Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America argues that the Italian-plumber videogame star is the hero behind Nintendo’s rise. Jeff Ryan offers compelling statistics to set up his argument for Mario’s cultural significance, plausibly estimating with the numbers he can find that Mario has generated some $12 billion for Nintendo. The company’s rise to global ubiquity came early, powered by Mario’s first appearance: In 1981, Ryan points out, “you were sixty times more likely to find a Donkey Kong machine than a theater playing Raiders Of The Lost Ark, 1981’s most popular film, on opening week.” At the center stood Mario, the unlikely icon behind a seemingly risky, nonsensical “title about a carpenter fighting a monkey who throws barrels at him.”
In five cutely titled sections (“Arcade Fire,” “Super 8”), Ryan sketches Nintendo’s rise largely through its game-development processes, from unqualified triumphs like Super Mario Bros. to less-beloved obscurities like the CD-i title Hotel Mario. Until he gets to the mid-’90s, the pace is just right, briskly providing overviews of key moments. Mario’s design genesis is amusingly and thoroughly traced, as are his many workmanlike permutations and functions. There’s an amusing blow-by-blow explanation of how Sega’s Sonic The Hedgehog challenged Mario’s videogame hegemony, with the amiable plumber suddenly looking hopelessly square and old-fashioned next to Sonic’s brash speed and rudeness, which “cast all of Nintendo’s positives as negatives.”
Up to that point, Ryan does a decent job of managing tech-geek history and light cultural analysis. When he hits the mid-’90s, though, he seems to lose all interest in tracking the development of the Nintendo 64, PlayStation, etc. Forced to keep an eye on multiple companies vying for an increasingly crowded market, Ryan stops focusing on the games he clearly enjoys and starts writing things like “Its 64-bit CPU was attached to a 32-bit system bus, which was the reverse of the feeble Atari Jaguar, which had a few 64-bit chips (and one 32-bit chip) all pushing data through a bottlenecking 16-bit CPU.”
In an evident effort to stave off boredom, Ryan indulges in a number of puns and scattered, often inexplicable comparisons. In his telling, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 “may well have been designed by the Zucker Brothers, or at least Jacques Derrida,” two comparison points that don’t obviously have anything to do with each other, and aren’t explained. Toward the end, to explain the seismic impact he expects from the next generation of videogames, he compares what’s to come to Hill Street Blues, Oliver Twist, and Citizen Kane, which seems like overkill. After a strong start, Ryan loses his story: A promising inquiry into the technical development and cultural resonance of Mario degenerates into a list of release dates, sales numbers, and hastily sketched progsnostications.