Masahiro Sakurai Opens Up about Satoru Iwata, Super Smash Bros and Unreleased Prototypes in Hobonichi Interview

Masahiro Sakurai Opens Up about Satoru Iwata, Super Smash Bros and Unreleased Prototypes in Hobonichi Interview

Iwata’s legacy at Nintendo has lived on long past his death. Remembered by fans as a genuinely passionate individual who cared for his work, whether through the games he helped produce or even through his moments of fun during Nintendo Direct presentations, remembered by those he worked with as a kind and passionate soul, the feelings held for the former head of Nintendo remain strong. As a way to remember what he achieved through his career and in order to allow those who knew him best to share fond memories of his life, Japanese publisher Hobonichi last year produced a book compiling Iwata’s words from various interviews, Iwata Asks pieces and more into a single piece.

It’s a personal book for many involved. After all, Shigesato Itoi (producer on Earthbound and owner and editor of Hobonichi) and Iwata had been friends for a long time, and they both helped to found Hobonichi together in 1998, while Iwata continued to help the company ever since. Meanwhile, the people involved with the book such as Sakurai had lifelong friendships with the man who can’t be replaced. The commercial value of such a product is secondary to their individual desires to remember someone who meant so much to them, and you see this come across both in how the book has been advertised and in the complimentary interviews surrounding the book.

Each day last week, a new part of a long, 5-part interview with Masahiro Sakurai in relation to their memories of Iwata and their work on the Super Smash Bros series was published on Hobonichi’s website. Within it, Masahiro Sakurai shares anecdotes about his time working with Iwata on the series and with him at HAL Laboratories, sharing unknown information about unreleased Nintendo 64 prototypes, memories of Iwata and more.

Sakurai Joins HAL Laboratories

It’s perhaps telling, in many ways, that Masahiro Sakurai starts the interview recounting their first meeting not by speaking of his own experiences or even the achievements of Iwata himself, but by speaking of his smile.

At 18 years old, Masahiro Sakurai had just left high school and was applying for an interview at HAL Laboratories back in 1989, where Iwata was a manager and acted as an interviewer for him. His smile helped him to feel much more at ease about the whole situation. ‘The biggest impression Iwata left with me at that time was his smile. He would always listen with a smile, and whenever I answered something he would think about it for a little bit before frantically taking notes about it.’ It helped him to feel at ease and stuck with him ever since.

If you think back to some of the most famous stories about Iwata, such as his work reprogramming and compressing Pokemon Gold and Silver in order to fit the entirety of the Kanto region, it should come as no surprise that Masahiro Sakurai remembers this being the case even in the early days of his time at HAL Laboratories as well. Iwata was a programmer drawn to problematic projects. ‘Projects which weren’t preceding as planned, or plans which had hit a roadblock’ were often the projects which Iwata was drawn to.

When Sakurai needed help, such as with Super Smash Bros Melee, Iwata was able to help without being asked. The program to help develop fighters were produced first, but it wasn’t working as planned. Time was being lost since the program wouldn’t work, but he helped voluntarily so they could work on the solution together. ‘At such a time as this Iwata would interject and check things one by one. To be precise, he’d stay by your side, check the program, find the error and note the issue. Rather than having them fix it themselves, however, it’s like solving it together when with Iwata.’

Masahiro Sakurai and Iwata’s Super Smash Bros Origins

Such stories permeate each section of the interview, unique insights into his style of work and approach in a huge array of areas. Part 2 takes us slightly back in time, back to before the Nintendo 64’s release and the work of both Satoru Iwata and Masahiro Sakurai on a variety of prototypes for games the company could develop for the new system. Coming off of work on Kirby: Super Star Ultra, both developers prototyped a variety of ideas on the new hardware to come up with a title the company could make for the new system.

The first prototype has only been briefly discussed before in an Iwata Asks interview surrounding the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and was known as Dragon King: The Fighting Game. ‘The console had 4 controller ports, and we had information that the console would have an analogue stick, so it was inevitable that 4 people would play together’, making the idea a perfect fit.

Masahiro Sakurai Opens Up about Satoru Iwata, Super Smash Bros and Unreleased Prototypes in Hobonichi Interview

The other prototype was an adventure title programmed by Iwata, which had a fascinating concept. ‘It was a game that felt like controlling a remote-controlled robot. For the setting, far underneath the places where you live where no one can reach, it seems there was a city. It’s been found, but no one could enter. Therefore they drilled a hole and sent a single robot down, controlling it remotely, hacking into surrounding surveillance cameras. When leaving the view of one camera, the next camera would follow them.’

Such a game never came to fruition, but a title similar in concept was released elsewhere: Resident Evil. The fixed camera angles of that title apparently held a lot of similarities to how this game would have controlled. Both of these prototypes were developed on weekends by the pair of them.

‘Both of these projects had potential, but while trying out ideas in these new development environments other projects were reaching increasingly-strained states of development. It would be a problem if the new title couldn’t be developed quickly. Of these ideas, a fighting game could be produced much faster. Because the robot title was an adventure game, it would take over 2 years to complete.’

In fact, the prototype had many of the necessary tools already complete, so development could finish a lot faster, making it an obvious choice… many of which were thanks to Iwata programming them in.

Iwata’s Love of Cars

Part three, while interesting, lacks much new information. The announcement of that title had come as a surprise to Masahiro Sakurai having left HAL Laboratories to go freelance, yet spoke to Iwata at the event and decided to work on the title. Iwata at that time admitted that he wanted to see Sakurai make the new Smash and that without him, ‘Super Smash Bros Melee would be ported as is.’

Part four, however, dives deeper into Satoru Iwata as a person and the impression he gave off to others. For all that Masahiro Sakurai has portrayed Iwata as a happy and caring person, this part is about the sincerity and honesty of Iwata as a person, even when angry, while sharing some personal anecdotes. This part is very much reflective of his relationship with Iwata as a whole, since ‘If Iwata wasn’t there, my life would’ve been different because of that.’

‘If I had to put it into one word I think the word ‘honesty’ would be best.’

Although Sakurai admits he only saw Iwata angry two other times, these both came from such a place.

One time was early on during his time at the company, working on Metal Slader Glory. The project had been in various stages of development for 6 years and almost bankrupt the company. The worry about collecting together the funds to pay for everything was a major concern, and hearing Iwata talking about this he thought ‘Oh, Iwata’s really angry, isn’t he?’

He was angry at the carefree things salespeople were saying about how to recover costs after development had finished, worried about how they’d sell enough to recover costs. The company filed for restructuring afterward and was saved by Nintendo, so this frustration made sense. Another time he was angry came from his time as president of Nintendo. The company was being restructured and there was a meeting regarding the company’s technology division. In the meeting, however, there was little response from the people around him, which made him mad.

This was anger at the process, not people, however. To him, though, the sincerity felt in regards to Iwata came less from these moments of anger and from elsewhere, such as the time they drove together in Iwata’s beloved Isuza Piazza from Tokyo to HAL’s office in Yamanashi.

‘When I think about it now it’s weird. There were four newcomers to the company riding in the car of one of their managers down the Chuo Expressway to Yamanashi.’ Iwata was a fan of gadgets and liked the car because it reminded him of the car from The Spy Who Loved Me.

Masahiro Sakurai Opens Up about Satoru Iwata, Super Smash Bros and Unreleased Prototypes in Hobonichi Interview

The car memory was one he was reminded of just before Iwata’s death when Masahiro Sakurai met up with him and, with Iwata needing to go on a business trip, they went to Narita Airport together in his newly-bought sports car. ‘When developing Smash for Wii U and 3DS, Iwata bought an open-riding 2-seater sports car which I thought was a little unsuitable for him. When talking about why he bought it, he said that ‘If I don’t drive it now I won’t be able to another time.’’

Whether he was thinking about him dying soon or it was just the thought that he wouldn’t be able to ride this sort of car when he was older, Sakurai wasn’t sure, but now thinking about it in retrospect, he thought it was a case of maximizing what he could do while he was able to.

Iwata’s Death

The final part talks about Iwata’s death, which was a topic Sakurai was understandably reluctant to explore in-depth. He was hard at work on Smash at the time and lacked a lot of time to see him in hospital, and didn’t know a lot about the situation.

He found out about Iwata’s death from Shinya Takahashi. ‘Takahashi called me when I was in my room at home. Once he said that he was calling about Iwata I had a bad feeling about the conversation.

‘Before the phone even rang, I was worried for some reason. My body was heavy. When my grandmother and grandfather died I had the same feeling. I was worried something similar had happened for some reason since I was feeling the same way… Is it a premonition? In any case, for Iwata’s sake, I was going to complete the Smash Bros. project.’

Super Smash Bros Ultimate was a final mission given to him by Iwata, and the sales success made him feel he achieved the best results for his cherished friend. He had achieved his goal.

However, instead of ending on such a sad note, Sakurai remembers his friend through the memories they shared. The visits to Tokyo hotel rooms to meet, eat together, recommend books, talk about each other’s interests. The positivity of the memories they shared, which he also feels is preserved in the book.

‘When Iwata died, I was asked for an interview with a newspaper, but I felt they wanted to put it into a framing to make people cry, so I refused. That’s not in the book. The book is Iwata talking about himself, which was rare to see.’

Sakurai’s Friendship With Iwata Shines Through

This interview, for all it contains interesting new information such as regarding the prototypes, is mostly handled in the same vein as the book it was made in conjunction with. It’s a preservation record and memorial to the life of a friend and the life of a person who’s work through HAL and Nintendo touched many lives. You feel this in how Masahiro Sakurai speaks of Iwata, remembering the good times they spent together above all else. Perhaps that’s what’s most important here.

Sakurai photography ©HOBO NIKKAN ITOI SHINBUN; Metal Slader Glory ©HAL Laboratory, Inc., ☆YOSHIMIRU; Dragon King: The Fighting Game, HAL Laboratory Logo ©HAL Laboratory; Super Smash Bros Melee logo ©Nintendo Co. Ltd.
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