of some company doing that; hell, Nintendo's one of the best examples of NOT doing that willy-nilly. They were the vast majority of big software on those systems; what were they to do with less teams to make games? Pull a Saturn till the DC (NX) appeared?
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  • Avatar for catstronaut #16 catstronaut 3 years ago
    This is a great piece. How many corporate heads actually go out of their way to connect with their audience/consumers, and how many would accept a drastic pay cut to ensure the health of their company? He was a hell of a guy.

    And I just bookmarked the Iwata Asks links to listen to while running, so thanks for that.
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  • Avatar for unoclay #17 unoclay 3 years ago
    Absolutely excellent summary and well written. This is such bittersweet stuff, reading so many Iwata articles this week.

    Criteria i've come to judge the Iwata articles by: did it bring a little tear to my eye..?

    Well done, sir (:sniffle:)
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #18 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    @NiceGuyNeon That was a classy move. Its a drop in the ocean in terms of Nintendo's overall budget, but as a gesture of solidarity it was extremely powerful. What a decent man.
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  • Avatar for Spectreman #19 Spectreman 2 years ago
    Gaming Historian did a great video about Iwata:

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  • Avatar for Spectreman #20 Spectreman 2 years ago
    Iwata remind me when, in the book Dune, someone comments that Paul Atreides being a Duke and Mentat at same time could be amazing. Iwata was a great programmer and president at same time, what is hard to happen again.
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  • Avatar for thewonps #21 thewonps 2 years ago
    Iwata's career taught me a lot about the nature of business and how to deal with a culture of "what have you done for me lately?" A generation ago, he presided over two of the best-selling consoles in history, each smashing 100mil units sold. A generation later, the Wii U is a dud and the 3DS needs a drastic price cut and three years before it finds traction and people are calling for his ouster. Through it all, he handled it with class and grace. We didn't even know about the health issues until he died.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #22 TernBird 2 years ago
    These articles anger me because all anyone said about Iwata prior to his death was how much of a dinosaur he was, running Nintendo into the ground with his outdated philosophies.

    If he hadn't died, he wouldn't be the household name he's suddenly become, and nobody would care about his achievements. They'd just keep claiming that Nintendo needs to drop out of the hardware race and go third-party.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #23 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @TernBird Whoa, talk about painting with a broad brush.Edited December 2015 by jeremy.parish
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  • Avatar for phyrexian #24 phyrexian 2 years ago
    Just out of curiosity, or just plain ol' greed, what would have been number 11?
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  • Avatar for TernBird #25 TernBird 2 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I'll grant you that I am probably more angry about this than I should be, but I never saw a list honoring Iwata's achievements while he was still with us.
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  • Avatar for Dodecamancer #26 Dodecamancer 2 years ago
    I obviously didn't know this man, but his death hit me so hard. I was so depressed that day. Even when I was critical of Nintendo, I loved seeing him in front of the camera. He always seemed to believe in what he was talking about so much and he came across as passionate and even excited at times. He was such a unique personality in a world of game company leaders who were just suits.
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