Minoru Arakawa, Nintendo's man in America, was stuck with a Seattle-area warehouse full of unwanted videogame cabinets and a landlord threatening the company over unpaid rent. So he dreamed up a last-ditch plan. As Jeff Ryan puts it in "Super Mario," his narrative history of Nintendo in America, Mr. Arakawa decided to "reheat yesterday's blue plate special into a new entree": The machines would be reprogrammed and sold as some other games
Back in Kyoto, the design job was handed to a dreamy young staff artist named Shigeru Miyamoto. Mr. Miyamoto wasn't a programmer. Nor was he impressed by the shoot-'em-up videogames of the day. Why couldn't they be like a story, with sympathetic characters and dramatic scenes? Say, a carpenter rescuing his girlfriend from a barrel-hurling ape? Along with engineer Gunpei Yokoi, Mr. Miyamoto designed this new game and named it after its simian villain: "Donkey Kong." But what to call the pudgy hero, who rescues the damsel in distress by jumping over rolling barrels? "Mr. Video"? No, no. "Jumpman"? Ugh. Nintendo ended up naming him after their long-suffering Seattle landlord: Mario.
Arcade vendors hated it. Donkey what? All you do is jump? Why can't you just fire a laser at the stupid ape? But the combination of simple gameplay and surprising difficulty made "Donkey Kong" a hit. A few years later, Mario was the world's most famous videogame character and Nintendo a tech giant. Even though the home-gaming industry crashed in 1983, thanks to a glut of terrible games—Atari infamously buried millions of its unsellable "Pac-Man" and "E.T." cartridges in a New Mexico landfill—Nintendo resurrected it in 1985 with its Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES not only had superior games, but a chip that prevented cartridges from playing without the company's quality stamp of approval. Over the years Nintendo's various gameplay innovations—like the portable Game Boy and the motion-sensing Wii—have led the industry. Mario has been there every step of the way, evolving into a fireball-throwing, Go-Kart driving, princess-saving icon.
Mr. Ryan's breezy chronicle provides an entertaining if insufficient history of a company that, like its signature character, was an unlikely upstart that took on giants and won. Even when MCA Universal sued Nintendo for copyright infringement of "King Kong," Nintendo fought back so resourcefully—noting, among other things, that the film was actually in the public domain—that Universal ended up having to pay Nintendo's legal fees and then some. "Universal's loss could only have been greater," Mr. Ryan writes, "if the judge ordered back royalties to the planet Earth for its use in the film company's logo."
The story of "Donkey Kong" puts on display all the figures that made Nintendo so successful. Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo's hard-driving president, never played videogames but had a sixth sense for which ones would succeed. The ingenious Mr. Yokoi summed up his engineering philosophy as "lateral thinking of seasoned technology"—that is, avoid expensive hardware and instead use off-the-shelf parts in inventive, original ways. And few in the industry were as original as Mr. Miyamoto, who went on to design many titles, including 1985's "Super Mario Bros.," which made Nintendo the king of home videogames.
It is difficult to explain how startling this game was in 1985. For the first time, the world of a videogame was a delightful place to savor in its own right, rewarding patient and obsessive exploration. Like Alice in Wonderland, Mario in Mushroom Kingdom grows and shrinks, encounters surreal obstacles—scuttling fungi, hammer-hurling turtles, piranha plants—and must decode their dream-logic. (And how about that jaunty theme? Any child of the 1980s can still hum it note-for-note.) Mr. Miyamoto drew on boyhood memories of hiking the forests and caves around Kyoto to create the game's compelling strangeness.
Unfortunately, you won't read about that in "Super Mario." The full story of Mr. Miyamoto's inspiration comes from David Sheff's more substantial "Game Over" (1993), along with plenty more inside dope about the personalities behind Nintendo. Mr. Ryan nobly avoids repeating anecdotes from Mr. Sheff's book, but that's the problem: "Game Over" has already hoovered up all the good material.
Mr. Sheff drew liberally from his own interviews with Messrs. Yamauchi and Miyamoto as well as other Nintendo bigwigs, but "Super Mario" has few firsthand quotes, sometimes giving the book a flat, reportorial feel. Mr. Ryan, a videogame journalist, admits that his access at Nintendo dried up when he revealed that he was writing a book. (He does say he interviewed Mr. Miyamoto. You'd never know it.) Still, with "Game Over" out of print and out of date, who will tell the saga of how Nintendo trounced upstart Sega, grappled with Microsoft's Xbox, triumphed with the Wii and now contends with casual gaming on phones? It is precisely in its second half—where these battles are covered in detail—that "Super Mario" falters, losing sight of personalities and getting bogged down in technical details.
Mr. Ryan does make an amiable companion through Nintendo's pop-cultural minutiae. He seems to take sadistic glee in detailing its crossover misfires, like 1993's execrable "Super Mario Bros." movie (Bob Hoskins as Mario?). He ably whips up a nostalgic atmosphere through pop-culture references, but can also pivot to a highbrow gag. On Sega before Sonic the Hedgehog: "Sega wasn't so much the Pepsi to Nintendo's Coke as it was the RC Cola . . . It had been Rosencrantzing and Guildensterning its way around the gaming world for decades." (There are more silly verbs on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.)
Errors crop up. Speculating on the name of Mario's evil twin, Wario, Mr. Ryan claims that "in Japanese, wariu means bad." Actually, the Japanese is warui. Mr. Ryan writes as though "Yars' Revenge" was in arcades, but that game was only available on Atari's home system. The movie "Aliens" is referred to as if it were from 1985—though it premiered in 1986. Game over, man? Not quite, but when your shtick relies on nostalgia smart-bombs, inaccuracies rankle.
Is "Super Mario" a quick, entertaining survey of Nintendo? Sure. Is this the comprehensive history it deserves? For the general reader, and especially for the buff, that princess is in another castle.