The man who guided Nintendo as its president and chief executive officer since 2002 has passed away.
Satoru Iwata, who oversaw one of the biggest eras for the gaming publisher, died due to complications from a bile-duct growth on Saturday, according to a statement. He was 55. The top two executives at Nintendo are now senior managing directors Genyo Takeda and Shigeru Miyamoto.
As a Nintendo executive, Iwata is best known for spearheading the “blue ocean” strategy that had the company build products for people that didn’t consider themselves traditional gamers. That led to the Wii and DS systems, which were among some of the fastest selling and most popular consoles ever made.
Iwata took over the role of president and CEO in 2002 after his predecessor, Hiroshi Yamauchi, retired. That was only two years after Iwata joined Nintendo in 2000.
But the Nintendo chief’s history with the company goes back a lot further than that. He joined the game developer HAL Laboratory as a full-time software engineer in 1983 just after graduating from college. While working at that studio, he worked on beloved classics like EarthBound, Kirby, and Balloon Fight — all games that HAL worked hand-in-hand with Nintendo on.
He was highly regarded as a programmer while at HAL, and — in 1993 — he worked his way up to the position of president at that company. Under Iwata’s leadership, HAL continued its close relationship with Nintendo. When Yamauchi stepped down, the company obviously felt it knew what it had in Iwata after collaborating with him in one way or another for nearly two decades.
And what Nintendo had in Iwata was a man who understood the magic the company was renowned for creating. He encouraged both the hardware and software teams under him to think differently. And the evidence of that came in 2004 when the company released the Nintendo DS, the first system designed and released fully under Iwata. That dual-screen device stormed onto the market and succeeded by giving Nintendo a place to make great experiences for its fans while simultaneously introducing new franchises like Brain Age and Nintendogs that appealed more to older consumers or girls.
Iwata’s Nintendo followed up the DS with the equally different Wii. Instead of trying to compete with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in terms of power and HD visuals, the company went with a motion controller in an explicit effort to simplify the input method for people that typically found gaming joypads intimidating.
Nintendo sold more than 100 million Wii consoles and 154 million DS units. The DS went on to become the best-selling handheld gaming console ever released.
In more recent years, Iwata struggled to guide a Nintendo that found itself in a transitional period. The company lost many of the nontraditional gamers that flocked to the Wii and DS to iPads and iPhones. This led to Wii U and 3DS devices that have not sold as well as their previous iterations. But, despite that, Iwata worked tirelessly to ensure Nintendo remained a profitable company.
But beyond making money, Iwata helped turn Nintendo into a company that is more conscious of its legacy and more in touch with its fans. In 2011, Iwata started hosting Nintendo Direct online video events that would reveal new games and more on YouTube and Twitch. This created a direct-to-consumer dialogue that led to hugely successful live shows that the company started hosting at the Electronic Entertainment Expo event in 2013. Now, many companies have events like those.
Nintendo will have a very difficult job replacing Iwata. It’s one thing to have a president who can spot business opportunities like the Wii and DS. It’s another to have one that can do so while maintaining and growing the key factors that make a company special in the first place. Iwata was the first Nintendo president that was not related to the Yamauchi family, but he still completely understood the soul and the DNA of why people love what the company makes in the first place. And he did everything he could to ensure that the company could go on making games like that forever. That’s what made him so important to Nintendo and to every gamer around the world.