“No part of my experience has turned out to be a waste of time.”
“There’s no ethics under capitalism”. Such is but one of the many cynical mantras that temper our arrival into the harsh reality of adulthood and smother that wide-eyed naivete we once held so dear. Indeed, corporations might give you joy, but they certainly are not your friends: be it their complicity in modern-day slave labor to rampant sexual harassment, cases like the heartbreaking outing of Pixar’s John Lasseter enforce the bitter lesson of never meeting your heroes. Yet in reading Ask Iwata, that forgotten nostalgia burgeons: it’s not long until we witness Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s dearly departed CEO, discuss the virtues of company health and understanding every last individual who worked under him, be it Kirby‘s home in HAL Laboratory or the world-famous game company he’d eventually govern.
A memory from the Wii era surfaces: as the motion-control wonder became an overnight success, empty shelves pervaded retailers everywhere, breeding suspicions of artificial scarcity — an all-too-familiar conspiracy Iwata not only publicly denounced but claimed made him “sad”. Gaming’s a medium as cynical as any other, so it comes as no surprise impatient fans laughed off his concerns as a mere publicity stunt; now, I can’t help but wonder if he really, truly meant it. Not that it’d be any surprise — we are talking about the same man who, upon slow sales of 3DS and Wii U, halved his paycheck not once, but twice so the company’s employees could sustain their livelihoods. How many CEOs can you name that acted with such generosity?
It’s not as if Tatsumi Kimishima and Shuntaro Furukawa — his successive interim and permanent replacements, respectively — haven’t successfully righted the ship since Nintendo’s darkest hour in 2015, wherein Iwata suddenly passed away from cancer in the midst of Wii U’s failure, yet as Ask Iwata elaborates on philosophy after philosophy, anecdote after anecdote, it’s not long before the inevitable escapes my lips: “Wow, I really do miss him.”
Such a revelation could only be evoked by one Shigesato Itoi — renowned copywriter, EarthBound creator, My Neighbor Totoro cast member, perhaps Mr. Iwata’s dearest friend, and the man responsible for Ask Iwata: a collection of culled columns from both Iwata’s penned contributions to Itoi’s Hobonichi website and the in-depth Iwata Asks interviews, wherein he’d pick the brains of famed developers ranging from Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, The Legend of Zelda) to Junichi Masuda (Pokémon). As if speaking from the dead, the programmer-turned-president invokes lessons from his high school days of tinkering with calculator games to crafting Kirby’s Dream Land and Super Smash Bros. at HAL Laboratory, all which played into his thirteen-year tenure as Nintendo’s president. Be it Hiroshi Yamauchi’s insistence on a two-screen system that would become the Nintendo DS, penetrating the Wii into the public consciousness, and how his famous creed of “Programmers should never say no” took on an infallible life of its own, we’re given a special tour of the building blocks behind his corporate psyche.
There’s a beating, genuine warmth every bit as heartening as the MOTHER trilogy that Itoi first delivered upon fanatics some thirty years ago. Surely, everyone knows the story of his miracle work in salvaging MOTHER 2 (“EarthBound” for Western audiences, and yours truly’s favorite video game) from near-cancellation, yet what arrests us is his fascination with the game’s Japanese tagline — “Grown-ups, kids, the girl next door”. Iwata made no secret that broadening the gaming base was his dream, and wove Itoi’s advertisement into the corporate mission statement that fueled the Wii/DS era: incorporating video games into daily routine, all born from a genuine desire to make people happy. Anyone can dispel such idealism as having no place in a multi-billion dollar industry, yet can we truly claim that had Iwata and Itoi not shared this ideal — however different their approaches to this goal may’ve been — that something so niche as EarthBound would not only be rescued from development hell, yet also be imbued with such heart and sincerity that continues captivating and inspiring fans all these years later?
Observing his childlike fascination with WarioWare: Touched!’s record player touches upon another question: how do Nintendo’s developers conjure up that so-called “Nintendo magic”? We might think of Miyamoto as an otherworldly magician captivating a global audience, yet Iwata pulls the curtain behind Miyamoto’s magic tricks and reveals only but one man’s methodical problem-solving. In the case of Super Mario World, the debut of Yoshi didn’t occur from Miyamoto and co. walking into Nintendo one morning expressing their desire for a cute dinosaur; rather, they detected a lull in gameplay, experimented with the idea of a loyal steed, and through working within the confines of SNES limitations, concluded a dinosaur would be the best fit. We love Yoshi; we adore Yoshi, but Miyamoto possesses no magical toy chest to draw out a new mascot from — the character’s appeal simply sprung forth from function.
“Even when I’m vaguely aware of how tough it’s going to be, my baseline assumption is, “We’ll work it out.””
Nintendo faithful will certainly recognize other development fables — “Random Employee Kidnapping“, wherein Miyamoto abruptly accosts Nintendo employees to test out his latest games, proves a valuable lesson in outside input penetrating any one creator’s blind-spots — but this book is first and foremost about Iwata himself, and perspectives from Miyamoto and Itoi elaborate qualities the gaming public took for granted: the saintly modesty that’d greet angry shareholders, the reverence and respect he held for his colleagues (Both Miyamoto and Iwata elaborate on how the latter upheld Mario’s father as his “number one follower”), and deducing the secret spice that’d make game concepts soar; indeed, Iwata’s mutual obsession with problem-solving induced more than several disagreements with his idol, yet approaching their discussions as solving his friend’s problems rendered him Miyamoto’s rock. (A certain example involving cameras is highlighted here — let’s just say New Pokémon Snap might very well not exist were it not for a certain N64 epiphany.)
This distinct parallel in Miyamoto and Itoi’s respective roles as insider and outsider hits hard: Miyamoto outlines the case for why he perceived Nintendo’s president as his friend, yet Itoi’s intimate knowledge of Iwata’s family takes off the mask to reveal what we already knew: the Iwata that greeted fans with Nintendo Directs. The Iwata that’d silently hold a banana bunch as he stared into the camera. The Iwata that staged a Smash Bros.-themed brawl with Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime. The Iwata that famous 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.”
I knew reading Ask Iwata might make me cry, but only once did tears threaten to fall: the description of a simple quirk shared between father and son. I’ll leave that for you to discover.
Hence the inevitable guilt that former critics of Iwata’s presidency will feel as they scan for any weaknesses within Iwata’s philosophies; personally, I confess to wincing at Iwata’s emphasis on names — yes, the “Wii Remote” was a stroke of genius, yet who didn’t foresee see the issues with the confusing Wii U? Yet as we learn here, it’s this faith in molding an idea that defines the Nintendo we know today. The concept of a two-screen handheld seems insane — remember that DS mock-up where a stock market crash transcended both screens? — yet the ah-ha! moment via touch screen gave birth to gaming’s most successful handheld. Meanwhile, anyone would agree that satisfying overbearing soccer moms by having the Wii automatically shut down after 24 hours is an objectively terrible idea, but building off that concept led to WiiConnect 24, where players could review their logged hours.
Maybe Nintendo was too hasty with Wii U’s clunky screen controller, yet it was revisiting this concept that led to Switch: the portable HD device that continues breaking records at an unprecedented rate. Were Iwata still alive to see this vision become reality, he’d undoubtedly be subject to his favorite words of praise: “Thanks to you, things are going well.”
Just like before, the post-Iwata gaming world has no shortage of problems, with one recent point of contention revolving around game preservation: we hiss at Sony shutting down the PlayStation 3 store, and bemoan the removal of the digital-only Super Mario Bros. 35. Had Iwata still been alive, could the latter have occurred under his tenure? Maybe, maybe not — Ask Iwata doesn’t deify Iwata as a flawless human being, but instead celebrates the life of a man who just really, really cared about others. As Nintendo moves on, the lifeblood of Iwata’s philosophy will inevitably coagulate and bind with whatever responsibilities and principles they forge from here on — be it bleeding into Nintendo Switch and Pokémon Go, or through development processes that’ll forever remain out of the public eye — but his heart continues to beat through his mission statement of fostering happiness, and that’s more Nintendo magic than anything else.
Thank you, Mr. Iwata.
Final Verdict: 5/5
This review was based on a review copy provided by VIZ Media.