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Satoru Iwata was loved and respected by coworkers and fans all around the world. We all knew Iwata as president of Nintendo, but his path to reaching this highpoint has its own story…

Growing Up

Satoru Iwata was born in Sapporo, Japan on December 6, 1959. From a young age, he showed promising signs of his intelligence as he enjoyed reading encyclopedias cover-to-cover in his spare time. His father, Hiroshi Iwata, served as a prefectural official and always wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. However, Satoru Iwata was always fascinated by technology and wanted to pursue its possibilities.

Iwata had a very busy life throughout high school, becoming student council president, class president and club president. He showed promising leadership skills from an early age and respected the opinions of those around him.

When Iwata was a teenager, the Sapporo Subway had set up pay-by-the-hour computers. On these computers, a young Iwata had his first experiences with video games. Every Sunday, he would come back to play on them, specifically a game entitled Game 31.

In 1976, Iwata worked part-time washing dishes to save up for a Hewlett Packard 65, the world’s first programmable calculator. This calculator had a magnetic card reader on its side that allowed users to write and input simple programs. With this, he created his first of many video games (a baseball game), as well as various number games. A sense of pride would well up inside him when he saw his friends playing and enjoying his creations. Ever since then, Satoru Iwata was convinced that his future was in creating video games.

Finding His Way

In April 1978, Satoru Iwata enrolled at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and majored in engineering and computer sciences, as there were no courses available for video game design at the time. Iwata felt that he wasn’t challenged during these courses as he had dedicated so much of his time in high school to learning as much as he could about computers.

With the money he had received as a graduation present, Iwata bought himself a Commodore PET 2001, the first all-in-one computer.He would spend days disassembling and reassembling his computer just so he could learn more about the hardware. Iwata and his roommate would always play video games on his computer, and their room became to be known as Iwata’s Arcade.

Playing video games was fun and all, but Iwata’s true passion was making them. He aspired to share his knowledge and his games with other programmers so that he too could learn more. However, computers were expensive back then and he was only one of ten students of his school who owned one.

His passion brought him to the Commodore Tokyo Offices where he met a lifelong friend and mentor Yash Terakura. Iwata worked as an intern undertaking menial tasks so that he could learn more about the world of computers. During his internship, Iwata programmed his first ever official game release – Car Race.

In Iwata’s spare time as a teenager, he would often hang around his local Seibu department store. Here, he would hang out with fellow local computer enthusiasts, bringing in his own creations and offering advice to whomever would listen. Iwata was in his element around those who shared in his passions of computers and video games, and his talents did not go unnoticed. One member of the group asked him to join a new company that he and a few friends were forming; this company was HAL Laboratory. The name was chosen so that each letter put them one step ahead of IBM.

Iwata agreed to join part-time as the only programmer while he was still enrolled at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. They operated out of a small single bedroom apartment in Akihabara developing peripherals and software for the MSX and the Commodore VIC 20.

The first peripheral that Iwata and his coworkers at HAL created was the PCG. As computers lacked processing power in the early 80s, this peripheral allowed computers with no graphic display abilities to display graphics. This was a revolutionary invention at the time and helped paved the way for the development of computer graphic technology.

In 1982, a young starry-eyed Satoru Iwata graduated from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and agreed to work at HAL full-time.

“The first company I worked for was HAL Laboratory. It was a tiny company. When I began there, I was one of only five workers. So my parents were vehemently opposed. For about half a year… my father didn’t speak to me. Although we did argue. I had abnormally strong faith in the future. Confidence without any basis. Youth is a wonderful thing!”

– Satoru Iwata

Satoru Iwata’s father had just recently been elected as mayor of Muroran and wasn’t happy with his son’s decision to work for a startup video game company. However, Iwata refused to let this stand in his way. He had strong faith that the path he was following was the correct one, and his confidence spurred him on to continue. Satoru Iwata later went on to become Coordinator of Software Production at HAL and took on a lot of overseeing roles at the company.

After a short while working full-time at HAL, Nintendo were getting ready to release the Famicom in Japan. Iwata fell in love with the Famicom’s concept and was convinced that this was the future of video games. He was determined to be apart of this new movement and HAL had soon begun developing games for Nintendo.

 

Iwata’s First Games for Nintendo

The Famicom had a similar chip set as the computers that he had tinkered with growing up. At their introductory meeting with Nintendo, Iwata appeared to know more about the hardware than Nintendo did. Nintendo were happy to let HAL Laboratory begin developing games for the Famicom, and thus the long-lasting partnership was born.

Iwata’s first job was to develop Joust, a game originally created by Atari. He was given a short deadline of only three months, but Iwata finished it in two months. Unfortunately, the deal between Nintendo and Atari didn’t proceed, so Joust didn’t see store shelves for another four years.

Nevertheless, Nintendo were very impressed with Iwata’s programming abilities, and they gave him the task to fix their game Pinball. The game had drastically fallen behind schedule and was initially planned to be released in 1983. So Iwata got to work and was able to finish the game and release it in 1984. HAL Laboratory worked on the ball movement and the way that the flippers responded. They did such a good job on it that they reused this work on a later Game Boy title: Pokémon Pinball.

Iwata then got to work on a few more titles for the Famicom, such as F1 Race and Golf.

At the time, Golf was a technical marvel. Nintendo had reached out to many software development companies about creating a golf game for the Famicom. They all declined saying that it was impossible to fit a golf game that contained 18 holes onto a cartridge. Iwata saw this as a challenge and created his own compression routine. This was a practice that was very uncommon for the time, but Iwata recklessly agreed to undertake the challenge. His innovation paid off and Golf was released on the Famicom in 1984.

HAL Laboratory, and especially Satoru Iwata, were beginning to make their presence known. They earned the respect of many big names at Nintendo, including their president at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi. Nintendo’s president was so impressed that he invested money into HAL Laboratory, making the company a second-party developer for Nintendo.

With this change in structure, Iwata was promoted to Development Manager and became a board member for HAL. The first game that Iwata programmed after the changes was Balloon Fight, a game that has had some cameos in various Nintendo titles over the years. The game ran so smoothly on the Famicom, that it even ran better than the arcade version; a feat that was very rare at the time. The calculations to determine the player’s position was so accurate that they used the same calculations for the underwater levels in Super Mario Bros.

In 1987, HAL Laboratory were developing 3D Hot Rally, but Iwata sensed that it was missing a certain flare to it. He then looked at some of Shigeru Miyamoto’s work, such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda; he wondered what it was that made these games stand out. Iwata then worked closely with Miyamoto and made some changes that better captured that Nintendo magic.

The game was then released in 1988 and Iwata learned a lesson that stuck with him for the remainder of his professional career: content is king. Being a good engineer is one thing, but imagination is really where games flourish. Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto gained mutual respect for one another and went on to have a long-lasting professional relationship and friendship.

President of HAL

In 1991, HAL Laboratory was in extreme debt due to a recent lack of hit games, building a new office for their expanding business as well as Japan’s poor economic state at the time.  Satoru Iwata had a knack for foreseeing gaming trends and Hisroshi Yamauchi took notice of this. Yamauchi agreed to assist in recuperating this debt under one condition: that Satoru Iwata was to be made president of HAL Laboratory. Iwata reluctantly agreed, as he had little managerial experience, at the age of 32.

HAL Laboratory were experiencing growing pains as a company and needed to pay back 1.5 billion yen. During this period, Iwata had begun displaying his leadership skills that would ultimately land him the top job at Nintendo.

Iwata spoke to every employee to learn more about them and their currently assigned tasks. His top priority was assigning employees to the correct tasks to increase productivity.

It was during this period of struggle that Iwata stumbled upon a young creator with a revolutionary idea – a 19 year old Masahiro Sakurai with a pink puff ball called Twinkle Popo. They wanted to create a brand new IP that was easily accessible for people of all ages, but still offered a lot of challenge. However, the initial reception did not meet expectations and Miyamoto suggested re-branding it. And so, Kirby was born. Kirby’s Dreamland then went on to sell over five million copies, adding to Iwata’s newfound belief that there is magic in games that everyone can play.

“What Kind of Company President is This!?”

During Iwata’s time as president of HAL, he took on an unorthodox role within the company. He fulfilled his role as president, but also did hands-on work with the development of many titles both within and outside of HAL.

Mother 2 (Earthbound) was struggling in its production and they went to Iwata for help. Iwata thought that it was best to restart the project from scratch (whilst still keeping the game’s art designs) rather than trying to mend all of its issues. They did just that and the game was completed and released in less than a year.

Iwata later helped Game Freak with their development of the beloved Pokémon series. He worked on the western localisation of the original Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green titles so that Game Freak could get to work on the sequels.

“I think it’s amazing that the biggest hit the game industry has ever had, Pokémon, was a Game Boy game. I think there’s so much to learn from that. Cutting-edge graphics and impressive CGI are tools, but they aren’t the only tools we have.”

– Satoru Iwata

Iwata always saw the importance of gameplay and innovation over graphical fidelity. He continued with this philosophy throughout the rest of his career.

As development for Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver progressed, Iwata created compression tools that would allow for the games to contain the original Kanto regions in addition to the new Johto region. This became a monumental success and the team at Game Freak were amazed as to how much he could fit onto a Game Boy cartridge.

When Game Freak were developing Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64, they realised that they had no specification documents left for the battle system. Iwata didn’t work at either Game Freak nor Nintendo, but he acted as an intermediary between them. He studied the original source code for the battle system and was able to successfully implement it in Pokémon Stadium in just one week.

“I created that battle program 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!?”

– Shigeki Morimoto

Iwata worked long hours at HAL, but he also worked the occasional weekend helping Masahiro Sakurai develop Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64. Iwata gave Sakurai the green light to begin development, but HAL didn’t have any spare developers to assist him, so he took it upon himself to help bring the game to life.

Iwata’s hard work had finally managed to pay off and he successfully pulled his company out of the 1.5 billion yen debt. Nintendo’s president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was very impressed and offered Iwata the head of corporate planning position at Nintendo, to which he accepted.

 

Satoru Iwata helped HAL Laboratory out of its debt and turned it into a company that is still making games for Nintendo today. He played a very active role as president, always willing to help other developers who didn’t even work at HAL. Iwata followed his dreams and always had faith in his path in creating video games.

As we all know, his journey did not end here. Part 2 will go through his role at Nintendo, both before and while he was president. If you’d like to be notified as to when Part 2 is up, then please consider liking and following our Facebook page.

 

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Posted by Alex Harding