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Remembering the rare talent of Nintendo president Satoru Iwata

Remembering the rare talent of Nintendo president Satoru Iwata

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Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata has died at the age of 55 after 13 years at the helm of the Japanese game developer. He led Nintendo during the launch of the DS, the 3DS, the Wii, and the Wii U, taking over just as the company was set to launch its GameCube. But while his business accomplishments impress, Iwata will be remembered as more than just a businessman — he offered a charming and human face to a company already beloved by legions of game fans.

Iwata's appointment to the position of president and CEO in 2002 was something of a surprise. He was only Nintendo's fourth president in the company's century of existence, and was the first not to come from the Yamauchi family. Not only was he a departure from the Yamauchi bloodline, he was a departure from his predecessor's tone: where Hiroshi Yamauchi was notoriously imperious, Iwata appeared friendly and welcoming. Yamauchi's background was business — he took control of the company at 22 and promptly fired the majority of the managers he inherited from his father's reign — but Iwata's was game development. Iwata started his career at Japanese game studio HAL Laboratory, working as a programmer and helping to create much-loved Kirby games.

He reportedly coded cult classic Earthbound (Mother in Japan) singlehandedly, and even as he was transitioning to upper management, Iwata remained a virtuoso programmer, brought into thorny projects as a code whisperer. In 2001, while already working as general manager of corporate planning, he stepped in to streamline the GameCube version of Super Smash Bros, crushing bugs for three weeks so the game could hit its planned release date. While president of HAL Laboratory, Iwata ported the entire battle system from Game Boy games Pokémon Red and Blue to N64 title Pokémon Stadium on his own, without any design documentation, in a week.

Programming was Iwata's background, but he brought a designer's eye to a job that is often focused on keeping investors happy. With the Wii, he helped popularize and standardize motion controls. With the DS, Nintendo introduced touch screens to gaming hardware two years before the iPhone hit the market. Nintendo's latest home console, the Wii U, has not fared as well, but Iwata already teased the company's next hardware project — codenamed NX — earlier this year.

Where Yamauchi loomed in the background, Iwata was often front-and-center of Nintendo's public image, even hosting semi-regular "Iwata Asks" panels in which he'd interview developers about upcoming games on Nintendo platforms. The panels were designed to promote new titles, but often offered true insight into the thought processes of big name developers, with Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and long-time Legend of Zelda producer and director Eiji Aonuma appearing multiple times. Even as company president, his background as a programmer working his way through the ranks of Japanese game development appeared to give him an easy familiarity with ex-colleagues and subordinates at Nintendo, highlighted neatly by this charming three-part interview with Earthbound 2 designer Shigesato Itoi. Written descriptions of these meetings were always peppered with transcribed laughter from Iwata himself.

Iwata capitalized on his softer image in Nintendo marketing, hosting the company's regular Nintendo Live online events, and often joining with Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aime to make a surprisingly endearing double act. Last year, the two engaged in a fake brawl to promote Nintendo's fighting game Smash Bros, a moodily shot skit that was rapidly turned into GIF form on gaming forums.

Most recently, Iwata appeared in puppet form as part of Nintendo's E3 presentation, one of a trifecta of top-tier Nintendo staff that included Fils-Aime and Miyamoto. The world watched, slightly bemused after two days of businesslike press conferences from Sony, Microsoft, and others, as a plush version of one of Japan's biggest companies slowly turned into a rabbit and gestured silently toward a bunch of bananas.

Those bananas were a reference to a clip from E3 2012, which showed the real Iwata staring intently at a bunch he was holding in his hand. Iwata was able to poke fun at his image, but like Nintendo, never strayed to the cynical. Neither did the other memes that he spawned during his tenure at Nintendo. He famously stated that 2013 would be "the year of Luigi," appearing in a Nintendo Direct video dressed in the character's trademark green hat. The phrase was picked up quickly by the internet at large, and "why would you do that in this, the year of Luigi!" became a cry of anguish for a wronged party.

Iwata appeared as a likable figurehead, but players also saw him pushing back against investors and analysts who demanded the company move into the smartphone market and start gouging players with egregious free-to-play mechanics to recoup recent losses. Nintendo finally committed to making smartphone games earlier this year, but appear to be doing so very much on the kind of player-centric course laid out by Iwata's leadership.

To program a game is hard. To run a company successfully for 13 years is harder. To appear as the charismatic public face of that company is almost impossible. With him gone, Nintendo loses a rare talent capable of all three, and we lose a man who came to be associated with the best of Nintendo's games — bright, optimistic, and always full of joy.