Satoru Iwata: why a generation is mourning the loss of Nintendo's CEO
Global outpouring of affection reflects gaming industry's heft and the impact of leader who embraced social media
Nintendo president Satoru Iwata’s death on July 11 from a bile duct tumor has led to an outpouring of tributes from video game fans around the world on Twitter and other social media channels.
Mourners – children, teenagers and adults – expressed their grief through heartfelt YouTube tributes, fan art, poetry and more. Many of their creations featured balloons floating away – a reference to one of the games Iwata helped create. Even before financial news publications began reporting on Iwata's death, gamers were online, recalling how the CEO had slashed his own salary to preserve jobs at Nintendo, appeared in humourous videos and in the popular IwataAsks. They shared and re-shared favourite Iwata quotes and favourited tweets from rival game developers.
The gaming industry is a global economic heavyweight with billions of revenues. But, unlike the death of Apple's Steve Jobs, Iwata's death seemed to spark little concern about the company he helmed – instead, people expressed a personal sense of loss.
Why should the death of a 55-year-old business executive spark such an emotional response?
With one of the world's top-ranked computer science departments at the University of Toronto, U of T News writer Terry Lavender asked some of its many video game scholars and students about Iwata and his legacy.
Adam Robinson-Yu, computer science graduate (class of 2015)
What role did Nintendo play in your childhood?
When I was younger, I was introduced to video games on the computer. I played a lot of shareware DOS games on my dad's computer until my family got an N64. Since then, I rented games from the local video store whenever I could. Video games became my biggest hobby, and while I played (and started making) a variety of games on the computer, many of my favorite games were on Nintendo consoles. I was a huge fan of most big Nintendo franchises, such as Mario, Zelda, Kirby, and Pokemon. These games still inspire me today, since I'm developing video games myself right now.
Do you still play console games?
Yes! I play video games mostly on my PC now, but of the three competing consoles, I'm only really interested in the Nintendo Wii U. Most interesting games on PlayStation or Xbox have analogues on PC, but social joyous games like Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros, and Super Mario Land feel unique to Nintendo.
What was your reaction to Iwata’s death?
It is really sad to hear of his death. He seemed like a very talented man who cared a lot about games. He's been influential in a number of famous Nintendo titles that I've played throughout my life.
Before Iwata was the president of Nintendo, he ran another studio, HAL Laboratories. HAL created both the Kirby and Super Smash Bros. franchises, which are both franchises I still love to this day. He also worked a lot with the Pokemon franchise; it is said he programmed the compression tools himself which allowed tons of content to be packed into Pokemon Gold and Silver. Since becoming Nintendo's president, he's been the executive producer on countless Nintendo games from the GameCube era and onward.
Why do think there has been such an emotional response to his death?
Nintendo, as a company, has had a lot of ups and downs. In spite of all that, I think they've managed to maintain a special reputation as a company that always releases polished, family-friendly games that focus on delivering joy. I can't help but feel that Iwata was influential in maintaining that reputation.
Steve Engels, associate professor (teaching stream), computer science
What is Satoru Iwata’s legacy?
Satoru Iwata was known for many things over the years. At first, he was known as a game designer, working on titles that I grew up with, like Earthbound and Kirby's Adventures in Dreamland. Since he took over as president of Nintendo, he's been known for innovations like the Nintendo DS and the Wii, and approaching game design in ways that have always been different from the designers of other consoles and games. But beyond the countless games and devices that were created under his watch, is the spirit that he brought to the industry. He was always a gamer first, and he never lost sight of the gamers who loved the things that Nintendo made. So it feels like the gaming world has lost one of its own, somebody who really spoke to them and made a connection to gamers everywhere.
Many people have taken to social media to express their grief and their appreciation of Iwata and Nintendo. Does this surprise you?
You might think it's surprising for so many people to mourn the president of a company! But he has maintained a social media presence for quite some time, with his series Iwata Asks and his appearances on Nintendo Direct. So it's not that surprising that a community he has been part of for so long would make their sadness known on the same channels that he used to reach out to them all these years.
Would it be farfetched to compare the reaction to Iwata’s death to the reaction following the death of figures such as Steve Jobs or John Lennon?
I see how people would compare Satoru Iwata to Steve Jobs, for his legacy as a creator-turned-visionary, or to John Lennon as a man who was loved for his spirit, as much as his creations. The comparison I'd probably draw is between him and Walt Disney, who did so much to fuel the imagination and delight of a generation, and the only comfort in losing him is the legacy that he leaves behind him.
How significant was Nintendo in the growth of console games and video game culture?
Nintendo has been around forever, even before it was known as Nintendo, in the Famicom days. They've pushed the console market with generations of home- and portable-gaming hardware, hitting spectacular successes and failures along the way. And their games have given us iconic characters such as Mario and Zelda, to the point where gaming culture is awash with references to Nintendo creations. So it's hard to look at the history of video games and video game culture, without seeing the hand that Nintendo has had since the beginning.
What effect will his death have on Nintendo’s future?
The impact of Satoru Iwata's death won't be felt as much as that of Steve Jobs, but it will be similar. People looked to Steve Jobs as a visionary, and his passing signaled a great loss for the company and possibly the industry in general. But while Satoru Iwata was a great man who did great things, he was fortunate enough to be part of a team of visionaries, and whenever he discussed the successes that Nintendo had, he would often drop references to people like his friend and colleague Shigeru Miyamoto [creator of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers and other legendary Nintendo titles].
You met Iwata on a couple of occasions. What was he like?
Mostly, it was meeting him from afar, but there were times when I got to see and say hello to him up-close. The most vivid and inspirational memory of him came from the talk he gave at a conference I attended in 2011. In that talk, he attributed his success to his origins as a gamer, and how he always looked to make games that he was passionate about, instead of just seeing it as a business. He urged everybody in the audience to be creative, change the world, and always follow their passion in whatever they do. And then he gave everybody in the audience a free copy of a new Nintendo DS game that they had just made. I think that just about says it all.
Sara Grimes, assistant professor, Faculty of Information
Did you play Nintendo games when you were growing up?
I did indeed. I was given an NES (to share with my siblings) for Christmas the year it came out and became completely enamored with the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda games. I later had a GameBoy, then a GameCube, then a Wii and have gone through a couple of DS’s. I still try to play any new Mario title that comes out, and count Metroid Prime among my top ten favourite games of all time.
Some scholars and game critics say that of the major game console manufacturers, Nintendo was the most female-friendly, with its characters, its story arcs and with consoles such as the Wii. Others say no, because of such clichés as Princess Peach needing to be rescued, etc. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Nintendo is a vast and prominent company, and have released a wide variety of games over the years. Certainly, a number of their games have incorporated outdated gender stereotypes or traditional tropes like the “rescue the princess” quest. But they have also been at the forefront of making games that challenge these norms and tropes – from games that feature non-stereotypical female protagonists, like the Metroid series, to games with broad appeal among female gamers, like the Animal Crossing series. The features and technologies emphasized in their consoles and handheld devices are also often thought of as “female-friendly” because they expand into different areas of play, and include activities (and movements) that girls and women are already engaged in. But I think that the most important thing that they have done differently, and what makes them uniquely gender inclusive, is that they market themselves actively and intelligently to girls and women.
What is Satoru Iwata's legacy?
Under his tenure, Nintendo stayed not only relevant, but also wildly successful through some pretty major transitions in game technology and culture. While everyone was shifting focus to mobile games (played on mobile phones), he stayed true to the company’s history of making dedicated handheld consoles, which resulted in the release of the immensely popular Nintendo DS. Meanwhile, the Nintendo Wii brought a whole new, and uniquely accessible, form of gaming that resonated not only with gamers, but with a wide, mainstream audience as well. He carved a niche for Nintendo that allowed the company to compete with the new heavy-hitters on the market (Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3), while simultaneously uncovering an entire untapped new market for games.
Why has there been such a strong reaction to his death?
I read a retrospective article on Iwata’s death written for Kotaku by game journalist Stephen Totilo that I think really summed that up quite nicely. Totilo described that Iwata “lived at the nexus” of game making, game playing and the game industry. He was the head of a mega games company, was true to his origins as a game designer, and viewed all of this through the eyes of a game player, which is where it all started for him, and which definitely shone through in his interviews and presentations. I think that because of this, a very wide range of the diverse people who are involved in games culture felt connected to him in some way. His series Iwata Asks was beloved by game creators and gamers alike. He was very young, and recent evidence seemed to suggest that he was on the mend and on the cusp of leading Nintendo into a new era. And he was the head of a company that most gamers have a very special place for in their hearts.