The Nintendo Switch is currently one of the best-selling video game consoles of all time, selling over 129 million units worldwide as of August 2023. Overall, Nintendo as a gaming company has never been more profitable, with the Super Mario movie and Nintendo World theme park allowing the company to reach a wider audience than ever before.

Nintendo hasn’t always been this well-off. Just one decade ago, the Japanese game company was in a different place, fresh off the heels of the Wii’s success and right in the middle of one of its biggest failures – the Wii U.

The Wii U is Nintendo’s worst-selling home console that the company has ever released, and nearly damaged the company name permanently. Thankfully, the company’s CEO at the time – Satoru Iwata – helped to change things around and set the company up for the success that it would later experience with the Switch. In today’s post, we’ll be remembering Satoru Iwata and his various achievements throughout his career.

Iwata Started as a Game Developer

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Unlike most video game CEOs, Satoru Iwata actually first began his career as a video game developer. While attending school, Iwata began as a part-time programmer for Hal Laboratories where he riffed on Namco’s Rally-X and Galaxian in 1980. Upon graduating, Iwata was accepted as a full-time developer at HAL in 1982. He was the company’s sole programmer.

Iwata became the company’s coordinator of software production in 1983, traveling to Kyoto that year to request permission from the company to produce games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. After striking up a deal, Iwata worked on various titles including Balloon Fight, NES Open Tour Golf, Earthbound, and several Kirby games.

In 1993, when HAL was on the verge of bankruptcy, Iwata was promoted to President, at the insistence of Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s President at the time. Iwata managed to turn the company around entirely over the next six years. Though he wasn’t a Nintendo employee, Iwata also assisted in the development of Pokemon Gold and Silver and Pokemon Stadium. He also played a significant role in the development of Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64, directly helping the game’s creator Masahiro Sakurai.

CEO During DS and Wii Era

In 2000, Iwata joined Nintendo as the head of the company’s corporate planning division. His primary goal in the role was to help reduce the cost and length of game development while still maintaining the quality. Upon Yamauchi’s retirement, Iwata succeeded him as the company’s new president in 2002. As the fourth president of the company, Iwata was the first who was not a direct blood relative of Yamuchi.

Several interviews confirm Iwata’s focus and interest in great software over hardware, with the primary goal of creating games that appeal to a wide range of people rather than chasing after the latest and greatest technology. With the release of the Nintendo DS in 2004, Iwata’s philosophy proved a great success, with the system becoming the best-selling handheld of all time at 154 million units in its lifetime. This success continued with Nintendo’s next home console, the Nintendo Wii.

Both the DS and the Wii appealed to a wide casual gaming audience, with both the hardware and its respective software having a larger target audience than its competitors.

He Put His Employees Above Himself

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Iwata may have contributed to Nintendo’s success during the DS and Wii eras, but he was also present during the low points of the game company. The Wii U was a commercial failure and a total flop. Selling only just over 13 million units, the system cost the company greatly – the company’s overall net sales declined from its peak of $18.7 billion in 2009 to just $4.6 billion in 2015.

Iwata, who admittedly only earned a modest salary of $770,000 (or $2.1 million after bonuses) voluntarily halved his own salary between 2011 and 2014 as apologies for the poor sales, while Nintendo’s board of directors only took pay cuts between 20-30 percent. Another reason for this voluntary cut to his own pay was to help prevent other Nintendo employees from being laid off.

Reflecting on his bold career choice, it’s tough to not make direct comparisons to the gaming industry today. As of October, there have been over 6,000 job losses in 2023. Major game companies have cut hundreds of employees. It’s a wonder why we see so many employees laid off, especially when compared to Nintendo during their least profitable era. Unionization in the gaming industry has never been a more widely discussed topic, and it’s easy to see why.

A Unique Leader

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Iwata announced that he would not be present for Nintendo E3 in 2014 due to medical reasons. He tragically passed away in 2015 due to complications from a tumor. One of the last projects that he supported was the popular augmented reality game Pokemon Go.

All-in-all, Satoru Iwata was truly a one-of-a-kind leader. Not only did he help lead the company through its most successful Wii and DS years, offering unconventional ideas and a unique perspective, he also swallowed his pride and made tough sacrifices during the company’s lowest period.

While he was a competent businessman and leader, perhaps the greatest trait that Iwata possessed was his sheer love for video games. Both an experienced game developer and a gamer at heart, Iwata was passionate about gaming and understood what gamers liked. His prior experience working as a developer also made him more empathic. If you’d like to learn more about Iwata, check out his highly recommended book Ask Iwata.

Developers deserve recognition.  The names behind the games often have untold stories, as the challenges of game development can be intense in an industry riddled with burnout, boom, and bust.  When small studios have a unique vision, the work can really stand out. NAVGTR is committed to honoring the names of individuals when games are nominated.  If you have contributed to a standout aspect of a game, consider submitting your work here.