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Book Review: "Super Mario" by Jeff Ryan

A review of "Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America" and it's improvements on the now-classic book "Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your dollars, and Enslaved Your Children"

When "Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America" was written, there had not been a comprehensive history of Nintendo since David Sheff's "Game Over."  Not only is this new book more up-to-date, with the story ending after the release of the 3DS, it is also more engaging and better written.  On the other hand, that may not be David Sheff's fault.

Basically, the story of Nintendo has gotten more interesting over the years.  In the mid-nineties, Nintendo was a company which struggled to revive a comatose industry, established dominance in that industry, and defended that dominance fairly easily.

Since then, the plot has thickened.  New and intimidating players have entered the console race, and Nintendo is almost an underdog again.  The story of the Wii's success, even though I lived through it, was now couched in the context of the company's 100+-year history, and made far more entertaining as a consequence.

Jeff Ryan made some good editorial decisions, which may have been impossible in the 90s.  Back then, the trade deficit with Japan was a major concern, and people were genuinely worried about whether the USA had lost the mantle of the world's chief innovator.   David Sheff was forced to take a neutral tone, including both stories of Nintendo's few unfair business practices as well as its creative and technical triumphs.

Today, the USA's rivalry has shifted to China, and Jeff Ryan is free to be unabashedly pro-Nintendo.  He's also free to concentrate more on Nintendo's creativity, where "Game Over" was dominated by business decisions and legal wrangling.  I love the focus that's given to the Mario character, and how he became as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, but narrowly avoided becoming as meaningless.

The prose is good without stealing focus from the content, and strikes a factual tone without seeming textbookish.  Here is an excerpt from page 30:

    "If Mr. Segale had only shaved that morning, who can say what name the character on the
    screen might have been given.  Super Carlos?  Super Ivan?  Super Stavros?  Would that
    alternate-universe name have made a difference in Nintendo's success?  Under any other
    name, would Mario play as sweet?"

I personally have an interest in educational games, so it was also fun to hear about some of the early flops in that genre (Donkey Kong Jr. Math), and it's repeated attempts to succeed in that space.  Each of Nintendo's failures must have served as a deterrant to the whole industry and contributed to the marginalization of learning and educational games.

If you're a game designer, hardware developer, game studio executive, indie game entrepreneur, or just interested in how one of the most inspired major players in the videogame business has grown and developed, pick up "Super Mario."  It may inspire you to the kind of inventive, unconventional decisions Nintendo is famous for.

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