Author Jeff Ryan

2011, Portfolio/Penguin

Filed Under: Nonfiction.

Ninetendo’s Super Mario character is easily the most iconic video game character ever created. Mario games were and are still to some extent so popular that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s never heard of them.

Nintendo has a talent for that kind of ubiquity (cf. the Wii’s popularity with senior citizens), and on Mario’s shoulders the original Nintendo Entertainment System made “Nintendo” synonymous with “videogame” for a decade or more. Unless you were one of those kids with a Sega (sorry), your house was probably as likely to have an NES as a VCR. If it didn’t, you certainly had friends who had one.

Someone gave my grandfather an NES when I was 4 or 5. It had Super Mario Bros. (like lots of other adults he pronounced it Mare-E-Oh which drove me nuts), the combo pack with Duck Hunt and Track Meet (remember that weird PowerPad?). I was soon obsessed. More than two decades later, Nintendo games still have a significant claim on my leisure time staked out. I likely play more video games than most people my age–but that’s hard to guess, because in the past few years the rise of geek chic has made videogames socially acceptable.

So essentially, this book is a history of a toy company that’s been siphoning my money for almost 30 years and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come. It makes for an interesting story primarily because (and I’m admitting a weakness here) of how hard it is for Nintendo to do wrong by loyalists like me (I have a Virtual Boy in my closet). It’s a curious success they have, one I’m sure other companies wish they could achieve. I certainly don’t have the same rabid devotion to Random House.

Of course, most of Nintendo’s story was unbeknownst to us kids back then. But they do actually have a pretty interesting history. Nintendo began as a playing card company in the 19th century. Before video games they dabbled in a little bit of everything, even “love hotels.” Everything changed with the rise of the arcade though. Nintendo–who had found success making LCD games–tried to get in the action with a Space Invaders style game called Radar Scope. They made a boatload of arcade cabinets (literally), set up shop in America, then couldn’t sell the damn thing.

With nothing left to lose, they let a low-level guy in their art department design a game with which to convert the Radar Scope cabinets. His name was Shigeru Miyamoto, and he was shaggy-haired and kind of an oddball. The game he invented was Donkey Kong. Fast forward a few years and and Donkey Kong ruled the roost. There was a DK machine in every arcade and half the pizza places in the US, and its stumpy, overalled plumber avatar was well on his way to reaching Mickey Mouse levels of international recognizability.

Miyamoto, who in addition to Mario and Donkey Kong made The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, Kirby and number of other beloved franchises, became the patron saint of video games. France even knighted him a few years ago. Jeff Ryan wisely builds his history around Miyamoto, as well as a few other key Nintendo figures. (They used a fuedal samurai system of delegation. Billionaire owner Hiroshi Yamauchi as shogun, with his daimyos Miyamoto, Gunpei Yokoi (inventor of the Game Boy), Yoshio Sakomoto (he made Metroid), Minoru Arakawa, and later Howard Phillips.)

I went into this book knowing the outcome. Nintendo made Scrooge McDuck amounts of money, lorded over video games with an iron fist (called the Nintendo Seal of Approval, which meant they controlled all production rights to NES game cartridges–a policy not unlike Apple’s 30% cut on ebooks), then built a new console with Sony but in a colossal failure of overconfidence tried to dick them over. That resulted in the creation of Nintendo’s archrival, the Playstation, and almost put them out of business. Nintendo went from pauper to king to a tyrant usurped. For years Nintendo reeled, delivering systems that were brilliant and loved by many but not the masses, who preferred the higher tech promises of Sony’s Playstation and (later) Microsoft’s Xbox lines.

Ryan practically drools over his subjects. To him and and fans like him, the monumental success of the Wii and DS–both Hail Mary products initially derided by the industry–demonstrates the company in a moment of glorious reascension. And indeed, the enjoyment I derived from this book came about from some sort of affirmation of my indulgence. I was constantly rooting for Miyamoto’s next great game idea to get them out of a jam. It’s similar–identical–to a baseball fan reading a book about baseball and feeling a rush about a World Series game long passed.

Ryan writes well enough, and while the book’s organization occasionally stumbles into tangential clutter, he for the most part does a good job of creating a linear history. However, this book could have used another once-over. There’s a handful of spelling and syntactical mistakes (“Facebook’s low-res fare such as Parking Wars is a glorified game of mail chess…”) that slipped in, but also another fact check would have been nice. I can’t really help myself, though, and have to flash the nerd badge here.

*pushes glasses up nose

Bowser did not return in Mario 2, it was a giant toad dictator name Wart. And Ness wasn’t the baseball toting boy hero in Mother, that was Ninten. Ness–from the sequel Mother 2, or Earthbound stateside–looked pretty much the same, but was in fact a different character. It’s minor stuff, sure, but when you’re writing a book basically solely for an audience of dorky manboys known for being, let’s say, persnickety when it comes to all things Nintendo, you should be sure to have all that stuff nailed down.

In the long run, those and the few other mistakes like them are minor. And I liked that Ryan’s work allowed me to get my inner dork riled a bit. Most people will not at all care about this book. But if you took an interest in Nintendo when you were a kid, or if you own stock in Nintendo, Super Mario is worth picking through for curiosity’s sake. If you never really grew out of it like some of us, you’ll draw plenty of entertainment out of it–be brave and read it on the subway, ignoring the condescending looks from other adults.

Similar Reads: The House That Ruth Built (Weintraub), The Extra 2% (Keri), Faithful (King/O’Nan)