The title of David Sheff’s 1993 book, Game Over, probably made a lot of sense at the time, considering Nintendo’s enviable position during the era of the book’s original publishing. Sheff’s sprawling account of the early video game industry uses Nintendo’s rise to power as a central narrative to tell the story of a young medium flexing new found muscle. Its subtitle, How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children, is best considered as a little bit of publisher mandated mustard; nothing in the book is as alarmist or trite as those sentiments. Nintendo’s success wasn’t due to sneak attacks or black magic. It was thanks to talented artists, ingenious marketing, and shrewd business decisions.
In the early 1990s, it seemed like the “game” to control the industry was over and Nintendo had won. Nintendo dominated the medium and looked poised to so indefinitely. Today, with the luxury of hindsight, Game Over takes on a different meaning; the early 1990s ended up being the beginning of the end of Nintendo’s singular dominance over the video game space. Ironically, many of the factors behind the company’s early success led to its subsequent troubles.
As a piece of non-fiction, Game Over is a lovable—if sometimes ungainly—behemoth. At over 400 pages, it often wanders away from the big N to follow fascinating tangents in video game history. Excursions to explore Steve Jobs’s time at Atari, the Utopian roots of Electronic Arts, or the strange saga of Tetris add some bloat to the core story. Thankfully, all these paths eventually join back up with Nintendo and in doing so, illustrate what a small world the game industry was in the 1980s. The most dedicated historians will be pleased by the wealth of interview material from people like Trip Hawkins, Howard Lincoln, and Minoru Arakawa, but they’ll also be disappointed by the scarcity of footnotes. Sheff’s cast of characters comes off as genuine and well realized, but those looking to track down the primary sources have little choice but to go along with the story.
Even if we’ll never be able to fact-check such a story, it’s an exceedingly entertaining one. Sheff recounts Nintendo’s roots in the nineteenth century and follows its evolution from a respected playing card maker into a experimental toy maker and then a cautious player in the video game business. Eventually, the company that started out as a licensee for Magnavox’s Japanese efforts became an empire with enough clout to own a Major League Baseball team. Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s long-time president ran the company with an unrelenting focus that often alienated his family and other business owners. However, it is hard to argue with results. His penchant for aggressive business risks was supported by his demand for perfection and need for complete control. Determining who could make games for the Nintendo Entertainment System (and how much money they could make doing so) made Nintendo a global powerhouse.
Minoru Arakawa, Yamauchi’s son-in-law and first president of Nintendo of America, comes off as more affable but no less impressive. Arakawa had the enviable task of convincing America to buy into video games after the disastrous industry crash of the early 1980s. Trying to envision a time when Nintendo was a scrappy underdog is difficult, but Sheff’s vivid portraits of dingy warehouses and desperate sales pitches recalls a time when the future of the company was even more uncertain than it is today.
A large part of the genius of Nintendo of America was marketing. Long before the role of “community manager” came into vogue, Howard Phillips and Gail Tilden were making sure Nintendo players stayed engaged with the company during their non-gaming hours. Nintendo Power was equal parts marketing, research, and fan service. The magazine brought in millions of readers and ensured a focused amount of hype for a select group of hand-picked games. Players gladly volunteered opinions on what games they enjoyed and wished for, while a small army of phone counselors stood by to help them beat the games that they already had (for a nominal fee, of course). These efforts, in addition to the host of other Nintendo-themed cartoons, snacks, and toys fostered a devotion to the company that few others have been able to match since.
Game Over also offers historical insight into Nintendo’s current direction. The company has always been Janus-like in its approach to changing business models and changing technology. The NES was quite advanced for its time and ushered in a control paradigm that we still use today. In Japan, it was a multi-use device, featuring expansion ports, keyboard accessories, and network connectivity that meant that people could use it as a computer and a game console. However, its success begot complacency; an effective monopoly over the 8-bit market allowed Nintendo to coast on its success. Even in the face of more powerful systems from Sega, Nintendo chose to bank on the strength of its games and the economical benefits of older technology to stay on top. Just as it did with the Wii and the DS, Nintendo bet that a tightly controlled, high-quality software lineup could overcome technical limitations.
This technique seemed to work flawlessly up through the 16-bit era, but things got shaky in the years immediately after those recounted in Game Over. At the end of Sheff’s account, Nintendo is poised to venture into what we then called “multimedia.” CD-roms, the World Wide Web, and a move towards a broader audience was on the horizon in the early 1990s. However, after a falling out with Sony and a lackluster partnership with Phillips, Nintendo retreated back to its old ways. Conservative hardware decisions and restrictive licensing deals allowed them to control the industry in the 1980s and early 1990s, but these tactics proved to be major liabilities after the advent of multimedia.
Today, Nintendo’s stubborn adherence to last generation technology and its bafflingly slow movement towards on-line game delivery and sales transactions puts it far behind its competitors. In a world quickly going digital, Nintendo remains rooted in the physical world. The Wii U’s major selling point is not about social connections or advanced technology, but rather, yet another novel control method. No doubt it will provide for some magic moments, but such an approach openly flaunts the pluralism that has flourished in the game industry since the 1990s. Whether it is Call of Duty, Farmville, or Portal, the most popular and innovative games are platform agnostic titles that thrive on standardization and cross-compatibility. In the face of perhaps the strongest challenge to its parochial business model, Nintendo is redoubling its efforts to create a unique, yet closed system. This could prove to be a dangerous game to play, especially in light of recent sales trends.
At the end of the era discussed in Game Over, it looked as though Nintendo had won the console wars for good. We know now that this success was actually the end of a larger game. The company would take a tumble during the Nintendo 64 and GameCube eras, only to be resurrected again by the DS and Wii. Now, the wheel looks to be turning once more and, yet again, Nintendo remains steadfastly committed to philosophies that Sheff demonstrates as ingrained in the company’s history. Game Over explores the company on a multitude of levels: the art of Shigeru Miyamoto, the business sense of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the legal skill of Howard Lincoln, and the devotion of the fans—all contribute to Nintendo’s unique identity. For a long time, Nintendo has been an 800-pound gorilla of a business influenced by whimsical artists and run by proudly stubborn businessmen. David Sheff’s work proves that Nintendo has exerted considerable influence over the medium’s history, and the subsequent years have shown that the company will continue to do so for many years to come.