Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's global president, dies at 55

Iwata served as one of Nintendo's top executives for more than a decade, as the company faced increasing competition from Microsoft and Sony.

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Nintendo Global President Satoru Iwata has died, the Japanese company announced Monday.

The company confirmed the news in a short statement (PDF) dated July 13, saying: "Nintendo Co., Ltd. deeply regrets to announce that President Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015 due to a bile duct growth."

Joining Nintendo's top brass at the turn of the millennium, Iwata led the company through a number of console launches in the face of an increasingly competitive three-way battle with Sony and Microsoft. While Nintendo had long been a strong name in gaming and managed to outlast established rival Sega, Iwata was at the helm of a company fighting for dominance over Sony's PlayStation, and Microsoft's new kid on the block, the Xbox.

The 55-year-old executive had faced ongoing health complications before his death, undergoing surgery to remove a tumour in his bile duct in June 2014. Iwata wrote to shareholders on June 24, 2014, advising them that although the surgery went well, he would be forced to miss the company's annual shareholder meeting just a few days later on June 27.

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Nintendo President Satoru Iwata has died. Nintendo

"As the president of the company, I regret that I cannot attend the meeting," he said at the time. "However, I understand that I have to prioritize my medical treatment and to recover as soon as possible so that I will again be able to do my best to help the company to grow. I hope that you understand."

Nintendo said that following Iwata's death, the company's two senior managing directors and representative directors Genyo Takeda and Shigeru Miyamoto "remain at the company." One of Nintendo's legendary game designers, Miyamoto recently represented the company at the E3 game expo in Los Angeles, taking to the stage after the Nintendo World Championships.

Iwata was hired by Nintendo in 2000. Two years later, he became the first company president outside the founding Yamauchi family. In June 2013, shortly after overseeing the launch of the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U and gaming consoles, the Japanese native was appointed CEO of Nintendo of America.

During his years at Nintendo and in his previous work at affiliate games developer HAL Laboratories, Iwata worked across a number of flagship titles including Kirby's Dreamland, The Legend of Zelda and MarioKart. He was also instrumental in the launch of the Nintendo DS handheld game system, and the Wii and Wii U consoles -- both game changers for their focus on motion detection.

In a 2011 interview with Miyamoto, published shortly after the launch of the Wii U, Iwata expressed his hopes for the new console.

"There are quite a number of people who assume that Nintendo is the equivalent of being casual," he said. "If we are able to break those psychological barriers with Wii U, I feel like we will be able to take our goal of expanding the gaming population even further to the next step."

The comments reiterated his core message that games should be "enjoyed by everyone regardless of age, gender or gaming experience."

Satoru Iwata speaking at a Nintendo keynote. James Martin/CNET

Despite a number of high-profile product launches during his tenure, Nintendo has struggled to make headway against some of its competitors in terms of sales.

In its most recent published annual report, the company reported Wii U sales of just 2.72 million units in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2014. The company stated in the report that "the Wii U business as a whole showed slow growth" and that "hardware still has a negative impact on Nintendo's profits owing mainly to its markdown in the United States and Europe."

According to available figures, Nintendo sold 6.1 million Wii U consoles in the one and a half years since its launch. However, this pales in comparison to the 7 million PlayStation 4 units sold by Sony and 5 million Microsoft Xbox One consoles shipped to retailers in their first six months on the market.

The company reported a 10 percent decline in sales in the year to March 2014, paired with a decline in profits of $450 million, capping off three years in a row of losses for the company.

Nintendo has not yet announced Iwata's successor. However, with the Japanese company celebrating 30 years since the North American release of its trailblazing Nintendo Entertainment System this year, Nintendo's new president will be tasked with shaping the legacy name in gaming into a company that continues to be viable in the 21st century.

Nintendo had no further comment.

Update, 7.45 p.m. PT: Further biographical details were added.