Revisiting the Humble Roots of the Video Game


“Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America”
By Jeff Ryan
Portfolio Books | 320 pp. | SRP $16

“History of Nintendo, Volume 1 (1889 – 1980); Volume 2 (Game & Watch series: 1980 – 1991)”
By Florent Gorges (in collaboration with Isao Yamazaki)
Pix ‘N Love Publishing | 242 pp.; 200 pp. | SRP $40.00

In the second decade of the 21st century, and some 65 years after its humble beginnings as a “cathode ray tube amusement device” cobbled together by two Cornell University scientists with some spare time on their hands, the video game has emerged as one of the most popular forms of media today. Its presence is felt not only through the popularity of the medium (exemplified by sales figures in the tens of billions annually in the United States alone), but in the traces its influence leaves behind in the music, film and even fashion of a generation whose childhood and adolescence was spent under its spell. That same generation, now adults, have brought about a self-consciousness about the medium, a desire to search its roots in order to better understand its present.

Among the giants of the video game industry, the name Nintendo stands out like a colossus. For people who were held in its thrall when the company enjoyed near universal control of the market during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nintendo tugs their hearts with a powerful pull of nostalgia.

For those gamers, three books are available this holiday season that detail the history of the Japanese giant. The first is a rather slipshod affair; the other two deserving pride of place in one’s library.

Portfolio Books’ “Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America” was reprinted this fall in a new paperback edition with a new chapter supplementing the original. Ryan, who writes about video games for several publications, employs the kind of hyperactive, chatty sort of prose typical of video game critics. Taken in small doses, that style can be tolerable, even effective. Stretched across the span of a full-length book and its flaws become apparent.

His tendency to be snippy does his writing no favors. Wearisome too are the Japanese-flavored metaphors of which he seems to be much too fond of (“The Virtual Boy flopped like a koi,” is among the worst offenders). But ultimately it is his inability or simple lack of control to mold his cascade of facts into a convincing, long-span narrative structure that is the most damaging. Ryan’s book reads like the author simply pieced together with the flimsiest of narrative filler facts gleaned from the Internet. It is no surprise, then, to read in the book’s closing acknowledgements that most of the author’s work consisted of just that. Ryan’s book can only be recommended to those Nintendo fans who are neophytes to the company’s history or for those too lazy to look up the company’s relevant Wikipedia article.

Far better and absorbing is Pix ‘N Love Publishing’s own continuing series of books exploring Nintendo in their “History of Nintendo” books. Author Florent Gorges, whose own interest in the company’s history was awakened while studying in Japan during his teen years, has compiled an extraordinary set of books that serve as a virtual museum piece in and of itself.     Appropriately for a medium that concentrates the visual, his books hone in on the visual artifacts of the company’s history. Gorgeous spreads of Nintendo’s early playing cards – the company began as a hanafuda manufacturer in the 19th Century – as well as later toys, newspaper clippings, photographs of the company’s mid-20th century attempts at making money from taxis and “love hotels” abound in the Pix ‘N Love books. Gorges’ writing is lean and concise, unfettered by the narcissism or affectations of Ryan’s. At times it can be unidiomatic (the English translations from the author’s original French can sometimes be creaky), but never is it a serious impediment.

The Ryan book is an easier find and should be available widely, distributed by Penguin. Gorges’ books can be obtained via Pix ‘N Love’s website at, though they can also be found at Amazon. At $40 apiece, the books are a pricier investment than Ryan’s. But for their wealth of information and visual flair, it is money well spent and a model of quality writing for video games.