Cameron Lane

Erstwhile educator. Python programmer.

Book Review: Super Mario

I have had a chance to read a great deal this summer, so I'll be reviewing some of the books I've read with an eye toward their potential impact on computer science education.  The first one I'm tackling is _Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, by Jeff Ryan.


This book is a really quick, fun read.   I felt that Ryan did a particularly good job expressing the business and legal dealings of Nintendo.  One noteworthy section is his retelling of the machinations of entertainment behemoth Universal.  In a move worthy of present day patent trolls, Universal basically tried to extort money from the upstart gaming company by way of spurious legal threats (spoiler alert, Nintendo called their bluff and Universal was subsequently smacked down by the courts).  The reporting of all of the business deals and important decisions relevant to Nintendo's eventual success were easy to follow.  Ryan was able to get his point across without getting bogged down in mundane details.  As someone who is interested in the business of technology, it kept me turning pages. However, as is fitting a book about an icon of growing up in the late 80's and early 90's, the real star of this book is nostalgia.  Reading about the inception of beloved systems, games, and characters took me right back to my childhood.   (In many ways, the story of Nintendo parallels my youth; in recalling past events and trying to construct a timeline, any gaming system that figures prominently in the story serves as a useful marker.)  I am not ashamed to admit that after reading this book, I pulled out my old gaming systems and played a few marathon sessions of Mario Kart .  It is every bit as addictive now as it was then, despite the graphics not holding up.  For anyone who grew up in the home gaming era, I think a similar experience can be expected.


As much as I enjoyed the book, there are some glaring weaknesses.  First and foremost on that list is a lack of cohesion in the story telling.  The book seems to lack a single clear narrative; paragraphs and chapters wander hither and yon, rarely returning to their original purpose.  This makes for some chapters that do not fulfill the promise of their titles, a situation that leaves me unsatisfied as a reader.   Additionally, I cannot be sure that the entire book fulfills the purpose indicated by the subtitle.  In the acknowledgements, the author admits that he was forced to edit out a great deal of material from the book for the sake of brevity, sometimes striking large portions or even whole chapters.  Unfortunately, most of the time it shows. I also found an unusual abundance of awkward phrases and unnecessarily esoteric vocabulary choices; the former forced me into a pattern of reading some passages several times for clarity, while the latter evoked an image of stressed high school author scouring a thesaurus.  There also seem to be many points of emphasis and bad puns based on words from languages other than English.  I appreciate the fact that some things are lost in translation, but most of these went right over my head and made his intention less clear.  Note that I am not talking about examples such as the central tenet of Tokoi's philosophy, Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikou, which has a direct relationship to the narrative in which it appears, but rather puns and other uses of foreign words whose connection to the topic being discussed is opaque. I have not yet mentioned the cliches, seemingly random asides, parenthetical tangents, strained metaphors, and awkward similes.  Okay, they aren't as bad as that, but there are some awkward examples.  Overall, it is clear that Mr. Ryan possesses a great deal of knowledge about Nintendo as a creative company.  Additionally, he has a passion for the subject matter that comes through in the writing.  Unfortunately, I believe the editing was uneven and detracted from the overall story.

Instructional Impact

While the book is definitely written at a level accessible to most high school students, I think its potential to inspire students to think deeply about the creative process of programming is limited.  This story of Nintendo is told through discussions of business innovation and clever design choices; technical details and discussion of actual coders at work are purposefully avoided.  It could be useful as a starting point for talking about the design of games and systems, but beyond that I am not sure it would be useful in a classroom setting.


Perhaps it's because I finished Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs immediately prior to reading this book, but during my reading I could not seem to get the similarities between Apple and Nintendo out of my head.  The author finally gets around to mentioning the similarities late in the book, but much more could have been said.  I'll save a full discussion of this point for another blog post, but the parallel raises some interesting questions. Another point that is interesting is the fact that Ryan says he did much research for the book using Wikipedia.  Not that he used it as a primary source, but he used it to find information then verified it using primary sources.  The money quote:

"It's very difficult to find an error on Wikipedia.  I became an expert on Mario and Nintendo, and I only found a few minor release date discrepancies."

I will save this for another post as well, but is it time to start giving credence to the notion that Wikipedia is a legitimate, valid source for most information?  I think so. Finally, here is an aside for baseball geeks only: according to his acknowledgements at the end of the book, Jeff Ryan has three siblings, one of whom is named Brendan.  Brendan Ryan is also the name of a Major League Baseball player for the Seattle Mariners, late of the St. Louis Cardinals.  On Brendan Ryan's wikipedia page, it mentions that he also has three siblings, but they are not named.  Is it possible that Jeff Ryan the scribe is related to Brendan Ryan the shortstop?  Alas, it isn't so.  Brendan Ryan the baseball player was born to parents named Katie and Jim, while the author's parents are named Kathleen and Dennis.).

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