Monday, September 19, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Super Mario by Jeff Ryan

I'm not really a big video gamer - I like to say that video games got too advanced for me around the era of the N64. Once they stopped doing side scrolling games? I was totally lost.

But my brother is a huge gamer, so despite hardly playing a game at all, I try to keep abreast of the latest gaming news, so after seeing this Slate interview with Jeff Ryan, I thought I'd give this book a try. My family was always a Nintendo family - my parents liked Nintendo's emphasis on family-friendly games - so I've always had an affinity for Super Mario.

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America isn't a hard hitting expose. This is no tell-all memoir of tawdry details and sordid affairs. Ryan doesn't necessarily avoid some of the less-than-awesome things Nintendo has done, but he certainly prefers to emphasize the positives of the company.

And there's a lot of positives here. Did you know Nintendo was trying to get us all into online gaming way back in the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) era? That the character of Mario was created in a company-wide contest (because the president of Nintendo didn't want to pull his "real" programmers away from other projects that were more-likely money makers. Mario, via Donkey Kong the arcade game, was a last-ditch effort to recoup losses in the US market)? That the NES Mario games were some of the first to be intentionally designed to make you want to replay them over and over to learn all their secrets?

While there's an extensive bibliography (according to the acknowledgements, there's even supposed to be "downloadable content" extra chapters at the website, but right now that appears to be only for those who preordered? Hm), this isn't a heavy academic tome with footnotes every two paragraphs. It's a serious look at a light-hearted topic, but isn't afraid to have fun, either. Video game puns abound, and the book design is whimsical - the book is divided in sections, further divided into chapters, so the chapter headings are given in familiar Mario-game parlance: 2-1, 4-8 and so on.

While the focus is definitely on Mario and Nintendo, this strikes me as a must-read for all gamers, because without Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft wouldn't be around as we know them. Nintendo was the front runner for so many years that they drove innovation in the industry. And while Nintendo has forfeited the graphics fight to the other two powerhouses, it's still driving innovation in the industry. Ryan calls the other two's attempts to get into motion-controlled gaming merely also-rans, and that Nintendo had considered those ideas first, but opted for a controller-based motion system because they felt using your whole body as a controller would require a player to basically re-learn controls for every game. If nothing else, Nintendo thinks their decisions through with painstaking detail.

This is an excellent adult non-fiction book that will appeal to anyone interested in video games. I highly enjoyed it.
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