Ask Iwata Book Review

If you’re a gamer who wants to read more books, stick with me for this Ask Iwata book review! One of my wife and I’s recent goals is to read more books, as we got out of the habit a bit with the craziness of the past few years (our kids are still toddlers and only 15 months apart in age). We want to model reading as a lifelong habit for our kids, and be better at enriching our own minds too! But I often find it tough to tackle a dense or serious read after a long day. That’s where a book like Ask Iwata is perfect.

Ask Iwata Book with Wii remote, Nintendo DS, Super Smash Bros. N64, Pokemon Snap, Smash Melee, Earthbound, and Kirby's Adventure
Some of my favorite projects Mr. Iwata worked on.

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Iwata Asks!

I’m sure you’re at least somewhat familiar with the legendary Satoru Iwata. He developed several iconic titles (see above photo) working at HAL as a programmer and president. And he became the first president of Nintendo that wasn’t part of the Yamauchi family, spearheading several revolutionary projects such as the Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, and the famous and widely-copied Nintendo Direct! Sadly, we lost him all too soon just a few years ago, on July 11, 2015. He was a very humble and private person, despite his accomplishments and job status. That’s why I was so intrigued by this book! Let’s get into the actual Ask Iwata Book Review.

Advance Wars Dual Strike for DS + DS Lite system
Games that utilized the Nintendo DS tech well are still some of my favorites!

What exactly is Ask Iwata?

This isn’t a traditional biography. Rather, it’s a loose collection of interviews and stories about Mr. Iwata largely taken and translated from Shigesato Itoi’s website. They’re organized around several “themes” rather than chapters, each separated by a title that summarizes what they’re about. You’ll read about Mr. Iwata’s younger professional days, what he was like as a person, his approach to management, and memories of him from those who knew him best. Each section also ends with some bite size “Iwata’s Words of Wisdom” that I found fascinating.

New Pokemon Snap for Switch, original N64 cart, camera, and Switch Player Pokemon Snap issue #52!
Reading about Pokemon Snap’s development is fascinating!

It’s a very concise book at barely 150 pages. Between that and how easy it reads, you could finish it in just a few sittings! I want to highlight some of my favorite sections of the book in the hopes that you’ll be intrigued by them too.

Insights into classic game development

It’s quite a bit of fun to read about the interesting history of famous games made by HAL and Nintendo. There’s probably something you didn’t know in here! For example, I had no idea that Super Smash Bros. was initially programmed as a side project after hours by Mr. Iwata and Masahiro Sakurai. Thinking about how big the series has become, that’s just insanity!

Super Smash Bros N64 box and cart

Ditto for the development of Earthbound on the Super Nintendo! Apparently Mr. Iwata was brought in to help “save” the project due to development difficulties. He gave the dev team two options to move forward: continue at the current pace and take years to finish, or start from scratch and be done in six months! The way Iwata pitched it, the dev team was all for starting over, and the game was done within a year. How did he manage such magic while keeping the team’s spirits up?

Earthbound SNES cart, custom box, and SNES controller
I find that knowing the background of a game’s development makes it even more meaningful.

True leadership

I’ve been in various leadership positions throughout college and into my teaching career. The advice I picked up here from Mr. Iwata is honestly some of the best I’ve heard! I don’t want to spoil everything, but I do want to highlight a few things that really resonated in my Ask Iwata book review.

Kirby's Adventure NES box and cart, Kirby's Dream Collection for Wii, and NES controller
Kirby’s Adventure is still one of my favorite NES games!

First and foremost is how Mr. Iwata would interview everyone in the company (both at HAL and Nintendo) twice a year. This wasn’t just a quick “mandatory check in”-these interviews would go on for hours! He would always open with the simple question “are you happy doing what you are doing?”, which I think is perfect. He genuinely cared about the well-being of his team and understood that productivity is nowhere near optimal if they weren’t happy. I would love to see more companies adopt this approach, and I wish I would have been more purposeful in my talks with students as a teacher.

Star Wars Rogue Leader, Luigi's Mansion, Wave Race Blue Storm, and Smash Bros Melee surrounded by Christmas lights
Mr. Iwata and Mr. Sakurai’s work on Smash Melee was pivotal for the GameCube’s first holiday.

Second was how Mr. Iwata was very strategic with locating the “bottlenecks” in game development, and focusing resources on fixing that ASAP. He was famous for challenging programmers to “never say no” (he clarifies exactly what he means by that in the book) and pushing for new ideas or approaches. He admits that sometimes his initial ideas would sound absurd, but from there they could work back towards reality. It’s all very interesting and refreshing to hear.

Wisdom for the ages

What I enjoyed most about the book is the simple and memorable philosophies Mr. Iwata applied not only to management, but to all situations in life. A willingness to trust others. Humility and knowing when to defer to those with more expertise than you (Mr. Iwata greatly admired Miyamoto’s creative mind and would speak often about the magic “Zelda touch”) Always trying to do something new and be more inclusive. The power of truly listening to what someone else is saying to you.

Kirby's Dream Land 2 box, cart, and manual
The early Kirby games Mr. Iwata worked on HAL are excellent to this day.

The final pages are where Mr. Miyamoto and Shigesato Itoi speak about their memories of Satoru Iwata. Their stories are so genuine and authentic, and I really love how they don’t shy away of speaking about disagreements they had. One of my favorite anecdotes was how Mr. Iwata, upon receiving critical feedback or challenges to his ideas, would sit silently for a long while. He wasn’t angry or upset, but rather taking time to think and reflect on what he was told before talking again. To me, that speaks volumes to who Mr. Iwata was and why he was such a beloved leader and friend. I truly miss his presence at Nintendo!

Should you Ask Iwata?

Absolutely! Whether you’re a die-hard Nintendo or Iwata fan, casual gamer, or just someone looking for solid managerial and life advice, I think you’ll enjoy it. It would also make a great gift for a loved one during the holidays!

Have you read Ask Iwata? What would you share in your own Ask Iwata book review? And what other gaming books would you recommend? Let me know in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Ask Iwata Book Review”

  1. It’s remarkable what his total body of work encompasses.
    Factor in he passed at only 55, and it’s even more eye opening.

    I haven’t read the book yet (plan to), but I always admired his “full stack” philosophy where he was knowledgeable of all parts, people of a system. That’s intelligence and leadership in action.

    Also appreciated his “Iwata Asks” series – he was documenting history and now those interviews feel extra special with all the time that has passed since.

    Excited to read about his legendary career with more depth and insights. Thanks for reviewing it!

    1. Zach Lindemann

      Couldn’t agree more. I’m surprised at just how much I learned about the development process simply from reading all of these anecdotes! And even more so when I think about how much his wisdom and ideas are relevant across several different disciplines and even into personal relationships.

      Thanks for the great feedback and hope you get to read it soon!

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