Vale Iwata: A gamer at heart

Posted on July 13, 2015

If you haven’t heard, the gaming world today lost one of its most influential figures: Satoru Iwata, the President of Nintendo, passed away. Iwata was central to the success of Nintendo as a modern gaming giant, but he wasn’t just a distanced CEO: he got down to coding when he needed to (in fact he started as a programmer), and cut his own salary when the business took a downturn. When he proclaimed that ‘in my heart, I am a gamer’, it resonated with millions around the world. His vision of gaming was one that crossed boundaries of all kinds:

Even if we come from different sides of the world, speak different languages, even if we eat too many chips or rice balls, even if we have different tastes in games, every one of us here today is identical in the most important way: each one of us has the heart of a gamer. – Satoru Iwata

Satoru Iwata, thanks for playing from chipslike on Vimeo.

Nintendo is a company that has always had a very clear focus on the centrality of simple fun in gaming. They have excelled at age-appropriate games, completely changed the industry with the introduction and motion contra (Wii) which opened games to a much wider audience, brought families into video games, and most importantly, always saw games as a way to bring people together in joyful play. Times together with friends playing any of the outstanding party games on the WiiU are some of the best in my memory.

James O’Conner has written a much better eulogy than I ever could, which is an example of personal impact Iwata has had on gamers:

I am quietly devastated by this.

I have been writing about videogames in a professional capacity for close to eight years now, and have been playing them for nearly twenty. I’ve taken tutorials and given lectures at universities, I’ve sat on panels at gaming conventions, I’ve thrown myself fairly deeply into the industry. While I’ve branched out over time and played widely, I find myself gravitating towards and being particularly enthusiastic about what Nintendo are doing over and over again, despite their relative technological stagnation, their general lack of interest in telling strong narratives, and the fact that they have been releasing very similar games over and over since forever.

I’ve been thinking about Nintendo a lot lately, because I edit the gaming section of a kids magazine and few other companies are releasing as much family-friendly gaming content as they are these days, and I’ve realised that Nintendo’s real stand-out strength as a game developer is their insistence that games should bring people together. I have played Nintendo games with my grandparents. I have played them with my parents, my cousins, my friends until late in the morning. But there’s a longer game being played here – Nintendo crafted games twenty years ago that I can happily introduce my younger sister to today. In 2003, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker made me feel like I wasn’t so alone when I was going through hard times, and reminded me that there was a wider world out there to reach out and grab for. Mario Kart is practically its own language that anyone can pick up and learn in 15 minutes. Pokémon is the most tremendously scalable RPG out there, playable at both an incredibly basic and an unbelievably technical level. I still play Animal Crossing with my girlfriend a few times a week, quietly amazed at how much they crammed into the latest version, and right now I’m loving how Splatoon has never once made me feel bad for not doing well in an online round.

Satoru Iwata (who took on the presidency role in 2002) wasn’t the entirety of Nintendo, and I imagine the company is going to continue on in much the same way, but he embodied so much of what makes Nintendo special to so many people. He was an incredibly gifted programmer, a man of humble grace who always came across as very earnest in interviews. His list of credits is tremendously long. He was an ideas man, but when those ideas didn’t work he took the hits himself instead of passing them down the line – last year when Nintendo posted a poor result for the fiscal year, he cut his own salary in half (this happened despite the fact that Nintendo is wealthy enough that it could survive 50 years like this in a row). He spearheaded the company’s Nintendo Direct program, and he always spoke plainly of his hope that Nintendo could bring people together to play. Today, as I watch my social network feeds collectively mourn and share memories of the games he worked on, I can’t help but reflect on what this man and his company have meant to me.

So today is a sad day for happy gamers, a day of mourning: vale, Iwata-sama.

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