The sudden death of Nintendo of Japan’s president Satoru Iwata shocked the gaming world. Nintendo’s loss has spread a vague malaise across gamers, especially fans of Nintendo, and it wasn’t just because Iwata passed at the young age of 55. This malaise isn’t because the president of Nintendo died, but because this president of Nintendo died.
There are many complaints you can (and I have) leveled against Nintendo. They’re valid issues with the company’s attitudes on now-modern game features, connectivity, and distribution. However, as flawed as Nintendo’s strategy has been, it came from a far different place than the usual source of game publisher outrage. Nintendo’s tendency to lag behind competitors in terms of power and online features mixed with its overprotectiveness of young gamers are disagreeable to me, but they aren’t egregious or malicious. They aren’t the decisions of a greedy company willing to completely screw over its customers. They’re the decisions of a misguided company.
I deeply respect that, and what Iwata did as president of Nintendo, even if I deeply disagree with some of it. That respect and disagreement can be summarized in a phrase that became a running joke with Iwata: “Please understand.” Specifically, a quote from a GameSpy interview of Iwata in 2004:
Please understand, I am not saying that technology is unimportant. I understand that technology is important. But if we are just focusing on technology and investing in an IT manufacturing plant to come up with higher performance processing [chips], we will not succeed.
With the Wii U as Nintendo’s first 1080p-capable system a full generation after Microsoft and Sony made the jump to high-def, and a general sense over the last decade that Nintendo has simply accepted underpowered hardware compared with the competition, this can be seen as one of the causes of Nintendo’s difficulties. It’s also the attitude that has kept Nintendo as Nintendo, not acting like every other major console maker and publisher. The emphasis has been not on power, but on fun.
Please understand, fun is the most important thing in a video game. It doesn’t matter how powerful your hardware is, it doesn’t matter how advanced your graphics are, it doesn’t matter how many features you add. What matters is if it’s fun. If you don’t believe that’s the case, look at The Order: 1886. It’s one of the most visually stunning games on the PlayStation 4, but also one of the most forgettable.
Whether it’s a (very rare) new concept like Splatoon or a well-worn Mario or Zelda game, Nintendo has focused on making its games fun. And, for all the complaints about missing features and extremely dated online experiences, Nintendo has succeeded on the fun front under Iwata’s watch. It has made games that are fun. It applies to new and old ideas alike; you can complain about Mario Kart 8 being just another Mario Kart, and Super Mario 3D World being just another 3D Mario game, but the general consensus isn’t that they’re not fun.
Sony, Microsoft, EA, Activision, Ubisoft, and almost all of the big publishers have put so much focus on spectacle. It’s about making games bigger, with more advanced graphics and more jaw-dropping set pieces. It hasn’t only been about making games more fun. You can enjoy Halo, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and all of those games, but they’re played so seriously and with such a strict focus on being cinematic that there isn’t much of a sense that they’re made simply to be fun. Sometimes fun shines through and publishers and developers get playful, but all of the big titles still focus mostly on making huge worlds and complex graphics above anything else.
Nintendo didn’t do that under Iwata, and while it held Nintendo back on a technical level, it also meant Nintendo put out consistently good games at a much better rate than other publishers with blatantly annualized series and scowling space marine faces. Even when a new Pokémon game released and everyone knew it would be structurally identical to the very first Pokémon game, it was still always fun. That attitude came from Iwata, who said;
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.
Satoru Iwata didn’t act like an ordinary corporate president or CEO. He acted like someone who loved video games and wanted to keep Nintendo making video games he could love. He started as a developer, and worked on Balloon Fight, Earthbound, Kirby, and Pokémon. He didn’t cave to every fad and trend in the game industry. He didn’t push for appealing bullet points like power and effects at the cost of how fun a game was. And in 2014, when Nintendo posted a significant loss, he cut his own pay in half to hold himself and the board — not Nintendo’s developers and engineers — accountable for those numbers.
You can disagree with Iwata’s decisions, but you can’t say he didn’t love video games. He was personally invested in video games as soneone who developed them and loved them. His role for several years might have been as Nintendo’s top “suit,” but he wasn’t the average suit. He wasn’t an executive brought in from a similar role in a completely different industry to maximize sales. He wasn’t a sales guy, or an ad guy, or a bottom-line-at-all-costs guy. He was a genuine video game lover who knew what was important both on the development and playing sides.
When Satoru Iwata said “please understand,” it sounded like an excuse, and it became a gag. It wasn’t — at least not entirely. Executives of all companies make excuses and pay lip service to complaints, and they often mean none of it. They’re statements to put out because that’s what you do in that role, and everyone knows they mean nothing. Every time Iwata said “please understand,” it was followed by an honest explanation of why Nintendo did something. It wasn’t “Please understand I’ll say anything to shut you up,” because it usually didn’t. It was “Please understand this is why we’re doing this, even if you’re not happy with it.” Underneath the soft-spoken Japanese propriety, it came from a rare sort of earnestness.
Iwata wasn’t just a suit, and even if you thought his decisions were misguided or wrongheaded, they still came from a place of love for the medium, from someone who spent most of his career developing for that medium. It’s a legacy that deserves respect, regardless of your opinions about Nintendo.