Over the last hour or so I’ve been thinking a lot about Balloon Fight.
In Balloon Fight you play as a 'Balloon Fighter'. You attack your enemies. You pop their balloons. All the while you float, with two balloons of your own. With two balloons you float effortlessly. If one pops, flight becomes trickier. Gravity pulls heavier. Lose both of your balloons and the game is over.
Video games are so silly.
Balloon Fight was one of the first video games created by Yoshio Sakamoto, most famous for directing Super Metroid. It is completely unremarkable in almost every regard.
Balloon Fight was programmed by Satoru Iwata, who passed away on July 11 at the age of 55.
When we think about Satoru Iwata we think of him as a President. As the man who opens up each Nintendo Direct. The man who answered questions at investor Q&As. The one man GIF generator who helped guide a struggling video game company to stratospheric heights, but retained that gift so rare in people in his position: the ability to not take himself too seriously.
But right now I’m thinking about Balloon Fight. A silly little video game. A footnote. A game with no real lasting legacy. What is Balloon Fight in 2015? A trophy in Super Smash Bros.? A mindless piece of trivia? Just another video game?
Yet today, as we receive the tragic news of Iwata’s untimely death, it’s a game I’m reading about. Wikipedia entries, YouTube clips. I’m watching it being played. I’m watching it being discussed, written about.
Balloon Fight. Such a curiously flippant excuse to do something fundamentally rewarding for reasons we cannot explain: pop balloons. Doesn’t that speak to the core of what video games are?
I’m thinking back to 1984. I’m thinking about a young man in his early 20s. He’s a programmer, he loves video games. He is extremely good at what he does. He obsesses over it. He is passionate about creating this specific video game. I’m thinking about how, for this short period of time, a silly little video game like Balloon Fight can become the primary focus of one human being’s life. Because that’s what it means to create something.
I like to think that Satoru Iwata liked creating things that other people might enjoy.
And as I sit here at my desk, remembering Satoru Iwata — thinking about his legacy and what that might be – I’m watching Balloon Fight. I’m noticing the little details. The weight of gravity, the stickiness of it. The way the characters flap and float. The pop of the balloons. The details that were discussed, thought about, cared about. The kind of care that represents Nintendo at its core, values that Iwata would come to embody as President of that company.
I think about the kind of person who would program a game like Balloon Fight. How someone could take a concept like that and treat it with the utmost care. The same kind of person who could run a billion dollar company and still be completely at ease, fully suited, holding a bunch of bananas, in an expensive chair.
“On my business card I am a corporate president. In my heart I am a gamer.” That’s the quote I suspect we’ll hear and read a lot over the coming days, as the eulogies pour in.
But I’d prefer to remember Satoru Iwata as a creator. As someone who helped make video games I hold close to my heart. Video games that had a huge impact on me and people all around the world.
I was a huge fan of Iwata Asks, a brilliant series of articles where Iwata would speak to the creators of upcoming (and old) Nintendo games and talk about how they were made. I love the spotlight cast on developers, I loved how open they were about the video games they built.
But I have a favourite moment.
Iwata was interviewing Yoshinori Ono, the driving force behind Street Fighter IV upon its revival. Iwata and Ono discussed the release of Super Street Fighter IV for the 3DS. They discussed the ins and outs of the new 3DS system, the game itself, all aspects of its creation.
Then, at the close, Ono stops being an interviewee and becomes a fan. Iwata had been responsible for a video game he had cherished. He made video games that other people enjoyed.
“Um, I know this might be rude,” Ono said, “but can I please get your autograph on this package of Balloon Fight?”