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How An Endless String of Failures Became Super Mario – A Book Review of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan

While modern Nintendo is known for quality video game content, that's not the entire story. Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America tells the story of the most iconic video game company from it's beginnings as a playing card company to the company we know today.

I love video games. Especially Nintendo games. As a chronic completionist, I’ve always appreciated the deep detail and escalating challenge of a Mario game, or the giant puzzle-worlds of Metroid and Legend of Zelda. Over the holiday break, I got to spend a little more time than usual enjoying not just the brand new ones, but also the endlessly replayable classics. Nintendo has been producing amazing content since the 1980s and if you have a Nintendo Switch and you haven’t tried the Nintendo Labo yet, I highly recommend you check it out.

Here’s a link if you want one.

I’ve had my eye on Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America for a while, but for some reason I never got around to it. Now that I’ve read it, I can tell you that this book is the most extensive history of Nintendo I’ve seen so far. (If I’m wrong, feel free to tweet me because I would truly love to be proven wrong). While the title of the book might lead you to think the story of Nintendo starts with Mario, the story of Nintendo (or at least the video game company) actually starts with Hiroshi Yamauchi.

hiroshiyamauchi
Pictured: Hiroshi Yamauchi, wearing those glasses that can’t decide if they’re sunglasses or regular glasses.

Hiroshi Yamauchi was the grandson of Nintendo founder Fusajiro Yamauchi. He was the third Yamauchi to run the company since its start in 1889. (Yes, you read that correctly. 2019 marks the 30 year anniversary of the release of the Game Boy, and Nintendo was already a century old when that happened. Do you want to know what else was founded in 1889? The Eiffel Tower. But I digress).

Yamauchi was a serial entrepreneur that wasn’t content to simply hold the reins on the family playing car company. Yamauchi decided to develop other revenue streams, including becoming a taxi service, opening a chain of pay-by-the-hour motels, and eventually toys. From the toy industry, it’s a quick side-step to video games, and I think where we’re all glad that’s where Nintendo finally landed.

It really seems like Yamauchi didn’t have this grand design to change the world with video games. It seems more like he just wanted to engage in successful commerce.

The book covers pretty much everything up to the launch of the 3DS, but the most interesting part of the book for me was all the things that went wrong that culminated in the creation of Mario. Back in the arcade days, Nintendo of America had a surplus of cabinets for a game called Radar Scope. The game had made enough in the United States to break even, but all that inventory was about to go to waste. Yamauchi, who had no interest in video games other than as a product, needed someone to design a conversion pack that effectively made Radar Scope into a new game so they could offload all this extra inventory out of the warehouse.

Since all of Yamauchi’s successful game designers were busy on other projects, he didn’t want to risk taking them off a game that could make money just to reconfigure some old cabinets. The only person available at the time was character artist Shigeru Miyamoto, who had never actually designed a video game. Yamauchi puts Miyamoto under the supervision of Gunpei Yokoi and sets him on a course to convert all of these Radar Scope cabinets into Popeye cabinets.

Yes. You read that correctly. Yamauchi had recently begun discussions to acquire the video game tie-in licensing for Popeye. They were hoping to cash in on all the extra attention that would be coming their way because of the Robin Williams musical that would be releasing in theaters.

popeye
Yep. That one. Cash cow.

The licensing deal for Nintendo didn’t happen in time for the game. So the Popeye game, which was already adapted from Radar Scope, couldn’t legally be released in it’s current form. Without the licensing agreement in place, they couldn’t use Popeye, Bluto, or Olive Oyl, so they had to find something else to put in their place.

In order to release the game in some form, the gargantuan Bluto became Donkey Kong, Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl became Pauline, and Popeye himself became Jumpman, who was later renamed to Mario as a way for Nintendo of America to endear themselves to the landlord or their warehouse, Mario Segale.

While the author himself does not claim to be a video game expert, I think the book itself is a good read even for people who might not be diehard video game fans. The book was published in 2011, so it only covers the history of Nintendo up through the launch of the 3DS. If Jeff Ryan ever gets around to a sequel or an update, I will definitely pick it up. Also, I listened the book as an audiobook which was read by Ray Porter, who does a fantastic job. Porter might be sneaking up on me as one of my favorite audiobook narrators.

If you’re interested in video game history, you might want to check out The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent or, (if you want the same story from Sega’s perspective), I recommend Console Wars by Blake J. Harris. If you’re not into video games but you liked the story of Super Mario, you might want to check out Shoe Dog, which is the memoir of Phil Knight who founded Nike, which was on last year’s 100 books in one year list and I loved it.

If you want to see this year’s list, just check out revengemethod.com

Keep it real.

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America

By Jeff Ryan

Audiobook read by Ray Porter

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.

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