We were a Sega household growing up; I’m not sure what drove my parents to wrap up a Genesis one Christmas instead of a Nintendo, but my childhood was nonetheless more about Sonic the Hedgehog than Mario the “plumber”. That being said, we had no shortage of interaction with Nintendo products either before or after, generally playing them at friends’ houses. Or, as was the case for a number of years, occasionally renting an original NES from the video store for the weekend.
It was impossible to avoid Nintendo’s cultural impact in the late 80s and most of the 90s, even as other manufacturers began to make inroads into the console market; and far from being simply a video game company, Nintendo cultivated a brand that included magazines, mail order merchandise, and a two-hour commercial called The Wizard. And while Nintendo had various hits, and its name alone could sell swag, its name was intrinsically linked with a little Italian named Mario Mario.
Super Mario (the book) is a history of Nintendo, but its narrative linchpin is Mario, who represents its sudden rise from a card game company to the largest video game maker in the world, its eventual decline as a stodgy moralist in an emerging market of dark and violent games, and its ongoing resilience despite everything.
Of critical importance is the young (in 1981) Shigeru Miyamoto, a student designer who was assigned to work on a product that would eventually become Donkey Kong, now a classic but then something of a gamble. Though some people forget, the character of Mario was first introduced in Donkey Kong, not in the later Super Mario Bros. game for NES; the time, rather than a plumber named Mario, he was a carpenter named Jumpman. Miyamoto eventually became the creative mind behind not only Donkey Kong, but also the entire Mario franchise, as well as the Zelda, Star Fox, and F-Zero franchises. In other words, it’s startling how much of Nintendo’s early dominance and overall success in the video game market is directly attributable to the work of a single man.
But so it is, largely because Miyamoto has a knack for creating not only iconic characters, but engaging gameplay; there have been missteps of course, such as his decision to make the original Super Mario Bros. 2 so difficult that a totally different version had to be released in America1. It’s tough to say in retrospect which is worse: the insanely difficult original, or the turnip-throwing substitute, replete with a gender-confused, egg-spitting dinosaur.
Nintendo became largely a victim of its own success. Its rise to power in the video game market coincided with a national panic about the corrupting influence of video games and their content, given voice by the hapless Senator Joe Leiberman; Nintendo, already infamous for its strict policies about game content, felt comfortable pointing to itself as a family-friendly company whose games were largely appropriate for all ages, and contained little in the way of controversial content. That this tactic was successful doubtless cemented the wisdom of the policy in the minds of Nintendo execs.
But a funny thing happened in the latter half of the 1990s. Nintendo, resting comfortably on its laurels, didn’t push forward with technology, and the end result was an exodus of developers from Nintendo’s cartridge-based N64 to Sony’s new Playstation (and later Microsoft’s XBOX). At the same time, the kids who cut their teeth on Mario were now growing up, and no longer wanted family-friendly video games, but rather war simulations, violence, sex, and all the wonderful R-rated stuff that we’ve become so used to. Because Nintendo still firmly abided by its strict content policies, it once again missed the boat, and its place in the market faltered. Even its 5th-generation console, the Gamecube, stuck to a proprietary disk, and once again failed to impress most reviewers.
Nowadays, the console marketed is dominated by talk of the Playstation 3 and XBox 360 and all of the massive, immersive games available for them. Nintendo’s current-generation offering, the Wii, was much-derided at its launch for being underpowered, and for its library of games once again skewing toward children and families2.
And yet… as of 2012, the Wii has moved about 95 million units; the XBox 360 is in second with 66 million, and the PS3 in third 59 million. This, despite all the jawing about the Wii being a niche console, or its game library too narrow, is the strength of Nintendo: its brand still moves units, and it manages despite its foibles to stay successful in a market it no longer easily dominates.
It’s a precarious existence: Miyamoto is so treasured that he is not allowed to ride his bike to work for fear that he’ll be killed in a traffic accident3. It’s difficult to say just how Nintendo would fare if Miyamoto vanished tomorrow; they certainly have a built-up stock of intellectual property, but game makers must continually look ahead and innovate or they will be trampled in the forward march of progress.
That Mario has lasted so long is a testament to the lovability of the character and the long-lasting impact of the games (and their place in history as some of first mass-market video games), even after a number of missteps such as Mario-based education games. It also underlines the fact that there is no substitute for a love of craft and good design when it comes to video games. For all the hundreds of Mario clones and generic platformers, none have captured the same visual design, control, and cultural mania that Mario has. As a metonym for Nintendo as a whole, Mario has served Ryan’s narrative admirably.
- A re-sprited Doki Doki Panic[↩]
- Notably, Nintendo has relaxed its content policies, allow such games as Manhunt to be released for the Wii[↩]
- One of his colleagues, Gunpei Yokoi, responsible for both the wildly-successfully Game Boy as well as the disastrous Virtual Boy, was killed in 1997 in just such a manner.[↩]