How Super Mario conquered America

May 18, 1993|By James Coates | James Coates,Chicago Tribune

Nintendo is to home video games what Bill Clinton is to Democrats -- the bull goose, A-No. 1 top dog, the big enchilada. Above all, Nintendo is its superstar, Super Mario.

As author David Sheff notes, "In 1990, according to 'Q' ratings, Super Mario became more popular than Mickey Mouse with American kids."

If you don't know who Super Mario and his dumpy brothers are, catch some Saturday morning television for a while.

Meanwhile, suffice it to say that Mario is a squat little fellow with a bulbous nose above a Gene Shalit mustache wearing a pair of carpenter's overalls and brandishing a set of stumpy arms and legs across the video screens of Planet Earth.

Social scientists, educators and parents, including Mr. Sheff, who writes that his own 9-year-old son is a heavy-duty Nintendo fan, fret mightily over what Mario is doing to the youth of America.

Mr. Sheff writes of Mario overcoming Mickey Mouse: "Generations of children had been imbued with Mickey's message: 'We play fair and we work hard and we're in harmony' . . . Mario imparted other values. 'Kill or be killed. Time is running out. You are on your own.' "

And Mario is dramatically more vivid than was Mickey. While the Mickey Mouse club came via black-and-white television broadcasts to Mr. Sheff's generation, Mario comes to life on modern color television sets hooked to Nintendo Entertainment System game machines, devices that amount to full-blown computers (albeit ones without keyboards).

According to the company, there are Nintendos in 30 million of the 95.9 million American households, or one out of every three. A recent study by Nynex, the Bell telephone operating company in the Northeastern United States, estimated that only 23 percent of American households, or fewer than one in four, have personal computers.

Mr. Sheff's book, which delves deeply into the Japanese electronics industry's pecking order to tell Nintendo's story, notes that the game maker uses 3 percent of all the semiconductors made in Japan and that its sales to American kids account for nearly 10 percent of the U.S. trade deficit with Japan.

This book is largely the story of Nintendo's mogul, Hiroshi Yamauchi. He was born in 1927 into a Kyoto family that had

prospered in the late 19th century selling the Japanese equivalent of playing cards. In 1889 the business took a trademark that consisted of kanji characters that are transliterated into English as "nin-ten-do," variously translated as Leave luck to heaven" or "Work hard, but in the end it is in heaven's hands."

Mr. Yamauchi emerged after World War II to take over the remnants of the family business. He started selling plastic-coated playing cards in the early 1950s and in 1959 made deal with Walt Disney Co. to sell cards with Mickey, Donald Duck, et al., on them.

The Disney cards flourished and Mr. Yamauchi sought out new vistas. His company's first successful toy, in the 1960s, was Ultra Hand. Itwas a plastic device with criss-cross struts that let users extend their reach and clumsily pick up items just beyond arm's length.

The company first used computer chips in the late 1970s when Mr. Yamauchi started marketing "Game & Watch," a line of cheap wristwatches that included crude computer games. The cheap toys gave way to arcade games in the early 1980s, and the arcade games gave way to home video games. The ultimate result was Super Mario Bros.

Mr. Yamauchi showed a particular genius for finding brilliant young game designers whose products used the mix of fantasy and action, wit and chaos, that distinguishes the product line. As a result, Nintendo emerged in the early 1990s with an 80 percent share of the world video-game market.

Mr. Yamauchi probably became a billionaire. Today, the toy tycoon, 66, is said to spend much time in his mansion pondering the ancient Asian board game of Go and dreaming up what ultra-modern diversions he might next sell to the world's children.

It is in delving into Mr. Yamauchi's thinking and the brainstorming sessions that produced the Mario Bros. that Mr. Sheff provides insights that make his book something of a treasure for those who would plumb the Japanese business soul.

Maybe the Japanese toy mogul zapped our game makers and threatens to "enslave" our kids because he understands them better. Mario doesn't shoot, Mr. Sheff notes. He doesn't annihilate. Mr. Sheff writes of Mario that he "[confronts] foes not with cannon or lasers but with turnips, carrots and pumpkins."

Does that tell you something about why American kids steeped in headlines of drive-by shootings, cult shootouts and bombings in Bosnia turn to Mario's whimsical universe for escape?

BOOK REVIEW

1/8 1/8 TC Title: "Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars and Enslaved Your Children"

Author: David Sheff

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 445 pages, $25.

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