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Ask Iwata (2021)
Book Reviews

Ask Iwata (2021)

An inspirational, sometimes quixotic, collection of wisdom and life lessons from Nintendo’s beloved ex-President.

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The death of Satoru Iwata at age 55 stunned both the business and gaming worlds in equal measure, the public face of Nintendo was celebrated not just for helping revitalize Nintendo, but for his sense of humor and obvious love of gaming – and gamers. His legendary gifts helping “fix” problematic games and hardware issues would elevate him from HAL Laboratory to succeeding Hiroshi Yamauchi to become Nintendo’s President at age forty-two – the first person outside the Yamauchi family to lead the company.

Because of this, Ask Iwata: Words of Wisdom from Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s Legendary CEO (translation by Sam Bett) is less biography and more treatise on the man’s corporate and creative philosophies – two distinct areas that feel complementary when viewed through Iwata’s eyes, like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People mixed with Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Much of the content is culled from nearly a decade of interviews Iwata conducted with Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun, i.e. Hobonichi, a newspaper founded by his friend, developer Shigesato Itoi (Mother). “Iwata Asks” would prove to be extremely popular and enlightening, especially from a company as famously guarded and private as Nintendo. Ask Iwata is divided into three sections: answers from the “Iwata Asks” interviews, selected bits titled “Iwata’s Words of Wisdom”, and a set of eulogies by Shigeru Miyamoto and Shigesato Itoi.

In many ways, the management structure of Nintendo would mimic its gaming output, many of its most visible leadership practically characters unto themselves, such as the famously grouchy Hiroshi Yamauchi and the silly mushroom t-shirt wearing Shigeru Miyamoto. It’s no surprise that Iwata, with his Japanese salaryman aesthetic and penchant for bananas, would fit right in. Unlike most gaming executives, particularly in western companies, Iwata was an actual gamemaker. And one of the best.

In fact, the only other example of such synthesis between company and public persona that comes to mind is Apple and its founder, Steve Jobs. Both Iwata and Jobs were young and intensely ambitious, both intimately involved in not just the creation of their products, but in the innovation of how humans interacted with technology, and both would help spearhead their companies to unimaginable success and wealth. Both would also die in their 50s from cancer at nearly the same age (Jobs at 56, Iwata at 55).

Under Iwata’s leadership Nintendo would not only far surpass their glory days of the 1980s, a time when the word Nintendo was a synonym for “gaming” itself, but also spearhead efforts to expand the market like never before and de-stigmatize what “playing games” meant. Following the launch of the Wii console in 2006, buoyed with a still dominant Nintendo DS, the company would reach the highest of highs, becoming the most profitable Japanese company in the world and helping make its leaders the richest men in the country.

While nobody would dispute the financial success of Apple following the loss of Jobs, it’s clear it’s no longer the “create the future” company it once was, trading most of its innovation for iteration and basic competency. Apple has become predictably safe and reliable – and generally boring.

This hasn’t happened with Nintendo. Even with their rare failures (i.e. the Virtual Boy and Wii U) these efforts were never boring, and you might be surprised to learn just how intrinsically Iwata’s vision of easy-access playing and efforts to broaden the gamerbase (“grown-ups, kids, and the girl next door”, his friend Shigesato once quipped) was linked to these efforts, even when it seemed the whole world was facing the other direction. “Personally, I’m far more interested in what makes people happy than doing things the right way.”

The bits of personal insight gleaned within Ask Iwata suggest this was no accident, that Iwata’s personal management style and insistence on communication were successfully “woven” into the heart of Nintendo’s creative and corporate structures, a permanent change that kept one foot on solid ground and the other reaching for the stars. This relationship has continued with their wildly successful launch of the Switch console (the final project Iwata helped initiate before his death).

And while Jobs was, both personally and managerially, infamously caustic and terrifying to some, Iwata’s style was less about beating greatness from his colleagues than challenging them to find their greatness more fluidly and with less menace. “What makes work so interesting is the chance to meet people driven by anger and people driven by happiness.”

That Iwata could better relate to programmers on their own level was obvious. “Since my background is in development, I am better able to understand the mind of someone working in development than the average executive.”

By all accounts Iwata was as beloved and respected by his peers and subordinates as he appeared. Fans would even say lovable. That his last public “appearance” was in muppet-form just months before his death says worlds about his dual senses of loyalty and humor to both his company and its fans, especially considering the use of puppets hid his gaunt appearance. As Miyamoto adds: “I think he saw this less as the job of a president, and more like an act of service. Nothing pleased him more than hearing, “Thanks to you, things are going well.”

All this must be taken into account when reading through Ask Iwata, which may not be the book you thought it would be. It’s not the revealing, modern epic of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs; there’s no attempt to de-mythologize or humanize its subject because there’s no need to. If Jobs (and his fans) thought himself a modern Prometheus, bringer of technology to empower creativity and design, Iwata was the conduit by which that creativity and inspiration flowed.

He recognized the value of a “computer” wasn’t necessarily what powered it, but what it could help power. In his case, gaming. Avoiding “short-sighted cleverness” helped Nintendo maintain clear objectives, Iwata’s desire to “shock people” meant upending users’ expectations, but in a good way (you listening, Rian Johnson?). Where its competitors chose benchmark-crushing performance and pixel density, Nintendo opted for dual-screens, brain training simulators, virtual dogs, and suggested users take a break from playing.

“It wasn’t so much a drive to learn as enjoyment of the learning process.” says Miyamoto on Iwata’s passion for problem solving. His philosophies could sound almost quixotic to outsiders, especially with how contradictory they could seem at first. “When things aren’t working out,” he suggests, “it’s best to call it quits. No task is right for everyone.” But then adds: “If we were to collectively decide to stop doing all the things that we dislike, the company would collapse.”

Easily the saddest and most heartfelt sections are the eulogies by two of Iwata’s dearest friends and colleagues, Shigeru Miyamoto and Shigesato Itoi, relationships that would forever change the landscape of game development and its impact on our culture. “I think his life’s work was to foster happiness,” writes Shigesato, a trait everyone who worked with Iwata would repeat like a mantra, adding his late friend was “generous to a fault.”

“He wasn’t my boss. He was my friend,” writes Miyamoto, sharing an intimate account of he and Iwata’s late-night ramen dinners where the two alternated over who paid the bill (not Nintendo, who was too stingy), a practice they continued long after they ascended to the top. Iwata would commit himself to meeting with employees as much as possible, helping foster an environment where creativity and ingenuity could flourish, ideas bouncing like mushrooms and stars.

“What makes me sad is that if I have a crazy idea over the weekend, there isn’t anybody I can tell about it on Monday morning,” Miyamoto adds. “When I’m eating lunch, he isn’t there to say ‘I think I’ve figured out your problem,’ which leaves me feeling stuck sometimes. I really miss him.”

“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’s words have come to symbolize the idea that engineering and creativity don’t have to be mutually exclusive things. Ask Iwata shows he understood the dynamics between technology and artistry better than most, and that his successes were less a result of market research than an intuitive grasp of function following form. He was also a man who loved gaming, hated Japanese pickles, and was a good husband and father. The world was better with him in it – and a little smaller without him.

About the Author: Nathan Evans