Over his nearly 30-year career, Mario has become the face of the video game industry. So it’s no wonder that author Jeff Ryan used the plumber’s pixelated visage as the focal point in Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, his retelling of Nintendo’s history. Beginning with the company’s first arcade title, Radar Scope, and culminating with the jump to the top of the flagpole that was the Wii, it’s a wild ride that ultimately gets smashed by a Blue Shell.
Author: Jeff Ryan
Release Date: August 4, 2011
It’s hard to look at Super Mario and not compare it to David Sheff’s Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children. Sheff’s book offers a more complete history, but it was published in 1993 and a lot has happened to the house of Mario since then. Game Over is the more complete book due to its “just the facts, ma’am” style, but it also features a strong undercurrent of contempt for the then upstart company (just look at the title). Super Mario is more of a celebration of everything that is great about the character, the company and video games as a whole.
Ryan’s writing is breezy and fast-paced, like Mario energized by a Starman. I flew through the first 100 pages without even realizing it. This quickened pace resulted in a book that’s actually half as long as Sheff’s tome, but has to cover twice as many years. The stories of Nintendo of America’s early years and Miyamoto’s design breakthroughs make for some interesting reading. And I enjoy the story of Nintendo’s courtroom battle to save Donkey Kong from a copyright infringement claim by the makers of King Kong no matter how many times I read about it.
With so many years to cover, Ryan wisely makes Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto the main thread in his history of Nintendo. This gives short shrift to some of Nintendo’s other creations such as Metroid (mentioned in passing on three pages) and GoldenEye 007 (not mentioned at all), but Miyamoto has become so entwined with Nintendo that many people assume he works on every game the company produces (as does Ryan for that matter).
Repeating incorrect assumptions or urban legends as fact is a recurring theme throughout Super Mario. Ryan repeats the oft-debated tale of Mario’s full name as fact, even though the company has never called him by the name “Mario Mario” in a Nintendo-published product. That case of mistaken identity originated in the very liberal adaptation that was the Super Mario Bros. movie and a particularly literal reading of the Mario Bros. game title. The author even claims that NES players were jumping over the flagpole in Super Mario Bros. to score a free 1UP back in 1988. While this playground boast was eventually proven true, it didn’t come to light until 2010 and there’s no 1UP reward. Doing it causes a glitch in the game.
Like a dead pixel, many of the small details are wrong in Ryan’s retelling of Nintendo’s history. For example, he mentions that the American release of Mother (AKA EarthBound Zero) was canceled because the game was “too weird.” But Mother was actually canceled because it took too long to translate and was pushed aside by the impending release of the Super NES. Later, he flubs the plot of The Wizard and fails to notice Mario’s face on the cover of Baseball for the Game Boy. Even later still, he refers to Animal Crossing as a Game Boy Advance release. Like I said, small errors to be sure, but they continue to crop up throughout the entire book.
Once Nintendo becomes dominant with the NES and Super NES, Ryan’s writing shifts to look at the one-upmanship found in the three-way battle between Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. But again, his recollections are just slightly askew from the real world and it makes the story hard to follow.
For example, Ryan utterly shreds the GameCube in a chapter discussing the sixth generation of consoles and the system’s defeat at the hands of the Xbox. It’s true, Microsoft’s console can claim a whisker-thin market share victory over the Cube, but Microsoft spent (and lost) billions of dollars breaking into the game industry. Nintendo’s continued profitability during that period (or the multiple platinum-selling game titles produced for the GameCube) was ignored.
Channeling my surly 12th grade English teacher, I should also mention that the book is rife with typos. Words are switched, misspelled and, in some cases, even skipped completely. It doesn’t impair the narrative, but the editor was clearly in another castle for most of the book’s production.
Even though Super Mario is a nitpicker’s dream, Ryan cashes in his continue and gathers up all the Triforce pieces to create a solid story. In spite of the constant refrain of “that’s not how it happened” clicking across my brain, the book just plain works. And for someone who has never delved down the green pipe of Nintendo’s history, it makes for a jaunty Summer read.
As a Nintendo fanatic, my problem with Super Mario is that I’ve heard all of these stories before (and apparently I remember them more accurately than Ryan retells them). But even if you know the stories, Ryan’s writing is interesting enough to keep you busy until the Fall gaming season begins in a few weeks.
Review Disclosure: A review copy of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America was provided by Portfolio for the purposes of this review.