President of Nintendo Co., Ltd., Satoru Iwata, died Saturday from a bile duct tumor. Iwata had been battling the illness for several years. Nintendo issued a statement mourning the loss of Iwata and the temporary appointment of co-Representative Directors Shigeru Miyamoto and Genyo Takeda, both long-time developers at Nintendo. He succeeded the late Hiroshi Yamauchi after his retirement, and was the first executive to come from outside the Yamauchi family. Iwata was 55.
Under Iwata, Nintendo had fantastic successes and embarrassing failures. He was appointed director of the company in 2000, just before the launch of the Nintendo Gamecube. Iwata was then appointed to company president in 2003. While the Gamecube console had a less-than-spectacular market performance, it’s successor, Wii, was a smash-hit that became the best-selling console of its generation. He also presided over the launch of the phenomenally successful Nintendo DS and 3DS line of consoles, which are the best-selling line of handheld game consoles in history. Nintendo’s current console, Wii U, is failing to meet sales expectations, a fact that Iwata took personal responsibility for by reducing his own pay in 2014 to avoid layoffs, only a year after he was appointed the company’s CEO.
Before becoming a corporate president, Iwata got his start in the video game industry at HAL Laboratories, a software developer closely affiliated with Nintendo. He became coordinator of software production at HAL in 1983. One of his earliest successes was the Nintendo Entertainment System title Balloon Fight, a simple game in which players floated on balloons attempting to knock opponents out of the air by popping their balloons. He was also involved in many other HAL projects such as the Kirby series.
Iwata was also known for his unbelievable programming skill. He is remembered for programming feats such as single-handedly re-coding the SNES title EarthBound when the original wasn’t up to snuff, porting the entire battle system of Pokemon Red and Blue to the Nintendo 64 for Pokemon Stadium in under a week with no reference documents, and developing a data compression technique employed in Pokemon Gold and Silver, enabling the entire world map of Pokemon Red and Blue to be included as well.
Iwata showcased a sort of love for Nintendo’s, products, fans and customers that was almost unheard of for any other corporate CEO. He ran the regular “Iwata Asks” interview series, where he discussed upcoming Nintendo titles with their developers to provide fans with an upcoming look. He was also known for his sense of humor at Nintendo’s E3 presentations; recent years saw him stare at a bunch of bananas, participate in an elaborately-filmed fight scene with Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime, and be turned into a Muppet (created by the Jim Henson Company) alongside Fils-Aime and Miyamoto. In turn, fans of Nintendo developed a love for Iwata, repeating his oft-used phrase “please understand” whenever a disappointing piece of Nintendo-related news came out.
An outpouring of emotional messages and artwork came from other industry professionals, fans, and even Nintendo competitors. Nintendo’s official social media channels remained silent Monday in tribute to Iwata.
Yamauchi is survived by his wife, Kayoko, and millions of fans worldwide. A memorial service is scheduled for Friday.