Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America

Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America excavates a memory embedded in the minds of millions of people. It involves a tiny mustachioed man, a blinking question mark, an angry mushroom with feet, and a bizarrely cheerful melody that is part anthem and part dog whistle. If you weren’t young enough to play, you likely watched as some child stared at the screen with a new kind of wonder, eyes transfixed and bottom lip lowering — the young brain suddenly discovering its capacity to step outside of time and place. Ryan’s work offers a chance to disassemble this memory and see what went into its construction.

In 1980, Nintendo’s North American division faced a serious problem. It had shipped over 3,000 arcade cabinets of a shooting game called RadarScope, thinking it would be a hit. Only 1,000 had been sold, leaving the American division, staffed by only four people at the time, with a serious problem on its hands. Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who had a philosophy of using old materials in new ways, ordered a company-wide contest to come up with an alternate game that could run on the circuit board in the RadarScope cabinets.

Game designer Shigeru Miyamoto was not a visionary artist standing on the precipice of an emergent medium. Rather, he was a middling student of industrial design who’d gotten a job at Nintendo in the late 70s because his father was friends with Yamauchi.

But the contest apparently unlocked Miyamoto’s hidden talents. Ignoring the popularity of shooting games like Galaga and Space Invaders, he decided to make a game about jumping instead. And so Mario — originally called simply “Jumpman” — bounded onto the screen of Donkey Kong and helped demonstrate Miyamoto’s extraordinary capacity for translating essential human desires into video game action.

Over the course of two sequels and a spinoff game that saw Mario transform from a carpenter into a plumber, Miyamoto filled in the little man’s details, adding color to his costume and changing his name to the one we know today. Super Mario Bros. sold more than 40 million copies in the years following its 1985 release and went on to become a corporate icon, surpassing even Mickey Mouse in recognizability during the 1990s.

In contrast to the score-centric attacks and reflexive puzzles of early video games, Super Mario Bros. had a gameplay mechanism that centered on a palpable emotional purpose. Ryan argues that Mario’s appeal is Homeric, the beleaguered hero sent through a world of dreamlike antagonism on his way home to his wife and the usurper who stands in the way. The suggestion of story was powerful because it was linked to a carefully created sense of movement, an evocation of the childhood impulse to simply run when presented with an open field.

This engrossing experience had come from an unlikely source. For decades Nintendo had peddled cheap and exploitive toys and gadgets in Japan. Before the advent of the microprocessor, the company made its money with playing cards, love meters, instant rice, and a chain of “love hotels”. Yamauchi, likewise, was not a genteel patron of modern art but a callous businessman and an emotional degenerate. Ryan recounts the sad story of how he took one of his daughters to a strip club on her birthday and stayed behind after she became uncomfortable and left.

Ryan’s account of Mario is told in a conversational vernacular that borders on breezy. He explains the appeal of Super Mario Bros. with a glib tautology: “We all become younger as we play Mario, because when we’re Mario we simply play.” In describing something amiss in one of Mario’s later sequels, he presents a similarly opaque argument: “It wasn’t necessarily worse, just…off. Whatever the Platonic ideal Mario game was, this was not it.”

Likewise, Super Mario overflows with detail, but much of it is disorganized and derived from other people’s investigations. Ryan includes a brief mea culpa in the end notes, admitting that Nintendo declined interview requests when they learned he was working on a book. Even so, the familiar anecdotes of Mario’s making could have been revivified in the context of a richer personal narrative of the people involved. Instead, we have an aggregated view of events, bogged down with digression and tangential detail, including a dull crash course on Nintendo’s other iconic series, Pokémon.

Looking back, it becomes harder to pluck out the authentic memory from all the cultural plaque that has accumulated in the wake of Mario’s arrival. We may still respond instinctually to the memory of our first times with the little jumper, but the intervening years have brought a terrible crush of cultural white noise, from Mario toothbrushes to Mario breakfast cereals. (No one ever put Odysseus on a box of breakfast flakes.) Nintendo, as Ryan’s subtitle implies, didn’t just succeed in America but conquered it with bric-a-brac — including the dozens of thinly masked Mario spinoffs, sequels, and reissues, which took Yamauchi from mid-level businessmen to the third-richest man in Japan.

In The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity, Richard Todd described the idea of authenticity not as a quality that can be demonstrated and possessed but rather as a  reflection of individual desire. “The quality the term signifies is, I think, at least in our culture, in our time, a nearly universal longing. Authenticity is what we want from the world around us, from others, and crucially from ourselves.”

Mario’s history is not simply one of discovery, then, but of our susceptibility to return, rummaging through the old rooms again and again, looking for some pulse of the spirit that’s been drowned out in a garish din and the billions of broken plastic Marios left in its wake. Oh right. Mario. He changed my life once. And then it changed again, without him.