It’s interesting how small the world is. My friend and co-CliqueClacker Jay Black told me back at the beginning of the summer about his college buddy Jeff writing a book on Nintendo. Two months later at PAX, I passed a rather dapper looking guy in the hotel lobby. Next to him was a big shopping bag full of books … pretty sky blue hardcover books with a friendly 8 bit Mario on the front. I walked about five steps away from him before it clicked in my brain. Like a cartoon character, I backed up (I could almost hear the music rewinding) and asked him 1). if he wrote that and 2). if he was on Jay’s podcast recently. After he answered yes, I responded with, “Holy crap, I know you!” After a really great (albeit quick, since we were going in different directions) conversation, I had one of those beautiful sky blue books in my hand and was off to the 2nd day of video game mecca that is PAX.
I didn’t get to crack open Super Mario until the second take off on my all-night two flight trip home to the Midwest. It was a dinky little plane with three seats per row. Sitting on the one-seat side of the plane, I found myself surprisingly cosy as I jumped into the history of Nintendo.
Some quick backstory – Nintendo has been a part of my nerd identity since I was really, really young. I grew up in the late 80s/early 90s living in the same neighborhood of a girl named Shannon. She had an NES and, of course, Super Mario Bros. I would go over to her home and mostly just watch her play the game. I was mesmerized by how much fun this amazing piece of technology looked. Of course, when Shannon finally let me try the game … Mario immediately fell into the first pit of level one. And that was the end of my turn and the start of her numerous turns (yeah, I’m not bitter about that at all). Never-the-less, my reverence for classic Mario as more or less the epitome of fun continues to this day.
I tend to not go for biographies and this kind of historical non-fiction, but I found myself quickly engulfed in Ryan’s telling of not only Nintendo’s story, but the story of the video game industry as well. A lot of this story I already knew – the literally buried ET game, the competition between Sonic and Mario, the rise of Playstation and XBox. What’s great about the book is not just that it tells these stories, but the gaps in between. He smoothly moves through each era, and you really feel the journey Nintendo goes through as a business.
With this smooth transition, it’s not hard to root for Nintendo as it moved from a menagerie of products and services (including by-the-hour “love hotels”) to strictly electronic games. Even as it became a success in Japan, we move into it’s not-so-easy transition into the American landscape. And then there was Paramount’s bullying of Nintendo with their lawsuit for Donkey Kong. Despite its size even at the time, Nintendo is the definite David in this unlikely David and Goliath story, and you really do root for them when they stand up to Paramount.
What’s fun for those of us who lived through these eras is seeing where our personal experiences tie into Nintendo’s evolution. Huge parts of my childhood are highlighted in this book, and it’s a joy to reminisce. I still remember first experiencing Mario 64, and I excitedly anticipated it’s reveal as the book built up to that game-changing game. But Ryan also devotes a section to the infamous Mario Bros movie, one of the first movies in my childhood that I remember thinking was truly awful.
A major aspect of Super Mario is acknowledging the hard work and dedication by the gamemakers, from longtime employee and current CEO Satoru Iwata to Koji Kondo, the composer of practically every Mario, Zelda and Star Fox soundtrack. Special consideration is taken to honor Shigeru Miyamoto, the young-at-heart father of the Mario series, throughout the book. And Ryan is careful to not sugarcoat this famously family-friendly company – previous and long-standing president Hirochi Yamauchi wasn’t exactly as cheery as the company’s plumber mascot. As much as they’ve been criticized for being too family-friendly and not “hardcore” enough, Nintendo has found a very specific niche and reputation for fun casual gaming. Ryan points out the pros and cons of this strategy, but ultimately you do understand why Nintendo has chosen to go the route they have.
More than anything, Super Mario is about Mario. Yes, it’s about Nintendo and Nintendo’s competitors and the evolution of games in the last 35 years, but it always comes back to Mario – the fun of his games, his chameleon-like ability to fit a variety of game genres (from racecar driver to puzzle doctor!) and his Mickey Mouse-like rise from simple barrel jumper to international pop culture icon.
Perhaps the only criticism I can note is that the late 90s through the 2000s go by rather quickly. Certain game franchises (Super Smash Brothers, for instance) are brushed through quicker than others. It would have been nice to see just slightly more focus on the Zelda games of the 90s. While Mario is obviously the focus of the book, it feels wrong to not devote at least a half of a chapter on Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Windwaker‘s additions to Nintendo’s success. While not a deal breaker, it was slightly disappointing. At the same time, Super Mario is still an incredibly detailed history of a long-standing corporation, and the interesting facets Ryan brings to its story is well worth a read.
Any entrepreneur or business enthusiast would find this corporation’s journey fascinating. That being said, the book is an absolute must for any Nintendo fan, especially those who lived in the days of blowing on cartridges and the Power Glove. It was a delight to revisit these games and learn how the creators came up with them, how they lovingly crafted them into classic gaming experiences.