Learn From the President! Vol. 5 – Premonition of the World Changing

(Iwata) It was 1978 when I was in my first year of college, and probably the first area with Personal Computers in Japan was setup at the Ikebukuro Seibu Department Store. I would go there every weekend. At that time a bunch of people would be in front of computers at the sales counter there, working on them throughout the day……They weren’t things that normal kids could buy. With the money I got from my college entrance party, along with a loan, I was able to buy a computer. It was a machine from Commodore called “PET”. That machine was also at the sales counter at the Ikebukuro Seibu Department Store, so I was able to bring back the things I made there with me. Since I hadn’t seen my friend from high school since going into college, I was left without a friend for these sorts of occasions. I probably just wanted to have someone to show this stuff to. When I went to the department store, I had a friend there that I could do this stuff with. We were like-minded. And then naturally there were other programming masters there writing programs who would inspire me even more.

(Itoi) (Laughs) Ahh, so everyone hung out there.

(Iwata) He wrote programs there, and couldn’t move very well because he’d twisted his wrist.
I looked at what he was writing from behind and I knew where he’d made mistakes. I said “If you fix that here, it will work right?”. And he said “Ahh, you’re right.” He was in his second year of college and I was in my first, but we were friends from that point on. A shop clerk there had made a company called HAL Laboratory, so we were invited to work there part-time.

(Itoi) This is kind of like my story from America. A person who worked at the sale counter at Seibu Department Store was the former president of HAL Laboratory?

(Iwata) That person established the company, but they weren’t the president. They were a manager at the time. A group of users that all used the same computers at the sales counter would always be asked by the clerk “I have a company, do you want to work there part-time?” So I decided it would be fun to program at HAL Laboratory and I went along with it……And that’s how it happened.

(Itoi) Was the company already in Yamanishi at that point?

(Iwata) No, it started in Akihabara. It moved to Yamanishi in the ’90s.

(Itoi) So it was awhile after that. So then at first you were in a single room in Akihabara or something?

(Iwata) Yes, it was a single room in an Akihabara apartment.

(Itoi) How interesting.

(Iwata) Not really, I think it made for a rather odd life.

(Itoi) Mr. Iwata, did you attend all your college classes like you were supposed to?

(Iwata) I completely all four years of college, just like I was supposed to. But I don’t think that I was quite an honor student in college. It was because my part-time job was always more interesting. The fundamentals of computers that are taught in school were useful and I’m glad that I went to college, but the things that were most useful to me on the job were the things I learned from doing them myself.

(Itoi) So you only spent half of your effort to graduate?

(Iwata) It wasn’t necessarily half, but I think that just graduating from a Japanese college is not all that difficult, so I put a lot of effort into my part-time job. It was fun, so there was no way around it.

(Itoi) I guess that’s the reason why HAL Laboratory let in kids to work part time.

(Iwata) Yes. Even as a kid working part-time, I’d suddenly really become a part of the company.
And since as a developer I had no superiors, I had to decide on everything myself as far as the development……there wasn’t anyone for me to consult. I guess it was fate, because the Famicom was released one year after I graduated college.

(Itoi) That was a big deal, as you’d expect!

(Iwata) That’s right.

(Itoi) What did you think of the Famicom at the time?

(Iwata) I’d been making and selling computer games ever since I got that part-time job, but the Famicom clearly had the best balance of tradition and similarity when it came to creating games. The 15,000 yen Famicom was clearly better for being able to play games than a PC, which were in the hundreds of thousands of yen at that time. I thought “This is 15,000 yen? I feel like this is going to change the world. I want to be involved in this, no matter what.” It just so happened that one of the companies that had a stake in HAL Laboratory at the time did business with Nintendo, so that person introduced me to them. “I want to work on the Famicom, so please introduce me”, is what I said. And with that, I went to Nintendo in Kyoto. A 24 year old kid suddenly appeared before them……

(Itoi) (Laughs) It must have felt the same as going to Ikebukuro Seibu Department Store right?

(Iwata) Yeah. I was wearing a suit, but when a young kid came in and said “Please give me a job”……Going there was one thing, but that they gave me work was another. I realize that when I think about it now (Laughs).

(Itoi) What! They gave you work?

(Iwata) Yeah, they gave me work. Writing a program when they asked me “Can you try doing this?”. That was the start of my relationship with Nintendo.

(Itoi) Interesting. What kind of program was it?

(Iwata) It was game software. I made those early Pinball and Golf games. Well it wasn’t just me alone, I did it with others at HAL Laboratory. At any rate, making them was fun, and it was amazing that something I made was sold all over the world. It didn’t make us any money, but we were just happy that everyone knew about this now. Because the thing that only my friend had known about was spreading throughout the world, I couldn’t help but find that amusing.

(Itoi) (Laughs) It’s similar to liking music, but you’re holding a giant microphone.

(Iwata) I was lucky enough to continue to be involved with the Famicom as it grew bigger too.

(Itoi) Your main work wasn’t with Nintendo at that point?

(Iwata) At the time HAL Laboratory made games and PC hardware, so it was very much the kind of company where I did a little of this and a little of that.

(Itoi) (Laughs) Did it have that Akihabara feeling?

(Iwata) Yes, it was very much an Akihabara company. Mainly it was a company where you could feel “We’re making things we think are interesting and selling them” about. We did everything. So people who showed up and said they wanted to do all sorts of things made us say “Let’s just try to do this now”.

(Itoi) The company grew rapidly didn’t it?

(Iwata) The growth wasn’t that rapid and the jobs surrounding computers got bigger, but I think that company of only five people went to ninety over ten years or so?

(Itoi) So it was a rapidly growing industry after all.