Monday, January 23, 2012

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America Review

Image taken from
The best part of this book, by far, is the cover. It's an arresting piece of artwork for anyone who grew up with a Nintendo: Mario paused in mid-jump, a perfectly Nintendo shade of blue wallpapered behind him. It's an image that promises more than the book offers. 

The writing is clean and straightforward but far too often Ryan resorts to pop culture jokes (the intro to Sonic the Hedgehog is particularly brutal) or cultural stereotypes (in the section detailing with the creation of the first Mario arcade game are the inevitable references to yin and yang and Japanese Zen). It's a style that should be familiar to anyone who's read Wired magazine. There are also a few spelling errors sprinkled throughout the book, nothing terrible, although Konami is referred to as Komani. 

As a history of Nintendo it's a worthy primer but don't expect anything as in-depth or meticulously researched as David Sheff's "Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World," from which "Super Mario" paraphrased a cover image and a subtitle. "Game Over" was a video game book but also a business book. At nearly 500 pages it offered a level of detail and character necessary to understand the under-scrutinized subject. Ryan too often focuses on the trivial and skates by the interesting; multiple page bios on historical footnotes like Captain Lou Albano and Billy Mitchell yet a single paragraph of background on Shigeru Miyamoto. For a more compelling look at the history of Nintendo and Miyamato, I'd first refer one to "Game Over" and "Master of Play" by Nick Paumgarten from the New Yorker.

Ryan's greatest mistake is in his disregard for any description of the actual act of playing video games. There's never any sense of what it's like to hold a controller in one's hands and play a game. Although it's safe to assume that most everyone who reads this book will have played most of the games described within, there is something missing to a book that covers such an intensely interactive activity without any mention of what it's like to participate. It's like writing a book about football and never describing what happens on the field. The other recent mainstream book about video games, last year's "Extra Lives" by Tom Bissell, details the peculiar mix of immersion and passivity that goes into playing video games as does Nicholson Baker's "Painkiller Deathstreak" from the New Yorker magazine. 

It's been nearly twenty years since Sheff's book and since then there's been an explosion of innovation and expansion in the video game industry, largely undocumented by anyone other than industry trade magazines and online publications. Ryan's book is good video game journalism, but it needs to be better than that. It needs to be good journalism. 

Buy the book at now! : Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America


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