Nintendo on Saturday lost a company legend when President Satoru Iwata died at 55 from cancer. The game industry lost one of its most voracious risk takers.
Iwata, like Steve Jobs, was an ambitious leader whose absence won’t truly be felt for years. His vision for the company based in Kyoto, Japan, had been plotted out for the next decade. While he’d revealed few details to the public, he said the company would focus on products that entertained while improving one’s “quality of life.”
No easy task. But Iwata never took Nintendo down the easy path. When competitors engaged in a technological horse race, Iwata exited, pledging that the company should do more than appeal to core gamers.
“Like Hollywood, which in the past has focused too heavily on special effects,” he wrote in a 2006 Times editorial, “we need to find other ways to improve.”
Iwata’s résumé is lined with monumental successes (the home video game console the Nintendo Wii, the hand-held Nintendo DS), modest successes (the Nintendo 3DS) and at least one major disappointment (the Nintendo Wii U).
All share a few common principles. Games should be based on ease of use — a wave of an arm, a touchscreen — and a player’s time should be spent experiencing the joy of play, not mastering a control scheme or marveling at graphical and mechanical enhancements.
What resonated outside the walls of Nintendo headquarters was Iwata’s belief that games should be an experience for all, not a niche product for the technologically gifted.
“We like to talk in our industry about mass appeal,” Iwata wrote in the Times editorial, “but I wonder if we will ever achieve it.”
The rise of mobile games has narrowed the gap between gamers and non-gamers, but a decade ago Iwata and Nintendo pioneered the casual game market with 2006’s release of the Nintendo Wii.
While many talk about Nintendo’s stubbornness, citing its reticence to make mobile games or its delay in online connectivity, there’s no denying that the Wii, designed for everyone, captivated the public, showing that a simple arm wave could have you playing a virtual tennis match. It has sold more than 101 million units to date, one of the most successful pieces of hardware in Nintendo history.
“We are not competing against Sony or Microsoft,” Iwata once told Fortune magazine. “We are battling the indifference of people who have no interest in video games.”
Still, Nintendo’s risk-taking took a toll as the rest of the industry plotted a safer course. Third-party software developers largely focused their attention on Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 rather than the Wii. Over time, the Wii, lacking unique game experiences outside of those built by Nintendo, languished, and touchscreen-enabled devices gobbled up the masses.
Nintendo’s Wii U, the follow-up to the Wii, was to capitalize on this shift. Utilizing a controller, the GamePad, which was essentially a touchscreen, the Wii U nominally spoke the new language of the public. Still, it has failed to catch on, having sold just 9.5 million units worldwide since its 2012 launch.
Nevertheless, it remains my favorite of the current generation of consoles. The reason is simple: The Wii U took a risk.
While the rest of the industry was looking toward online gaming and increased connectivity, Nintendo delivered a system that works best when played with friends in the same room. Check the racing standard of “Mario Kart” or the cooperative additions to popular brands such as “Super Mario Bros.” and “Donkey Kong Country,” not to mention the eccentric character details that populate “Super Smash Bros.”
When non-gamer friends ask to get brought up to speed on modern video games, I hand them a Wii U GamePad rather than a controller for the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One. The latter two, if you’ve been away from games since childhood, require their own language to master. Here are a dozen-plus buttons, plus you have to control a camera with a thumb stick. Good luck.
On the contrary, it takes all of 30 seconds to understand most Wii U games, and I’ve never met someone who isn’t delighted to watch Mario turn into a cat in “Super Mario Bros. U.”
Even when Nintendo tackles a more complex genre, the games remain relatively self-explanatory. I’m not interested in shooters, but “Splatoon” is still one of my go-to games, in part because it simplifies every aspect of the genre — control the camera with motion, touch the GamePad to move to certain part of the universe.
Character-wise, “Splatoon’s” spunky adolescents are a breath of fresh air, a much-needed respite from the brooding men (it’s usually men) who populate most mainstream games.
Bless Nintendo, for there is nothing else like it on the market.
Next year, Nintendo has stated it will release details on its “NX” console, the successor to the Wii U. Then there are Iwata’s so-called quality-of-life products, the first of which Iwata said would boast a health theme.
Iwata’s passing came as many had been debating how Nintendo should handle dismal Wii U sales. Here’s how Iwata handled it: He cut his salary by 50% and kept forging ahead.
There’s been no shortage of pieces in recent years that quote industry analysts or financial observers, all of them eager to offer insights on how to “save” Nintendo from the failure of the Wii U.
Mobile games, some say. Or maybe a console that out-powers the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, say others. No, wait, still more argue, Nintendo should license its key characters to other game platforms or create a comprehensive online back catalog that works across multiple systems.
All would likely bring short-term gains but miss a key point. Nintendo doesn’t need saving. At least not until it stops taking risks.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from Iwata’s 13-plus years as Nintendo president, it’s this: Never stop courting those who don’t play games.