Keeping Mario Golden in a Time of Backlash
Jeff Ryan has perhaps chosen the best time to release a book on Nintendo's empire—when everyone is determined it's going to fall. The lack of faith is fair, considering the company's foresight with its newest handheld, the 3DS. The system tiptoed into launch on March 27 with an uninspiring line-up of games, few of which have been worth the money. They chopped down the price tag to the ire of loyalists who purchased the 3DS in spring to little fruit, and now they're talking a redesign that speaks poorly of their own commitment. Meanwhile, gamers have long turned off the 3D.
It looks like a sure disaster, but enter author and gamer Jeff Ryan, ready to save the day like Mario after Peach. If you read the book, you'll understand that this isn't a last minute attempt to pull Nintendo's namesake out of the red zone. The company is completely unaffiliated with the book, and the history Ryan recounts doesn't sound like fanboyism at its most desperate: just in time for the backlash, it checks the facts and renews your faith in Nintendo with decades of hard proof.
Ryan comments conspicuously little on all the 3DS hubbub, probably because the book had to go to the printer's sometime, but possibly because to him, Nintendo will bounce back. They've done it before, shaping the gaming landscape, and they'll do it again. Their unique approach to the industry has rewarded them in more money over a lifetime than Sony and Microsoft could dream of, but it's also jettisoned them and their games into stardom.
We spoke to Ryan about the book's sensitive timing. "When I came up with the idea for the book," he says, "it was a classic rise-fall-rise story, with the DS and Wii years being the triumphant end chapters. But the story kept going, and now Nintendo has a flop on their hands, and unlike the Virtual Boy (its only other true flop), this one looks okay on paper. So: price drops, flat sales, developers leaving, new colors and add-ons, the 'ambassador program,' pay cuts, etc. A lot of these aren't really big bragging points—the color of a console shouldn't affect sales in my book, even though Dilbert has taught me that mauve has the most RAM—but Nintendo's still throwing the kitchen sink at the problem."
Even if Nintendo is just treading water in a futile attempt to swim with the big boys, no one can take one trophy away from them: Mario. He is and remains the biggest icon in gaming. His face might not be plastered on shop windows and television and dozens of games a year as ubiquitously as before, but no other video game character is as recognizable or sympathetic as he is.
Ryan's book, Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, is a perfect blend of relivable history, pop culture, and theory. For hardware nuts, Ryan talks shop, running down technical specs. But most of the game is written for the non-tech savvy: for game lovers and casual readers alike. The language is readable and comprehensive, and you're bound to learn stories, details, and aspects of Nintendo life that you never knew about before. Ryan decodes the company into accessible categories: the family and business politics, the botched ideas, the mishaps, the lessons learned, the fame—and the games, down to the psychology of Mario as a blank slate (we are him, celebrating every successful jump and coin grab) and the symbolism of console colors (purple signifies royalty).
"The cultural impact was one of my favorites [to write]," Ryan told us. "I kept imagining a hundred different writers all writing the same book, with the same pool of sources and interviews, trying to figure how everyone else's would read. And what would frustrate me reading them, and what I'd want more of and less of in mine. And so I tried to put emphasis on the gameplay innovations and Mario's journey through popular culture, which I think other writers wouldn't have found as fascinating. What does celebrity mean when the celebrity in question isn't real?"
The book also spans the cultural gap of Japan to America, showing how Mario and his friends (or frenemies, such as Donkey Kong) appealed to both countries, with a focus on their conquest in the States during a time when Japanese takeover was still a common fear. It touches briefly on today's hot topics, such as social media and mobile games and video games as art—or muses, depending on how you see the argument, and Ryan makes sure both sides are represented. Ryan gives Nintendo and its massive influence some perspective, chronicling also the other major players: like Sega's rise with Sonic (Mario's winning rival for a while) and Sony and Microsoft's looming dark cloud presences.
"Sony and Microsoft are electronics and software companies at heart," says Ryan, talking about the companies now. "Nintendo's an amusement company at heart. That's good for everyone, because it gives Nintendo a mostly different slice of the market than current 'core' gamers."
While reading the book, you'll find a lot of parallels to what's going on with Nintendo in the present, and some are them are good signs. When three leading men took steps back from Nintendo, and the multi-console developer route once seemed like Nintendo's best chance to survive, a new Nintendo president was named and given a stern talking to: do not leave the hardware business.
"Nintendo makes a hefty chunk of its money from hardware and licensing rights," Ryan explains, "and to reap that it needs new and better consoles every few years. It definitely does not want to walk away from consoles to be a third-party developer like Sega did. But with the 3DS flopping, and the Wii U being puzzlingly DS-ish, they may not have a choice in the long-term. If they truly are an amusement company, they should be able to make 'amusements' that run on the Sony and Microsoft platforms."
Nintendo has had a rocky relationship with third-party developers in the past—from restricting them because Nintendo held all the power to welcoming them back to limiting them again. Now, with the Wii U, third-party developers are part of the negotiations, encouraged to join the Nintendo family. History may repeat itself, but knowing about it anew sheds a floodlight on the future.
Nintendo was relevant then, rescuing video games from extinction after the 1983 crash, and it's relevant now. As Ryan notes in his book, although Sony and Microsoft want you to think of Nintendo as a kiddie company, it's still a dominant force—powerful and innovative enough to make the other two want to try their hand at motion gaming and even 3D. A weak launch isn't going to stop Nintendo from making better games, more innovative hardware, or from competing in a sharks' pool of competition. As Ryan writes, "Zigging where others have zagged was Nintendo's consistent strategy."
If you're interested in more of Ryan's work, visit supermariobook.com for extra chapters and a blog of Mario in the news.