Nintendo’s plumber power

Courtesy: Portfolio

Even if you’re not a gamer — though chances are pretty good that at some point you’ve either owned a Game Boy, wanted one, or bought your kid one — the story of Nintendo’s meteoric rise to power is fascinating. The basic chronology is known, but Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America delivers illuminating details from the Mushroom Kingdom such as legal battles, deliberations over new characters, and embarrassing flops (the Japanese giant didn’t exactly hit it out of the park with the GameCube, for example).

Nintendo’s mega-success, we learn, is thanks not just to creativity, but smart hiring as well. Shigeru Miyamoto, the popular face of the company and subject of many a magazine profile, joined the likes of Mino Arakawa and other execs that have been with the N even longer and deserve big credit. Ryan, in tracking the company from its first arcade games through to the Wii and 3DS, manages to dig up surprising tidbits that are “out there” but in all likelihood not commonly known, like how Donkey Kong’s inspiration was the Popeye cartoons, or the reasons behind the color scheme of Mario’s overalls-and-hat outfit.

Ryan is also comfortable when mapping out longer sagas and relationships, such as how mere arcade game distributors Ron Judy and Al Stone, who started by importing used game machines from Hawaii, became key long-term Nintendo staffers. He gains similar steam when he narrates the appearance of Sega and their spiky answer to Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog (who indeed gave the plumber a run for his money and continues to work as the base for many a game franchise).

Another fun tale for your lawyer friends (or business partners that like to sue): In 1982, MCA Universal sued Nintendo over the Donkey Kong games, arguing that the character was an infringement of their own character King Kong. Not only did Universal lose the case, but the judge went on to eviscerate the film giant, ruling that they didn’t own the King Kong character, but that even if they did, Nintendo’s game wasn’t a copy. As if all that wasn’t enough, he also found that the King Kong created by Tiger Games, which had a licensing deal with Universal, was a copy of Donkey Kong, so that Universal had to pay a licensing fee to Nintendo for Tiger’s game. As Ryan puts it, “Universal’s loss could only have been greater if the judge ordered back royalties to the planet Earth for its use in the film company’s logo.”

It’s almost surprising that the chronology of a Japanese video game company could be this entertaining, but Ryan makes it so. If the book has any issue, it’s only that the entire thing can often feel like the excited cooing of a fanboy, an identity that Ryan happily cops to in the acknowledgments. Nonetheless, he includes the negative (though there isn’t much in this story) along with the positive moments in the life of this big business known the world over.

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