The story of Nintendo’s rise and the beloved icon who made it possible
Nintendo has continually set the standard for video game innovation in America, starting in 1981 with a plucky hero who jumped over barrels to save a girl from an ape.
The saga of Mario, the portly plumber who became the most successful franchise in the history of gaming, has plot twists worthy of a video game. Jeff Ryan shares the story of how this quintessentially Japanese company found success in the American market. Lawsuits, Hollywood, die-hard fans, and face-offs with Sony and Microsoft are all part of the drama. Find out about: Mario’s eccentric yet brilliant creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, who was tapped for the job because he was considered expendable; Minoru Arakawa, the son-in-law of Nintendo’s imperious president, who bumbled his way to success; and the unexpected approach that allowed Nintendo to reinvent itself as the gaming system for the nongamer, especially now with the Wii.
Even those who can’t tell a Koopa from a Goomba will find this a fascinating story of striving, comeuppance, and redemption.
I’ve never really gotten Mario.
There. I’ve said it. Committed gamer blasphemy. Shot myself in the booster-boot-clad foot. Invited the ire of every person who has had even the slightest brush with Nintendo.
It’s not because I never got to give old Mario a whirl in his heyday, either. I grew up a gamer, logging in hours of carpal-tunnel-inducing Street Fighter sessions, shoving all of my precious pocket-money quarters into the TMNT arcade box, spending an incredible amount of time on Pokemon, and yes, trying my hand at whatever the current-gen Mario was at that point. Unlike the other three, though, my forays into the Mario worlds (the Super Mario World, for one) never lasted beyond a few minutes.
Meh, I’d think, it’s pretty good, just not that engaging. Even at such a young age, I’d gotten pretty good at justifying my utter inaptitude at a game by shifting the blame on the poor gamemakers.
And it’s not like I don’t like Nintendo. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve dabbled with various first-party titles, forked out hard-earned allowance on pretty much every handheld they’ve produced, proclaimed the Wii the reigning party console of choice in my household, and god forbid I ever miss a Pokémon release. Heck, I’ve even hardcore-fanboyed over Mario-related titles like the Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros series.
I just never understood the appeal of the core Mario games themselves, or why the world was so in love with a stout little moustached pumbler and his creepily similarly-dressed brother, the Solange to his Beyoncé.
That is, until I
read listened to this book.
Why I tried this book (i.e. you don’t have to read this section, really)
I first learnt of this book when I came across a review of it by Good Books Good Wine, which pretty much made me want to
read listen risten (imagine this uttered in a stereotypical Asian accent that’s oddly apt given the book we’re talking about) to it right away.
Plus, I was still testing Audible and trying to figure out if audiobooks were truly my thing. Having exhausted my trial freebies on excellent autobiographies, I wanted to try a more…informative non-fiction work. This came along at just the right time and so I plonked my first paid Audible credit down on this. Boy, did I plonk it in the right place.
The…actual review of the book
As you would no doubt have gleaned from my Weekly Obsessions post, I found the book really well-written! Ryan does a great job of fleshing out the company’s history (or at least the gaming-related parts of it) without ever letting it fall into the trap of being a plodding, Wikipedia-style info dump. Sure, as with any such book, there is an astounding amount of facts, but Ryan weaves these facts masterfully into a dramatic narrative worthy of any of Nintendo’s own titles, steering the book away from being just a point-by-point exposition.
The chapters each focus on prominent landmarks in Nintendo’s timeline and are short and sweet. Quite awesomely for audiobook readers, the sentences tend not to run on for too long, which lessens the cognitive load considerably for those who, like me, find it much harder to process audio information than visual ones. Even the roster of Japanese names, while intimidating at first, are mentioned (and reintroduced) often enough that they feel like old friends by the conclusion. Ryan keeps the tone light while still creating enough tension and suspense to keep the reader hooked (and that’s despite the fact that there are no spoiler alerts possible for a story so easily available on the internet).
The book is also a treasure trove of gaming- and Nintendo-related puns, which Ryan sprinkles throughout the story sporadically and subtly rather than using them as punchlines. While this might not endear the title to fans looking for a more serious take of the company, I think it fits in rather well with Nintendo’s own fun-heavy feel and I personally loved it, chuckling out loud on the bus when I read about fans clamouring for a Wiiquel.
Of course, the book isn’t perfect, being disproportionate in several ways.
Although the book is titled Super Mario and Ryan’s telling of the story does highlight how integrally the fat little plumber is tied to Nintendo (in many cases being synonymous with the company itself), I do wish he had spent a little more time on some of Nintendo’s other titles (which I’m sure also had big impacts on the gaming landscape later on) rather than just giving them a cursory mention. This is, after all, Nintendo‘s history, not just Mario’s. Similarly, he blows through the console’s competitors, although I think this one is more understandable given the focus of the book. Still, it comes off sometimes as a bit skewed.
Likewise, the pacing of the book is slightly tipsy. Ryan spends an incredible amount of time slowly going through the starts of Nintendo and Mario, hovering for quite a while around the NES and its predecessors, before blazing through the more contemporary half of the company’s history, covering the later consoles in quick succession. The inertia of the book itself, too, takes a while to overcome. In fact, at the start of the listen, I often forgot that I had this audiobook when going out and only switched to it after having exhausted my podcast enjoyment for the day (a situation which thankfully disappeared once the story proper got underway).
These small niggles, however, do little to mar the fact that the book still makes for an interesting risten.
The audio- in the audiobook
Speaking of that (
see hear read what I did there?), the narration of the book is fantastic. Ray Porter’s telling of the Nintendo story really brings it to life. I had previously assumed that audiobooks of such nature would be dry and all newscaster-ish but Porter pulled off Ryan’s drama with great aplomb, his little inflections and cadences greatly enhancing the listen. He even slips in the occasional accent or impression, a delightful icing to the audiocake.
The production values of the audiobook are pretty high, with no static or background noises and Porter’s voice is recorded clearly and at just the right volume. Like I mentioned, it was great that sentences were kept pretty short, either by design or by Porter’s delivery, and at no point did I get lost (a remarkable feat considering how scatterbrained I am, especially when I’m commuting or walking about).
I always say a mark of a great book is how it makes me want to do something. With writing books that I’ve reviewed before, the books had an easier task – fanning a desire already there. What this book does, and does so well, is in making me want to stop at various points, whip out my 3DS, head to the e-store and download each and every game mentioned and try my hand at it, an incredible achievement considering how ambivalent I am about Mario, as I’ve oververbosely expounded upon earlier.
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America is a great read (and great listen) for anyone who likes Mario (which…I guess is everyone in the world but me), likes Nintendo, likes a peek into the gaming industry (and which shows how difficult it is to hack it in said industry), or just likes a great (non-fiction) story.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (for the book), 5 out of 5 stars (for the audio portion)