A great way to reflect on the thoughts, ideas, and management style of Nintendo’s late CEO/President.
I had a feeling a book consisting of words and wisdom from Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s former CEO/President who passed away in 2015, would make me sad. The true waterworks don’t hit until you get near the end when Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto and EarthBound creator Shigesato Itoi memorialize their late friend, but even still, being able to see Iwata’s passionate words laid out when you know he’s gone is underlyingly somber. What I didn’t expect to get out of Ask Iwata, out wherever books are sold on April 13, was astute and compassionate management advice. The majority of this book consists of adapted writings from Iwata translated into English that covers everything from his days at HAL Laboratory in the 1980s and 1990s to his time running Nintendo during the Wii and DS eras.
It’s not a long read, lasting just over 150 pages, but nevertheless, it is impactful. Iwata’s words are pulled from his memorable Iwata Asks articles for Nintendo as well as Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun, a website run by Itoi. The book is fascinating for how it stitches together the two sources so seamlessly. The eras covered rarely go beyond the Wii and DS, which makes sense given Iwata’s declining health in the days of the Wii U. Still, it would have been interesting to read his thoughts on a time where he navigated one of the lowest periods in Nintendo history and helped keep the ship afloat and prepare for the Switch.
The majority of the appeal here is to those interested in the video game industry, but Iwata lays out a lot of sensible and smart business management strategies that go beyond the world of games. When he became HAL’s President, he was saddled with a lot of issues. One of his plans was to just talk to everyone at the company. He found this to be extremely informative because the one-on-one meetings opened up communication he presumed he never would have gotten otherwise. While the process became untenable when he ran a company of Nintendo’s size, he still met with everyone at HAL twice a year when he ran the developer.
Nintendo fans will likely enjoy the pantheon of anecdotes, whether it’s Iwata recounting the origins of Super Smash Bros., specifically the prototype he programmed alongside Masahiro Sakurai. Reading about how various elements of the Wii came to fruition is also intriguing. Iwata pushed heavily to have hard limits on how long players could play (to appease parents), but numerous people at Nintendo fought him on it. The compromise was to include the play clock that tracked how long each game was played at a system level.
Iwata uses that specific example as a way to explain his managerial ethos. Game development is compromise, founded on building an environment where multiple people can share ideas in the hopes of putting them all together for the best outcome. Iwata talks a great deal about Miyamoto here as well, calling himself “Miyamoto’s biggest follower.” He also offers another interpretation of Miyamoto’s penchant for “tea table flipping,” translated here as bringing down the house of cards. A key aspect of Miyamoto’s disruption is that you don’t throw away all the cards; you use the cards to build a new house.
In the portion of the book where Miyamoto talks about his relationship with Iwata, he talks about his first memory of meeting him. It was when Iwata and HAL were working Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally. Miyamoto played an in-development version and while he was impressed by how well it ran on the Famicom, he thought it was missing some degree of personality. At Miyamoto’s behest, Mario was added to the game and the “rally” aspect was added. It’s a good example of how Iwata and Miyamoto worked together over the years.
Ask Iwata is packed with interesting commentary and words of wisdom. Some of this information has been out there for years, especially since all of Iwata’s words were already written before this, but the streamlined and organized presentation here makes it an absolute must-read for Nintendo fans. It’s a great look at an instrumental figure in Nintendo history and a nice way to keep his memory around.