Video Games

A few brief words on Satoru Iwata.

Iwata pic 1.

Aside from owning the original Gameboy back in the day, which was used almost exclusively for Pokemon Blue (and then Silver) as well as the occasional game of Tetris, I’ve never been a big Nintendo guy.

My first home video game console was the PlayStation in 1998. The NES and SNES were well before my time, while Nintendo 64 was very much in second place behind Sony’s console in the market by the time I became truly intrigued – indeed it was the PlayStation’s impressive selection of games (Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 2, Final Fantasy VII were already at the height of their popularity, with Silent Hill to grace the landscape soon after) that first got me so interested in what the industry could be capable of. Gamecube would find itself in a similar spot next to the PlayStation 2 a couple of years later, its faltering position exasperated by Microsoft’s entrance into the market with the Xbox.

Enter Satoru Iwata, who took over as President of Nintendo in May 2002. Not to say that’s where his legacy with the company began, of course; in 1999 he had assisted in the development of Pokemon Gold and Silver, creating a set of compression tools that made it possible for the game to become almost twice the size of its original potential. That’s right – you have Iwata to thank for the exceptionally huge post-game of those titles, in which you were able to explore a whole other region after completing the main story. To this day Pokemon Silver is still one of my all-time favourite games, due in no small part to that aspect of it.

Iwata become an official Nintendo employee in 2000, working as head of its corporate planning division. During his time in this role, profit increases up to 41% over a two year period were attributed (at least in part) to him. Such was his success and soaring reputation, that Hiroshi Yamauchi (Nintendo president between 1949-2002) eagerly gave him his blessing to succeed him in his role. This was especially significant as it marked the first time Nintendo had a president outside of the Yamauchi family line. It was a role Iwata held right up until his death earlier this month (July 11), and he certainly made it his own.

During his tenure Nintendo re-established themselves as a major player on the home console market, as well as further strengthening their hold on the handheld one. The Nintendo DS released in 2004 and has gone on to become the best-selling handheld console ever, and the second best-selling console overall behind the PlayStation 2. I only recently invested in a 3DS myself last year for the nostalgia trip that was Pokemon Alpha Sapphire, and I don’t regret that decision one bit. Ten years on, the DS console line is still going strong, with only incremental improvements necessary to keep it feeling modern and up to date with the competition (though that competition is admittedly light at the moment).

The Wii came out in November 2006, pretty much alongside the PS3, and though Sony’s console took a while to settle, Nintendo’s hit the ground running, aiming for a broader family-oriented demographic. Now, I admit never having liked the Wii very much for this reason – it doesn’t exactly help the general impression that all games should be kid-friendly. For as much as there is a place for that, I believe there should also be a place for more mature gaming experiences that tackle more serious issues, and the blatant success of the Wii may have put us some years behind on the industry getting to that point in a wider context.

When most parents think of video games now, the Wii probably comes to mind – along with the relatively harmless games that came with it, which the whole family can enjoy from a six year old to your grandmother. This kind of stereotypical image is partly why Grand Theft Auto V still garners so much widespread controversy despite having a clear 18 rating on its cover (hint: that means it is unsuitable for children).

Still, my personal gripes shouldn’t take away from the Wii’s success. It owed this directly to Iwata, whose decision to aim for a more casual gaming market smartly meant Nintendo would no longer be fighting a battle they couldn’t win against the Xbox 360 and PS3, who kept their focus on hardcore gamers (i.e. the 16-49 year old male demographic, which one could argue is just as detrimental to the industry long-term as my aforementioned gripe about focusing on families). The Wii’s release and subsequent success helped to almost double Nintendo’s stock price – another sign of the company’s upward turn under Iwata’s leadership.

Of course it was not all good; though even during the slight downturn for Nintendo in more recent years (the Wii U, released in 2012, has been underwhelming in comparison to the Wii’s success and found itself falling behind in the console race once Xbox One and PS4 arrived on the scene), Iwata led the company with dignity and retained the confidence of his employees. In 2011 he voluntarily cut his salary by half in response to poor sales – and did the same thing again in 2014. But in truth, by this point his legacy at Nintendo had already long been cemented.

There is a quote from Iwata, which he made at the Game Developers Conference in 2005, that for me sums up precisely why he had such success and respect from his peers within this industry: “On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer”.

This man was a gamer first and foremost, and that is why I felt the need to write a little bit about him now. It may sound like a given, that someone working in such a prominent position in this industry would also have been a gamer, but the current market trends of games being released broken (which, by the way, Nintendo simply don’t do) and over-priced DLC tells me the business men in this industry are no longer in step with gamers. They are merely men who know business, and were brought here simply because they saw potential in video games to be one of the most profitable industries on the planet. It is certainly that, but unless we see more men like Satoru Iwata around these parts again soon, I doubt it will retain its heart for much longer.

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