What to Expect From Nintendo’s New President

5 minute read

Nintendo has a new president, and not the one so many expected: Tatsumi Kimishima, a 65-year-old former banker and onetime head of Nintendo of America, will replace Satoru Iwata, who died in July after leading the company for 13 years.

In the wake of Iwata’s death, pundits had speculated Nintendo luminary and Super Mario Bros. creator Shigeru Miyamoto might take up the mantle. But that never made much sense. Miyamoto has always been foremost a creator—one of the medium’s prime movers and the heart of Nintendo’s creative mystique. Asking him to oversee the corporate maneuvers of a multi-billion dollar company, however capable he might in fact be, seemed as likely as convincing Picasso to run the Louvre.

What do we know about Kimishima? Many will point to his biz-hued background as proof that Nintendo made a conservative choice, foregrounding a name only Nintendophiles are likely to recognize per his 2002-2006 tenure as president of Nintendo of America (before PR superstar Reggie Fils-Aimé took the job and went on to define the company’s 21st century “blue ocean” image in the West).

But it’s important to remember that Iwata was himself a little known figure when he took the reins in 2002. His reputation as Nintendo’s sometimes dignified, sometimes mischievous, always plain-spoken and unusually public advocate was something he cultivated for years, kicked off in his breakthrough “Heart of a Gamer” presentation at gaming conference GDC in 2005.

“Keep in mind that when Iwata-san took the reigns, his visibility was very low,” says Digital World Research analyst P.J. McNealy. “He was not comfortable with presenting in English, and not presenting in a style that was more familiar at, for example, U.S.-based industry conferences.”

Indeed, the sturm und drang of Western press events was all but absent from Iwata’s often quieter, more intimate video fan-missives. Under Iwata, Nintendo abandoned the annual Los Angeles E3 game show tradition of staging theatrical marketing events, allowing its rivals to thunder and cavort about floodlit, music-shaken stages, while it opted instead for comparably pithy prerecorded videos more respectful of viewers’ time.

Anything is possible, but it’s unlikely Mr. Kimishima would try to fill Mr. Iwata’s public shoes, angling less to be the highly visible tip of a spear already cast by the company’s leadership than its studied and able bearer.

If that’s correct, could it mean more intrepid executive furniture-rearranging around the corner? Perhaps, but Nintendo is not known for snappy executive turnarounds. And remember what it’s up to. This spring, it unveiled plans to make new games for smartphones and tablets, a monster sea change by any measure and a promise it’s already realizing with last week’s Pokémon announcement. Its next big post-Wii U, post-3DS gaming idea, codenamed “NX”—for all we know a panoply of eclectic gizmos powered by software ideas no one’s yet conjured—could make its debut next year (Iwata had promised the company would talk more about NX in 2016).

The company has also added crucial nontraditional revenue streams by launching scads of interactive toys (Amiibo, with around 15 million units shipped in less than one year of sales) and signing up to build devotional theme parks (see Nintendo’s partnership this spring with Universal Parks and Resorts). Factor the challenges ahead for any company trying to make headway in an increasingly volatile, shapeshifting industry, and calling this a merely custodial appointment misses the point: the best laid plans are going to require Kimishima to be as fleet-footed as his predecessor.

See How Super Mario Bros. Changed Over 30 Years

1985: Super Mario Bros. This is it, Nintendo luminary Shigeru Miyamoto's zany-looking masterpiece that launched a platforming revolution. It first appeared in Japanese and U.S. arcades in 1985, though Mario's debut was years earlier--in 1981's Donkey Kong, where he was known as "Jumpman."Nintendo
1988: Super Mario Bros. 2 The original version of Super Mario Bros. 2, released in Japan in 1986, was deemed so difficult by Nintendo that the company took another game--dubbed Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic and intended as a tech expo tie-in--and converted it to the critically acclaimed version the U.S. got to play first in 1988, and Japan, second, in 1992.Nintendo
1989: Super Mario Land Another platform-launcher, Super Mario Land helped Nintendo's Game Boy rocket to stratospheric heights, selling more than 18 million copies (more than Super Mario Bros. 3). It was also the first Super Mario game developed without series creator Shigeru Miyamoto's involvement.Nintendo
1990: Super Mario Bros. 3 Originally released in Japan in 1988, Super Mario Bros. 3 is lauded by some as the series' finest installment. It's also the entry known for introducing iconic series power-ups like the Super Leaf, Tanooki Suit and Goomba's Shoe.Nintendo
1991: Super Mario World First released in Japan in late 1990, Super Mario World--bundled with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System--wound up defining next-gen platforming during the 16-bit console era. It introduced Yoshi (Mario's dinosaur sidekick), showcased series' music composer Koji Kondo's most memorable tunes, and ranks among the most acclaimed entries in the franchise.Nintendo
1992: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins Mario's second Game Boy foray, Super Mario Land 2 pushed the handheld's cartridge format to capacity, weighing in at a then-whopping 4 megabits--eight times larger than its predecessor.Nintendo
1995: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island This prequel to Super Mario World challenged players to take the reins as Yoshi, schlepping a toddling Mario through dozens of beautifully hand-drawn levels, in order to rescue Mario's brother Luigi.MobyGames
1996: Super Mario 64 A revolutionary Nintendo 64 system-launcher and the first fully three-dimensional Mario game, Super Mario 64 did for 3D gaming what Super Mario Bros. had for sidescrollers a decade prior, ushering in a 360-degree control scheme that became the genre standard.Nintendo
2002: Super Mario Sunshine Nintendo's pollution-sluicing followup to Super Mario 64 sold less well than it might have (just over 5 million copies, the worst-selling Super Mario game), in large part because the system it debuted on--Nintendo's GameCube--couldn't compete with Sony's market-dominant PlayStation 2.Nintendo
2006: New Super Mario Bros. A decade after transitioning to 3D, Mario returned to his side-scrolling roots in 2006 with Super Mario Bros.' debut appearance on Nintendo's fledgling DS handheld.Nintendo
2007: Super Mario Galaxy Imagine the planetoids in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince with Super Mario 64's 3D controls meets all sorts of gravitational zaniness, and you get Super Mario Galaxy, Miyamoto protégé Koichi Hayashida's ingenious means of sending Mario on an interstellar romp.Nintendo
2009: New Super Mario Bros. Wii Like New Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo's DS handheld, this Wii-based sidescroller laid 3D characters and objects against 2D backdrops, but also built on the Wii's local multiplayer capabilities with 4-way cooperative play--a first for the series.Nintendo
2010: Super Mario Galaxy 2 Nintendo's second planet-pinballing 3D platformer proved two assumptions wrong: First, that a company obsessed with trailblazing wouldn't repeat itself, and two, that repetition (based on a fantastic idea) is necessarily a bad thing.Nintendo
2011: Super Mario 3D Land Nintendo's 3DS had a rough, almost disastrous start, but after a hardware price cut and the arrival of this cleverly wrought, quasi-3D vamp on classic Mario gameplay tropes (it mixed 2D and 3D level design), sales soared.Nintendo
2012: New Super Mario Bros. 2 New Super Mario Bros. 2 was the second 3DS Mario, and a sequel to the 2006 DS game. Generally well-received, critics nonetheless worried the Mario games were relying too much on past ideas.Nintendo
2012: New Super Mario Bros. U Benefitting from the Wii U's higher-definition visual output, New Super Mario Bros. U is one of the prettiest Mario games Nintendo's released, and though it relies heavily on series tropes, contains some of the smartest levels Nintendo's yet designed.Nintendo
2013: Super Mario 3D World Extending ideas introduced in Super Mario 3D Land two years earlier, Super Mario 3D World combines 2D and 3D levels with the option to play as Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad (each with unique abilities, essential to obtain all of the games hidden items).Nintendo
2015: Super Mario Maker Three decades after a mustachioed Italian plumber captured our imaginations and changed the course of gaming, the series has come full circle with a Mario creation tool that finally unleashes armchair Mario designers, using an interface ideally suited for Nintendo's tablet-driven Wii U.Nintendo

And what of Miyamoto, who in addition to all the games he’s produced or creatively pioneered, has been at the helm of Nintendo EAD, the company’s “entertainment and analysis division,” since 1984? Nintendo had appointed both Miyamoto and Genyo Takeda, who managed the company’s hardware research department since 1981, to act as the company’s Representative Directors after Iwata died in July.

Under the new managerial structure, Miyamoto will be known officially as the company’s “creative fellow,” while Takeda will be its “technology fellow.” A fellow, as defined by Nintendo, is “an individual selected from among the Representative Directors who has advanced knowledge and extensive experience, and holds the role of providing advice and guidance regarding organizational operations in a specialized area.” My guess is that’s exactly where they both want to be.

As for stuff like the company’s Nintendo Direct presentations, I’d wager they’ll continue. Nintendo of America’s Fils-Aimé was already handling the North American and sometimes European segments, and I can’t see why he and others (like Bill Trinen and Satoru Shibata, or in Japan, Shigeki Morimoto) wouldn’t want to continue in that role.

Though who am I to say. Sometimes the best way to honor an idea, especially one you know works, is to carry it forward more or less intact. But on the other hand, especially when the idea you’re honoring involves constant reinvention, it may be, as Iwata once joked to me, time to upend the tea table once again.

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com