TOKYO- Nintendo said Monday that its chief executive Satoru Iwata has died of cancer at the age of 55, in an upheaval for the Japanese videogame giant just months after he abandoned a consoles-only policy and launched a push into the booming smartphone games market.
In a brief statement, the Kyoto-based firm - the maker of Donkey Kong and Pokemon - said Iwata passed away on Saturday, with analysts warning that his death could dent the company's turnaround plan.
A visibly thinner Iwata announced his illness last year and did not attend the firm's shareholder meeting in June 2014, although the severity of his illness was unclear at the time.
He returned to work over the following months, and had continued to be the public face of the company, announcing financial results in May.
"Recently, as the result of... detailed examination, a growth was found in my bile duct," he said in a statement at the time.
"In my case, luckily, it was detected very early and I had no symptoms. I was counselled that removal at an early stage would be the desirable medical option. Therefore I had surgery last week, and I came through it well, as predicted." Bile duct cancer is a relatively rare, but aggressive illness that usually affects people over the age of 65, according to Britain's National Health Service.
Iwata, who started off as a programmer, took the top post at Nintendo in 2002, two years after joining the firm, but it wasn't until recently that he began the long-awaited push into the booming smartphone games market.
Iwata had earlier been criticised for his refusal to license some of the company's well-known brands for use on mobile applications.
Shares in the maker of the Wii U console fell 0.51 percent to 19,415 yen (S$214) in early trading, tumbling back from a nearly five percent jump at the open.
'No one like him'
The share price might have gone up at the start because investors were expecting some key changes after the news, but I don't think (the buying) was being driven by any particularly profound thinking," said Satoshi Tanaka, an analyst at Daiwa Secrities Capital Markets.
"When you sit back and think about it... I don't see that there is anyone who can run the company like Iwata. Under his leadership, it was making small but steady steps forward." Nintendo said directors Genyo Takeda and Shigeru Miyamoto would step in to run the Super Mario creator.
"I am afraid the company might lose balance without Iwata," Tanaka said.
Last year, Iwata said he would slash his salary in half for several months to atone for the downturn , which has struggled as rivals Sony and Microsoft outpaced it in console sales.
All three companies are also fighting off the trend toward cheap - or sometimes free - downloadable games for smartphones and other mobile devices.
Nintendo's chief had argued that venturing into the overpopulated world of smartphones and tablets risked hollowing out the core business and cannibalising the hard-fought value of their game creations.
But Iwata later acknowledged Nintendo had to move into new areas.
"The world is changing, so any company that is not coping with the change will fall into decline," he said.
Nintendo in March unveiled plans to buy a stake in Tokyo-based mobile gaming company DeNA as part of a deal to develop smartphone games based on Nintendo's host of popular characters.
The changes came as Nintendo eked out a profit in its last fiscal year but warned its bottom line would shrink in the currency business year.
Nintendo reported a 41.8 billion yen net profit for the year to March - reversing a 23.2 billion yen loss a year ago - while revenue slipped 3.8 percent to 549.8 billion yen.