Thursday, September 12, 2013

Literature Review: Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan (2011)

Being an avid fan of Super Mario, Nintendo itself, and "making of" type notes and documentaries, Jeff Ryan's book Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America was a shoo-in (which, shouldn't that be "shoe-in"? As in, a shoe in the door?) for my small personal library. Immediately upon holding it for the first time, I was filled with the nostalgia and youthful bliss. Memories of Super Mario Bros. 2, Donkey Kong Classics, and of course, the original Super Mario Bros. (the version attached at the hip with Duck Hunt, of course). That unmistakable blue hue of a NES palette sky and the classic Little Mario leaping sprite (which has been raised into 16-bit here, sporting a more modern look for the spaghetti squire) were just as welcoming and enticing as any old-school start screen. All it was missing was a demo reel when you let it sit too long.

Regrettably, it seems video game lit. has only barely evolved beyond the 2600 era. While the book is interesting and features a fairly detailed history of the Nintendo company and its execs., I can't feel confident that any of the new information I acquired is accurate. I'd love for it to be, because there's really some quite interesting stuff that made me pop an eyebrow or two, but the book is riddled with so many simple mistakes that I wonder if Mr. Ryan did much homework at all. Now, I'm not just talking about typos (although such things are both rampant and inconsistent, such as occasionally spelling "Goomba" as "Goombah", messing Konami into "Komani", and not once failing to misspell Kotaku as "Kokatu"), but jarring factual errors that the most basic of gamers would never get wrong. Things like confusing the Panasonic and Philips companies made reading confusing and difficult to keep track of, but are a little more forgivable since they're kind of out of the way of the main topic. However, being totally off the mark about the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2, being so wrong as to confuse the great Wart for Bowser and Subcon for the Mushroom Kingdom, are inexcusable errors. For a book named after, and focusing on, Super Mario, it really screwed up the pasta-pummeler's history.

Now, I did look up a few things that sounded odd to me which turned out to be true (one of which was about a little game called Waku Waku Sonic Patrol Car, which I took as being a misconstrued version of the Japanese exclusive Sonic Drift. Turns out I was wrong), so at least some of Ryan's information is correct. It's just unfortunate that figuring out just how much will require doing enough research to write up your own back, which is sad for a book which is supposed to educational itself.

Honestly, I wouldn't be able to recommend this book for educating yourself or others in video game history. It's too... wrong in too many places. While the title might be easier to bite into than some of the heavier, more dull reports on the topic, it kind of presents the anti-intellectual fallacy bandied about in the American educational system: teach them the easiest understanding possible, then unteach it to them later. You have no idea how challenging it can be to unlearn something, and I know that was one of the wort parts of school for me. "Hey, remember how we told you the Pilgrims were the first people to reach America? We lied to ya, buddy!"

I didn't learn that the word "pilgrim" wasn't exclusive to the group of Mayflower settlers until ninth grade. That's a dangerous thing to do. People tend to hold onto the first bits of knowledge they get, and if it's wrong, that person is going to have a hard time readjusting the fundamental layer of their thinking. Hell, Brontosaurus is still how it's spelled in my book!

But enough beating, because Ryan really isn't a bad or even mediocre writer. His editing team needed to be a little better, and he's gotta work on that research if he wants to write non-fiction, but he seems to have a gift with making it interesting. See, that's half the battle, especially with text like this. You might come out with a book that's really informative and gets it all right, but if your prose is drab I'm going to drop you like a day-old sock. Jeff Ryan has a voice derived from years as a journalist. Sometimes this makes Super Mario read a little too much like an issue of Nintendo Power magazine, but then again, I subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine (a moment of silence, please).

There are bits of sarcasm and bite to his voice which are all-too common among the smug pop-culture journalist crowd, and there were times when it got to be a little much. Skip the parentheticals, and you'll manage to dodge most of that (I seem to have picked a little something up from this book after all. Sorry, Jeff). However, his natural voice and inability not to characterize something lends itself wonderfully to drawing the audience into history as it unfolds before them. Anybody who picks this one up will already know about Shigeru Miyamoto and Satoru Iwata, and they sure as hell better known Gunpei Yokoi, but Ryan's text does more than just let you know what these men did and why you should know them; it turns them into characters, and welcomes you along on their journey as they develop from unknown young men into celebrated pioneers of the digital era.

The book is divided into parts which seem to follow along with the evolution of Nintendo's consoles, despite some overlap. The first part is the arcade era, you get the NES era, SNES, N64, GCN, and finally Wii. Each part is divided into several chapters, all of which are puns on various Mario games, and used in ways which reflect the general tone of the chapter. It's something aficionados will get a chuckle out of, and it's the kind of fun I imagine Nintendo would themselves have with a self-styled history book.

For the most part, Super Mario is an interesting read. The last chapter, however, is kind of a Shyamalan-style tone-twist. We go from praising Mario and the Nintendo company to a diatribe about how Chinese workers slave away in sweatshops (and often commit suicide) to make it all possible. It kind of makes one double-take and wonder if this was all a set-up by some human rights group. The narrative then turns again, now full of provolone optimism about how Mario will once again lead us all into an era of digital enlightenment. Really, it's the kind of poor ending you expect out of fiction (which almost never ends well), but not an over-stuffed IGN article.

In short: this book cannot be read for factual use as there are too many errors. However, as a work of near-fiction and a character story, it is more than adequate and highly entertaining. Unfortunately, that isn't the purpose of a non-fiction piece. For featuring heavy bias (it's evident Mr. Ryan is no fan of Pok√©mon), distracting diatribes and self-important quips, and, above all, dangerous misleading falsities marched through the streets as facts, I have no choice but to score Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America a mere three out of five stars. I'll see you after class, Mr. Ryan. Maybe next time you'll do your homework.

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