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.
55 years ago, in the massive city of Sapporo, Japan, nobody could have predicted the impact the young Satoru Iwata would have on the world. Iwata’s journey, from a simple programmer at a small studio to the worldwide head of one of the greatest video game companies in the world, is nothing short of inspiring. And the experiences he created, the risks he took, and the decisions he made have brought joy to countless people and have transformed Nintendo, the industry, and even the world into something far better than it would have been without him.
Satoru Iwata got into gaming at a young age after he first fell in love with Pong, and he soon became fascinated with coding. During high school, he says he was probably one of the original adopters of the new Hewlett Packard Pocket Calculator. While others used it for complex mathematics, Iwata used it to program games, and excitedly show them to his friends. The first he made was a baseball game – all represented in numbers, of course. When he saw his friends enjoying that game, he said:
…it made me feel proud. To me, this was a source of energy and passion. As that passion for games began to blossom, I think my life course was set.
And indeed it was. Following high school, he headed to the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan’s largest institute of science and technology. Here, he majored in computer sciences. But after class was over, the real work began: he would drive away on his motorcycle to a store – specifically, the first store to have a department entirely dedicated to personal computers. He and several others who would travel to this store for the same purpose all had the same thought: how could we play games on them?
The Tokyo Institute of Technology
Satoru Iwata soon became friends with these folks, and they began to rent an apartment, getting together to make video games. This group of developers were the beginnings of what would later become HAL itself. After Iwata somehow made it through college successfully despite his extracurricular activities sucking up so much energy, he joined the smallest company of anyone in his class: he was the fifth employee of the start-up studio HAL. So what did he do there? Well:
The answer is that I was a programmer. And an engineer. And a designer. And I marketed our games. I also ordered food. And I helped clean up. And, it was all great fun.
HAL’s massive list of developed games is impressive, and it’s hard to know to what extent Iwata was involved in all of the early experimental PC games. Even later, in a NES game called Super Billiards (NES), his name showed up with no explanation of what he did, along with two other men who also helped with the game. But then Iwata and HAL heard about Nintendo’s development of the revolutionary new Famicom – and everything changed.
They used every contact they had at their disposal to get a meeting with Nintendo, positive that one of their ideas would be a hit. Eventually, they succeeded, and Nintendo hired them; but not because of one of their projects or ideas. No, Nintendo wanted HAL to fix one of their own titles that was having development troubles: NES Pinball. From this, HAL realized that “even artists must know the business side of game development. After all, if a game never comes to market, there is very little chance of it making any money.”
HAL did a good enough job that they cemented their relationship with Nintendo, and continued to work on a variety of titles, both fixing Nintendo games and developing their own franchises. Iwata helped Masahiro Sakurai develop the Kirby franchise, and HAL would go on to help Shigesato Itoi develop his first game idea ever, which would become the well renowned Mother. Balloon Fight is one of Iwata’s most enduring titles. He would even be a part of developing Super Smash Bros. in secret. But eventually, HAL eventually began to verge on bankruptcy, and in 1993 – foreshadowing his later rise to president of Nintendo – Iwata rose to the job of CEO to turn it around. Which he did.
Chances are you’ve heard some of Iwata’s more impressive feats at HAL. The man truly was a programming genius. One great story is about Earthbound. The game went through a five-year development hell, and Itoi even thought the game was doomed numerous times. The coding was a mess; but Iwata, though now CEO of the company, went in himself and made the game work.
At one point, as president of HAL, he was working on Pokémon Stadium where “the first task was to analyse Red and Green’s battle logic and send it over to Miyamoto-san and his team.” This, he did – and to make it considerably more impressive, he did it without any reference documents. An excellent example of Iwata’s humbleness and massive coding skill, here’s the excerpt from the Iwata Asks.
Right. (laughs) You decided to release Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64 and the first task was to analyse Red and Green’s battle logic and send it over to Miyamoto-san and his team. You’d normally expect there to be a specification document, but there was nothing of the sort…
I’m so sorry! (laughs)
No, no, it’s fine! (laughs) Studying the program for the Pokémon battle system was part of my job.
I created that battle programme and it really took a long time to put together. But when I heard that Iwata-san had been able to port it over in about a week and that it was already working… Well, I thought: “What kind of company president is this!?” (laughs) […] I remember thinking that there just weren’t that many people out there who would be able to read the entire Game Boy source code, which was by no means written in a highly-refined programming language, and grasp how everything connected with everything else. So Iwata-san, you analysed the whole thing and reworked the code, decided on the way to localise Red and Green, got the battle system running on N64… I was gobsmacked that you managed all of that…
Also on the subject of Pokemon, Satoru Iwata managed another incredibly impressive feat. In the development of Pokemon Gold & Silver, Game Freak only managed to fill the cartridge with Johto. Iwata came in and created the compression software that allowed enough room for Kanto to also be added. Iwata did his job here so well, in fact, that they were also able to fit in the worlds of Red and Blue because of this.
After he would start working at Nintendo, Super Smash Bros. Melee – the biggest launch window title the GameCube had to offer – was behind schedule. What did Satoru Iwata do? He went in and started debugging it himself. This would be the last programming job for a Nintendo title he would ever do.
Iwata: Something happened and the GameCube version of Super Smash Bros. didn’t look like it was going to make its release date, so I sort of did a code review for it (laughs).
4GAMER: No matter how you look at it, that’s not the job of the General Manager of Corporate Planning, is it? (laughs)
IWATA: Yes, it isn’t really, is it? (laughs) At the time, I went to HAL Laboratories in Yamanashi and was the acting head of debugging. So, I did the code review, fixed some bugs, read the code and fixed more bugs, read the long bug report from Nintendo, figured out where the problem was, and got people to fix those… all in all, I spent about three weeks like that. And, because of that, the game made it out on time.
4GAMER: So you even did the debugging yourself!
IWATA: And that was the last time that I worked as an engineer “in the field”. I was right there, sitting by programmers, in the trenches, reading code together, finding the bugs, and fixing them together.
For all the innovations Satoru Iwata would later bring to the industry, I think the games he helped create are perhaps his greatest accomplishments. One need only look at how special Earthbound has become to so many people over the years; Iwata saved that. Kirby has brought joy to countless players worldwide; Iwata helped create that. Pokemon is so important to so many people; how much joy did so many kids gain thanks to what Iwata did? Think how impactful games can be in your life; someone who creates so many incredible and far-reaching titles is bound to have partaken in an experience that changed someone’s life for the better – or at the least, made it a little more special. And what’s more important than that?