Earlier this week, Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata suddenly and tragically passed away. Most of the tributes and obituaries have focused on his time as president (and later CEO) of Nintendo, which is understandable given his accomplishments in the position. He introduced the Wii and DS and changed Nintendo’s cranky, regressive image, leaving a more open, broad-minded and just generally more chill company in his wake.
Yes, Iwata achieved impressive things as Nintendo’s leader, but he wasn’t ordered ready-made from the corporate executive factory. Before he became president of Nintendo, Iwata spent more than 20 years in the trenches, involved in the nitty-gritty of game development. An ace programmer, Iwata was often the guy Nintendo called on if a project needed last minute help, or was stymied by a technical problem. As such, Iwata quietly made some of Nintendo’s best games possible over the years. So, if you’re thinking of paying tribute to Satoru Iwata this weekend, here are the 10 best games he worked on in a hands-on way…
10) NCAA Basketball (SNES)
This one’s mostly on the list for novelty purposes. Yes, the President of Nintendo once worked on a college basketball game. Hell, I bet you didn’t even remember an NCAA basketball game existed on the SNES. NCAA Basketball was the first “3-D” basketball game (it actually uses the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 graphics instead of polygons, so it’s not true 3-D), and it’s actually pretty fun if you adjust your expectations. Iwata’s programming skillz were used to get the game’s then-cutting edge visuals running smoothly (which, in the 16-bit era, meant around 10 fps).
9) New Ghostbusters II (NES)
If you’re an American gamer, you’ve probably never heard of this game. The Ghostbusters II game for the NES most are familiar with was published by Activision and sucked ectoplasm. Thankfully for Japanese and European ‘Busters fans, HAL Laboratory (the company Iwata worked with for most of his game-making career) decided to take a second crack at making a good Ghostbusters II game, and they mostly succeeded. Hell, it was probably better than the movie. New Ghostbusters II is simple, but it’s fun, cute, packed with references to the movies, and happened to have a future president of Nintendo as a technical adviser and designer.
8) NES Open Tournament Golf (NES)
No, we’re not talking about the old-school, black box Golf. This is the later, more elaborate NES Open Tournament Golf. You know, the one with Mario in striped pajamas on the front. A pretty solid game of video golf for 1991, NES Open Tournament Golf was almost entirely programmed by Iwata.
7) Dragon Warrior (NES)
The Japanese are crazy about Dragon Quest, but the American version of the first Dragon Quest (renamed Dragon Warrior for Westerners) was surprisingly much more superior, featuring better graphics and cleaned up gameplay. Why? Because Iwata was brought in to totally reprogram and rebuild the game for its American release, of course.
6) Balloon Fight (NES)
Oh, Balloon Fight. You’ll always be one of my favorite games from Nintendo’s classic arcade era. Iwata may have been employed by HAL, but the company was very close to Nintendo, and, as already mentioned, the Big N would often borrow Iwata when their bacon needed saving. Nintendo was having trouble getting Balloon Fight up to snuff on time, so Iwata and his virtuoso programming prowess stepped in, and one of the NES’ best early games was the result.
5) Kirby’s Dream Land (Game Boy)
The Kirby series is credited to Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai, but it was set in motion by Iwata. It was Iwata’s idea for HAL to make a platformer specifically designed for beginners, and he remained deeply involved in the Kirby’s Dream Land throughout its development. Even as Iwata ascended the corporate ladder, it’s clear he never lost his affection for Kirby, as he continued to greenlight a steady stream of games starring the pink marshmallow during his tenure as president.
4) Pokémon Gold and Silver (GBC)
When it came time to make a follow-up to the wildly popular Pokémon Red and Blue, the Pokémasters at Game Freak discovered they had more game than they could possibly fit on a Game Boy Color cartridge. Nintendo brought in Iwata to whip up some compression tools that would make Pokémon Gold and Silver possible, and he of course overshot his target. Iwata’s compression tools were so effective, Game Freak fit Pokémon Gold and Silver and all the areas from the original Red and Blue on a single cartridge. By the way, Iwata was already president of HAL Laboratory at this point, but if you want something done right, you just have to do it yourself.
3) Super Smash Bros. (N64)
Super Smash Bros. may be one of Nintendo’s most popular series today, but it started as the after work project of Iwata and his partner in Kirby crime, Masahiro Sakurai. Before Smash Bros. even had Nintendo characters (or was called Smash Bros.), Sakurai would basically come up with ideas for the game after work, then send them to Iwata, who stayed up to the wee hours programming them. It took many months, but a primitive version of Super Smash Bros. would slowly but surely come together.
2) Super Smash Bros. Melee (GCN)
The original N64 game wasn’t the last Smash Bros. game Iwata left his fingerprints on. Nintendo wanted Super Smash Bros. Melee for the launch of the GameCube, but the team at HAL were running behind schedule. Or at least they were until the president of the company rolled up his sleeves and pitched in on the programming. With Iwata’s help, Super Smash Bros. Melee hit shelves a mere two weeks after the launch of the GameCube itself. It’s also still considered by many to be the fastest, slickest and best-designed game in the series, which tends to happen when Iwata gets involved in a project.
1) EarthBound (SNES)
Beloved cult-classic RPG EarthBound absolutely would not exist with Satoru Iwata. EarthBound series creator Shigesato Itoi is a great writer, but not much of a game designer. Back in late 1993/early ’94, the EarthBound game was badly behind schedule, and kind of a hot mess. Iwata was brought in to help with the design and programming, and basically pull EarthBound together into a presentable, playable game. I’d say he did a pretty darn good job with that.
So, there you have it. Ten good to downright legendary games you can thank Nintendo’s workhorse and invaluable pinch-hitter Satoru Iwata for. His role as the public face of Nintendo will always be what he’s most remembered for, but I truly believe these games are what he’d consider his true legacy.
“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 (1959-2015)
From one gamer to another, thanks for all the memories (and great games).