“To me, he was a friend more than anything,” Miyamoto says. “It never felt like he was my boss or that I was working under him. He never got angry; we never fought about anything.”
Miyamaoto says it was never a point of friction that Iwata, who was seven years Miyamoto’s junior, became his boss. “Normally, if someone younger than yourself with fewer years of experience becomes president, it might be difficult to get along with each other, but it was never like that. It had always been obvious that he was more suited for the position (than me), so it never became a problem. I think it allowed us to naturally become true friends.”
While Miyamoto and Iwata seldom worked on a game together (Pokémon Snap, an idea they conceived together, being one of the exceptions), the two shared opinions over lunch on a daily basis.
Miyamoto still remembers one of their first meals together. Iwata, who was running Kirby and Smash Bros developer HAL Lab at the time, was in Kyoto to work on a project. Late at night, they went for a bowl of ramen.
“Nintendo doesn’t pay for social expenses, so we had to go Dutch on the bill,” says Miyamoto. “That became a tradition that lasted even after he became company president and I became an executive.”
Miyamoto remembers how Iwata used to call himself a “Miyamoto watcher,” and how he was known to recall Miyamoto’s quotes better than the Mario creator himself.
“Since he passed away, Nintendo has been doing just fine,” says Miyamoto. “He left many words and structures that live on in the work of our younger employees today. The only problem is that, if there is some good-for-nothing idea I come up with over the weekend, I have no one to share it with the next Monday. That I can no longer hear him say ‘Oh, about that thing…’ is a bit of a problem for me. It makes me sad.”
“Monday lunches with Miyamoto must have been one of Iwata’s favorite things,” Shigesato Itoi says.
Itoi recalls how Iwata once came to his office in Tokyo to ask Itoi to become an advisor for HAL Lab.
“Iwata said that the vision behind his business was to make everyone happy: himself, his friends at work, and his customers,” says Itoi. “He used the English word for ‘happy’ instead of the Japanese word, which charmed me. It’s funny how you remember the most insignificant things, but whenever Iwata used the word ‘happy,’ he would show you the palms of both of his hands. That’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
Iwata’s conversations with Miyamoto over lunch were full of ideas on how to make people happy. When Nintendo’s previous Hiroshi Yamauchi, who passed away in 2013, requested the development of a gaming device with two screens, Iwata and Miyamoto were left wondering how to realize the idea, but they figured it out at the parking lot of an Italian restaurant they frequented. That idea later became a worldwide phenomenon known as the Nintendo DS.
“On the day of Iwata’s funeral, it rained in torrents, and Miyamoto and I were waiting around,” says Itoi. “Suddenly I decided to ask him how much chance Iwata himself had believed he had to be cured. Miyamoto responded immediately, in a very natural manner. ‘He totally believed that he would become better. He didn’t have the slightest intention to die.’ That answer made me realize just how close Miyamoto and Iwata were, and to what extent they understood each other.”
But Itoi and Iwata were close, too. Their first encounter was during the development of Earthbound in the early 1990s.
“It’s hard to describe how I felt when first meeting him,” says Itoi. “There was something very pleasant about him. Without even really knowing him, you could immediately feel that he was someone you could trust.”
The friendship between Iwata and Itoi lasted until long after the 1994 release of Earthbound in Japan.
“What I really appreciated about Iwata is that he was never insecure, and he would never show off or get mad just to show his authority or anything like that,” says Itoi. “That’s why you could have long conversations with him without things ever becoming awkward in the slightest.”
Itoi thinks that it is this natural character of Iwata that allowed their relationship to become one of the longest and most important friendships of his life. Even after Iwata took the job of president at Nintendo and became one of the busiest people in the industry, the two met on a frequent basis.
“All we would do is talk, to the extent that my wife once said something like, ‘All men ever do is chat!’ In Kyoto, I would come up with an excuse to meet him somewhere in town and have a chat, and then we would continue our conversation over lunch, and we would still be talking after coming back home. I remember how Iwata would throw a ball for my dog while talking, then my wife would take the dog for a stroll and when she came back we were still talking. Sometimes a conversation that started in the afternoon could last until after 9pm.”
While those conversations were not strictly about work, Itoi believes that sharing ideas and thoughts helped both Iwata and himself in their decision making. Much like his Monday lunches with Miyamoto, these conversations with Itoi were yet another occasion for Iwata to share his newest idea on how to make people happy.
“As the head of a big company, he probably should have been accompanied by someone, but Iwata always came over to my office just by himself,” says Itoi. “He would grab a cab, and as he rolled his suitcase, I can still hear him say ‘Hello there’ with that high-pitched voice of his.”
Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015.
The book Iwata-san is available now in Japanese only, published in Japan by Hobonichi.
Esra Krabbe is an editor at IGN Japan. He misses Iwata’s Nintendo Direct presentations.