On July 11th, the video game industry lost one of its most recognizable figures. Satoru Iwata, the president and CEO of Nintendo since 2002, died from bile duct tumor he’d been fighting for about a year. It was a tragic passing with the entire industry and fan base in a state of mourning after the news broke. There’s a quote floating around now from a Game Developers Conference in 2005 that describes who the man was better than anything else. In his own words, “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.” Despite being the figurehead of a multi-billion dollar company, he still related to the average person booting up their console in their living room. Truly, he was the most powerful gamer in existence.
The internet has been filled with tributes to this gaming titan over the past week. No matter which site you go on, you find people fondly remembering Iwata for a life that ended far too soon. Absolutely no one has something bad to say, which fits the man to a tee. He’s the guy who cut his salary in half after a poor earnings report to focus more money on improving production. Connecting with the fans was a top priority, which he did on multiple occasions by personally appearing in the much praised Nintendo Directs and running his own series “Iwata Asks’. These were important because they showed that, despite being president and CEO, he intimately cared about what the public would eventually buy. He may have met only a minuscule fraction of the people who adored his company’s products, but the vast majority of consumers were always comforted by his warm demeanor.
Truth be told, his personality and success is only part of his legacy. The rest is undeniably the long list of games and systems he brought into fruition. It was under his guidance that we got classics like EarthBound, Kirby, Super Smash Bros., a whole bunch of Pokémon products, and countless others. He also personally oversaw nearly every GameCube game released to make sure it survived a generation where it was soundly defeated by competitors. When the industry was moving toward turning systems into major multi-media devices, Iwata made Nintendo focus on originality with the DS and the Wii, which both became best-selling systems. With all of this under such a relatively short amount of time, it’s only fitting to look back at one of his earliest and most notable games: Balloon Fight.
Balloon Fight was Iwata’s first major success as a programmer. This is where he really cut his teeth and primed himself for a future legacy. Taking cue from the arcade classic Joust, Balloon Fight had you controlling an unnamed man who floated thanks to balloons attached to his helmet. The objective was simple: defeat enemy balloon fighters by moving your character into their own balloons. You naturally must avoid them, along with piranhas swimming in water and lighting, or face defeat yourself. Balloon Fight could be played alone or with a friend which made it one of the most popular multiplayer games in arcades. Future versions added on a single player “Balloon Trip” mode where you collected balloons and avoided obstacles.
This is easily where you can first see who Iwata would become as he grew in the industry. The entire concept of Balloon Fight is attractively silly. You’re some guy with balloons on your head fighting people with similar balloon heads. It’s weird, to put it plainly. Yet the game was also incredibly simplistic, which is what brought people back for more. It didn’t care what demographic it was trying to reach. All that mattered was if you were having a fun experience. “Having a fun experience” essentially became Iwata’s motto, and he actively fought to appeal to everyone as opposed to just a core group of people. As a gamer, he knew the value of entertainment, so it was his goal to make sure everyone was happy. It clearly worked in his favor.
As he proved in his many “Iwata Asks” segments where he reminisced about the past, Iwata never forgot where he came from. Even when he repeatedly impressed people with his incredible programming talents (making Pokémon Stadium a reality by bringing the source code from Pokémon Red and Green, for example), he made time to bring Balloon Fight back for more. The game has been re-released over ten times now with the most recent release on the Wii U’s Virtual Console in 2013. Balloon Fight was referenced many times over the years too in games like Super Smash Bros. Wii U/3DS and Nintendo Land, among others. Though I have admittedly no way of confirming this, I like to think Iwata kept returning to Balloon Fight as a reminder of who he was. Sure he put on a suit everyday and ran a massive, industry leading company, but on the inside he was still that player and tinkerer of quality games.
Balloon Fight predates me by a solid five years so its influence was never actually felt on my gaming history. By the time I was even aware of virtual entertainment, I already had plenty of options to pick from. Nintendo, obviously, was a big one. Yet while my experience with Balloon Fight itself is brief, it’s clear that a lot of my gaming experiences were because of Iwata. Without him I wouldn’t have had all the memories I have now with GameCube games, stellar Kirby adventures, many Pokémon hits, and obviously Super Smash Bros., to name a small few. Just the other day I was playing Fire Emblem Awakening on my Nintendo 3DS, and it dawned on me that this wouldn’t have been possible without Iwata’s cunning. Who else would have decided to take a two-screened system and give it a 3D interface while retaining what made it’s best-selling predecessor so enjoyable? Thank you Iwata.
It’s a perfectly reasonable goal in life to be remembered after your death. Everyone usually wants to be known for something important, at least in one person’s life, so they can live just a bit longer in memories. Iwata pulled off the impossible by being remembered by millions. Truly, it’s only fitting that someone would hack Balloon Fight so you can actually play as Iwata, memorializing him even further. His mark, on the gaming industry, on our personal entertainment, and even our individual growth, can be seen in countless places. He did so much in such an incredibly short amount of time, and it all began because he turned a silly balloon game into something special.
RIP Satoru Iwata.