The celebrate the upcoming release of the NES Classic Mini (or Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition system, if you wish), Nintendo commissioned Japanese writer Akinori Sao with interviewing key staff involved with the console's history.
One of his interview subjects is Yoshio Sakamoto, famous for his work on Metroid, WarioWare, Rhythm Heaven and - most recently - Miitomo. He had only been with Nintendo for three years he developed Balloon Fight, which was ported to the Famicom / NES by none other that Satoru Iwata, future president of the company.
Balloon Trip is a single-player side-scrolling game in Balloon Fight. Apparently, Iwata-san made it in just three days.
Sakamoto: That's right. It came from an inspiration Yokoi-san had. He told us what kind of vision he had for the game and Iwata-san basically made it in three days. About the time the game was reaching completion, Yokoi-san came up to Iwata-san and myself. He and Iwata-san were acquainted by that time, so after a brief greeting he started playing Balloon Trip. And as usual, he played for a long time.
Of course! (laughs)
Sakamoto: Then, after playing through, he told Iwata-san a bunch of things he'd like to have fixed, but they weren't easy fixes. I say this because at the time, programmers would put out on paper what they had programmed and then do corrections while consulting a stack of paper as thick as a phone book.
Those were difficult times.
Sakamoto: Just fixing a few places would take at least an hour, so Yokoi-san must have intended to go back to his desk and have a cup of coffee or something until the revisions were finished. But when he stood up to leave, Iwata-san said, "Just hold on a sec," and began typing away on the keyboard. Then he said, "All done!"
Sakamoto: I was amazed that he could make the revisions so quickly, and even today I remember how Yokoi-san exclaimed, "Already?!"
That's incredible…I'm speechless!
Sakamoto: Iwata-san had memorized the program.
Everyone considered Iwata-san a genius programmer, but hearing that story makes me realize it all over again.
Sakamoto: Yes, it really does.
He also recalls Iwata's story regarding how he and the late, great Gunpei Yokoi met for the first time:
When Balloon Fight was in development, Yokoi-san was the producer and Iwata-san programmed the Famicom/NES version. Do you have any particular memories of those two from that time?
Sakamoto: Yes. I remember two things clearly. One is something I heard from Iwata-san and the other is something I actually saw. I'll start with what Iwata-san told me.
All right, please go ahead.
Sakamoto: When we made Balloon Fight, we had Iwata-san come to Kyoto to do all sorts of work in a room prepared for him at Nintendo.
At the time, I think HAL Laboratory's head office was in Tokyo instead of Yamanashi, so that means you had him come all the way to Kyoto to do his programming work.
Sakamoto: He didn't stay all the time, but he would come every once in a while. He holed up alone in a room and started working, but suddenly a dashing gray-haired gentleman came in and, without saying anything, planted himself in a chair and for a long time played Balloon Fight—which was still under development.
A dashing gray-haired gentleman?
Sakamoto: That was Yokoi-san.
Sakamoto: Iwata-san wasn't sure how to react.
Ah, because Iwata-san didn't know Yokoi-san?
Sakamoto: Right. They weren't acquainted yet. Then, after playing a long time, Yokoi-san told him to fix this and that and then left the room. Iwata-san wondered who that man was, so he later asked us and finally learned it was Yokoi-san. Iwata-san told me that story himself.
So that's what happened.
Sakamoto: Isn't it a neat story?
I love it. It's very much like Yokoi-san to play the game in silence and then point out problems.
Iwata would later become head of HAL in 1993, steering the company away from financial ruin and eventually joined Nintendo in 2000. He succeeded Hiroshi Yamauchi as Nintendo president in 2002 and held the position until his tragic passing in 2015.
The full interview is well worth a read, so make sure you do that.
Everyone here should watch The Gaming Historian's video on Iwata-San. It's a really amazing story and very well made.
We still miss you, champ.
The Did You Know Gaming about Iwata is also pretty good. It makes me really happy that some old japanese guy would have programmed some of my favorite games, and even enjoy them. Its still sad that his final hoorah happens to also be Nintendo's worst selling console but his history more than makes up for it.
Both men taken long before their time. And the gaming world is all the poorer as a result. I know the headline is about Iwata but Yokoi was also a genius.
Iwata was definitely one of the greats. And Yokoi is someone I don't think a lot of people realise was involved with and instrumental to almost all of the greatest things Nintendo did back in the day as well (both hardware and software). To me, he was just as important a figure as the likes of Iwata and Miyamoto.
I didn't actually know iwata's story. Cool.
@impurekind I'd argue that he's more important - without his creations like the Ultra Hand and Love Tester Nintendo would have been sunk following Yamauchi's disastrous experiments with love hotels, instant rice and taxis. Yokoi gave Nintendo the foundation it needed to shift from playing cards to toys and then games, and it's easy to forget that Nintendo's first true breakthrough in the games arena was the Game & Watch range, which was Yokoi's baby all the way. Then there's the Game Boy, the legacy of which has been instrumental in the firm's success over the past 30 years (no Game Boy, no Pokemon), and the fact that Yokoi oversaw so many of the company's in-house titles.
Both men are legends.
Come back to us, Iwata san.
@ieatdragonz His final hoorah will be the Switch.The majority of the console develoment was done while he was still alive.The current president is still following his directions.
@ieatdragonz Iawata-san was apparently deeply involved in the core concepts of the then NX.
Rumour has it that after his passing, meetings at Nintendo regarding the NX/Switch concluded with "for Iawata-san!"
So I like to think that the Switch is his final Hoorah. It's just sad that he won't see how that system gets received.
It's hard to respect a manager that doesn't have the technical skills of their own staff. I had a lot more respect for Iwata when I found out he was previously a programmer. And not just a programmer, but being able to code in old school assembly language. Anyone who can do that gets a hell of a lot of respect from me.
iwata was the real deal and went against the almost forced character types of genius. he showed geniuses didn't need to be jerks, idea thieves, or megalomaniacally ambitious.
I always appreciate good spirit filled desires, hard work and dedication. I enjoy simple gaming. Iwata seemed like he was a very cool guy and fellow gamer. So, much gratitude to Nintendo as a whole. To this day out of all the Nintendo systems I played since NES, the SNES and GameCube is where I had the most fun so far. Hopefully the Switch will be more like a reboot to Nintendo.
Good read, NintendoLife.
We miss you, Iwata san.
I enjoyed those stories. Illustrates Iwata's skill and, perhaps, natural talent. It also shows Yokoi's vision. Playing games on a handheld device is ordinary now, but in the early 80s(Game & Watch), not so much.
Stories like this show always make me respect Iwata more - he truly knew the ins and outs of game development and programming, and he brought that know how with him when he became president.
I still mis the "Please Understand" in the directs...
@Luna_110 The "please understand" was for the numerous apologies. I'd prefer to remember "please take a look" or "directly to you".
That man was a gift to the world.
Neat article, and a good read. Still missing both of those guys in the gaming community to this day. RIP.
@Prizm Anyone who can code in assembly and make games with it deserves a metal.
@Kalmaro Yeah they at least deserve some copper
This story was truly cool.
"K done lol"
All my respect to Iwata and Yokoi, they are legends in the industry. But I still highly respect Yoshio Sakamoto, who had produced many legendary games and also given his name to one Nintendo character. Respect!
Let's clone Iwata-san! <3
I wonder if Iwata-san also worked on the Balloon Trip minigame in Nintendo Land as well.
@Damo I concur.
Great interview! Thanks for sharing it! I have to agree with the above notions that a manager is fairly ineffective (or at least inefficient) if they cannot even match or complement their own crew's technical skills. Those types of managers should just stay far away from the direction of projects, and instead just make sure those projects are allowed to flow as smoothly as possible for those involved.
@Kalmaro Not to mention someone that can MEMORIZE full game code developed in assembly.
@Ernest_The_Crab I don't think people today will ever understand how impressive that is without knowing programming.
So Steve Jobs like.
Thank You, Mr Iwata.Thank You, Nintendo...
"The celebrate the..."
"He had only been with Nintendo for three years he developed Balloon Fight..."
"...steering the company away from financial ruin and eventually joined Nintendo..."
It's like a scavenger hunt... interesting interview though!
It's neat to hear little behind the scenes tales like this.
His genius shone beyond the programming spectrum, into analytical innovation in leading Nintendo through its most "controversial" decade and a half. Brilliant piece.
Iwata's passing really was a loss for all of video games. Cancer is such a cruel condition.
I'm just glad Miyamoto-san is still with us. The day he leaves us, I'll be a broken man
Great little slice of life and illustration of these 3.
On managers and Yoshio Sakamoto. Nothing in this story signals any kind of management deficiencies in Sakamoto. If it did, then Iwata's role is less impressive, right? Maybe you are just playing off the story about managers and not lumping him in.
I've had my share of "bad" managers and probably most people are affected by someone up the chain making poor decisions for their employees and therefore their place of work, but having matching technical skills is not the answer. It can help to have a better understanding but there is no benefit, for instance, in a manager having the same specific internalization code that Iwata had. It wouldn't have made Yoshio Sakamoto a better manager, just a better coder.
I agree that having a manager that really understands what their employees are doing can be a benefit to their decision making but it's not a necessity. Managers need to be observant, active listeners, planners, decision makers, motivators and someone who can stand between the direct needs of those they are managing and the needs of the overall company as expressed by those making higher level decisions.
Obviously needs vary depending on work places and the smaller they get the more roles every person needs to take on. If the manager is expected to do a significant amount of the same work the employees do, then that obviously effects their part of the job.
In general though. Relate to and understand the needs of those they manage, yes. Match the skills? No.
@aaronsullivan - yeah I know the corporate mantra is that managers don't need to know the work that their staff do. But really it's BS. A huge part of being a manager is being able to support your staff. If you don't have some kind of experience in similar skills, then you cannot fully support your staff or fully comprehend the challenges they face.
They feel and sense this lack in a manager, and the result is that they have less respect for you. No amount of corporate spin will change that.
@aaronsullivan I guess I feel that way because I have a father and a separate father figure who both have managerial roles in their jobs, in addition to having the skills, knowledge, and competence to perform any of the related job tasks directly involved with their own. (Except computer repair skills, but that's a different role entirely.) In my opinion, someone holding a managerial role who cannot match the skills related to the core purpose of the organization in relation to their team is dead weight. Nothing more than an overly privileged, unskilled, possibly overpaid liaison of orders from executives. That's not a leader worth following.
This doesn't apply to Sakamoto at the time, because he was a Designer, not a manager. It doesn't apply to Sakamoto now, because he has the experience necessary to be a Director and Producer, which in the gaming industry differs greatly from just being a manager. So I don't know where that came from, Sakamoto can match his teams in the core skills necessary for designing projects- coding skills are useless without a design around which to base their use. Even Iwata himself tacitly admitted that, when he compared his past work to Miyamoto's.
Wow... my room-- no... my house would be such a chaotic mess of piles of papers of programming notes.
Ugh.. I wish I had someone to help me program.
@Prizm Either you didn't read what i said or maybe my use of matching skills is not how others used it. I was thinking matching skill levels, but you seem to be thinking I meant they don't need to have any experience in the area (matching skill types).
There's a basic mistake that many companies make where they take their best programmers or artists and make them into "leads" which is usually a managerial role. Skills at managing are very different from how they've had previously been proving themselves so it can be an awful decision.
In the same way there are managers who can do their job masterfully without sharing many of the skills of the people they manage because they are excellent at that instead.
I reread what I wrote and it wasn't clear about that.
I think there is a shortage of good managers and like you suggested there are managers who don't have either similar skills to the people they are managing or skills to lead. The worst of it is that managers can get their jobs by "who they know" and if they are terrible at their job they are moved around, or worse, up because they have no skills but might get lucky from time to time with a group who can still excel without a good leader.
A manager that comes from the same type of work and is also an excellent leader is usually the best kind, but they have to be good managers, not just good at the skills.
I took @prizm 's original post as a slight to Sakamoto and that your post was in support of the notion but I think he meant it as praise for Iwata primarily after rereading it.
I guess I felt like talking about the stereotypes that divide workers against their managers unnecessarily. Should have been reading more carefully. (Though, @prizm went right for the stereotypes afterwards so I'm not sure I was far off )
A bad manager is a bad manager whether they understand the work or not. A good manager will learn to understand the work in some way even if they start without the background. Maybe we can agree on that.
@aaronsullivan - You're right, my first post was in support of Iwata, it was not aimed against Sakamoto or anyone in particular.
@aaronsullivan Absolutely, and you have a good point.
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